123+ Words from the Proto-World Intro / Karel Machala
To speak another language is to possess second soul.
Charlemagne, Emperor (747/8-814)
Digging the proto-words. Basic observations of linguistic archaeology.
INTRODUCTION AND METHOD to my e-book series 123+ Words from the Proto-World on Amazon in English. looking for common roots of the oldest words present globally across language groups (so far released: STONE, HILL TOP MOUNTAIN, TALK CALL LANGUAGE, CUT AXE SAW FILE, FIRE BURN KINDLE IGNITE, more to come).
Why is it obvious there are at least hundreds of words that are 10,000s of years old?
(Hint: What do hillTOP, PopocaTEPEtl and Göbekli TEPE have in common?)
1. Words are monuments from the past. Many of them are older than anything else people ever created throughout history and still use or admire. The oldest words deserve the same level of respect as other historic monuments. They are older than Pompeii and its pedestrian crossings, Troy and its long war, older than the ancient beauty of Kyoto, Chichen Itzá, Mycenae, Carthage or Macchu Picchu! They are even older than Meteor Crater in Arizona!
2. We can dig words from our distant past just like we dig out old cities, skeletons and old DNA. We are able to find quite many similar words with the same meaning in very distant languages. Many of them are older than people think. Many of them are no coincidences and no borrowings. The important thing is to select words that are (or used to be) in everyday use, important for thousands of years and seen and known widely since the outset of human history (like “water“ or “stone“, not like “DNA” or “spammer“). Many of these come from a proto-language much older than those usually reconstructed and researched by many linguists (like Proto-Indoeuropean, Proto-Uralic, Proto-Semitic). How could we know? Because these “sounds” exist in the same or similar meaning all over the world. Obviously, this is not the case for many modern words created in the past decades or centuries, and this is not the case for borrowings (like names for recent inventions borrowed into all languages: PC, TV – although these have ancient roots inside, too).
3. Tree of ancestors, DNA and languages. Just like there is a common ancestor of everyone living on Earth, just like there is a Y chromosome DNA Adam and a mitochondrial DNA Eve, just like all the other genes point to common ancestors of everyone living, there are also many words and grammar structures with common roots. Both for DNA and language, this is true for everyone from Japan to Europe, from America to Africa, from Australia to Siberia. Languages have a similar tree of ancestors that our DNA has, a similar tree to those depicting our direct and indirect ancestors. It does not mean that the language tree in any way copies the DNA tree – it is different, but just similar in shape and similar in that it comes from one root.
4. Borrowings. Obviously, in both the old proto-languages and in the languages of today, there are words taken over from one language into another language. They are called borrowings. Words for new inventions spread from the original place mostly by borrowing: phone, tractor, software are just a few examples. It makes sense to borrow these words in modern times, we are more globalized and interconnected than ever before. It made some sense to borrow words in the past, too. Some similar very old words with global occurence found in this e-book series could be borrowings, but most will be no borrowings, especially if found on all continents, in more than two distant language groups. It would make no sense to borrow words like mother, father, son, daughther, sun, house, food or hunger, especially all around the world. Everyone had and felt them in the small group of people that existed hundreds of thousands of years ago. It makes sense to borrow words like software or any other product that was introduced from one country to another. It does not make sense to borrow a word for water or stone, and if that happened at all, it must have been rare.
In a way, however, everything is a borrowing: the first person who used to say the first proto-word for “meat“ or “stone“ taught this word to his tribe or neighboring tribes – ie. they borrowed it from him. Or from her. But this is not the common meaning of the word borrowing. In the common meaning, borrowings were more rare than many linguists think. The talk about similar words across old language groups being borrowings is overdone to suppress the generally “unloved” idea that the word comes from the same root 10,000s of years ago. It is obvious that some words did not get into Australian, African, Native American and Indoeuropean languages at the roughly same time by some ancient borrowing. Rather, they will be descendants of the same word that existed in the Proto-World or Proto-Sapiens language. (I would stick with Proto-World as we should definitely not exclude Neanderthals, Denisovans and other human species.)
5. Pure chance. Some linguists see pure chance in similar words across language groups. Groups of consonants were just repeatedly grouped together, independently. Well, yes – if the similar word for a similar meaning is in two distant language groups, it could be a chance. But if we find the same group of consonants in tens of different language groups, for the same meaning, talking about chance is like talking about a meteorite falling from sky and reshaping itself into a golden ring during that flight, repeatedly.
