Protolanguage is a term from historical linguistics that refers to the hypothetical, reconstructed ancestor from which a set of known languages is descended. The proto-ancestor is reconstructed using the comparative method, by which existing and/or historically attested forms are compared, and ancestral forms are reconstructed, which can yield the attested forms via regular sound and other changes. For example, the Proto-Indo-European form mater yields, by regular sound changes, forms as apparently distinct as English mother, Spanish madre, Sanskrit matar, Greek mitir, and Pashto mor.
Sir William Jones (1746-1794), a British colonial administrator stationed in India, was the first person to recognize the relatedness among the far-flung members of the Indo-European family. Since then, linguists and anthropologists have worked on reconstructions of several language families, including Proto-Jaqi (South America), Proto-Bantu (Africa), Proto-Austronesian (Southeast Asia), and Proto-Algonquian (North America).
The reconstruction of protolanguages has potentially important implications for anthropological research on prehistoric peoples. For example, if a word (for example, birch tree) can be reconstructed, it is at least plausible that the speakers of the protolanguage used the word in a sense related to contemporary senses, and, in this case, that birch trees were present in their environment. The reconstructed terms may provide clues to the geographical origin, material, and nonmaterial culture of its users.
Archeologist Colin Renfrew has carried this research farther than most.
Another important, and more recently introduced, use of the term protolanguage is in the sense of a prior stage in the evolution of human language. Bickerton and others have suggested that early hominins, such as Homo erectus, may have been capable of a form of language that lacked various design features of modern human language. It may have had a reduced grammar, especially in the realm of structure dependency and other syntactic principles, that made the language somewhat like the “telegraphic speech” of children around the age of 2 years; in fact, Bickerton has called the children’s two-word stage, as well as pidgin languages and the “sign language” learned by some apes, “fossils” of protolanguage. Bickerton has suggested that the crucial property lacking in these examples is hierarchical syntax.
It is important not to mix these two uses of protolanguage, and also not to confuse the evolution of language as a human species property with the language change documented by historical linguists between a reconstructed proto-language and its descendants. For example, the language changes that occurred between Proto-Indo-European and its descendants (for example, Greek, Hindi, and Gaelic), were not examples of language evolution, because no new design features or elements of universal grammar were added.
- Bickerton, D. (1990). Language and species. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago press.
- Bickerton, D., & Calvin, W. (2000). Lingua ex machina: Reconciling Darwin and Chomsky with the human brain. Cambridge, MA: MIT
- Campbell, L. (2004). Historical linguistics: An introduction (2nd Ed.). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
- Friedrich, P. (1970). Proto-Indo-European trees. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
- Renfrew, C. (1988). Archaeology and language: The puzzle of Indo-European origins. New York: Cambridge University Press.