Last month I wrote about a BBC article that describes a bold claim from Dr. Quentin Atkinson. This claim is that the Indoeuropean language (from which English and many other major word languages descended) came from modern day Turkey, not the Caucus region. The new theory is based on the results of a computer program that is normally used to show how related the DNA from different species is.
Evolving Species and Evolving Languages
Evolution is certainly a buzz word. It has a halo effect that seems to add legitimacy to what a person says. Because of this people apply the word to situations that I often find strange. An actor’s career evolves even though it doesn’t give birth to new acting careers? Another tangible difference between the evolution of a career and the evolution of, say, chihuahuas, is that human beings have free will and the animals facing extinction did not.
Rob Schneider is an example of this. A successful comedic actor, when asked if he would consider a dramatic role, he replied, People don’t ask Andre Agassi, ‘You know you’re the No. 1 tennis player in the world … have you thought about polo?’ Rob’s career has faced the gamut of stimuli: everything from being extremely popular to almost forgotten. Through it all he sticks to comedy. Why? Choice. It’s true that outside factors are important. Some actors change out of perceived necessity and others change because they are famous and think they can get away with a different type of role. Though there are many outside factors there is one internal factor that can completely invalidate all others: free will. When it comes to human beings, their perception and interpretation of their experiences is much more important than the experiences themselves.
Croatian Does Not Want to Be Serbian
At the moment, Croatian and Serbian are mutually intelligible. Contrary to the trends of most other languages, Serbian and Croatian may no longer be mutually intelligible after 100 years or so. The reason for this is Croats are taking words of non-Slavic origin, inventing new replacement words of Slavic origin, and trying to phase the old words out. In Croatian the word for university is sveučilište. When you break down the different elements of the word it means the same thing as university (place of all knowledge/learning) but uses Slavic morphemes instead of Latin ones. The word in Serbian is yниверзитет (univerzitet). If the Croats continue this trend then their language will eventually cease to be understood by Serbs, Bosnians, Bosniaks and Montenegrins.
One could argue that this is evidence of linguistic evolution since Croats could feel threatened by the Serbian language. This argument has dubious merits but let’s consider it for a moment. Does it explain the way other mutually intelligible languages in similar circumstances have changed or not changed? Norwegian, Danish and Swedish are mutually intelligible but are not giving way to each other, in spite of Norway historically losing its statehood from time to time to the other two countries. Laotian, Isan and Thai are another example of mutually intelligible languages that have not made significant efforts to distinguish themselves in spite of conflict between their speakers.
What Makes the Difference?
People make the difference; their perceptions make the difference. Basque and Welsh should have disappeared long ago but they haven’t and probably won’t. Hebrew was resurrected from the dead! On the other hand, Dutch, Mongolian, German and Turkish were militarily and economically dominant languages that have left a proportionately tiny linguistic impact on the world. This is why I can’t accept a purely evolutionary explanation for a quintessentially human driven phenomenon. A physicist lives in a world of relative certainties; a psychologist does not. She may be able to predict with as much as 80% accuracy how different people will react to different things but, in the end, she will never know for sure. This theory that Indoeuropean came from Turkey may possibly be better than the one that claims that it came from the Caucuses. This, however, would only be so if the latter theory were slightly better than a wild guess.
Filed under: Languages