Sunday, June 9, 2013

23 Words

Long-time readers know I consider linguistics and grammar to be particularly insightful into the nature of human experience. The words we choose, the rules governing their meaning and structure in usage, are a prism directly into the heart of what I call Intersubjectivity. In and of itself, grammar does not lie, it does not mislead. It is intended for mutual understanding in society and in ritual. As such, it is among humanity's best efforts at existential clarity.

Guy Deutscher writes: "The real effects of the mother tongue are rather habits that develop through the frequent use of certain ways of expression. The concepts we are trained to treat as distinct, the information that our mother tongue continuously forces us to specify, the details it requires us to be attentive to, and the repeated associations it imposes on us - all these habits of speech can create habits of mind that affect more than merely the knowledge of language itself." (page 234)

Language both creates and reflects human experience. "The influence of the mother tongue that has been demonstrated empirically is felt in areas of thought such as memory, perception, and associations or in practical skills such as orientation. And in our actual experience of life, such areas are no less important than the capacity for abstract reasoning, probably far more so." (page 235)

Last month, it was reported that British researchers had distilled some of the oldest words used by humankind out of seven key ancient language families. There were numerous languages used by ancient humans but the vast majority of the languages spoken on Earth today are derived from these seven language families. From these families British linguists uncovered 23 'ultra-conserved' words that have been around for the last 15,000 years or longer. Here they are, in order of prevalence throughout the primal languages:

Thou, I, not, that, we, to give, who, this, what, man/male, ye, old, mother, to hear, hand, fire, to pull, black, to flow, bark, ashes, to spit, worm.

Now you can deduce many things from this limited set of vocabulary. It is revealing that "mother" makes the list but there is no word for "father", for example. Does this mean humans did not relate to males as fathers? I was left unsatisfied by this question and several others. I wanted to know a bit more, to push the research beyond the reported news and see the full extent of what looking at ancient languages in this way might tell us about human experience and understanding. So I ventured back to the original source of the 23-words story. It turns out that linguists constructed this list from a larger list of 200 words that were more or less common across the seven language families.

These 200 words are not an exhaustive list by any means. Most likely, there were many more words being spoken for many more experiences across the spectrum of human speech. But, these 200 words represent a commonality that is possessed by no other words of which linguists know. Most of these words only occur in two of the seven language families considered. To make the 23-word list they had to appear in at least four of the seven. Nevertheless, I think it is safe to say that these 200 words represent the general extent of human spoken expression, and thus they offer a wider reflection of aspects of human understanding and experience at this pre-Neolithic time.

Here are some of my (non-academic and speculative) thoughts as I have pondered these words and this research over the past few weeks. I certainly consider them to be at the very root of human understanding and social interaction 150 centuries ago. So this is like peering back in time at fossilized human experience. Even taking into account diversity in speech, these words are special in that they occur far more frequently throughout ancient languages than any other words.

Cursory thoughts: "Who" and "what" made the list of 200. But there is no "when", "where", and certainly no "why". My opinion is that time, location, and existential concepts were not sufficiently developed in human experience at this time. There was no need for such words and such words did not create nor reflect the human experience of living. Interestingly, there are words for "sun"and "star" but not for "moon". There is a word for "dog" but not "cat". "Bird", "fish", "louse", and "snake" all make the 200 word list but only "worm" made it into the elite 23 word list. No other animals are named. This does not mean they did not exist, of course. It simply means that spoken designators were not important from a cultural standpoint; that is a very different frame of mind from what you and I have today.

There is a word for "cold" but not "hot", "good" but not "bad". There are multiple words for "night" (perhaps suggesting various experiences or types of night); far more words for "night" than for "day", which was apparently much more straightforward. In fact there are many words that appear in multiple ways within one or two languages while not existing at all in other languages. Here is a short list of such words:

All, belly, big, cloud, egg, fat, foot, good, hair, hold, know, mountain, narrow, neck, night, scratch, skin, thin, wife, year.

To break it down further, basic human roles in terms of parentage seem very limited and perhaps not all that important at this time. "Mother" appears in four of seven language families. "Father" does, in fact, appear, but only in three families, rendering it ineligible for the 23-word list. Thus, four language families had no word for father and while three had no word for mother. There were two different words for "wife" in two languages (four words altogether) indicating a greater distinction than we experience today, but this was quite limited as there was no word for wife in five language groups. "Woman" only occurs in two language groups. "Man" occurs in four and makes the elite list. It is possible that the multiple words of "wife" and the more frequent use of "man" than "woman" reveal the prevalence of patriarchal culture during this time.  Men probably controlled and guided at least the formal use of language more than women.

