Introduction to Linguistic Analysis& European languages origins

The Basics:

Linguistics and behaviorism

Since the 1920s, linguistics experienced a great development in the United States. A great deal of descriptive work was made on the Indian languages, which was associated with anthropological studies. This field work gradually gave place to the formulation of theoretical principles, and in 1933 these principles were exposed in a book by Leonard Bloomfield, “Language.” Bloomfield was very influenced by the psychological theory of behaviorism.

During World War II, linguistics’ development in Europe was stalled, and in the USA linguists worked principally in matters related to the war effort like the production of foreign language teaching materials. After the war, linguistic studies resurged in a number of European countries, and in the USA a theory of language analysis known as ‘structural linguistics’ was consolidated. The chief tenet of this theory was, in accordance with behaviorism, that the properties of sentences and other linguistic units (verbs, vowels, etc.) should be manifested by the external behavior of speakers.

Transformational grammar

The principal limitation of structural linguistics was that, in abidance to behavioristic principles, it refused to study meaning, as structuralists believed it could not be externally manifested. A change in this sense was initiated by Zellig Harris, whose studies produced a revolution in linguistics. He developed methods to analyze relations between sentences, which he called transformations. For example, a sentence in the active voice (Col. Mustard killed the Butler in the conservatory with a knife.) could be related to its counterpart in the passive voice (The Butler was killed by Col. Mustard…). Harris’s work gave raise to transformational linguistics.

A student of Harris, Noam Chomsky, published in 1957 his book Syntactic Structures, which was the origin of generative linguistics. This theory differs from structuralism in that incorporates elements taken from mathematics and the philosophy of language. The behaviorist approach was abandoned in favor of a neo-rationalist position rooted back in the 17th-century’s general grammar. Between 1960 and 1980, this theory gradually displaced structuralism due to its superior analytical capabilities, and it is now the generally preferred theoretical approach.

Branches of linguistics

Speech is formed by sentences, and these by words, which in turn break down into meaningful parts, morphemes, which can thus be considered as the elementary units of speech. Morphemes are the smallest unit of language to carry meaning (cat, Mississsippi, love; but also -s, -ing, pre-). A word has a meaning, a pronunciation, and, in the case of written languages, a spelling. In reality, the spelling of a word is a secondary property, which is derived from its pronunciation. These concepts set the layout for linguistics’ branches: phonetics, semantics, syntax, phonology, morphology, and lexicology.

Phonetics studies human speech sounds independently of meaning. A word is characterized in terms of the vocal sounds used to produce it, which are constituted by phonemes and syllables. Different stresses on the syllables generate different words.

Semantics studies the meanings of the words independently of their pronunciation. The real or ideal object that the word designates, the relation of meaning to the structure of the word, the relation of this word with other words of similar meaning, are subjects that attract the interest of semanticists.

Syntax is the grammatical arrangement of words in sentences. It deals with the order of words within sentences, their nature (nouns, adjectives, etc.), their inflections, and the functions they accomplish in a sentence (subject, complement, etc.).

Pragmatics involves itself with the question of selectivity: how we know what to say when and to whom.

Four higher levels of organization are also acknowledged: phonology, morphology, lexicology, sociolinguistics (broader issues of pragmatics also involves psycholinguistics). They endeavor to explain aspects that cannot be dealt with by only one of the preceding branches, or that relate to a language’s repertory of words.

Linguistics and the other social sciences

Historical aspects of languages are studied by diachronic or historical linguistics, which sees a language as an object that can develop and change through time. Variations of a language across space are the theme of geographical linguistics, which studies differences of usage from one locality to another, and territorial and social variants of a language, the so-called dialects.

Being language such an important element of human life, it is not surprise that there exist sub-disciplines that are the intersection of linguistics and many other social sciences. Anthropological linguistics, ethnolinguistics, sociolinguistics, and psycholinguistics are the result of studying interaction with culture, society and mind. The part of philosophy that bears on language is the philosophy of language. In semiotics, language is also studied as an especially important case of symbol system.

Finally, theoretical linguistics utilizes results from other sciences apart from the social, like mathematics, logic, calculus, and automata theory. Applied linguistics makes use of statistics and computer science to interpret and organize linguistic data. The relation of language with the

Psycholinguistics can be seen as a branch of cognitive psychology that resulted from the attempt to apply experimental methods to the study of language. It is difficult to describe its subject, as it can be considered to stretch from formal linguistics to social psychology. It has been heavily influenced by the work of Noam Chomsky, and it mostly concerns with the encoding and decoding of meaning in speech. An important especial case is language acquisition, because children must learn to assign meanings to sentences.

