Today, a new word for you: glottochronology.
The University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
Cultural change is an odd
thing. It always turns off in unexpected ways. Who
in the 1930s would've thought that the continuing
evolution of the automobile would veer away from
increasing speed and toward issues of safety,
comfort and reliability?
Try something much closer to the bone than even our
cars. Try language. Languages steadily mutate, and
where they go is as unpredictable as the
automobile. The rate of mutation is just slow
enough to be unnoticed. But leave a group of
articulate young students and go home to watch a
movie from the 1930s on TV. Then you can hear the
change. You recognize the words, but many are no
longer used in the same way. And pronunciations
The common wisdom says languages lose about one
word in five every thousand years. But it's more
than just words. Take a line of English verse that
sounded like this in 14th century England:
Who so attendeth to that song
And leaveth the first, then doth he wrong.
Here's how that might come out in modern English:
Whoever listens to that song,
And is first to leave, then he does wrong.
If I wrote the words, you would recognize all of them
-- even the archaic ones. But I doubt you
understood me when I spoke them.
A linguist named Swadesh looked at this process of
change in the early '50s, and he invented the new
term glottochronology -- literally, the
timetable of tongues. He realized that the decay of
any given language is like the decay of carbon 14. The replacement of
words during, say, a century is proportional to the
number of original words that'd survived up to that
century. This doesn't include questions of
pronunciation. We still count the German word
kuh and the English word cow as the
Look what became of Julius Caesar's Latin. During
two millennia it evolved into languages like
Rumanian, Italian, French and Spanish. Portuguese
is close to Spanish only because it's had less time
to grow apart.
Anglo-Saxon English didn't change much right after
the Battle of Hastings.
The French kept speaking French in England while
the English spoke their own tongue. A century or
so later the French in England had become bilingual.
It was then they began pulling in the occasional
French words and English began evolving in earnest.
Glottochronology is the mathematical study of these
changes. The Battle of Hastings was certainly a
turning point. And a linguist might infer that
event from today's languages without ever having
read about it. That's what linguists are doing
today with Native-American languages. By comparing
languages, they're trying to determine the patterns
and dates of Native- American migrations.
All that leaves me to wonder if we might not one
day be able to infer the arrival of the internal
combustion engine by comparing today's cars with
airplanes. But that is speculation for another day.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Wang, W. S. Y., Glottochronology, Lexicostatistics,
and Other Numerical Methods. The Encyclopedia of
Language and Linguistics, Vol. 3 (R. E. Asher,
ed.). New York: Pergamon Press, 1994.
Hockett, C. F., A Course in Modern
Linguistics. New York: The Macmillan Co., 1958.
Chapter 61, Glottochronology, pp. 526-535.
I am grateful to linguist Jeff Fadell, UH Library,
for his counsel.
Glottochronology is clearly an inexact science,
subject to many variables. Glottochronologists base
their analyses on a carefully selected universal
vocabulary of only a hundred words that appear in
any language. Words like radio and
oxygen are obviously too specialized to be
included. Prepositions and emotions are too
variable. The list includes things like body parts,
numbers, colors, animals, geographical features and
universal verbs. I quote that list in its entirety
all ashes bark belly big bird bite black
blood bone breast burn claw cloud cold come
die dog drink dry ear earth eat egg
eye fat feather fire fish fly foot full
give good green hair hand head hear heart
horn I kill knee know leaf lie liver
long louse man many meat moon mountain
mouth name neck new night nose not one
person rain red road root round sand say
see seed sit skin sleep small smoke stand
star stone sun swim tail that this thou
tongue tooth tree two walk warm water we
what white who woman yellow
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-2000 by John H.