Hitherto Unknown Language??!?!!!11!

Sure, why not.

My first reaction to this article was skeptical, as it almost always is whenever someone has ‘discovered a new X’ and bases their discovery on miniscule evidence. I would certainly prefer the evidence were something other than names. However, it’s not such shoddy evidence as it might appear at first. Though I make zero claims to knowing much at all about Semitic languages or really anything at all about the big puddle of languages that lived east of the Aegean (reread the phrase ‘big puddle of languages’ and imagine the simultaneously crestfallen and disdainful look of the Assyriologist who just read that phrase), I would have to agree that when a whole bunch of names we’ve never heard before show up, it makes sense that they would have come from another language.

So, sincerely, well done dudes and dudettes who deciphered the tablet.

What irritates me is the sensational nature of the headline. I see a headline like “Archaeologists discover lost language” and red sirens start going off in my head. Let’s look at this title bit by bit, because hell, it’s way more fun than working on my thesis.

1. ‘Archaeologists’ – to the casual reader, “ZOMG! INDIANA JONES”. Every time I see an article with “archaeologist” in the headline, I immediately suspect that author wants me to be thinking of Indiana Jones.

2. ‘discover’ – well, yes, that is a large part of what Archaeologists do. There’s not really a more sober word that could be used here, but it’s still a tad sensational.

3. ‘lost’ – ark of the covenant! Oh, wait, those aren’t the next words?

4. ‘language’ – Actually, it’s just the word ‘lost’ being used to describe ‘language’ that annoys me, but I couldn’t have two bullets under ‘lost’ and nothing under ‘language’. My minor OCD wouldn’t be able to cope with that. What annoys me here is that it implies we were looking for it in the first place – that there was some sort of missing link that has just been discovered that answers all of our questions. It’s not like we’ve deciphered Hittite or Linear B or found someone scribbling PIE[1].

All in all, finding a hitherto unknown language (as I think the headline should have called it) is not really as exciting as the headline would make it seem. We don’t have any documents that are particularly useful in describing the nature of the language, so all we can say is ‘hey, there was another language that existed’. Fair enough, but unless we find more documents, we’re not going to be able to use this information to solve any questions about the linguistic make up of …. those languages over there that I don’t know anything about.

Though, I suppose it is exciting to have evidence of a movement of people within the empire. It certainly gives a slightly more nuanced understanding of how it worked.

So yes, this is actually quite cool. And of course, in order to get people to think that they’ve not wasted their money supporting your research, you totally want them to be thinking about Indiana Jones as much as possible. But it’s a good exercise in stopping and thinking about a sensational article before breaking out the exclamation points and all caps.

1. For the non-initiated, PIE stands for Proto-Indo-European (not a delicious crusty fruit filled desert). Proto-Indo-European is, well, the proto-language that we think the indo-european languages stemmed from. Of course, it’s highly unlikely that it’s actually a language – it’s really a compilation of all of the features we think should have existed to give us all of the indo-Euorpean languages. For example, if you compared all of the Romance langauges, you end up with something called proto-Romance. Surprise! It looks quite a lot like Vulgar Latin. Similarly, we compare all of the Indo-European languages (Romance, Greek, Germanic, Celtic, Balto-Slavic, Indo-Iranian, Tocharian, Armenian, etc.) and end up with Proto-Indo-European. It predates writing though, so we’re never going to be able to find an actual language it corresponded to. Or at least, it’s super highly unlikely.


18 comments on “Hitherto Unknown Language??!?!!!11!

  1. AnnaJ says:

    Can I just say that I think “big puddle of languages” is a perfect description of the linguistic situation of the Ancient Near East. But then, I’m an Aegeanist, so I would say that…
    And I agree that that was a somewhat over-exciting headline. I was quite severely disappointed when I found out that actually, we don’t know anything about this “new language”‘s phonemic system, morphology, syntax, or vocabulary, or what other languages it’s related to…”Archaeologists discover evidence that a language we never knew existed might actually exist, but we don’t know what it is until they dig more of it up” would have been a better headline!

  2. Adarsta says:

    To preface all this, let me start by saying I have no knowledge of anything about ancient languages. My question is: if it’s all names, how do they know it’s a completely different language? In the U.S. today are many combinations of letters that make names that would not ordinarily be thought of as “English”, but they are English (aren’t they)? I’m thinking of names like Neveah or even Adele.