To use a behaviorist term, psycholinguists can be considered to be of a mentalist orientation. Behaviorists considered that linguistics should be independent of psychology. Mental operations were of no interest, and they were not open to scientific study because of their being internal acts. To construct a grammar, the linguist should circumscribe to formalizing the implicit knowledge of the people who speak the language. The linguist’s task was to study what behaviorists called ‘speech behavior.’ The emphasis was on phonetics and syntax, while semantics was given little consideration.

The book of B. F. Skinner, Verbal behavior, published the same year that Chomsky published Syntactic structures, gave a new role to psychology in the study of a language. He argued that the occurrence of speech should be explained, but of course from a behaviorist point of view. According to Skinner, language was not different from other behaviors that, behaviorism maintained, were all learned. So, an utterance was not produced because the speaker gave a meaning to it, but because he had observed in the past that the utterance had a particular effect. The laws of reinforcement (positive and negative) applied to speech as to other types of behavior. When a speech was rewarded with a certain response, the speaker learned to use it again to get the same response.

To the contrary, the position of Chomsky was a mentalistic one. He proposed the so-called generative-transformational paradigm, which argued that speakers managed information that the behaviorist approach did not account for. A sentence can have more than one meaning, because there are words that can act as different parts of the sentence. For example, the meaning of a sentence is different if a word is taken as a verb or as an adjective. In addition, different sentences can have the same meaning, as is the case of an action expressed in the passive and in the active voices.

Psycholinguistic research has attempted to confront many issues at the phonological, syntactic, and semantic levels. At the phonological level, issues investigated include why different signals are perceived as being the same, and which relation exists between speech perception and production. At the syntactic level, much investigation has been directed at understanding sentence comprehension–how ambiguous phrases are recognized using cues such as rhythm and intonation. Efforts have also been centered on the way in which meaning influences syntactic processing.

At the semantic level, what is meaning and how it affects encoding and decoding has been researched. The nature of meaning is controversial: there are researchers who define meaning as a set of features and try to find what these features are and their universality; other researchers, instead, assume that meaning is individually derived from past experience and other kind of knowledge.

Language acquisition

The early concept that children learned a language by imitating those around them can no longer be sustained. The opposite cases of children hearing ungrammatical sentences and correctly inducing grammar rules; and of children hearing grammatical utterances and (at some period of development) generating syntactically incorrect speech, both assert that reality is more complex than that simple principle. Chomsky postulated the existence of a language acquisition device that would use some concepts universally accepted as the subject-predicate pattern. While the existence of this device has not been demonstrated yet, most scientists think that some level of language understanding is innate.

Mind Design: Heredity vs. Development

Language could not have begun in the form it was said to have taken in the first recorded utterance of Thomas Babbington Macaulay (the infant Lord Macaulay): once when he was taken out, his hostess accidentally spilled hot tea on him. The little lad first bawled his head off, but when he had calmed he said in answer to his hostess’ concern, “Thank you Madam, the agony is sensibly abated.” — P. B. and J. S. Medawar

Starting with a cave and sticks and a few rocks, your current choices are provided by those who came before you. You can be grateful or not.


Paleolinguistics is a term used by some linguists for the study of the distant human past by linguistic means. For most historical linguists there is no separate field of paleolinguistics. Those who use the term are generally advocates of hypotheses not generally accepted by mainstream historical linguists, a group colloquially referred to as “long-rangers”.

The controversial hypotheses in question fall into two categories. Some of them involve the application of standard historical linguistic methodology in ways that raise doubts as to the validity of the hypothesis. A good example of this sort is the Moscow school of Nostraticists, founded by Vladislav Illich-Svitych and including Aharon Dolgopolsky, Sergei Starostin, and Vitaly Shevoroshkin, who have argued for the existence of Nostratic, a language family including the Indo-European, Afro-Asiatic, Altaic, Dravidian, and Kartvelian language families and sometimes other languages. They have established regular phonological correspondences, observed morphological similarities, and reconstructed a proto-language in accordance with the accepted methodology. Nostratic is not generally accepted because critics have doubts about the specifics of the correspondences and reconstruction.

