Homo Erectus and the necessity for the “tangibility” of Semitic

The question of the ages for the most intrepid historical linguists has perhaps always been this: “how do we know who invented language?

Of course, we have no idea. To some degree. If you ask me, or Daniel Everett, or Chris Knight,  it was clearly a gradual cultural development that took it’s near modern form during the evolutionary history of our direct ancestral species, Homo Erectus. If you ask the majority of non-linguist paleoanthropologists, anthropologists, computational linguists, etc. (basically 90% of people with opinions on the subject) you’ll get this spiel about Chomsky’s “language mutation” hypothesis around 50,000* years ago in one single individual he likes to call “Prometheus“.  So basically, you have language appearing as a gradual evolutionary event and cultural display of cognitive development that we can only have inferences on versus a theory that claims language started with one “mutant” individual whose gift for gab was so new and enticing that it made him the father of modern humanity and the out right most interesting man of 48,000 BC.

In other words, Chomsky’s theory in my opinion sounds like utter nonsense when I’m being unacademic enough to just out right say what it is without the obscure jargon and academic lexicon of an MIT researcher who is trapped in his own arrogance. But these two theories have a much further reach than just the argument of who began speaking; because frankly I don’t care who began speaking very much these days. I care about who, 1.9 million years after the emergence of Homo Erectus, was speaking a hypothetical and indeed intangible language named “Proto-Semitic“. Because like the question of who started speaking in the first place, there’s this gigantic question of who started speaking “Proto-Semitic“. Of course, there is no “Semitic Prometheus“; Semitic gradually must have had to split away from the rest of Afroasiatic overtime. There’s also the question of whenwhere, but not a why. You don’t need a why for Semitic unless you’re talking about linguistic dispersal.

In one camp you have people like myself (who are by far an utterly ignored minority) of linguists and linguistics students who argue for the origin of “Proto-Semitic” being at an earlier date than is assumed and having had originated in the Horn of Africa. Then you of course have the general majority of linguists who talk about Semitic, specialists or not, that assume a later origin in the Near East and connect Semitic to agriculture and a vast number of theories that range from linguistically improbable to down right having had originated in the time of the scientific racism of the “Hamitic theory“. And to the person reading this and saying “wait there’s no racism in any of those theories?“; you cannot tell me there is no racism in the idea that the peoples of the northern Horn of Africa all of a sudden got a leap from the early neolithic to the late Bronze Age via Semitic-speaking Sabaeans who taught them to harvest indigenous cereals they somehow had no idea of, build houses they never thought to build, and to speak languages that somehow were bastardized theoretically by a branch of Cushitic that couldn’t have even been spoken in that area at that time. Yes, general linguist who believes in this stuff, you may be unknowingly adding to the legacy of a very racist theory being that we’ve learned a lot of stuff since the first publication of the theory in 17th century by celebrated orientalist and undoubted product-of-his-time Hiob Ludolf.

But of course, it’s easy to agree with Hiob Ludolf, Ludwig von Schlözer, and Wolf Leslau. Seeing Semitic as originating in the Near East is in theory easier to explain because you can take the written record and agriculture as a record of Semitic’s spread. You can even take the relative homogeneity of the Near Eastern Semitic languages as evidence that those that stand out (South Arabian and Ethiopian Semitic) are somehow the products of linguistic contact that cannot be proven. It is more feasible to assume the Near Eastern origin of Semitic as a default because the Semitic languages of the Near East are more tangible, more visual. If you want proof of Semitic in the 4th millennium BC, all you must do is look at Akkadian inscriptions. You can’t say the same for the Horn of Africa, because the first written language in the Horn of Africa around 900 BC was a lingua franca native to the highlands of Yemen as opposed to being an indigenous Semitic language. But of course, this is always read out of context. Writing did originate in the Near East and did spread from there, but written language does not always reflect the language of the population in question. Just because the Nabataeans wrote in an Aramaic language, does not mean they spoke it as noted in Healey (1990). They in fact spoke an early form of Arabic, a related albeit readily distinct language.

But because of the tangibility of the Sabaic used as a lingua franca, it is seen as a more likely conclusion that the populations predating Aksum did speak and write in their language; which is assumed to be Sabaic. But it’s assumption. I’ve written before, there was evidence of the Sabaic written in the Horn of Africa being influenced by what seems to be in-situ Semitic languages, perhaps an archaic form of Ge’ez, as noted in Breton (2011). I’ve actually expanded the discussion to a whole post as to why the Ge’ez script is so unique in terms of its development from the South Arabian musnad, and how the view of Southern Arabia as a center of high society and acculturation by the predecessors and earliest Aksumite civic authorities and socialites. Without taking into mind the archaeological record and even things such as botanical studies on the barley varieties of the Horn of Africa such as Abebe (2010) that question a number of assumed theories about the region, one can easily fall into this simplistic model of how Semitic arose and how it spread to the Horn of Africa. This is without mentioning that the main processes seen as necessary to birthing the Ethiopian Semitic languages are dubious, as noted by modern day examples of Ethiopian Semitic-Cushitic language contact.

Yet what seems to be preferred by researchers, whether they are linguists, historians, botanists, etc. is a simple and tactile conclusion. If you can explain something in a simple way, and somehow add some kind of vague yet tactile backing to it then surely someone will buy it. But even in a world of open information exchange and ever changing academic paradigm there still seems to be an entrenched group of individuals who live to see Homo Erectus to be a species of mute simpletons and Semitic a child of the Near East on the basis of weakly supported assumptions.

it must be noted that prior to around 50,000 BP our species had relatively low population numbers and almost went extinct at one point around 75,000 BP, which is usually explained via the “Toba Catastrophe theory” as explained by Ambrose (2003). The “cognitive revolution” as noted by Chomsky in the 1950’s was based on the assumption that before 50,000 BP Homo sapiens had not yet reached behavioral modernity and had also not left Africa, and that after the emergence of behavioral modernity via the individual hypothesized as the linguistic “Prometheus” our species began to leave Africa. This of course is well known to not be the case and even with the placement of “Prometheus” around 100,000 BP, our species had already made our way into the Arabian peninsula by at least 105,000 BP. So behavioral modernity according to Chomsky and his camp would have eluded these first explorers, but would be the only decisive way of explaining why they left Africa; but then the same dynamic must be applied to why Homo erectus had left Africa as well in theory.


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