World's oldest words

Discussion in 'Linguistics' started by S.A.M., Mar 6, 2009.

  1. spidergoat pubic diorama Valued Senior Member

    The real question is, are any aspects of language universal? It's been a long running debate in linguistics, wether grammer develops out of a genetic predisposition to order thoughts like that, or does a culture influence the structure of language. Furthermore, does language control your view of the world and thus the culture, or does culture decide how a language can develop? Are languages translatable separate from the culture in which they are found? In other words, does every culture have words for similar things, and you just have to figure out what means what? ...Or are some conceptions unique to one language?

    I was reading "Don't Sleep, There are Snakes", by Daniel L. Everett (2008). He was a missionary tasked with learning the language of the Piraha indians on a tributary of the Amazon, and translating the Bible into Piraha. He ran into numerous difficulties, for one thing, they don't believe anything they have not either experienced themselves, or was witnessed by someone they know. They do believe in spirits, because they claim to see them all the time. They said they didn't want Jesus, because one night, Jesus came into their village and tried to fuck their women with his huge penis, which was the penis of a dolphin (3 feet long). They are a generally happy people who never commit suicide, never punish their children, and never hurt members of their tribe. Daniel eventually became a non-believer.
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  3. Billy T Use Sugar Cane Alcohol car Fuel Valued Senior Member

    lets ask Fraggle, but I am afraid that he may not know. To me, Fraggle seems like a very knowledgeable "Pre- Chompski" linguist. I think you are asking are Chompski's ideas nonsense or correct.

    About 20 or 25 years ago, when I had a year's sabbatical in the cognitive science Department of JHU, I sat in on a course where this question was discussed. The professor definitely answered it in the affirmative. I did not know many languages, so had to take his word for the truth of certain regularities that Chomsky (and that professor) claimed do exist in ALL languages, without exception (except in artificial languages like Esperanto).

    This regularity is what Chompski's followers call the "universal grammar." (Or "generative grammar.") It is not much related to what your high school English teacher called "grammar." (And I think that is what you are referring to by "grammar.") Also, and especially Chompski himself, mean by grammar, the unconscious knowledge you have that allows you to judge without conscious analysis if a sentence is "well formed." (Or a Chompski would say, "Grammatically correct.") For example: "John cat bit dog” is not as there is no "structural role" for both John & cat. It becomes grammatically acceptable if John is converted into an adjective (John's ...) and in English is better with the article "a" preceding dog, but I think that is just a requirement of English, not part of the "universal grammar."

    BTW, never read Chompski, unless you are a professional linguist. It is sort of ironic, but he cannot communicate to others on this subject. (He does quite well in his political writings.) I bought three of his linguistic books simultaneously before I learned this. Big mistake. Read instead someone like Steven Pinker explaining Chompski's ideas.

    One item I remember of Chompski's grammar from auditing that course has to do with how a language converts a declarative statement into a question. (There may be several ways, which I now call A, B & C ...) Several other aspects relate to how pronouns etc. in embedded clauses can refer back to their antecedents in a more central / higher level clause of sentence they are embedded in. (You can deeply embed clauses within clauses, and the reference need not be to term in the next higher clause.) I will call the options for doing this "out of clause" referencing a, b & c ...

    As I understand it, a very important observation, central to Chompski's ideas is that if language "1" uses A, then it will also use "a" for these superficially unrelated tasks. I.e. there is NO natural language that makes statement in to questions by A and also makes trans clause reference by method “b" or "c" etc. This trans clause referencing is often called "binding."

    I rarely use Wiki but a quick scan seems to indicate that there are still two divisions: Chompski believers like that professor, and non-believers. But all would agree that there are "pre-Chompski" linguist not much concerned with these unconscious abilities all humans have. They are like Fraggle experts in languages -how they evolved, similarities in words, etc.

