The (invented) language of early humans: Part II

How was the first human language structured?

[This is a sequel to a previous blog about creating an oral language for a fictional tribe of early humans.]

Part one of this blog post ended with me boarding a plane, script in hand to be translated, and an idea of the sound system of the language sketched out, but only vague ideas about the way that the syntax should work.

Creating the syntax of a language, at least when I do it, is driven by the actual process of translating. I had a script, quite a long one, which I set about working on, ensconced in my rather cramped British Airways seat, with my laptop perched on my knees, and my incessant typing no doubt irritating my neighbour.

It’s an interesting experience building the grammar of an invented language. The language seems to grow almost of its own volition. As you create it, solving problems about how to express different thoughts, you can begin to see how the sinews of the language work, how they mould the thoughts into ways of speaking that make sense for that language, that express what Edward Sapir called the genius of a language. By the end of the flight, I was pretty convinced I knew how this language worked. The whole experience is a bit like writing a story or poem. The murky shape begins to take more and more concrete a form. Certain choices you have made make other choices for you. The language starts to become a thing itself. It’s curiously satisfying, and almost addictive.

But enough of aesthetic musings. Let’s turn to back to grammar. Here, for example, is how to say, in Tan!aa Kawawa Ki, `We have hunted the food/prey for two days’.

Ma   njiima   ma-mbana   n!aana   ni.

We   food       we-hunt       sun         hand

Some explanations. The pronoun ma is the sole first person pronoun in the language, and is the Subject of the sentence. It is vague between meaning I or we. However, when it is plural (i.e. means we), it appears repeated as a prefix to the verb (in this case mbana becomes mambana). I decided that this was reasonable, and possibly emerged from an earlier reduplicated pronoun, mama, signifying a group containing the speaker. Reduplication is a common means of expressing plurality. My thinking was that, over a few generations, the second syllable was reanalysed as an prefix on the verb. Although this sentence starts with a pronoun which is vague as to whether it means I or we, the prefix on the verb acts like agreement for number, and tells us it’s the latter.

The Object is njiima, “food” or “prey”. You might have noticed from the last post that njii is the verb meaning “eat”. The word maa means “thing”, and a shortened form ma is suffixed to the verb and turns it into a noun. Njiima is literally “eat-thing”.

After the verb we have two nouns, the word for “sun” and the word for “hand”. The latter signifies that we are talking about two of something (as we have two hands). Although it’s the case that familiar languages like English have quite arbitrary words for numerals, many languages use contentful words (or at least words historically derived from contentful words) to count. Kensey Cooperrider, a cognitive scientist at the University of Chicago, has argued that this is especially true for young numeral systems. My favourite is the word for a rhea footprint, which in Xerénte, an indigineous language of Brazil, is used for the numeral three, since rheas have three toes.

I used the word for “sun” metonymically to mean “day”, on the assumption that early human languages would use processes of metonymy and metaphor to create rich semantic webs (see David Peterson’s excellent book on constructed languages for discussion of this technique). I chose a word order where the noun was followed by the numeral. Post-noun numerals are somewhat more common than pre-noun numerals.

Let’s look at another example, using some of the same words. This is how you say `The only food is where the vultures are.’

Njiima   kikin!a   wama   ki.         Wu      njiima   wama   nyunga   ki.

Food      vulture  place    at.          Not     food      place     other      at.

Taking this step by step, we already know njiima is food or prey. The next phrase is kikin!a wama ki. The word ki here is a little locative adposition signifying location. Adpositions in English come before their nouns (hence they are known as prepositions). Adpositions that come after the relevant noun as postpositions, and I decided that my language would have postpositions (well, one postposition, actually). So ki is a bit like at in English. Literally we have `vulture place at’. The phrase kikin!a wama is a compound noun, and like compounds in English and in many human languages, it is head final (that is, the two nouns come together to create something that means a place, and not a vulture). All together, the first sentence is literally “Food is at the vulture-place”. There’s no verb corresponding to is in this sentence, as is common in many languages. You make the sentence work by just putting the Subject and its Predicate next to each other.

The second sentence has the same structure but starts with a negative particle wu, roughly meaning “not”. The only word here we haven’t encountered yet is nyunga, which means “other”, or “else”. This sentence comes out literally as “Not food at other places”. The juxtaposition of these two clauses then gives us the meaning we need. “Food is at the vulture place. Food is not at other places”, which is a two sentence paraphrase of “The only food is where the vultures are.”

By the end of my flight I’d translated a whole set of dialogues between various speakers of the language, and I felt I’d got under the skin of the language itself. Of course, this is a pure exercise of the imagination, but it was fun, and has allowed me to talk a little linguistics with you.

— This is original content written by David Adger, Professor of Linguistics at Queen Mary University of London and President of the Linguistics Association of Great Britain.

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