6. Common roots. There are many words with common roots. Some words (and languages) changed more and faster and some less and slower. Example: Icelandic or Lithuanian developed more slowly while Native American languages developed much faster, with much wilder consonant changes. It is quite obvious when you dig into tens of different languages. It is possible to find words with common roots between such distant languages as Warlpiri spoken by Australian Aboriginals and German or Czech on the other side of the world, Native American Lakota in the United States and Finnish, and even Etruscan and Turkish. I would like to show you some of these, trying to prove they are no coincidences and most probably no borrowings. Trying to prove it by dismissing those where similarities are just between two (which could be coincidence or borrowing) and by highlighting those that occur in too many groups and languages to deny.
7. My method is different from the one applied by many comparative linguists. It does not strictly search first of all within more related groups for a common word and only then, if such a common word is found and reconstructed (often in more than one way by different linguists), a tiny part of them tries to go deeper comparing reconstructed proto-words across two or more language groups. This is useful, but some common roots could be lost with this method, and, it is not the only way, and not necessarily always the best way. Especially for the oldest words, it is possible to search across language groups from the start, to compare many different languages. Adding a few quite distant ancient languages is certainly useful.
8. Again and again, we will encounter some repeating features, especially these:
A. Vowels A, E, I, O, U etc. are less stable and change very often, within hundreds of years, or even less. This is why – when searching for the oldest words – we should primarily look at groups of consonants. Vowels change very often and are less relevant to our research and to linguistic archaeology. By observing typical changes of consonants, we are able to see fascinating connections all over the world of languages.
B. Changing consonants. - consonants are more stable, but their exact sound is less stable, so we need to work with groups of sounds. For example, we have to group together similar sounds represented by consonants. In other words, some consonants are relative and form groups where one changes into another quite often. These are: T-D, K-G, K-H, K-T-S, K-CH, K-KH, P-B, P-F, and less often there are changes like M-N, G-Y, M-B-W, R-L, R-D or even P-K(W), P-K(W)-T. Most of these sounds like T and D, or K and G are not far from each other, we all can probably clearly hear it. Others, while their changes are frequent, like T-S, or K-T, are not so close to each other from the point of view of sound similarity, but some languages do change them regularly anyway.
C. Regularity of change. Many changes are regular, the same language has the same change over and over in many words. But: this is not an iron rule. A different change may occur, or no change at all, where similar sounds would have changed.
D. Phenomenon of switching syllables. The first and second syllable may change its place. This is what we will see quite often while digging for common roots of words. Examples are eghom and anaku for the first person pronoun I/me, tuhom and anta, anata, for the second person pronound, father and tevas etc. There are too many to ignore this. This phenomenon suggests that a proto-language may have been more “Chinese-like“ in structure, with syllables having its own meaning before being merged into longer words. Example: ANAKU or MEGO/EGHOM (whatever sound for the first person came into usage first) could have meant something like “my soul“ (this is just an example and just a guess, it could have meant something else, but this is only to illustrate the amalgamation of two short syllable words merged together, having originally its own meaning, but becoming I/me). Just like some substantives are put before adjectives in one language and after adjectives in another, these syllables could have been put in 1-2 order or 2-1 order. Like we have still today: la situation extraordinaire (French) and extraordinary situation (English).
E. Parts of words fall away. Examples. Eghom – Ego. Eghom - -m, my, me. Tuhom – Tu. Anaku – Ana.
F. More than one proto-word for each meaning. Indeed, these occur often in one language, these also occur often in many languages – more different consonant groups to depict the same or similar meaning. Like mountain and hill (K-H change in Proto-Germanic is certain, R-L change or vice versa is also very probable here. Compare with kalnas, gora, garai etc.)
G. Moving or switching meanings. Words like small and short have a similar meaning to a certain extent. It does happen that language groups or individual languages have these words similar, but with switched meanings. Meanings are also changing, like water – river –sea. “Wilder“ changes of meaning are possible, but much less frequent. Words often change meaning a bit, making it broader or narrower, the original meaning is still recognizable, but we have to take these shifts to neighboring meanings into account.
H. Mother of many words phenomenon. There are often many words with related or remotely related meaning created from the same group of consonants. Maybe just one of these consonant groups existed at their outset and derivations happened later. What makes sense today, made sense in the proto-world: some words are more basic and older while others are derived from them by shaping their form this or that way. One word becomes many different words with similarities and connection of meanings.This is what we will observe with other proto-words, too. Example: even GROW, GRASS, GREEN and TREE are all from such a big family, derived from a mother proto-word in a faraway-back-in-time proto-language. In other words, a big pile of words with related or similar meanings use the same sounds or consonants, and this is hardly a coincidence.