    For a person with more conventional scientific background what Chompski states (at least 25 years ago) is humans come via their genes, with sort of a language "switch box" that at birth has the switches all unset. As they hear speech of language Q these switches get set for language Q. After they are set, then for millions of new sentences (never heard before) that person knows whether or not the sentence is "grammatical correct" (nothing to do with what is taught in school as correct grammar.) For example, "double negation is always logically incorrect way to make an negative statement and usually taught in school as "Poor grammar" but all languages use double negation, because there ain't nothing wrong with double negation in Chomsky’s grammar. I.e. you just accepted this bold text example as a sentence. If you had never been beating over the head by some teacher for using double negation, it would be much more common. Likewise you will reject "Down house fell." as a sentence, at least in many languages,** despite knowing exactly what is being stated (with no logical error).
    *I think Fraggle mentioned that “who” was quite old. In many languages a “W word” does help with this conversion. “Jack hit John.” becomes Who hit John?” Cat is home. Where is cat? Etc. Perhaps that helps explain why “who”(and probably some other W-words) have ancient roots. – Partially in our genes. (Not to be misunderstood as there is a “w” in our genes, but that some special set of related words is used to make the statement into question is one way the language box switches can be set.)

    **In some sense, English is not a collection of words and school taught rules (they completely change over time) but a particular setting of the switches on Chompski's innate "Language box." There may be some setting of the "language box" in which "Down house fell." is not only an acceptable sentence but a very proper one. That is the sort of thing it takes a linguist like Fraggle to answer. German has most of the switches set the same way as English but the word order switch is set for the simple sentenct is set for S,O,V not S,V,O where S= subject, O = object and V = verb. I don't recall but probably this causes some of the embedded clause bindings to be different etc. also.
    Last edited by a moderator: Mar 8, 2009
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  5. Fraggle Rocker Staff Member

    My wife and I have bred cats, dogs, several species of parrots, and we once successfully rescued and raised an unweaned baby songbird that had fallen out of her nest.
    Nature is not conscious and has no "intentions." Many of the things that result from nature are just plain stupid.

    Not all birds have a strong urge to fly. Parrots in particular are very well "designed," as it were, for an arboreal life, clambering around deftly on the branches and eating the nuts and seeds (and occasional invertebrate) they find there. With their zygodactyl toes and prehensile beak they're as well suited for an acrobatic lifestyle as primates. Our parrots rarely take wing, even when we take them outdoors. One of them walked all the way from the back door, across the patio and the lawn, climbed up one side of a fence and down the other, and kept walking to the edge of the forest before we spotted her and prevented a disaster--a distance of about 200 feet without bothering to fly.

    However, all birds have a reflex center in their shoulders and if they are startled their autonomic nervous system will send signals to their wings to start flying in order to escape whatever danger initiated the process. A bird who has spent his life inside a house and perhaps exploring the yard will eventually get his body under control and land in a tree three blocks away, having no idea how he got there or how to find his way home. This is why it's so important to keep a pet bird's flight feathers clipped short. He needs to be able to get enough lift to avoid crashing if he falls off a table, but not so much that he can gain altitude and fly away involuntarily if startled. Every bird lover loses a bird before he takes this advice seriously. Every subtropical American city--and even a few in the temperate zone--has a huge colony of feral parrots of several species.

    Anyway, whether a bird likes to fly or not he should have several hours a day when he's not inside his cage. A few species like canaries have been captive-bred for so many centuries that the surviving bloodlines are not very active any more and they're content so sit in a small cage and sing all day. Other small birds like finches that are not tame and can't be allowed to fly around the house, because they can't be gotten back into their cage for the night, should simply be given large cages that give them room to fly around.
    You have to do whatever is necessary to stop this behavior because one day in an emergency it will be a big problem.
    We have an Anatolian, an even larger dog. She keeps the bears and cougars from coming after our Lhasa Apsos. In America we call Alsatians "German Shepherds."
    I haven't read Noam Chomsky, but I know how to spell his name.

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    I'm not much of a philosopher and have only a passing interest in psychology, so his line of study never caught my eye. I'm an accountant by training so I enjoy details. Nonetheless I suspect that, as in most controversies, the truth lies somewhere in the middle. I have no trouble with the idea that some elements of language are inherent in the synaptic programming of our DNA, but it seems just as reasonable to suspect that others are invented.