Other hypotheses are controversial because the methods used to support them are considered by mainstream historical linguists to be invalid in principle. Into this category fall proposals based on mass lexical comparison, a technique in which relationships are considered to be established by the presentation of sets of words dubbed etymologies in which the forms are perceived as resembling each other in sound and meaning, without establishing phonological correspondences or carrying out a reconstruction. Prominent examples are the work of Joseph Greenberg and Merritt Ruhlen. This method is generally regarded as unable to distinguish chance similarities from those that must be due to a historical connection and unable to distinguish similarities due to common descent from those due to language contact.

Pinker and Bloom, in their book Natural Language and Natural Selection (see TOC left), note that

All human societies have language. As far as we know they always did; language was not invented by some groups and spread to others like agriculture or the alphabet. All languages are complex computational systems employing the same basic kinds of rules and representations, with no notable correlation with technological progress: the grammars of industrial societies are no more complex than the grammars of hunter-gatherers; Modern English is not an advance over Old English.

Within societies, individual humans are proficient language users regardless of intelligence, social status, or level of education. Children are fluent speakers of complex grammatical sentences by the age of three, without benefit of formal instruction. They are capable of inventing languages that are more systematic than those they hear, showing resemblances to languages that they have never heard, and they obey subtle grammatical principles for which there is no evidence in their environments.

Disease or injury can make people linguistic savants while severely retarded, or linguistically impaired with normal intelligence. Some language disorders are genetically transmitted. Aspects of language skill can be linked to characteristic regions of the human brain. The human vocal tract is tailored to the demands of speech, compromising other functions such as breathing and swallowing. Human auditory perception shows complementary specializations toward the demands of decoding speech sounds into linguistic segments.

This list of facts (see Pinker, 1989a) suggests that the ability to use a natural language belongs more to the study of human biology than human culture; it is a topic like echolocation in bats or stereopsis in monkeys, not like writing or the wheel. All modern students of language agree that at least some aspects of language are due to species-specific, task-specific biological abilities, though of course there are radical disagreements about specifics. A prominent position, outlined by Chomsky (1965, 1980, 1981, 1986, 1988a), Fodor (1983), Lenneberg (1964, 1967), and Liberman (Liberman, Cooper, Shankweiler, & Studdert-Kennedy, 1967; Liberman and Mattingly, 1989), is that the mind is composed of autonomous computational modules — mental faculties or “organs” — and that the acquisition and representation of language is the product of several such specialized modules.

It would be natural, then, to expect everyone to agree that human language is the product of Darwinian natural selection. The only successful account of the origin of complex biological structure is the theory of natural selection, the view that the differential reproductive success associated with heritable variation is the primary organizing force in the evolution of organisms (Darwin, 1859; see Bendall, 1983 for a contemporary perspective). But surprisingly, this conclusion is contentious.

Noam Chomsky, the world’s best-known linguist, and Stephen Jay Gould, the world’s best-known evolutionary theorist, have repeatedly suggested that language may not be the product of natural selection, but a side effect of other evolutionary forces such as an increase in overall brain size and constraints of as-yet unknown laws of structure and growth (e.g., Chomsky, 1972, 1982a, 1982b, 1988a, 1988b; Gould, 1987a; Gould and Piattelli-Palmarini, 1987). Recently Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini (1989), a close correspondent with Gould and Chomsky, has done the field a service by formulating a particularly strong version of their positions and articulating it in print. Premack (1985, 1986) and Mehler (1985) have expressed similar views.

There are several basic questions involved here, and many people become apoplectic and risk brain hemorrhage in their passions over the issue. Consider the broadest demarcation line:

  • Some religions believe that a higher being or force created human beings (presumably with langauge) as fully formed adults already capable of speech (presumably some specific langauge preferred by the diety involved.
  • Some scholarly research has suggested that language evolved as our species changed over the milennia, that it’s inherant to the sapiens part of homo sapiens sapiens (see Pinker, Language Instinct, p. 344).

What are the arguements that linguists tend to focus on (at least this week)? Pinker, in his address at Yale (see TOC left) begins this way:

The collapse of the wall between the terrestrial and the celestial was followed by a collapse of the once equally firm (and now equally forgotten) wall between the creative past and the static present. Charles Lyell showed that today’s earth was sculpted by everyday erosion, earthquakes, and volcanos acting in the past over immense spans of time. The living and nonliving, too, no longer occupy different realms. William Harvey showed that the human body is a machine that runs by hydraulics and other mechanical principles. Friedrich Wöhler showed that the stuff of life is not a magical, quivering gel but ordinary compounds following the laws of chemistry. Darwin showed how the astonishing diversity of life and its ubiquitous signs of good design could arise from the physical process of natural selection among replicators. Mendel, and then Watson and Crick, showed how replication itself could be understood in physical terms.