Action words that make the 200-word list (the number of distinct words meaning the same action and number of language families in which each word meaning appears is listed in parenthesis): bite (2 separate words in 2 languages - four distinct words total), blow (2/2), burn (4/3), cut (3/3), die (1/3), dig (3/2), drink (4/2), eat (4/2), fall (1/3), fear (1/2), flow (1/4), freeze (1/3), give (1/5), hear (1/4), hit (1/3), hunt (1/2), kill (1/3), laugh (2/2), lie (1/3), live (1/2), pull (1/4), say (1/2), see (1/3), sew (2/2), sing (1/2), sit (1/2), sleep (1/2), spit (1/4), split (1/3), stab (1/3), stand (1/2) suck (1/3), swim (1/3), think (1/2), throw (1/2), tie (3/2), turn (2/2), wash (1/2).

These words represent most of human activity at this time. If it isn’t on this list, odds are it was not spoken about although many actions could have been taken for granted or expressed in other ways such as body language and gestures. As mentioned before, "flow", "give", "hear", "pull", and "spit" are the most widely used action words.

In terms of numbers, it is interesting to note that there is no word for "zero". That was probably a concept primal humanity had little need for. There are no numbers over five. The fact that "one", "two", "three", "four", and "five" all make the 200-word list but "six" or any other number word does not obviously suggests that counting was done on one hand and no one particularly thought about adding the other hand to the calculation of things.

Other things of note: In terms of anatomical parts, there were words for belly, blood, bone, ear, eye, foot, hair, heart, leg, liver, neck, nose, skin. But there are no words for mouth, arm, fingers, or toes on the list. Perhaps fingers and toes were considered part of the hand and foot respectively. Black, green, red, and white are the only colors mentioned with black being used far more than the other color words. Other colors were seen, of course, but there was apparently no cultural significance attached to them, they were not a routine habit of the human mind at this time.

So, one has to be careful to put the reported 23-word list in context. This is not the sum whole of human experience 15,000 years ago. Many other words were in use. But, these other words were not in use in most primal languages, reflecting that most of humanity did not speak of such things or expressed them in ways other than in spoken tongues. If one can maintain that context then some speculations about the 23 words can be of relevant interest.

First of all, this list reflects an apparently pre-religious humanity. The words originated in the Mesolithic Period, which is pre-Neolithic. One has to be careful here. Cave painting, sculptures, and the suggestion of ritual date back to the late-Paleolithic Period. So just because there are no religious type words does not necessarily mean humanity was without spirituality. Still, the clearest and most numerous evidence we have of early religious ritual comes from the Neolithic Period which started several thousand years after these words were in common usage. There are no “cosmic” words on the list, no metaphysical ideas. No words for "god" or "spirit" or "soul", though perhaps they were present in a minority of languages.

By this time, humans had been speaking in rudimentary forms for over 250,000 years. (Perhaps for far longer, given that our mouths, tongues, and throats had evolved into the necessary shape, size and orientation for speech long before that.) This was a strictly oral tradition. There was little art until about 40,000 years ago. Song was possible but without words (remember the action word "to sing" only appears in two of seven language families, there is no word at all for "to dance") it would have probably consisted of simple rhythmic tones. There was absolutely no writing to hand down knowledge. Everything had to be remembered by language in the form of body gestures and basic utterances. It took more than 2500 centuries for humans to create what later became a metaphorical language, so representation of facts by dance or body language may have served a social importance greater than speaking itself. Spoken storytelling, for example, must be a fairly recent development in the history of humanity.

Humans spoke some limited variation of a proto-language. By the late-Mesolithic, however, some languages consisted of maybe a couple of hundred words. Most didn't. (By comparison, today's young teens speak many thousands of words and spoken English consists of hundreds of thousands of words.) Storytelling would still be rather limited, but perhaps by now it could be dramatized in some fashion. This is pure speculation; there is comparatively little archaeological evidence for the presence of ritual 15,000 years ago. There is ample evidence of human ritual at, say, 8,000 years ago, but before that things are sketchy. There is a magnificent diffused link between the Neolithic and the late-Mesolithic. It has to be assumed without evidence that some sort of religion was there. It seems very plausible, these were human beings after all. But there are few words to indicate so within in the language families. Therefore, in my opinion, religion as we understand it today was not as important then as it is today - or - religion was held as too sacred to be spoken. 

Humanity was verbally concerned with the tangible, physical world. This is reflected in the verbs or action words that make up part of the list of 23. Obviously, "to give", "to hear", "to pull" (but not “to push” interestingly), "to flow", and "to spit" were all important actions of the day. "To give" suggests cooperation, "to hear" suggests the importance of listening over other sensory input – perhaps reflecting the necessity of this skill when securing an area or directing the attention of others toward possible predators or animals to hunt. Everyone knows you can pull more than you can push. So "to pull" is reflective perhaps not only of an appreciation of weight-transporting physics but of cooperation among people for heavy loads.