    The essence of Homo sapiens is our astounding ability to transcend nature and reshape our environment to suit ourselves, along the way inventing the technologies ("tools") necessary to accomplish that goal. Language is a technology and there's no good reason to doubt that a great deal of it is man-made, just like our other technologies.
    I'd be surprised if it doesn't also apply to Esperanto, since it is slavishly (and often foolishly) so clearly Indo-European.
    This is a perfectly valid sentence in Chinese. It has no prepositions or conjunctions, so relationships are often implicit in its rigid word order. (Although they are also expressed with nouns and verbs.) If one noun precedes another and they don't form a compound with an established meaning, the assumed relationship is one of subordination. The first guess at the meaning of "John cat" is, in English word order, "cat of John," or "John's cat." Chinese has streamlined its grammar by discarding both prepositions (of) and inflections (-'s) and the price it pays is almost no leeway in how you can arrange the words in a sentence.
    That's far more interesting to a bookkeeper.

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    What, when, where, why, who, which, whence, whither, whose... these are inflected forms of a proto-Indo-European word that I can't track down with the reference material I have handy. It is better represented by Latin qua, que, etc. because in accordance with Grimm's Law, Indo-European Q/K becomes H in Germanic. (Cor-/heart, cap-/head, can-/hound, cent-/hundred, etc.) It also shows up clearly in the Slavic languages: Russian kto, gde, kotoriy, etc. Turning quid into quo, quondam, qui, etc. is just the remnants of the Indo-European declension of the original word, "of what, " to what," "for what," etc.
    I find it interesting that the "switches" of English have been reset. The fundamental structure of English changed enormously after the Norman invasion. We began discarding inflections as a way of expressing relationships and other subtleties of meaning, doing away almost completely with the German paradigms of case, number and tense, and switching over to the Chinese system of using more words, and their sequence, to precisely express meaning. Middle French had already simplified the Latin inflection paradigms, so what we see is a French superstratum on Middle English. In this case, the superstratum is not vocabulary (although there was a colossal amount of that too) but grammar. This leads to what linguists call a Sprachbund, a German word meaning a group of languages that are unrelated by origin but nonetheless share properties, due to their influence on the way each other's speakers think. Of course French and English are related by origin, but it is a distant relationship going back to about 1500BCE when Latin and proto-Germanic separated from the rest of the Western Indo-European languages, whereas the Sprachbund was initiated in 1066CE.
    This is very incorrect. German uses the SVO word order, as do all the Germanic languages including Swedish and Dutch. SOV is common in Latin, although because of its intricate inflections word order is not usually important to understanding and can be changed for emphasis or sheer whimsy.

    I suspect what you're remembering it that in a compound verb, the participle or infinitive is shoved all the way to the end of the sentence; but still the auxiliary verb remains in the second position. Du hast meinen Frühstück gegessen, "You have my breakfast eaten," or "Ich möcthe nach Deutschland reisen," "I would to Germany travel." In both cases the auxiliary verb preserves the SVO order and it's only the participle or infinitive that is buffeted around.
    German is notorious for its Schachtelsätzen or "box clauses." Ich habe ein altes Koffer, den ich nicht mehr brauchen kann, in der Zimmer verlassen, "I have an old suitcase, which I no more use can, in the room left."
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  7. Billy T Use Sugar Cane Alcohol car Fuel Valued Senior Member

    I agree. I will re state: Nature adapted bids to fly. (Instead of: Nature intended birds to fly) or even better: “Evolution adapted birds so they can fly.” is what I WAS TRYING TO STATE. And even that is too general - Nature adapted the emu to have one hell of a kick and fast running ability instead of flight to escape.

    What sort of "emergency" are you thinking of? Is the "big problem" some sort of attack on my wife? I may have over stated the jealousy bit. - If Sunshine is on my right shoulder and wife approaches from that side to give hug, he will go to left shoulder etc. Perhaps that is more just self preservation.

    He will at times refuse to step on to wife's finger, but go on mine. Sunshine is however treating her more like my equal as time goes by. Only in the last few months has she been allowed to pet his head. It is an amazing amount of trust, especially when I do both sides at same time - I feel his skull, which is surely thin for light weight, between my thumb and forefinger as I pet him.

