September 17, 2021 | David F. Coppedge

Evolution of Language Studies Hit a Wall

Evolutionary linguists would like to find universal common
ancestry in languages, but they can’t get there. Why?


Researchers reconstruct major branches in the tree of language (Santa Fe Institute). Thinking like Darwinists, linguists have been trying to find a common trunk for the language “tree of life” but have not found it.

One of the defining goals of historical linguistics is to map the ancestry of modern languages as far back as it will go — perhaps, some linguists hope, to a single common ancestor that would constitute the trunk of the metaphorical tree. But while many thrilling connections have been suggested based on systemic comparisons of data from most of the world’s languages, much of the work, which goes back as early as the 1800s, has been prone to error. Linguists are still debating over the internal structure of such well-established families as Indo-European, and over the very existence of chronologically deeper and larger families.

These linguists tried to connect the Indo-European language family (which includes European and Indian languages) and the Altaic superfamily “which is thought to connect the linguistic ancestors of such distant languages as Turkish, Mongolian, Korean, and Japanese.” No luck so far.

They tried various methods, including a new approach of words that should have been common to all people groups, like hand, fire, rock, cloud and human. This, they feel, bypasses some of the “contamination” caused by borrowed words. They found signals that agreed within superfamilies of languages, but not between them. This is analogous to finding large branches on a tree, but no trunk yet.

Their latest re-classification of the Indo-European family … confirmed well-documented genealogies in the literature. Similar research on the Eurasian Altaic language group, whose proto-language dates back an estimated 8,000 years, confirmed a positive signal of a relationship between most major branches of Altaic — Turkic, Mongolic, Tungusic, and Japanese. However, it failed to reproduce a previously published relationship between Korean and the other languages in the Altaic grouping. This could either mean that the new criteria were too strict or (less likely) that previous groupings were incorrect.

Imagining a Trunk

Meanwhile, linguists at the University of Helsinki are trying to construct a theoretical trunk for language. This is explained in a press release on, titled “The world’s languages may be so similar because of how humans talk about language.” The Helsinki team hypothesizes that the way people talk about language, called “reported speech,” gives clues to how language develops:

This means that the sentence ‘He said: “I will go”‘ in some languages can become the main way to express meanings such as ‘He was about to go’, ‘He might go’, ‘As for him, he will go’. Each of these interpretations have no clear connection with the meaning of reported speech, but use a sentence structure that derives from reported speech. The meanings associated with these non-speech interpretations of reported speech correspond to common grammatical categories in the languages of the world, which linguists call ‘aspect’, ‘modality’, ‘topic’ and others.

Basically, they think that the human capacity to “turn language on itself” like this provides clues to the evolution of grammar. Their paper about this in Frontiers of Communication sheepishly confesses that “This is, admittedly, a speculative story,” but the authors hope that the approach “represents a plausible linguistic context in which grammar evolved.” (Note: there is no scientific plausibility meter.)

The paper provides no universal common ancestor or explanation for the other important keys to language: semantics (meaning) and abstract thought. Their conclusion is almost puerile in its diffidence. Excerpts:

  • We do not wish to suggest that any of the languages cited in this paper represent an evolutionary early stage of grammatical development.
  • We also do not suggest that in deep history all markers of, e.g., aspect or causation must have emerged out of reported speech.
  • In order to test this hypothesis we need to further examine the semantic commonalities between reported speech and the respective grammatical categories involved in the extensions, as well as the semantic oppositions that exist between extended reported speech and morphological categories in the languages that both have, e.g., tense meanings based on reported speech forms and a separate morphological tense form.
  • Although the evolutionary story sketched here is inevitably speculative, we believe that it is also a plausible story about the development of grammatical complexity and constitution of grammatical categories.
  • Much work remains to be done in order to gain a fuller picture of both the semantic patterns found in extended reported speech around the world, and of the structural patterns employed to express these meanings.
  • This may ultimately lead us to an understanding of why grammar is the way it is.

Trees of the Darwinian Imagination

Back to the Santa Fe Group. How did they conclude? Their bottom line, like the Helsinki group, is not achievement, but hope in futureware. Apparently in linguistics, it’s sufficient to look busy constructing an evolutionary tree even if it is mostly imaginary.

As the researchers test and reconstruct the branches of human language, one of the ultimate goals is to understand the evolutionary paths languages follow over generations, much like evolutionary biologists do for living organisms.

“One great thing about historical reconstruction of languages is that it’s able to bring out a lot of cultural information,” Starostin says. “Reconstructing its internal phylogeny, like we’re doing in these studies, is the initial step to a much larger procedure of trying to reconstruct a large part of the lexical stock of that language, including its cultural lexicon.”

That’s Jargonwocky for “there is no internal phylogeny or rooted tree to see yet. Come back later.”

Darwinism has infected everything, including linguistics. These people just cannot think outside the tree. Here again, evolutionists hit a wall. Just like the Cambrian explosion poses an insurmountable hurdle to biologists, there is another explosion in linguistics that fights their efforts: the historical confusion of languages at Babel. Both groups never get the eagerly-sought “understanding” because they are barking up the wrong tree—one that does not exist. The real Tree of Life was in Genesis. That’s where we learn about the creation of man in the image of God, the origin of sin, the first cities, the Flood, and the confusion of languages when people tried to unite under idolatry at Babel. That explains the evidence: not Darwinism. The first human pair walked and talked with God the day they were created. Language is a creation of God, as are the unique vocal cords he endowed in the human body that permit an almost unlimited array of sounds to express thoughts.

Like predictions? Biblical linguists can predict that no rooted tree will ever be found, because the languages at Babel were not related. Either that or they will find a reticulate (network) diagram between language groups. Incidentally, some biologists are turning from a Darwinian “tree of life” to a “network of life” based on the genetic evidence.

Language was created, but it does “evolve” – not through mutation and selection, but by design. Humans have minds and intellects. They can invent new words for concepts not yet in their vocabulary. They can borrow words from other languages. They also develop cultures and preferences for how to say things (compare dialects in New England vs Mississippi). This allows linguists to trace changes in languages through time and explore branching patterns within language groups. To a certain extent, this works; linguists can trace the “evolution” of English from early Germanic roots through the Anglo-Saxon period and on up to the present, noting when words were borrowed from Latin, French, Spanish and other languages or just “made up” to express new concepts like hydrocarbons or epigenetics. Just as with the Cambrian phyla, though, they will never find a universal common ancestor, because it doesn’t exist.

Note the irony. These evolutionary linguists are using abstract concepts to try to prove that abstract concepts in languages reduce to bodies, which reduce to atoms. In other words, they have to believe in the supernatural (abstract reasoning, presupposing truth and morality), in order to argue their case for materialism. How do you spell “self-refuting fallacy“?




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