9. Not all linguists agree. Quite a lot of mainstream comparative linguists deny there is anything common in all or most languages of the world going beyond the reconstructed groups like Proto-Indoeuropean, Proto-Semitic etc. Even for the most obvious ones like father-papa-abu-baba-dad-tata where the same two sounds P-T are used in almost all languages, they create easily disprovable theories denying this (This will be discussed more in detail in the corresponding e-books of family words like father or mother). Research of many comparative linguists is limited to linguistic groups inside these groups, possibly also to neighboring language groups, but not so much across all groups, especially those that seem quite distant geographically now. Even where someone dares to go deeper and geographically broader (knowing that Finns were not always in Finland and Navajos were not always in Arizona), they compare just a few. There are many who believe that languages change too quickly to be able to find any common roots across groups. Alas, there are some believers in separate origin of languages (although they should have understood by now that there are common genetic roots of everyone living on Earth and that we have billions of common ancestors independently on geographic location where we live now). There are even some weird theories trying to look at one language of today as ancestor of all others and even weirder theories trying to decipher words of one language with syllables of words in another language.
It is not important to argue with them, better to present one’s own findings and findings of other linguists in this exciting field, still dominated by too conservative mainstream thinking, often denying the obvious. Some use the argument that many old words are imitative, ie. imitating the sound of an animal or activity and this is why they are similar – according to them, they were imitated in many places and continents independently. This does not make sense to me. If they are imitative (and many certainly are), why would they not be imitated before the ethnic groups split? Did people start to use words like „father“ only after they left Africa and suddenly realized they need a word for father? This sounds like a pure nonsense to me. People used this word since the beginning of language and – most of the time – had no reason to start using a new one instead. If you look at words for „father“ in hundreds of languages, you will probably agree.
10. Food for thought, however convincing. What I am going to present here, is not an absolute truth that cannot be improved, changed or even partially disproven. For obvious reasons. Certainty into deep past is impossible in such an area of study like linguistics. It is food for thought, everyone can judge by themselves whether these connections are convincing enough, whether the words probably have a common origin in a proto-language or not. I just present what seems obvious to me, and – with some words – also to other linguists. All of these words will most probably be tens of thousand of years old, if not more. Some may come from a later proto-language (like those proposed as Nostratic, Eurasian etc.), some will definitely be from Proto-Sapiens or Proto-World as they are very similar in almost all languages.
11. I think I can more or less prove it with this series of booklets that languages are as interconnected even outside the recognized language groups, as ethnic groups and genes are interconnected, as animal genetic trees are interconnected, etc. People did not start to speak out of clear blue in many places, after a period of silence and shrieks and yells. They had anatomic predispositions to speak, and this is true not just for Homo sapiens sapiens, but also for Neanderthals and Denisovans etc. There is a tree of languages (although there will be disagreement over this or that branch), it does not copy the DNA haplogroup trees, but it will match here and there, and not match elsewhere. Two different trees, but still trees with one origin of all branches. I believe that much of this interrelatedness of “faraway languages“ is not due to borrowing, but common roots. It seems to be a fact that while some words change very fast, are being replaced and new ones are being coined, some „core“ words change much much slower and tend to stay not far from their original sound in the Proto-World language. Could we reconstruct a Proto-World sentence with some of these ancient proto-words? Maybe - and we will try later.
12. Similar words are not just in any two languages (as many found out). Interestingly, you can easily find dozens of sites on the internet with lists of similar basic words for such geographically distant languages as Japanese and Basque, Dogon and Basque, Basque and Ainu, Hungarian and Sumerian or whatever else. Their authors found an important path, but many of them come to wrong conclusions. They think that this is just because any of these two languages share lots of common words from the past hence one of them has to be derived from the other. But this is inaccurate. The accurate conclusion would be that all these languages have a common source and some of these words exist for long enough to preserve similarity in these two (but not just these two, which they do not see) languages. For two similar trees they do not see the forest of similar trees. For some of them, Basques turned Dogon or vice versa, while in fact the Proto-World language speakers turned Basque and Dogon and Japanese and Ainu and Hebrew and Czech speakers. Any of these languages still retained some of the proto-words that existed before we all split apart and went our way, splitting further and mixing on many spots of our Earth throughout history. What I want to show is that these common roots are not between any two languages only, but that they come from an old common proto-language older than any partially reconstructed proto-language of the language groups recognized today by most linguists.
Time to go to individual similar words derived from their common proto-words! Booklet 1 of this series (123+ Words from the Proto-World) was all about STONEs and booklet 2 is all about HILLs, ROCKs, MOUNTAINs, TOPs and PEAKs, booklet 3 about TALK, CALL and LANGUAGE, booklet 4 dealt with CUT AXE SAW and FILE and booklet 5 with FIRE BURN KINDLE IGNITE.