    I only put him in his cage when we need to open windows during the day and she only gives him a peanut and bits of cheese. - I think this is what is causing greater equality in way he treats us both.

    We are very careful about windows. We even lock the cage door (only at bed time) so if very sleepy some AM we do not forget to close windows before opening. I.e. the initial opening each day is not the easy habitual opening and closing procedure that occurs during the day. I have spent some time getting him to come when I call him and he will always at least answer with a chirp. None the less, if he lives with us for 10 years, there is some probability that he will escape and never be seen again. I will be very sad, but get over it. Cutting his wings would make me (and I think him) sad too and that would be constant. He is a strong flyer and does it often, for no apparent reason but the fun of it (often after 3 or 4 big loops lands where he started from.)

    Some of his flight are to show he is annoyed with me watching TV and not paying attention to him. - I.e. After he has called me to come and get him a dozen or more times from another room, he will fly to me, circle close around my head but not land on my shoulder and return to his window perch.
    I never knew / understood much of what Chomsky was claiming but do not think it has much to do with things like making a noun possessive (add ‘s usually in English) or anything to do with individual words or their transforms. It is all about regularities in “legal”sentence structure and the ability to “just know” that the sentence is well formed or not. However, there is some evidence that the ability to automatically form the regular possessive of nouns has a genetic component. There is an English family that in three different generations (not all members) lacks this automatic ability. They learn the irregular possessive forms, store them in their “lexicon” and automatically use them. Normal humans unconsciously construct many words, especially verb tenses differences, from their “stems” and other information in the “lexicons.” This family has some genetic defect which makes transform of John to John’s a conscious (but very practiced) effort.
    Last edited by a moderator: Mar 9, 2009
  8. Tyler Registered Senior Member

    This happens to me as well. Or, often, I'll be focusing on some work (usually in English), be asked a question by an English-speaking colleague and then reply in Chinese without even a thought. This usually happens when I'm distracted. It happened with French as well. After spending a week with my francophone girlfriend I'd be telling some story of my visit to a friend and just use French words without thinking of them as part of another language.

    On another note, you've made me want to get a bird!
    As someone who spent a half decade living in Montreal, I have to disagree with you on this, though only as a matter of semantics. A few months back I returned to Montreal and asked a friend of mine, who has been learning Spanish for some years now, if he would consider himself bilingual. His response; "When every day I talk to people who could do particle physics and ancient philosophy papers just as easily in English or French, it's impossible for me to consider myself bilingual."

    Likewise, I dream in Chinese, wake up thinking in Chinese, have no problem conducting any conversation I want in Chinese (though with frequent mistakes and a less-than-fluent vocabulary), but would not call myself bilingual. I'm 1.5lingual at best.

    Maybe there's some rigid definition of bilingual that you're adhering to, though.
    Really? So I'm bilingual? Or, I guess, trilingual?
  9. Fraggle Rocker Staff Member

    A person who speaks three languages: Trilingual.
    A person who speaks two languages: Bilingual.
    A person who speaks one language: American.

    (Well-worn European joke.)
  10. superstring01 Moderator

    Funny thing being that the USA has some of the highest rates of multilingualism. The Brits, in my experience, are the most monoglotinous (is that a word?) people on Earth, except for, perhaps the Irish.

  11. nietzschefan Thread Killer Valued Senior Member

    Are you Kidding? I've met Irishmen who can curse in every language in Europe. English and Foul at the very least.
  12. CharonZ Registered Senior Member

    Well, I guess it is partially true. However it is mostly due to the high level of immigrants. Most multilingual American I have met are first or second generation immigrants, after that it becomes scarce (with the odd Spanish/Englich exception). It appears, and correct me if I am wrong, additional languages are not required in school.
  13. Fraggle Rocker Staff Member

    In either Great Britain or the USA, the average man-in-the-street does not speak a foreign language. But in my experience, educated Brits are more likely to have learned one than educated Americans. America is a huge country. You can drive for five days and still end up in a place where everybody speaks English. None of the European countries are that large, so the people have a stronger impetus to learn each other's languages.