    Thanks, very interesting blog.

    • Dear Adarsta – terrific question. You’re quite right to point out that names seem like shaky evidence at best and that today we form names in a multitude of different ways – because of culture, ethnicity, genealogy, or just creative preference. In the ancient world, the trend tended to be that there was a lot less flexibility with names, and each group of people and each language tended to have (more or less) a stock set of names. If I list the names “Marcus, Tullus, Claudius, Ovidius, Corinna, Julia, Julius, and Cornelius” you would be right to guess that they all sound very “Latin”. Likewise, Diomedes, Andromache, Alexandros, Dikaiopolis, Archimedes, etc. all sound very “Greek”. We make these categorizations because they’re names that occur very frequently in the respective literatures of Latin and Greek and they have endings which match endings commonly found in those languages. There are even differences between names found in British English and American English. For example, Devon and Devin are more common in American English (and pretty much unheard of in British English), whereas we would find Olly, Pippa, and Nigel pretty odd in American English.

      My guess then (guess because I really don’t know a lot about Assyrian languages) is that this list showed a large number of names that didn’t occur anywhere else in the very very very large corpus of Assyrian literature and writing. Because of the relative difficulty of spreading language in the Ancient world as opposed to today, it seems likely that this represents a non-native group of people.

      Granted, in and of itself, that wouldn’t necessarily imply a new language, but if these names have sound patterns and endings unlike the other languages we know of, it’s likely that they came from a different stock. Furthermore, if we look closely enough at ancient (and modern!) names, we can usually discover and original meaning for it. For example, Melissa means ‘honey bee’ in Greek and Cicero means ‘chickpea’ in Latin. If we can’t see any recognized words in these names, they probably had their source in another language.

      It’s definitely not the best evidence one could find though because, as you point out, names do travel from different languages and people do sometimes just make them up! Julius, for example (as in Julius Caesar) could very well have been Trojan (Anatolian!)…well, sort of. But that’s another blog post…

      Sorry to have written such a lengthy answer, but it was a great (and complicated) question. I hope it helped!

    • Lol, just read your e-mail address. Way to throw me of with Adarsta. Sorry for the unnecessary Latin :P

  3. johnwcowan says:

    I always thought it was cool how Proto-Indo-European is abbreviated PIE and Proto-Austronesian is abbreviated PAN. Naturally, PAN is older than PIE….

    • Is it? I don’t know anything at all really about austronesian languages. What methodology is used in the reconstruction? What sort of written sources are available to check reconstructions against? How has it been dated? Definitely something to investigate once I’ve finished my thesis. (god i sound like such an indo-europeanist :/ )

      • johnwcowan says:

        The comparative method, of course. Austronesian speakers may live halfway around the planet, but the same methods are applicable everywhere. The very rough date for PAN is 10,000 BP (compared to PIE’s 6000 BP).

        The Austronesian languages consist of a lot of first-order groups comparable to Romance or Germanic: that is, the relationship between members of the groups is obvious. However, the relationships between those groups is anything but obvious, and much of the work that’s been done consists of people setting up second-order and third-order groups and tearing down other people’s. (To be fair, that happens in IE too, but there are many fewer groups to play with.) Some of the older groups, Central Malayo-Polynesian for example, are most likely Sprachbunde based on common substrate effects; others are purely negatively defined.

        It seems clear on genetic grounds that the Austronesians came from the mainland of Asia, but their languages are not traceable beyond Taiwan, which is the site of the top-level branching. (Malay and the Chamic languages represent Austronesian resettlements of the mainland from offshore.) There are somewhere between five and twelve primary branches of Austronesian, and all but one of them are or were spoken exclusively on Taiwan — the Malayo-Polynesian branch has spread from Madagascar (settled from Borneo) all the way to Easter Island (settled, along with Hawaii and New Zealand, from Tahiti), making it the most-dispersed language family in the world before modern times. The Taiwanese branches are vaguely analogous to the Anatolian branch of IE: the association was not understood until fairly recently, and whatever else is in question, clearly Anatolian vs. non-Anatolian is the top-level branch of IE.

