Notes to the film "Before Babel"
Linguists today hotly debate the issue of linguistic monogenesis vs. polygenesis. How can this question be settled? The scientific way to study language origin is to uncover systematic differences and similarities between living languages or between languages written down in the past. This method is known as the comparative method, and began in 1787 when Sir William Jones put forward his Indo-European hypothesis by declaring that most languages of Europe, Iran, and India must have "sprung from some common source." Linguists using the comparative method (comparativists) which Jones helped develop belong to the school of comparative, or genetic, linguistics. The task of proposing genetic relationships between living languages has yielded concrete scientific results (everyone today concurs with the Jones's Indo-European hypothesis) as well as much quasi-scientific speculation. Some languages are obviously related to one another, as shown by the presence of systematic differences: English and German, Swahili and Zulu. Hebrew and Arabic. Hawaiian and Maori. No one would dispute that each of these pairs "sprung" from a common proto language and thus genetically related through descent from a common ancestor. Sometimes evidence for such a genetic relationship is questionable, as in the case for Japanese, Korean and Mongolian. Similarities between such languages, for instance, might be due to undocumented, prehistoric language mixing. Linguists who focus on the importance of language mixing in historical linguistics are called creolists. Finally, many languages seem completely unrelated: Navaho, English, Swahili.
When comparativists discover that a group of languages descends from a common ancestor, they try to reconstruct the original form of that language, which they call a proto language. Obviously, there is no way to check such results conclusively, and historical linguistic reconstruction is necessarily a highly speculative endeavor. Comparative linguists today debate whether or not certain languages should be grouped together into families. In this regard, linguists are either lumpers or splitters. Lumpers (notably Stanford's Joseph Greenberg -the old guy with the New York accent and lots of notebooks - and Merritt Ruhlen - the young, enthusiastic guy standing under the tree) have narrowed the number of proto-languages to about two dozen (see your copy of Ruhlen's map and my comments to it). Note that there are a few languages that do not fit into any family. These are the language isolates and include Basque (in Spain), Ket (in Siberia), and Burushaski (in Northern India), which are probably fossil remnants of formerly large families spoken in prehistoric Eurasia (before farming and animal husbandry gave certain linguistic groups a demographic edge over others). Splitters (such as Donald Ringe, the young, serious linguist from the U. of Pennsylvania) are much more cautious in drawing conclusions about genetic relationships. A splitters’ map of the Americas, Australia, and New Guinea would contain dozens of families rather than a few.
Since the 1960's there have appeared linguists who might be called super lumpers. Besides Ruhlen and Greenberg, these include the Russians Aharon Dolgopolsky, now in Israel (the guy with the sloppy library); Vitaly Shevoroshkin, now at Michigan (the tall, white-haired gentleman); and their late mentor Vladislav Illich-Svitich (who was killed when he walked in front of a car). These linguists developed the Nostratic theory in Moscow in the 1960's, which claims that most languages of Europe, North Africa, and North Asia are related to a single mother tongue called proto-Nostratic, spoken perhaps 15 thousand years ago. Some lumpers are convinced that they will eventually reconstruct not only Nostratic, but even proto-world, the putative original human Mother Tongue. Their findings have been criticized by most linguists for consisting of too little data and too much speculation. This most recent theory of monogenesis, the proto-world theory, has evolutionary rather than religious origins. Greenberg's hypothesis holds that the original language developed in Africa among early Homo sapiens. As Homo sapiens spread across the world, they took their language with them. That single language diverged over time into several thousand very diverse forms. Recent evidence from molecular genetics (Luigi Cavalli-Sforza) strengthens the hypothesis of language superfamilies.
So far no one has found conclusive proof that all human languages are descended from a common source. And even if the lumpers find a way to prove the existence of the "Mother Tongue," the most interesting questions will still require answers: precisely how did languages diverge and later mix during the thousands of years that Homo sapiens have lived on the planet?