The original human language may have featured a word order in which the object of a verb is spoken before the verb itself, some linguists think. In “Early human language like Yoda sounded” on CBS News, we learn about a theory that all languages today descended from a single language in East Africa about 50,000 years ago. Natalie Wolchover writes:
Out of the 2,000 modern languages that fit in the family tree, the researchers found that more than half are SOV [subject-object-verb] languages. The ones that are SVO, OVS and OSV all derive directly from SOV languages — never the other way around. For example, French, which is SVO, derives from Latin, which is SOV.
Furthermore, languages that are VSO and VOS always derive from SVO languages. Thus, all languages descend from an original SOV word order – “which leads to the conclusion that the word order in the language from which all modern languages derive must have been SOV,” Ruhlen wrote.
Was it just an accident that the mother of all mother tongues was probably SOV, rather than one of the other five possibilities? The researchers think not. Predating Ruhlen’s and Gell-Mann’s work, Tom Givon, a linguist at the University of Oregon, argued that SOV had to have been the first word order, based on how children learn language. He found that the SOV word ordering seems to come most naturally to humans. (Why Are ‘Mama’ and ‘Dada’ a Baby’s First Words?)
And if that’s the case, it seems strange that languages switch word orders as they evolve. Indeed, no one really knows why word orders would switch. “We have found that word changes in very precise ways,” Ruhlen said. “But the fact remains that half of the world’s languages still have SOV word order because, in Murray’s and my opinion, they have not changed word order at all. [Our data] shows how word order changes … but it is unpredictable if word order will change, and I really don’t know why.”
Read the whole thing.
As I wrote in “Making sense of the ‘organized nonsense’ of irregular verbs,” today linguists are increasingly investigating peculiarities in the transformations of language over time and discovering previously un-thought-of patterns. From what I can tell, there are patterns arising in the study of linguistic changes that beg the question of whether language is evolving with some sort of purpose or if the transformations are merely changes without rhyme or reason.
Postmodern linguists prefer to speak of linguistic “change” rather than “evolution,” but the curious integralist is permitted to wonder if there are clues to the nature of evolution hidden in the turnings of the human tongue. I suspect that over time a language speaker?s mind rebels against irregularities and begins to search for a ordered meaningfulness behind the seeming chaos, and they devise changes that begin to spread because of the universal human need for order.
I like you. I you like. You I like. You like I. Like you I. Like I you…
Academic linguists are loathe to speculate about the potential importance of a transformation from SOV to SVO over time, but let’s not let that deter us from taking a stab in the dark. If human beings over tens of thousands of years shifted in consciousness so that verbs came to be more closely linked to subjects rather than objects, what might the importance be? Possibly it reflects the increased ability of the prehistoric human being to differentiate self from object.
The caveman might have been content to say, “I meat eat.” And to his ears the I-ness and the meat-ness of the world were close to the same thing. The subjects and objects were less differentiated, and the actions were prominent. The word at the end of the utterance could have been highly emphasized moreso than the word in the middle.
But the hut-dweller tens of thousands of years later might have been repulsed to think that their subject was really all that close in aspect to its object. A more haughty subject would want to be set apart from rather than blended into its objects. What is emphasized now is not the action but the object itself. The meat-eater, now more differentiated from the object, becomes curious about its meat. The action verb, once perhaps something of great curiosity, is now more easily blended into the subject itself.
If the history of consciousness evolution is revealed in the linguistic evolution that is now being researched seriously, then by contemplating how language changes we can better understand how everything evolves. The mysterious shift from SOV to SVO, seemingly arising as a linguistic universal trend, invites us to consider the foundations of meaning.