john_mcwhorter's picture
Professor of Linguistics and Western Civilization, Columbia University; Cultural Commentator; Author, Words on the Move
Linguist, Senior Fellow, Manhattan Institute; Author, Doing Our Own Thing

This year, researching the languages of Indonesia for an upcoming book, I happened to find out about a few very obscure languages spoken on one island that are much simpler than one would expect.

Most languages are much, much more complicated than they need to be. They take on needless baggage over the millennia simply because they can. So, for instance, most languages of Indonesia have a good number of prefixes and/or suffixes. Their grammars often force the speaker to attend to nuances of difference between active and passive much more than a European languages does, etc.

But here were a few languages that had no prefixes or suffixes at all. Nor do they have any tones, like many languages in the world. For one thing, languages that have been around forever that have no prefixes, suffixes, or tones are very rare worldwide. But then, where we do find them, they are whole little subfamilies, related variations on one another. Here, though, is a handful of small languages that contrast bizarrely with hundreds of surrounding relatives.

One school of thought in how language changes says that this kind of thing just happens by chance. But my work has been showing me that contrasts like this are due to sociohistory. Saying that naked languages like this are spoken alongside ones as bedecked as Italian is rather like saying that kiwis are flightless just "because," rather than because their environment divested them of the need to fly.

But for months I scratched my head over these languages. Why just them? Why there?

So isn't it interesting that the island these languages is spoken on is none other than Flores, which has had its fifteen minutes of fame this year as the site where skeletons of the "little people" were found. Anthropologists have hypothesized that this was a different species of Homo. While the skeletons date back 13,000 years ago or more, local legend recalls "little people" living alongside modern humans, ones who had some kind of language of their own and could "repeat back" in modern humans' language.

The legends suggest that the little people only had primitive language abilities, but we can't be sure here: to the untutored layman who hasn't taken any twentieth-century anthropology or linguistics classes, it is easy to suppose that an incomprehensible language is merely babbling.

Now, I can only venture this highly tentatively now. But what I "know" but cannot prove this year is: the reason languages like Keo and Ngada are so strangely streamlined on Flores is that an earlier ancestor of these languages, just as complex as its family members tend to be, was used as second language by these other people and simplified. Just as our classroom French and Spanish avoids or streamlines a lot of the "hard stuff," people who learn a language as adults usually do not master it entirely.

Specifically, I would hypothesize that the little people were gradually incorporated into modern human society over time—perhaps subordinated in some way—such that modern human children were hearing the little people's rendition of the language as much as a native one.

This kind of process is why, for example, Afrikaans is a slightly simplified version of Dutch. Dutch colonists took on Bushmen as herders and nurses, and their children often heard second-language Dutch as much as their parents. Pretty soon, this new kind of Dutch was everyone's everyday language, and Afrikaans was born.

Much has been made over the parallels between the evolution of languages and the evolution of animals and plants. However, I believe that one important difference is that while animals and plants can evolve towards simplicity as well as complexity depending on conditions, languages do not evolve towards simplicity in any significant, overall sense—unless there is some sociohistorical factor that puts a spoke in the wheel.

So normally, languages are always drifting into being like Russian or Chinese or Navajo. They only become like Keo and Ngada—or Afrikaans, or creole languages like Papiamentu and Haitian, or even, I believe, English—because of the intervention of factors like forced labor and population relocation. Just maybe, we can now add interspecies contact to the list!