Cultural Anthropology Discussion Linguistic Anthropology

So it Turns Out I Speak Chinese…

A short read on linguistic reconstruction inspired by an impressive amount of nonsense.

Ever have an article pop up on your Facebook feed that’s just…so incredibly ridiculous even from just reading the headline that you can’t tell if you want to read it or ignore it/also blow up the planet?

Well. That happened to me the other day, with this doozy.

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Isn’t that wild? Before I link you to the actual article, I wanna talk a little bit about languages, and how linguists piece together the history of languages. It’s kinda weird to think about, isn’t it? The idea that we can study aspects of different languages and get an understanding of how closely related they are, how long ago that happened, and even a pretty decent idea of what ancestral languages sounded like. That one will never not blow my mind.

Anyway.

Languages evolve in much the same way as biological organisms, and indeed the word meme was coined as a cultural equivalent to the gene–that is, a unit of culture on which natural selection can act.

Modern languages are broken into several groups: Indo-European, Sino-Tibetan, Niger-Congo, and Austronesian are the largest by number of speakers. Each of these groups are named roughly for the region in which they developed; however, the groups literally represent thousands of languages found all over the world.

Indo-European has by far the largest number of speakers, with 2.9 billion. But with 437 daughter languages, it pales in comparison to Niger-Congo, with 1,524. But then looking at the size of an area, the Papuan language group is the most diverse–with 852 languages spoken in New Guinea (although 12 are extinct).

And then, and most excitingly, there are language isolates, meaning languages that are apparently not related to any single language family. Many of these are Papuan and signed languages, and they are so damn exciting to me even though I’m largely ignorant.

Really though, we’re only going to be talking about Indo-European here today. And Sino-Tibetan by extension…because of that goofy headline you read earlier.

Indo-European languages consist of some very widespread languages, including English, German, Russian, Spanish, and French. If you’ve read this far, I’m gonna go ahead and assume you’re an English speaker. If you’ve ever learned another language, or if English is your second, you may have noticed there are a decent amount of similarities if your other language is one of these.

For me, it’s German. Learning German has been so weird as an English speaker, because so incredibly much of it is similar. Then the grammar is totally different and my brain folds in half almost every day because I over think a sentence. I’m sure I’m not unique here.

That’s because English and German are both Germanic languages. There are 48 languages in the Germanic group, and it’s really important to remember that it doesn’t mean that all these languages are descended from German. Nope. Like ancestry in biological evolution, languages share a common ancestor. In the case of Germanic languages, it’s Proto-Germanic.

And soooooo Proto-Germanic is the ancestral language that would go on to give rise to the 48 Germanic languages we know and love today. But all these Germanic languages are in turn Indo-European languages, meaning that Proto-Germanic was also Indo-European.

It’s kind of like a big complicated family tree and some of the people in it you only know were in it because their descendants exist. I have no idea who my 31st paternal great-grandmother was, but I know she existed because, well…I’m here and typing this. And so I can make some inferences about who she was and maybe even where she may have lived, if I really wanna pull out all my fun ancestral migration stuff.

All of the languages within Indo-European can be broken down further into smaller groupings, and all of them have just as interesting of a history. And fleshing out that history is the most amazing thing in the world and called linguistic reconstruction.

If you don’t feel like reading that link, which is fine, there are two kinds of reconstruction. Internal reconstruction looks at irregularities within a single language to kinda sort out and infer what earlier stages of that language were like. It deals with one single language.

Comparative reconstruction is the real fun and big one. It compares features of different languages within a given group to establish similarities and differences, and then makes a determination as to what characteristics are ancestral, and goes on to build a proto language from those inferences.

It’s big stuff. BUT GUESS WHAT!?

All Indo-European languages descended from, you got it, Proto-Indo-European. It’s an incredible undertaking to try and resurrect a proto language. And honestly…some amount of it has to be inferential and may not be exactly accurate. But to the best of everything available worldwide to a lot of incredibly brilliant people who dedicate literally every waking (and likely sleeping) moment of their lives, they come to pretty good representations of it.

And it’s come far enough that we have working models of proto languages, and you can listen to a story told in Proto-Indo-European here!!!!

It doesn’t sound like anything you’d understand. But if you break it down, there’s enough shared similarities that you’d probably be able to get where it’s coming from.

All this goes to say that we’ve sorted it out, and no, English is NOT a dialect of Mandarin. This claim is so specious that it’s debunked by the historical record. That kind of xenophobic and misleadingly nationalistic nonsense overlooks just how amazing language (and real Chinese history) is!

What I’d love is to be able to hear or learn a reconstructed Proto-Sino-Tibetan language. Maybe even listen to the same thing spoken in both languages. I don’t know. All I know is linguistics is fantastic and wonderful and everybody should learn about it. Especially the people claiming English is a Mandarin dialect…like…seriously…what?

I have a degree in anthropology from Rhode Island College. My focus was in biological anthropology but I also have a broad interest in cultural anthropology, archaeology and linguistic anthropology. Pedal Powered Anthropology is an anthropological educational initiative that seeks to bring profound travel experiences to a local level while encouraging others to get out and explore the world around them. This blog details all aspects of my work as Anthrospin, including my take on topics within four fields anthropology as well as bits about a lot of different aspects of culture, primarily race, gender, privilege, the environment and my own personal relationship with anxiety.

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