Proto-Human language

The Proto-Human language (also Proto-Sapiens, Proto-World) is the hypothetical direct genetic predecessor of all the world's spoken languages.[1] It would not be ancestral to sign languages.[2]

Proto-Sapiens, Proto-World
(disputed, hypothetical)
Reconstruction ofAll extant languages

The concept is speculative and not amenable to analysis in historical linguistics. It presupposes a monogenetic origin of language, i.e. the derivation of all natural languages from a single origin, presumably at some time in the Middle Paleolithic period. As the predecessor of all extant languages spoken by modern humans (Homo sapiens), Proto-Human language as hypothesised would not necessarily be ancestral to any hypothetical Neanderthal language.


There is no generally accepted term for this concept. Most treatments of the subject do not include a name for the language under consideration (e.g. Bengtson and Ruhlen[3]). The terms Proto-World and Proto-Human[4] are in occasional use. Merritt Ruhlen used the term Proto-Sapiens.

History of the ideaEdit

The first serious scientific attempt to establish the reality of monogenesis was that of Alfredo Trombetti, in his book L'unità d'origine del linguaggio, published in 1905.[5]: 263 [6] Trombetti estimated that the common ancestor of existing languages had been spoken between 100,000 and 200,000 years ago.[7]: 315 

Monogenesis was dismissed by many linguists in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when the doctrine of the polygenesis of the human races and their languages was widely popular.[8]: 190 

The best-known supporter of monogenesis in America in the mid-20th century was Morris Swadesh.[5]: 215  He pioneered two important methods for investigating deep relationships between languages, lexicostatistics and glottochronology.

In the second half of the 20th century, Joseph Greenberg produced a series of large-scale classifications of the world's languages. These were and are controversial but widely discussed. Although Greenberg did not produce an explicit argument for monogenesis, all of his classification work was geared toward this end. As he stated:[9]: 337  "The ultimate goal is a comprehensive classification of what is very likely a single language family."

Notable American advocates of linguistic monogenesis include Merritt Ruhlen, John Bengtson, and Harold Fleming.

Date and locationEdit

The first concrete attempt to estimate the date of the hypothetical ancestor language was that of Alfredo Trombetti,[7]: 315  who concluded it was spoken between 100,000 and 200,000 years ago, or close to the first emergence of Homo sapiens.

It is uncertain or disputed whether the earliest members of Homo sapiens had fully developed language. Some scholars link the emergence of language proper (out of a proto-linguistic stage that may have lasted considerably longer) to the development of behavioral modernity toward the end of the Middle Paleolithic or at the beginning of the Upper Paleolithic, roughly 50,000 years ago. Thus, in the opinion of Richard Klein, the ability to produce complex speech only developed some 50,000 years ago (with the appearance of modern humans or Cro-Magnons). Johanna Nichols (1998)[10] argued that vocal languages must have begun diversifying in our species at least 100,000 years ago.

In 2011, an article in the journal Science proposed an African origin of modern human languages.[11] It was suggested that human language predates the out-of-Africa migrations of 50,000 to 70,000 years ago and that language might have been the essential cultural and cognitive innovation that facilitated human colonization of the globe.[12]

In Perreault and Mathew (2012),[13] an estimate on the time of the first emergence of human language was based on phonemic diversity. This is based on the assumption that phonemic diversity evolves much more slowly than grammar or vocabulary, slowly increasing over time (but reduced among small founding populations). The largest phoneme inventories are found among African languages, while the smallest inventories are found in South America and Oceania, some of the last regions of the globe to be colonized. The authors used data from the colonization of Southeast Asia to estimate the rate of increase in phonemic diversity. Applying this rate to African languages, Perreault and Mathew (2012) arrived at an estimated age of 150,000 to 350,000 years, compatible with the emergence and early dispersal of H. sapiens. The validity of this approach has been criticized as flawed.[14]


Speculation on the "characteristics" of Proto-World is limited to linguistic typology, i.e. the identification of universal features shared by all human languages, such as grammar (in the sense of "fixed or preferred sequences of linguistic elements"), and recursion, but beyond this nothing can be known of it (Campbell and Poser 2008:391).

Christopher Ehret has hypothesized that Proto-Human had a very complex consonant system, including clicks.[15]

A few linguists, such as Merritt Ruhlen, have suggested the application of mass comparison and internal reconstruction (cf. Babaev 2008). A number of linguists have attempted to reconstruct the language, while many others[who?] reject this as fringe science.[16]

According to Murray Gell-Mann and Ruhlen (2011),[17] the ancestral language would have had a basic order of Subject (S) - Object (O) - Verb (V) or SOV.