"To flow" is probably indicative of the importance of rivers and streams and even the pouring of substances within the camp. "To spit" is fundamental. It is useful to prevent someone from ingesting a harmful substance. Another medical possibility is the use of saliva (perhaps mixed in the mouth with other substances) for cuts or bites or burns. Or it might be a display of disrespect toward another person. Whatever the possibility, spitting was more fundamental to social communication than telling someone to breathe or swallow.

Objects of particular importance: "fire", "bark", "ashes", and "worm". Well obviously "fire" was a big deal back in the day, including the use or disposal of "ashes" as a result of burning things. Humanity apparently lived predominantly among trees. "Bark" was probably useful in a variety of ways from cooking to medicine. "Worm" might be a bit of a surprise. But, it shows the extent of technology. Fishing must have created a demand for worms and they were perhaps an important part of the diet considering that "worm" makes the 23-word list but "fish" is only on the 200-word list. More languages talked about worms than about fish.

The basic words contain several references to what role individuals played within social interaction. This perhaps reveals the comparative complexity of human relationships and the need to be clear as to who someone is speaking to or about. "Thou" is the only word that exists in all languages. This is the singular form of "you" and is perhaps a respectful reference too, indicating that humans had a basic elevated appreciation of individuals at this time. By contrast, "ye" is the plural of "you" so more than one human being was referred to in this context. There was no word for "you" as we know it today. "You" is a modern construct of language, reflecting a slightly different human experience of society and self.

The word "I" is self-referential, of course, and the second most common word after "thou", occurring in six of seven language families. (There was a language family without an "I"; interesting to think about what that culture must have been like, but it was not ultimately influential.) Maybe this is reflective of the beginnings of human ego. Maybe it is simply an essential need to discuss aspects of cooperation within the tribe. "We" is clearly an inwardly focused appreciation of groups, occurring in five of seven families, again suggesting cooperation – the word "them" or "they" does not appear even in the 200-word list, for example. So, it is likely that cooperation trumped competition at this juncture of humanity’s journey.

Odds and ends. "This" and "that" seem pretty fundamental. How else can humans express the difference between “shit and shinola”? It also reflects the fundamental need for objectification in human experience. Wise humans thousands of years later would suggest this was the beginning of a great illusion in human consciousness. Once again, my contention is that the dynamic of language and grammar is not an illusion and reflects a fundamental reality that should not evaporate by assigning prevalence to consciousness itself or significance to a "soul" or other forms of spirituality. "This" and "that" trumps nirvana or salvation in my book.

"What" and "Who" are inherently fundamental to understanding exactly which object or person is being spoken about, again to clarify misunderstandings. Again, there is no "why". "Why" did not matter 15,000 years ago or it was a minor experience of inquiry at that point. "Not" is a disqualifier. I guess this was a necessary word for teaching and communicating in matters that were misunderstood or in pointing out differences in objects or in actions that differed from an intended communication. "Old" probably applied to the natural world and geography but perhaps is a reflection of some sense of tradition as well. Old is relative in human terms. The average lifespan back then was very short, maybe 30 years or so but some people lived longer and deserved a special designation. "Young" was apparently not as important as a word, it does not occur on either list.

The most important body part would probably be the "hand" as it was the tool for making other tools, for building fire, gathering worms, etc. It is long-established that the opposable thumb on our hand contributed fundamentally to the development of human awareness and knowledge. Meanwhile, "black" was the most widely used color designation, occurring on four of seven families. In my opinion, it might be meant as a condition, the absence of light, used instead of the more sophisticated concept of darkness. But color of skin is obviously important. Where used, there were multiple words for "skin", reflecting a distinction of various types of skin.

Of course this 23 word distillation is somewhat controversial, particularly in what it reflects and means. Within the proto-language there was cultural variation reflecting different experiences of people wherever they happened to live and whatever the needs of their experiences demanded. But, generally speaking, for early humans it was all about social orientation, cooperation, and basic objective designations necessary to survive. Complex emotions like love and hate are nowhere in the picture. Fear is the only emotion to make either primal language list. Is this because early humans did not experience a variety of emotions? It is more likely that early humans had little understanding of their feelings or at least experienced comparatively little need to invent words to express them. That makes their world fundamentally different from ours and is reflective of how consciousness has evolved through time from primitive awareness to our present, more complex (and perhaps more confused) condition.

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