The Quotta and the Quottiod: Punctuation Designed for Linguists, by Linguists—Vére Çélen SpecGram Vol CLI, No 4 Contents Evidential Complexity and Language Loss in Pinnacle Sherpa—Keith Slater

The Language of Prehistory

by Merritt Greenberg and Joseph Ruhlen

Sticks and stones may break my bones
and words used to hurt a lot, too.

There is perhaps no field of scientific study in which more progress has been madein spite of a complete lack of any clear information on which to base either theories or conclusionsthan in the study of the evolution of human language. The pioneers in this arduous endeavor are to be highly commended for their intrepid tackling of a task of unparalleled difficulty, and for the amazing progress they have made, in spite of having no shoulders (or linguistic data) on which to stand.

Recent field research has shown, however, that the elusive data which these theorists have so diligently sought has in fact been lying under our very feet all along. In this article, we uncover

Shades of Grey
by Piotr Pablo Paulsen

the hard evidence which will allow linguists to build a rock-solid foundation for the reconstruction of early linguistic forms.

Which of us, in our preteen years, has not set out on a quest for arrowheads beside a countryside stream, and found him or herself rewarded with a stone that, while not quite an arrowhead, had clearly been shaped by human labor? We can now reveal that the stones we all found are not mere evidence of tool use, but are the actual record of our pre-human ancestors’ linguistic behavior.

Archeologists have always assumed that primitive paleolithic proto-humans made primitive paleolithic proto-tools, and students of language prehistory have always assumed that these “tools” demonstrated the development of cognitive proto-abilities which must have been paralleled by the emergence of proto-speech.

But this is demonstrably incorrect. The early chipped stones were not primitive tools, but were in fact primitive words. Early stone chipping behavior is not an example of tool-making, from which the nature of early human language should be inferred. Rather, early proto-humans were actually fashioning proto-linguistic messages in stonethe rocks constitute a living record of the actual speech acts themselves.

Consider, for example, the following renderings of stone words which have been in the first author’s private collection since childhood:



The obvious structural similarity between these two magnificent specimens is due to the semantic relationship of their referents, not (as was previously assumed) to some shared function in their form as physical tools. A stone age conversation involving the hefting of such intricate and painstakingly-crafted missives must surely have been a thing of far greater beauty than are the boisterous verbiages of “modern” humans.

Fast forward a hundred thousand years or more: Mesopotamiacorrectly identified as the cradle of civilizationwas the first region to enter the Bronze Age, abandoning stone tools and stone words in favor of the more easily worked copper and tin alloy.

However, the expense of bronze kept it out of the hands of the common people. Those unable to afford bronze were forced to continue to use stone. This, we contend, is likely the original high-register/low-register diglossia.

With the advent of the Iron Age, the crude tools and crude words of the Bronze Age were abandoned in favor of the more readily worked iron. But iron words soon proved to be too heavy for practical use. One of the many revelations of our theory is that the general adoption of iron lead directly to human speech.

The consequences of this brilliant hypothesis range from the intriguingly trivial to the breathtakingly iconoclastic. Interestingly, phrases such as “hurling hard words” and “weighty words” are linguistic shadows of the past, probably coming down to us from the Stone Age and Iron Age, respectively. More dramatically, linguistic change itself changed abruptly about 3500 years ago when iron came to the fore and then, shortly thereafter, oral speech became the normand it is those sweeping changes which restrict our ability to reconstruct proto-languages farther back than Proto-Indo-European with any certainty. 1

Moreover, language change before this shift must have proceeded at a much slower rate, as even the carelessly tossed out words of an ancestor, in heaps on the ground, might have spoken clearly to a stone-working interlocutor even a dozen generations later. Plus, it’s easy to imagine that

Shades of Grey
by Piotr Pablo Paulsen

early humans must have thought twice about abandoning perfectly good existing vocabulary, when the alternative was hours of work chipping or casting a suitable neologism.

Borrowing words from another human population would have been easythough outright stealing might have been more prevalent; phonological change must have involved only phonological reductions, since humans did not invent glue until 1745, and consequently could not have accreted new stone or metal bits onto existing words before that time.

Most conversation itself must have been more leisurely, thoughtful, and less hurried, when literally crafting a well considered reply could take hours or days. Of course, our modern penchant for reaching for easy clichés and well worn turns of phrase almost certainly hearkens back to our ancestors’ likely practice of keeping a pile of pre-chipped bon mots available should a war of words with a neighboring tribe break out. One can easily imagine the precursor of the petulantly unproductive but all-too-familiar “Did not!”/“Did, too!” back and forthjust as annoying as now, but with more contusions.

As we have already discussed, our inability to reconstruct proto-languages farther back than PIE makes perfect sense in light of our present discovery. In fact, the more precise notion is that we cannot construct farther back than PIE with our current tools. In particular, the comparative method fails us, both because of the large time depth, and because it forces us to look at the problem in the wrong way.

We expect our revelation to usher in several new fields and subfields. Geo-linguistics and linguo-geology are assured a future place in academia. Glotto-carbon-dating will likely succeed where glottochronology has failed. New methods of language reconstructionbased on the legacy of architects and structural engineers rather than that of philologistswill open a clearer window to the past than that for which we had ever dared hope. New models of language change, informed by theories of vulcanism, climate change, and erosion, not articulatory phonetics and syntactic reanalysis, will facilitate this renaissance. Perhaps areal phenomena will be better explained and understood by means of the common geology of a region.

Given time, these brave new fields of study will specialize further, as Geology and Linguistics departments may one day come to offer joint programs specializing in the interpretation of particular geo-linguistic strata: Nostratic Shale, Pan-African Limestone, and, lo, even Pangean Granite.

All told, this solid-as-stone idea offers us all the chance to peel back the geological strata of time, giving a glimpse of the intricately folded layers of languages past, and Language’s past.

1 Astute readers will note that there is a small inconsistency in the dates given here for the advent of the iron age (~3500 years ago) and the accepted age of PIE (~6000 years). This is not an inconsistency in the theory, but rather an area highlighted as ripe for further research. We are confident that this apparent inconsistency will be resolved eventuallyand heralded as a triumph of scholarshipas a direct consequence of the publication of our theory.

The Quotta and the Quottiod: Punctuation Designed for Linguists, by LinguistsVére Çélen
Evidential Complexity and Language Loss in Pinnacle SherpaKeith Slater
SpecGram Vol CLI, No 4 Contents