Ruhlen tentatively traces a number of words back to the ancestral language, based on the occurrence of similar sound-and-meaning forms in languages across the globe. Bengtson and Ruhlen identify 27 "global etymologies".[3] The following table lists a selection of these forms:[18]

Who? What? Two Water One / Finger Arm-1 Arm-2 Bend / Knee Hair Vulva / Vagina Smell / Nose
Khoisan !kū ma /kam k´´ā //kɔnu //kū ≠hā //gom /ʼū !kwai č’ū
Nilo-Saharan na de ball nki tok kani boko kutu sum buti čona
Niger–Congo nani ni bala engi dike kono boko boŋgo   butu
Afroasiatic k(w) ma bwVr ak’wa tak ganA   bunqe somm put suna
Kartvelian min ma yor rts’q’a ert t’ot’ qe muql toma putʼ sun
Dravidian yāv iraṇṭu nīru birelu kaŋ kay meṇḍa pūṭa počču čuṇṭu
Eurasiatic kwi mi pālā akwā tik konV bhāghu(s) bük(ä) punče p’ut’V snā
Dené–Caucasian kwi ma gnyis ʔoχwa tok kan boq pjut tshām putʼi suŋ
Austric o-ko-e m-anu ʔ(m)bar namaw ntoʔ xeen baγa buku śyām betik iǰuŋ
Indo-Pacific   mina boula okho dik akan ben buku utu   sɨnna
Australian ŋaani minha bula gugu kuman mala pajing buŋku   puda mura
Amerind kune mana p’āl akwā dɨk’i kano boko buka summe butie čuna
Source:.[18]: 103  The symbol V stands for "a vowel whose precise character is unknown" (ib. 105).

Based on these correspondences, Ruhlen[18]: 105  lists these roots for the ancestor language:

  • ku = 'who'
  • ma = 'what'
  • pal = 'two'
  • akwa = 'water'
  • tik = 'finger'
  • kanV = 'arm'
  • boko = 'arm'
  • buŋku = 'knee'
  • sum = 'hair'
  • putV = 'vulva'
  • čuna = 'nose, smell'

The full list of Bengtson's and Ruhlen's (1994) 27 "global etymologies" is given below.[3]

No. Root Gloss
1 aja ‘mother, older female relative’
2 bu(n)ka ‘knee, to bend’
3 bur ‘ashes, dust’
4 čun(g)a ‘nose; to smell’
5 kama ‘hold (in the hand)’
6 kano ‘arm’
7 kati ‘bone’
8 k’olo ‘hole’
9 kuan ‘dog’
10 ku(n) ‘who?’
11 kuna ‘woman’
12 mako ‘child’
13 maliq’a ‘to suck(le), nurse; breast’
14 mana ‘to stay (in a place)’
15 mano ‘man’
16 mena ‘to think (about)’
17 mi(n) ‘what?’
18 pal ‘two’
19 par ‘to fly’
20 poko ‘arm’
21 puti ‘vulva’
22 teku ‘leg, foot’
23 tik ‘finger; one’
24 tika ‘earth’
25 tsaku ‘leg, foot’
26 tsuma ‘hair’
27 ʔaq’wa ‘water’


In a 2011 paper, Murray Gell-Mann and Merritt Ruhlen argued that the ancestral language had subject–object–verb (SOV) word order.[19] The reason for thinking so is that in the world's natural language families, it is typical for the original language to have an SOV word order, and languages that evolve from it sometimes deviate. Their proposal develops an earlier one made by Talmy Givón (1979:271–309).[how?]

Languages with SOV word order have a strong tendency to have other word orders in common, such as:[20]

  • Adjectives precede the nouns they modify.
  • Dependent genitives precede the nouns they modify.
  • "Prepositions" are really "postpositions", following the nouns they refer to.

For example, instead of saying The man goes to the wide river, as in English, Ruhlen's Proto-Human speakers would have said Man wide river to goes. However, half of all current languages have SOV order, and historically languages cycle between word orders, so finding evidence of this order in the reconstructions of many families may reflect no more than this general tendency, rather than reflecting a common ancestral form.


Many linguists reject the methods used to determine these forms. Several areas of criticism are raised with the methods Ruhlen and Gell-Mann employ. The essential basis of these criticisms is that the words being compared do not show common ancestry; the reasons for this vary. One is onomatopoeia: for example, the suggested root for 'smell' listed above, *čuna, may simply be a result of many languages employing an onomatopoeic word that sounds like sniffing, snuffling, or smelling. Another is the taboo quality of certain words. Lyle Campbell points out that many established proto-languages do not contain an equivalent word for *putV 'vulva' because of how often such taboo words are replaced in the lexicon, and notes that it "strains credibility to imagine" that a proto-World form of such a word would survive in many languages.

Using the criteria that Bengtson and Ruhlen employ to find cognates to their proposed roots, Lyle Campbell finds seven possible matches to their root for woman *kuna in Spanish, including cónyuge 'wife, spouse', chica 'girl', and cana 'old woman (adjective)'. He then goes on to show how what Bengtson and Ruhlen would identify as reflexes of *kuna cannot possibly be related to a proto-World word for woman. Cónyuge, for example, comes from the Latin root meaning 'to join', so its origin had nothing to do with the word 'woman'; chica is related to a Latin word meaning 'insignificant thing'; cana comes from the Latin word for 'white', and again shows a history unrelated to the word 'woman' (Campbell and Poser 2008:370–372). Campbell's assertion is that these types of problems are endemic to the methods used by Ruhlen and others.

