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Linguists debate the deepest roots of all language

In their archaeological digs through the strata of human language, linguists have long been fascinated by the seeming similarities between the English words fist, finger and five. The motif is repeated by the Dutch, who say vuist, vinger, and vijf, and the Germans, who say faust, finger and funf. Traces of the pattern can even be found as far away as the Slavic languages like Russian.

Conceivably, sometime in the distant past, before these languages split from the mother tongue, there was a close connection among the words for a hand and its fingers and the number five. But did the mathematical abstraction come from the word for fist, or, as some linguists have proposed, was it the other way around? The answer could provide a window into the development of the ancient mind.

In a paper now being prepared for publication next year, Alexis Manaster Ramer, a linguist at Wayne State University in Detroit, argues that the mystery may now be solved: Fist came before five. But more important than his conclusion is the method by which it was derived.

It is widely accepted that English, Dutch, German and Russian are each branches of the vast Indo-European language family, which includes the Germanic, Slavic, Romance, Celtic, Baltic, Indo-Iranian and other languages _ all descendants of more ancient languages like Greek, Latin and Sanskrit. Digging down another level, linguists have reconstructed the even earlier tongue from which all these languages are descended. They call it proto-Indo-European, or PIE for short.

But in a move sure to be hotly disputed by mainstream linguists, Manaster Ramer contends that to find the root of the fist-five connection one must look beyond the Indo-European family and examine two separate language groups: Uralic, which includes Finnish, Estonian and Hungarian, and Altaic, said to include Turkish and Mongolian languages. All three families, he contends, contain echoes of a lost ancient language called Nostratic.

If Manaster Ramer is right, his discovery will provide ammunition for a small group of linguists who make the controversial claim that Indo-European, Uralic, Altaic and other language families like Afro-Asiatic, which includes Arabic and Hebrew, the Kartvelian languages of the South Caucasus and the Dravidian languages concentrated in southern India all are descendants of Nostratic, which was spoken more than 12,000 years ago.

Most language experts remain highly skeptical of the Nostratic hypothesis, which enjoyed so much publicity in the late 1980s and early 1990s that it is sometimes described as the linguists' version of cold fusion.

"It would be terrific if it's true, but we don't want to jump to conclusions," said Brian Joseph, a linguist at Ohio State University in Columbus. Joseph and Joe Salmons of Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind., are editing the book, Nostratic: Evidence and Status, in which the analysis of the five-fist connection will appear.

But Joseph believes that while the Nostratic debate remains as heated as ever, it has reached a higher level of sophistication, with both sides offering more precise arguments and careful scholarship.

"Mainstream linguists who in the past had dismissed Nostratic are now willing to examine it on an objective and scientific basis," he said.

While he and Salmons both count themselves as skeptics, they hope their book will be a milestone in linguistic scholarship.

"Even if the more mainstream linguists decide to reject Nostratic," Joseph said, "at least the evidence will be laid out in a fair and balanced way."

It is not that most linguists find implausible the idea that all languages may ultimately have derived from an ancient ur-language spoken millenniums ago. After all, analysis of mitochondrial DNA from the cells of various ethnic groups strongly supports the notion that all humans come from the same genetic stock.

If this small group of original humans spoke a single language, then all present-day languages are descended from it. The hypothetical Nostratic is not the ur-language but might be one of its major branches.

However, critics of the Nostratic hypothesis have long argued that it is unprovable _ any similarities between languages as distant as the Altaic and Indo-European would have been washed out long ago. They dismiss the parallels unearthed by the Nostraticists as coincidences.

But the Nostraticists keep on.

In a book published last year, The Nostratic Macrofamily: A Study in Distant Linguistic Relationship, two independent scholars, Allan Bomhard and John Kerns, compiled some 600 Nostratic roots with counterparts (what the linguists call cognates) in languages said to be descended from Nostratic.

"As the 20th century draws to a close, it is simply no longer reasonable to hold to the view that Indo-European is a language isolate," Bomhard writes. "Indo-European has relatives and these must now be taken into consideration."


Historical linguists start with two languages they suspect are related, then search for potential cognates _ words like the Italian luce (light) and pace (peace), which appear in Spanish as luz and paz. Then, by deriving rules for how sounds mutate over time, they try to reconstruct the ancient roots: Latin lux and pax. German vater and English father can be traced to Latin pater.

In actual practice, the correspondences between related words are usually far more convoluted and opaque to superficial examination. English and Armenian both are believed to descend from proto-Indo-European. But it takes a great deal of linguistic manipulation to show how the Armenian word for two, erku, is related to its English counterpart.

To add to the confusion, words that seem similar can turn out to be unrelated. Linguists consider it coincidental that the German word for awl happens to be ahle, or that the Aztec word for well is huel. For that matter, the English word ear, referring to the fleshy flaps on either side of the head, has been found to be historically unrelated to an ear of corn.

There are other mirages that can create the illusion of a deep historical wellspring. Baby words like papa and mama are common across languages probably because the labial consonants _ those made with the lips _ are among the first that children learn.