    America is not governed as centrally as other countries (although that is unfortunately changing) so our school districts, or in some cases the states, each have their own standards. Some kids are required to take a year or two of a foreign language, usually in high school (grades 9-12) but many or most are not. In any case if they're not really interested they get no reinforcement after graduation, because they'll probably never go to a place where people don't speak a little English for commercial reasons.

    On the other hand America is a land of experiments and some school districts are very progressive. I have a friend whose children go to a public (government-run) elementary school (grades 1-6) and she deliberately chose an experimental school where they're taught French by immersion.

    Immigrant communities differ from one another as much as the countries they came from, but the largest immigrant community in America is from Latin America. In my day, 50-60 years ago, the children of Latin American parents spoke perfect Spanish and many of them struggled to overcome thick accents and sloppy grammar. Over the past twenty years it has become fashionable for the second generation to speak perfect English and not know a word of Spanish. The leading Mexican music radio station in Los Angeles had to switch to English-speaking disc jockeys because they were losing their teenage audience.

    I encounter the same phenomenon with the children of Indians and East Asians.

    So even the children of our immigrants are not necessarily bilingual any more.
  14. madanthonywayne Morning in America Registered Senior Member

    Although of Hispanic decent on my father's side, I didn't grow up speaking any Spanish. Nevertheless, I took Spanish in high school and, having a Spanish last name, I tend to attract a lot of Hispanic patients. Over the years, I've become pretty much fluent within the context of an eye exam. After doing an exam in Spanish, I sometimes have to really force myself to go back to English for the next patient! It's even worse when I examine an entire Spanish speaking family.
  15. superstring01 Moderator

    I video-chat with my friend Pascual in Spain almost nightly. When I'm talking to him I find it difficult to address my boyfriend without pausing to change gears. I'm constantly mumbling to him in "gibberish" when he asks me something. He'll say, "Ahhhh... Dan, I don't speak Taco." That amuses me.

  16. Orleander OH JOY!!!! Valued Senior Member

    I would think every culture has a word meaning 'idiot!'
    Even the Neanderthals would have to think "you idiot! what are you doing?!"
  17. superstring01 Moderator


    I tend to subscribe to the notion that the oldest words would also be the first sounds we make as infants. Thus my subscription to the notion that "Mama" would be the oldest. Others would have to be "water" or some other elemental notion.

    None of this is even remotely verifiable because of the rotating syntax and vocabulary that a language endures over the course of a millennium.

  18. Tyler Registered Senior Member

    That makes sense, as 'm' is one of the easiest consonant sounds for an infant to make. I've taught kindergarten children (as young as 2) for a while, and it's not uncommon for a word like "bedroom" to come out of their mouths as "memmoom".
  19. Fraggle Rocker Staff Member

    The other bilabial consonants soon follow. Baba, poopoo.
  20. Billy T Use Sugar Cane Alcohol car Fuel Valued Senior Member

    A machine learning read out loud does the same thing in early stage. Did you read my post 12 about Net Talk?
    here is qiuck link:
  21. Medicine*Woman Jesus: Mythstory--Not History! Valued Senior Member

    M*W: My guess is when a sound is understood by others, it becomes a word that is generally known to those in one's immediate tribe. Another guess is that when a sound evolves into a word and gets written down, the writing of the word becomes confirmation of that sound. The person who writes that word down is not necessarily the one who formed the sound in the first place. My guess again is that whomever formed the sound in the first place would be a tribal leader, so the others would follow suit. I don't know if any of this is true or not. It's my guess. I love the study of words
  22. Enmos Valued Senior Member

    That is about what I thought of it. But, if true, this means that lots and lots of animals have language. Language being defined here as a multitude of such words available to a species, or a group of animals within a species.

    Of course, languages can also be comprised of gestures (sign language in humans is a good example).
    It is not a big leap from this to chemical languages, imo. And then you'll have to accept that insects (for instance) have a language.
  23. Medicine*Woman Jesus: Mythstory--Not History! Valued Senior Member

    M*W: Good points. You are right to include gestures as an official part of language. Most people think that pointing the middle finger out in times of stress is the first universal gesture. It is not. The most ancient of gestures is holding one's hands out to show the length of a fish one had just caught, ergo, the first lie. Just kidding!

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