There are some linguists who question the very possibility of tracing language elements so far back into the past. Campbell notes that given the time elapsed since the origin of human language, every word from that time would have been replaced or changed beyond recognition in all languages today. Campbell harshly criticizes efforts to reconstruct a Proto-human language, saying "the search for global etymologies is at best a hopeless waste of time, at worst an embarrassment to linguistics as a discipline, unfortunately confusing and misleading to those who might look to linguistics for understanding in this area." (Campbell and Poser 2008:393)

See alsoEdit



  1. ^ Mcwhorter, John (4 September 2020). "How are the Various Proto-World Families Linked?". The Proto-World language, also known as the Proto-Human or Proto-Sapiens, is believed to be the single source of origin of all the world’s languages.
  2. ^ "American Sign Language | communications | Britannica".
  3. ^ a b c Meritt Ruhlen; John Bengtson (1994). "Global etymologies". On the Origin of Languages: Studies in Linguistic Taxonomy (PDF). pp. 277–336. Retrieved 27 June 2020.
  4. ^ Used by the Harold Fleming (2003) and John Bengtson (2007).
  5. ^ a b Ruhlen, Meritt (1994). The Origin of Language: Tracing the Evolution of the Mother Tongue. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
  6. ^ Trombetti, Alfredo (1905). L'unità d'origine del linguaggio (in Italian). Bologna: Luigi Beltrami.
  7. ^ a b Trombetti, Alfredo (1922–1923). Elementi di glottologia (in Italian). Bologna: Zanichelli.
  8. ^ de Saussure, Ferdinand (1986) [1916]. Cours de linguistique générale [Course in General Linguistics] (in French). Translated by Harris, Roy. Chicago: Open Court.
  9. ^ Greenberg, Joseph H. (1987). Language in the Americas. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
  10. ^ Johanna Nichols, 1998. The origin and dispersal of languages: Linguistic evidence. In Nina Jablonski and Leslie C. Aiello, eds., The Origin and Diversification of Language, pp. 127-70. (Memoirs of the California Academy of Sciences, 24.) San Francisco: California Academy of Sciences.
  11. ^ Quentin D. Atkinson (15 Apr 2011). "Phonemic Diversity Supports a Serial Founder Effect Model of Language Expansion from Africa". Science. 332 (6027): 346–349. Bibcode:2011Sci...332..346A. doi:10.1126/science.1199295. PMID 21493858. S2CID 42021647.
  12. ^ Michael Balter (14 April 2011). "Language May Have Helped Early Humans Spread Out of Africa". Science. Retrieved 13 August 2021.
  13. ^ Perreault, C.; Mathew, S. (2012). "Dating the origin of language using phonemic diversity". PLOS ONE. 7 (4): e35289. Bibcode:2012PLoSO...735289P. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0035289. PMC 3338724. PMID 22558135.
  14. ^ Hunley, Keith; Bowern, Claire; Healy, Meghan (2 January 2012). "Rejection of a serial founder effects model of genetic and linguistic coevolution". Proceedings of the Royal Society B. 279 (1736): 2281–2288. doi:10.1098/rspb.2011.2296. PMC 3321699. PMID 22298843.
    Bowern, Claire (November 2011). "Out of Africa? The logic of phoneme inventories and founder effects". Linguistic Typology. 15 (2): 207–216. doi:10.1515/lity.2011.015. hdl:1885/28291. ISSN 1613-415X. S2CID 120276963.
  15. ^ CARTA: The Origin of Us -- Christopher Ehret: Relationships of Ancient African Languages. August 1, 2013. Archived from the original on 2021-12-11.
  16. ^ Velasquez-Manoff, Moises (19 July 2007). "Linguists seek a time when we spoke as one". Christian Science Monitor. Retrieved 18 May 2018.
  17. ^ Gell-Mann, Murray; Ruhlen, Merritt (August 26, 2011). "The Origin and Evolution of Word Order". Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. 108 (42): 17290–5. Bibcode:2011PNAS..10817290G. doi:10.1073/pnas.1113716108. PMC 3198322. PMID 21987807.
  18. ^ a b c Ruhlen, Meritt (1994). The Origin of Language: Tracing the Evolution of the Mother Tongue. New York: John Wiley and Sons. ISBN 9780471159636. Retrieved 27 June 2020.
  19. ^ Gell-Mann, Murray; Ruhlen, Merritt (2011). "The origin and evolution of word order". Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. 108 (42): 17290–17295. Bibcode:2011PNAS..10817290G. doi:10.1073/pnas.1113716108. PMC 3198322. PMID 21987807.
  20. ^ Gell-Mann & Ruhlen (2003:3–4)


  • Bengtson, John D. 2007. "On fossil dinosaurs and fossil words". (Also: HTML version.)
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  • Edgar, Blake (March–April 2008). "Letter from South Africa". Archaeology. 61 (2). Retrieved 5 November 2018.
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