Language families v. genetic
When the Oakland, California, school
board proposed recognizing African-American Vernacular English,
or Ebonics, in its classrooms in 1996, it began a firestorm
of controversy—largely because the proposal cited studies
that "have demonstrated that African Language Systems
are genetically based and not a dialect of English."
Although the school board quickly put out a clarification
saying the phrase "genetically based" was "used
according to the standard dictionary definition 'has origins
in'" and "not used to refer to human biology,"
the damage had been done. The public had a confused notion
of how linguists metaphorically refer to languages as "genetically
related" or belonging to "language families."
"A lay person looks at this kind
of thing and says, 'Genetic, oh,' and it becomes an explosive
issue," explains Michael Silverstein, the Charles S.
Grey distinguished service professor in anthropology, linguistics,
psychology, and the Committee on General Studies in the
Humanities. "People transfer through this metaphor
and come to think people are genetically determined to speak
an inferior dialect" (even though, Silverstein notes,
black English is not inferior but merely a separate dialect
from standard English).
It's easy to see how the metaphor could
confuse nonlinguists, admits Silverstein, who studies the
structure and history of North American indigenous and Australian
languages. After all, humans generally inherit language
from their family, the same group from which they inherit
their genes. And linguists' diagrams of language family
trees "look very much like our biological taxonomies."
But a person's particular language is a function of social
group and not biology, Silverstein argues, and what linguists
call families are determined through similar word forms
and meanings across entire languages.
That's why it irked Silverstein when
Joseph Greenberg, the late Stanford linguist, claimed in
a 1987 book to prove the unity of almost all the languages
of the Western Hemisphere, and, in 2000, the languages of
Europe and Asia, based on partial similarities of many words.
For example, Greenberg noted, the English word no
and the Japanese word-ending -nai both begin with
an n-sound and designate a negative. And many native
North and South American languages use words starting with
n-sounds to mean I/mine/we/ours and words beginning
with m-sounds to mean thou/thine/you/yours.
Using such comparisons, Greenberg distilled 60 or 70 language
families in the Western Hemisphere into one family, which
he called "Amerind."
As Greenberg's proposals—which are based
on partial-word similarities, much like DNA studies compare
the degrees of similarity in genetic material—were touted
in the press, geneticists proclaimed they could trace mitochondrial
DNA in three major lines of indigenous people of the Western
Hemisphere. The two ideas were used to confirm each other,
compelling Silverstein—who speaks quickly yet with extremely
clear diction-to address the topic at a May Skokie Public
Library presentation, the October Humanities Open House,
and even in his June American Anthropologist obituary
Although exciting to the general public,
Silverstein says, Greenberg's ideas "are based on nothing
more sophisticated than probabilistically weak comparisons
of look-alikes of bits and pieces of word forms. These proposals
are speculative guesses on the basis of the wrong kind of
data." Rather than word similarities, he argues, language
families are based on "historical particularities of
specific languages that point to common historical origins."
Consider the English two, French
deux, German zwei, and Russian dva/dvje—which
sound similar and mean the same thing. Although they all
look alike, other evidence shows that only English and German
come from the same language family: Germanic. French comes
from Italic and Russian from Balto-Slavic. All four have
roots in the larger language family Indo-European, but from
there their branches head in different directions.
Many language subfamilies, such as the
Romance languages, spread extensively through vast military
conquests. In the period just before the large colonial
immigration to modern imperial centers, Europe had only
four basic language families: Indo-European, Finno-Ugric,
Turkic, and Basque. Conversely, what is now the state of
California had about 18 indigenous families when the Europeans
Sometimes the line of a language family
seems counterintuitive. Take the English verb forms break,
broke, and broken and the English words fracture,
fragile, fragment, and frangible. The
latter look as if they were French, which comes from Latin,
and might suggest that English is a Romance language. But
the correct comparison, the one that "reveals where
English really came from," Silverstein says, is with
the German brechen, brach, (ge)brochen.
The irregular verb forms of the English break correspond
point for point with German grammar.
The Germanic family's br- corresponds
to the Italic family's fr-, not because German or
French are intimates in a small family, but because they
are related in the larger Indo-European family at a more
remote time. The lesson: linguistic materials that look
alike often are not closely related, and materials don't
have to look alike to demonstrate family relationship.
Unlike DNA studies, therefore, language
families are not classified by how much linguistic materials
resemble each other, but whether scholars can find matching
form and meaning elements across languages. Some language
resemblances may reflect sheer chance, language borrowing,
or functionally driven independent reinventions such as
onomatopoetic words (the words for blow, burp,
and fart, Silverstein points out, tend to begin with
b- or ph- sounds in many languages).
Then there's the matter of time. While
scientists can trace the human species back about a million
years, linguists have traced language back only 7,000-10,000
years. One can't simply fill in speculation for that gap,
Silverstein says. Though Silverstein respects Greenberg's
ambitious goals (to classify every human language) and expanse
of work—his Greenberg obituary was highly laudatory—he believes
his colleague's analysis lacks scientific basis.
And as shown by the Oakland Ebonics
example, linking language acquisition with biological genetics
has questionable cultural implications. "Why did this
have such an extraordinary buzz among nonscientists?"
Silverstein wonders. He believes people may be "grasping
for a biological anchor for the existence of culturally
and linguistically different groups" as an easy solution
to the inequities in the world. They could argue ethnic,
racial, or linguistic superiority, or that people have fundamental
differences that can never be bridged. And that, he says,
is the real danger of the genetic metaphor.