19 March 2020 **** Front page

Reply to the Quora question: Are all languages completely different?

By Hannu Reime

"Are all language isolates unique? It doesn't seem like thousands of languages could all be completely different."

It is a big mistake to think that language isolates are “completely different” from other languages. So for example the non-Indo-European language Basque, spoken in the Iberian Peninsula and South-Western France, and Burushaski, spoken in Northern Pakistan, would each be “unique”, unlike any other human language. If Japanese and Korean, both spoken by tens of millions of people, are shown to be isolates (scholars differ on this), they also would be something sui generis among human languages.

But that is not true. The Basque language, for example, has certain properties that are “exotic” compared with the surrounding Indo-European languages (Spanish, French), but other roperties that are quite close to the neighboring forms of speech.

One of the most conspicuous features among the first is the ergative-absolutive system for marking the main arguments of the verb: the object, on one hand, and the subject of an intransitive sentence, on the other, get the same case, called absolutive, and the subject of a transitive sentence is marked by a special case-form, called ergative. The ergative system is not at all unique to Basque: many languages spoken in Mexico and Central America, in northern and southern Caucasus, and on the islands of the Pacific arrange their main arguments in an ergative way.

But Basque also has many “familiar” properties, common to many Indo-European languages, for example the Romance/Germanic distinction between the auxiliary verbs BE and HAVE, which is lacking in the (Indo-European) Slavic languages. Among phonological properties, the five vowel system of most forms of Basque is similar to the corresponding system in panish, which, in turn, differs quite a lot from the vowel systems in, say, Portuguese and Catalan, close relatives of Spanish.

Languages exist in the heads of their speakers (or signers in the case of sign languages), not on the terrains where people live and that are shown on maps. The biologically-based human capacity for language sets the scope and limits on how much languages can vary. The scope seems to be quite large, but the limits, at the same time, are probably very narrow. That would take account of the fact that there are no natural human language that is “completely different” from the rest.

Note that the notions ‘completely different’, ‘similar’, and ‘unique’ are not well-defined in the scientific study of human (capacity for) language. It is safer to put them in scare quotes.


Archive: Languages, Hannu Reime, Noam Chomsky




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