But one enormous chasm remains in the landscape of human knowledge. Biology versus culture, nature versus society, matter versus mind, and the sciences versus the arts and humanities survive as respectable dichotomies long after the other walls dividing human understanding have tumbled down. But perhaps not for long. Four new fields are laying a bridge between nature and society in the form of a scientiŠc understanding of mind and human nature.

Some scholars look to present linguistic change as a link to the larger sea changes in evolution that made us human. Salikoko Mufwene starts with creoles, in particular Atlantic creoles, but extends to language evolution quite generally. His central thesis is that the restructuring processes that produced creoles are not fundamentally different to those involved in “ordinary” language change — and that ideas from creole linguistics can be applied more broadly. As an integral part of his argument, he develops a general model for language evolution which draws heavily on parallels to biological evolution: languages are analagous to species and population thinking is critical. He also emphasizes the importance of language contact and its ecological context, both linguistic (the features of the contact languages) and socioeconomic.

We now understand that language is very strongly a neurological function that evolved in humans just as other communications systems evolved for other species. What linguists study, for the most part, is human language, though some specialists study compter designs for language, as we need such interfaces, and others study various aspects of language element precursors for what they can teach us about how those features evolved into what we use. For example, scholars are studying hearing in frogs in order to learn more about how the human ear perceives ofauditory linguistic signals. Similarly, we study FOXP2 genes (my website) for ways in which that one ‘language’ gene has evolved what we humans do and call ‘language’. (Actually, FOXP2 (forkhead protein box P2) articles are pretty cool. Those of you who don’t have a subject yet may want to take a look at my website on that.)

Reading list


Jones, Steve. Language of the Genes. London: Harper Collins, 2000

Olson, Steve. Mapping human history: Discovering the past through our genes. London: Bloomsbury, 2002.

Wood, Bernard. Human evolution: a very short introduction. Oxford, 2005.

The origins of language

Bierwisch, Manfred. (2001) “The apparent paradox of language evolution: can Universal Grammar be explained by adaptive selection?” In Jürgen Trabant & Sean Ward. New Essays on the Origin of Language. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter 55-79.

Cheney, Dorothy L. & Robert M. Seyfarth. (2005) “Constraints and preadaptations in the earliest stages of language evolution.” The Linguistic Review 22: 135-159

Enard, Wolfgang et al. (22 August 2002) “Molecular evolution of FOXP2, a gene involved in speech and language.”Nature 418: 869-872. Found August 15, 2006 at

Hauser, Marc D. Noam Chomsky, & W. Tecumseh Fitch. (22 November 2002) “The faculty of language: what is it, who has it, and how did it evolve.” Science 298: 1569-1579. Found July 25, 2006 at

Lieberman, Philip. (2002) “On the nature and evolution of the neural bases of human language.” Yearbook of Physical Anthropology 45: 36-62

Nowak, M. A. and N.L. Komarova. (2001) “Towards an evolutionary theory of language.” Trends in Cognitive Sciences 5: 288-295.

Pinker, Steven & Ray Jackendoff. (2005) “The faculty of language: what’s special about it?” Cognition 95: 201-236

Szathmáry, Eörs. (2001) “Origin of the human language faculty: the language amoeba hypothesis.” In Jürgen Trabant & Sean Ward: New Essays on the Origin of Language. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter 41-51.

Language and the spread of agriculture

Ammerman, A. J. & Luca Cavalli-Sforza. “A population model for the diffusion of early farming in Europe.” In C. Renfrew (ed.) The explanation of culture change. London: Duckworth (1973).

Bellwood, Peter (1991) “The Austronesian dispersal and the origin of languages.” Scientific American (July 1991, page 70).

Bellwood, Peter & Colin Renfrew (eds.): Examining the farming/language dispersal hypothesis. Cambridge: McDonald Institute. The following chapters: 1, 2, 30, 32.

Diamond, Jared M. & Peter Bellwood. (25 April 2003) “Farmers and their languages: The first expansions.” Science300: 597-603. Found August 19, 2006 at

Diamond, Jared M. (17 February 2000) “Taiwan’s gift to the world.” Nature 403: 709-710

Dunn, Michael et al. (23 September 2005) “Structural phylogenetics and the reconstruction of ancient language history.” Science 309: 2072-2075. Found August 19, 2006 at

Gray, Russell. (2005) “Pushing the time barrier in the quest for language roots.” Science 309: 2007-2008. 23 September 2005.

