Sunday, March 15, 2009

Languages around the world

Yesterday evening I ended up entertaining conversation with a Turkish girl at dinner. Turkey is such a close country to Europe. More than a decade ago I went to Skopelos, in the Aegean sea, not too far from it, and maybe I will eventually go sailing with my uncle to Rhodes, which is very close to the Western coast of Turkey.
Despite little desire to learn Turkish, I am always fascinated by how different languages are and how we bear the irreversible imprinting of it. So I started asking all possible questions about names for different objects and concepts trying to catch any similarities with the languages I know. Despite the long list I had little luck, the only thing that came out was "kim" which is the Italian equivalent for "chi" and "baba" that is the equivalent for dad and which can be said in Italian as "babbo". Not much overall.
What I had forgot was that Turkish is not an Indo-European language. Despite the fact that Turkey is closer than India, it would be easier to find similarities with Indian languages. I did not investigate the grammar myself but I read that it is very different. Turkish is part of the bigger superfamily of Altaic languages which do not use articles or gender or even pronouns, if I remember correctly.
I have been studying a little bit of German and I got fascinated by how much the echo of an ancestral grammar lives in Italic languages like Italian and Spanish as it does in German. I can understand how dialects come to life. Each one of us, looking at his own past, might find istances of inventing a new word to describe something special to be recognized only by a small circle of friends. But grammar structures go way beyond what anybody might have tried to come up to change how we comunicate with each other. Who was responsible for genders in Germanic and Italic languages? For sure, for such a change to take place, the logical explanation would be that there was a time that language was spoken by a really small circle of people. Those choices of change, whoever made them, have an everlasting echo across the whole Europe now, and, through English, across the whole world.
Nevertheless, even the Turkish language has the familiar Subject Object Verb order as German and Latin do. Most of languages seem to share this characteristic around the world and I easily believe that this might have to do with something hard encoded in our brain. So, how much is language innate and how much is it acquired after birth? A lot of people asked this question and the answer is such an amazing mystery. It is a fact that in the past ancestral humans could not spoke and at some point something changes, maybe something dramatic. But we have to remember that everything that happened must have taken place step by step. In this regard, I find in these words from the book "Before the dawn" fascinating:
"... the human capacity for syntax might have evolved out of animal brain module designed for some other purpose, such as navigation. Their argument is that the essential feature of language is recursion, the ability to embed one phrase inside another in an indefinitely long chain. Recursion may also be a feature of faculties like navigation that require an animal to remember how to get from A to D, with and excursion to B and C if the way is blocked. If the genes that specify the brain's navigation module were accidentally duplicated, the spare set would be free to evolve and perhaps acquire the function of encoding thought into language."
We might know much more about it in the next decade. Just recently, the Neanderthal genome project proved that Neanderthals had the same copy of gene FOXP2 as humans do, which is believed to have had a big part in the development of language. Even if this is not proof that the Neanderthal could talk, finding a different copy would have indeed proved the contrary, as many people believe.
Little doubt there is that language is one of the key defining feature of the human species. Languages, in their diversity, carry the choices that people like us took thousands of years ago. Choices that echo still now, everytime we entertain conversation with someone.

1 comment:

rebecca said...

o Giulio, che piacere scoprire che ti incuriosiscono la filologia e l'etimolgia!
Io ne sono affascinata e schiacciata fino alla sindrome di Stendhal! Siamo limitati... Impossibile capire tutte le lingue che vorrei... A tal proposito guardati il film "Youth without youth" di Coppola (angoscia!!!!).
Ma mi stupisce ancor di più sentirlo da te: benché sia convinta che matematica e linguistica abbiano un sacco di punti in comune, tu hai sempre detto che basta l'inglese e che ai tuoi figli manco gli insegnerai l'italiano! [te possino...]
1-l'indiano è sì una lingua indo-europea...
2-in realtà l'indoeuropeo è una gran sòla, tutto ha origine dall'accadico e questo libro è FONDAMENTALE
3- secondo me, gatta ci cova... Del turco non te ne frega un bel tubo... Ti piaceva la tipa! ;-)
Ciao, Rebi