        One thing to get used to in Austronesian studies is that the vowels generally remain quite stable, whereas it is the consonants that vary in bizarre (to an IE mind) ways between branches. In particular, there is more and more tendency as one goes east to merge or simply drop consonants, or to play round-robin with them in messy chain shifts. In Hawaiian, for example, the transition /t/ > /k/ (original /k/ had gone to glottal stop) happened within historic times (the dialect of Ni’ihau, where the language is still spoken by the majority of the population, retains /t/), and in Samoa it is ongoing, with /t/ retained in formal language and in writing, and /k/ used in conversation between equals. (I observed this myself in a visit to Samoa when I was twelve.)

        • Awesome! Thanks for the info. Its so easy to be skeptical about reconstructions (says the person who hates it when people are like, ‘yeah, sure, PIE, riiiiiight’). My horizons have been broadened I’ll definitely be reading more about it. Sorry to have been such a snobby Indo-Europeanist! (there was literally an obnoxious voice in my head going, ‘pfft suuurree…other reconstructions. Like what, Rhulen style?’)

      • johnwcowan says:

        I forgot to mention that Oceanic, with about 450 languages, is the one large grouping that is firmly established, though the usual fight goes on about its immediate children. The wave theory is also very relevant to it, because of the crisscrossing influences of supplementary settlements on one island or another.

        • hehe. Oceanic. Wave theory. *is mature*. That definitely makes sense. I quite like the wave theory, esp. as a rough sketch of the Germanic languages and the centum/satem divide (as a means of explaining Tocharian). Speaking of Oceanic though, have you read Terry Pratchett’s Nation? Not that it really has anything to do with Oceanic languages, but is about Polynesia and is definitely a very good read. I’m always surprised to see it listed among his books for children. I think it’s a lot more mature than many of his books for adults!

  4. johnwcowan says:

    (Starting over because the columns are too thin.)

    Yeah, no Greenberg/Ruhlen nonsense here. IE was kind of a special case, as Edward Vajda pointed out: the fact of relatedness, the details of relatedness as established by the comparative method, and the research program in Indo-European all happened at essentially the same historical moment. As of now, we have about all the hypotheses we can swallow: someone or other has proposed relatedness between every two language families on the planet. So the trick now is to figure out which of those relationships we can actually establish. Vajda is the guy who worked out Dene-Yenisean, the first demonstration of a relationship between an Old World family and a New World one. Lyle Campbell is doubtful, but Hamp, Comrie, Nichols, Poser, and Tarpent all find it convincing.

    I’ve never read any Pratchett — always mean to get around to him, never do. Nation sounds very cool, though. I do love alternate history of all sorts!

    What do you think of the Ringe/Taylor/Warnow/Nakhleh linguistic phylogenetic study of IE? Unlike a lot of phylogenetic work, they base the study on the comparative method rather than ignoring it. For example, they take into account that all the different IE forms of two count as a single character for reconstruction purposes, because none of them are lexical replacements no matter who different they may look, and they realize that a multi-state character (one that has been replaced differently in different branches) has to be treated as a whole, not divided into different binary states.

    (By the way, I don’t want to give the impression that I am a professional Austronesianist, or any kind of professional linguist, so what I say may be out of date or otherwise plain wrong.)

    • Good comment on the state of reconstruction and relationships between language, so very relieved there’s not Greenberg nonsense going on! I have a bit of a confession to make: I was super wary because wordpress had tagged you as spam because there was more than one link in your comment, and when I checked your blog, I saw the word Martian and ran away before I actually bothered to look at the french or the about page! (Huge mistake on my part btw; its a really interesting blog!) My apologies for the initial misunderstanding!

      As to Ringe/Taylor/Warnow/Nakhleh, I haven’t gotten the chance to click on your link yet, and I don’t know much (read: anything) about it. Unfortunately, I’ll probably wait until Saturday to look at it because my thesis rough draft will be handed in. So I’d like to acknowledge that you’ve intrigued me, but sadly my thesis is in a shambles at the moment and I’ve got to get busy, busy, busy! I’ll be back to comment for real in few days though!

  5. johnwcowan says:

    Hmm, I think you or WordPress must have conflated me with Siganus Sutor somehow. He’s the one with the Martian/Mauritian French blog, Martian Spoken Here. My blog is Recycled Knowledge, and has no specific focus.


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