Gray, R. D. & Q. D. Atkinson: (2003) “Language-tree divergence times support the Anatolian theory of Indo-European origin.” Nature 426: 435-439.

Sokal, R.R., N.L. Oden & C. Wilson: (1991) “New genetic evidence supports the origin of agriculture by demic diffusion.” Nature 351: 143-144, 1991; and short News & Views article by Steve Jones in the same issue of Nature.

Language dispersal and creolization

Bickerton, Derek. (2003) “Symbol and Structure: A Comprehensive Framework for Language Evolution.” In Morten H. Christiansen and Simon Kirby. Language Evolution. Oxford: Oxford University Press 77-93.

Bickerton, Derek. (2002) “From proto-language to language.” In Tim J. Crow: The Speciation of Modern Homo Sapiens. Oxford: Oxford University Press 103-120.

Cavalli-Sforza, Luigi Luca. (1991)” Genes, peoples and languages.” Scientific American (1991, p. 72).

Mufwene, Salikoko (2002) “Competition and selection in language evolution.” Selection 3.1: 45-56.

Mufwene, Salikoko. (2001) The Ecology of Language Evolution. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, Chapters 1, 5, 6, 8.

Pinker, Steven. (2003) “Language as an Adaptation to the Cognitive Niche.” In Morten H. Christiansen and Simon Kirby: LanguageEvolution. Oxford: Oxford University Press 16-37.

2002; Last revised September 27, 2010
Dr. Bonnie Duncan
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Language family may have Anatolian origins

Indo-European tongues traced back more than 8,000 years to present-day Turkey

Indo-European languages range throughout Europe and South Asia and even into Iran, yet the roots of this widespread family of tongues have long been controversial. A new study adds support to the proposal that the language family expanded out of Anatolia — what’s now Turkey — between 8,000 and 9,500 years ago, as early farmers sought new land to cultivate.


A team led by psychologist Quentin Atkinson of the University of Auckland in New Zealand came to that conclusion by using a mathematical method to calculate the most likely starting point and pattern of geographic spread for a large set of Indo-European languages. The new investigation, published in the Aug. 24 Science, rejects a decades-old idea that Kurgan warriors riding horses and driving chariots out of West Asia’s steppes 5,000 to 6,000 years ago triggered the rise of Indo-European speakers. “Our analysis finds decisive support for an Anatolian origin over a steppe origin of Indo-European languages,” Atkinson says.

He and his colleagues generated likely family trees for Indo-European languages, much as geneticists use DNA from different individuals to reconstruct humankind’s genetic evolution. Many linguists, who compare various features of languages to establish their historical connections, consider Atkinson’s statistical approach unreliable (SN: 11/19/11, p. 22).

Atkinson’s group analyzed 207 commonly used words, including terms for relatives and numbers, in 103 ancient and modern Indo-European languages. The researchers produced possible language trees based on estimated rates at which languages gained and lost cognates, words with similar meanings and shared sounds, such as five in English and fem in Swedish.

The studied cognates are basic vocabulary terms that rarely get borrowed when speakers of different languages encounter one another, Atkinson contends. Thus, in his view, these words provide a valuable window into the evolution of separate branches on the Indo-European family tree.

The researchers combined their language trees with present geographic ranges of individual languages to identify the most likely location and age of the Indo-European family’s origins. An ancient Anatolian root emerged whether the researchers combined linguistic data or separately considered the 20 ancient languages and 83 modern ones.

As a further check, statistical simulations that assumed slow rates of language migration if people  traveled along land routes or faster migration rates spurred by water crossings converged on a scenario in which Indo-European tongues originated among Anatolian farmers sometime between 8,000 and 9,500 years ago.

Farmers alone didn’t propel the evolution of different Indo-European tongues, Atkinson says. His team’s proposed trees suggest that new languages began to sprout within the five major Indo-European subfamilies from 4,500 to 2,000 years ago, after agriculture had spread across Europe. Kurgans or other expansionist Indo-European cultures could have instigated those later linguistic developments, Atkinson says.

Atkinson’s statistical reconstruction is unpersuasive, comments linguist H. Craig Melchert of the University of California, Los Angeles. Researchers can confidently rebuild trees of Indo-European languages extending back no more than about 7,000 years, he says.

Many linguists and archaeologists suspect that Indo-European languages originated in what’s now the southern Russian steppes, and that’s unlikely to change as a result of the new study, says linguist Joe Eska of Virginia Tech in Blacksburg. Cognate swapping across languages could have occurred more often than assumed by Atkinson, undermining his conclusions, Eska contends.


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