The Commenter Known as Y has sent me some intriguing links, with the following introduction: “The basic idea is that hunter-gatherer-type words in Proto-Semitic are based on biconsonantal stems, and that agricultural-type items are triconsonantal. That fits well with the contested idea that triconsonantal stems are a later development. I think it’s a clever and original idea, though the author seems to go a bit overboard with the conclusions.” The new paper is “Statistics of Language Morphology Change: From Biconsonantal Hunters to Triconsonantal Farmers,” by Noam Agmon and Yigal Bloch (PLoS ONE 8 ); its abstract:
Linguistic evolution mirrors cultural evolution, of which one of the most decisive steps was the “agricultural revolution” that occurred 11,000 years ago in W. Asia. Traditional comparative historical linguistics becomes inaccurate for time depths greater than, say, 10 kyr. Therefore it is difficult to determine whether decisive events in human prehistory have had an observable impact on human language. Here we supplement the traditional methodology with independent statistical measures showing that following the transition to agriculture, languages of W. Asia underwent a transition from biconsonantal (2c) to triconsonantal (3c) morphology. Two independent proofs for this are provided. Firstly the reconstructed Proto-Semitic fire and hunting lexicons are predominantly 2c, whereas the farming lexicon is almost exclusively 3c in structure. Secondly, while Biblical verbs show the usual Zipf exponent of about 1, their 2c subset exhibits a larger exponent. After the 2c > 3c transition, this could arise from a faster decay in the frequency of use of the less common 2c verbs. Using an established frequency-dependent word replacement rate, we calculate that the observed increase in the Zipf exponent has occurred over the 7,500 years predating Biblical Hebrew namely, starting with the transition to agriculture.
An earlier paper by Agmon alone is “Materials and Language: Pre-Semitic Root Structure Change Concomitant with Transition to Agriculture” (Brill’s Annual of Afroasiatic Languages and Linguistics 2 ); it was preceded in the journal by “An Introductory Note to Noam Agmon’s ‘Materials and Language’ with Special Attention to the Issue of Biliteral Roots,” by Jean Lowenstamm, whose abstract begins “Biliteral roots have been, and still are controversial.” (All links are pdf.) I look forward to seeing what my readers who have ideas about Semitic biliteral roots have to say.