John McWhorter is a favorite here at LH and has come up repeatedly in my posts (most recently here); I was happy just now to run across an online course guide (pdf) of his lectures on “The Story of Human Language” for the Teaching Company (you can access the three parts separately here). The most interesting aspect to me was his take on the idea that we can use surviving languages, and the proto-languages we can reconstruct from them, to see back 100,000 or more years to find bits and pieces of the very first human language, conventionally called Proto-World. I personally consider this notion (associated with the names of Joseph Greenberg and Merritt Ruhlen) ludicrous on the face of it, appealing to those who are so enthusiastic about piercing the veil of time that they are willing to overlook the glaring problems (the prevalence of coincidence and the inevitability of sound change rendering forms unrecognizable after thousands of years, for two), but then I’m one of those stodgy Indo-Europeanists the partisans of the theory love to mock. McWhorter has a more nuanced take on it; while rejecting the theory in its strong form, he emphasizes the likelihood that there are regional groupings that can’t be strictly reconstructed but are nevertheless real:
IV. Final verdict.
A. Ruhlen’s point that comparative reconstruction is not the only way to show that languages have a common ancestor is valid in itself. He observes that linguists posited the Indo-European group long before Proto-Indo-European itself had been worked out by working backward from the languages. The similarities between language families are close enough that his point is likely valid for mega-groups, such as Amerind and Eurasiatic.
B. A question still remains, however, as to how realistic even this approach is for Proto-World. The issues could be resolved as more proto-languages are reconstructed, although work of this kind is done increasingly less by modern linguists, and for reasons we will see in later lectures, it may be entirely impossible to reconstruct protolanguages for many families.
He gives some great examples; to illustrate the point about sound change, for instance, he says: “Proto-Algonquian words have been recovered through comparative reconstruction; the word for winter, for example, was peponwi. But the word in Cheyenne that has developed from this root is aa’—because of gradual changes over just 1,500 years.” (He gives all the intermediate stages as well.) And he has very useful bibliographies after each section, with brief descriptions of each item, for instance:
Chafe, Wallace, and Jane Danielewicz. “Properties of Spoken and Written Language,” in Comprehending Oral and Written Language, ed. by Rosalind Horowitz and S. Jay Samuels, pp. 83–112. New York: Academic Press, 1987. This article illuminates in clear language the differences—often shocking—between how we actually talk and how language is artificially spruced up in even casual writing, showing that spoken language, despite its raggedness, has structure of its own.
His otherwise admirable populism leads him to give too much credence to people like Bill Bryson, but that’s a minor problem. This is a good resource to have.