Phylogenetics and linguistic diversity

When I was coursing the first semester of Ancient Greek several years ago, I discovered — much to my astonishment — a number of similarities between Greek and Latin which, in my ignorance, I absolutely did not expect to find. I remember that one of these similarities I first noticed was the singular form of the first person pronoun, ego in Latin and ego (ἐγώ) into Greek.

At that time I knew very little about languages ​​and philology, and I was just starting to get interested on these subjects. So, as the neophyte I was then, the first question that came to mind was “the pronoun ego passed from Greek into Latin, or was it the other way around, from Latin to Greek?”. I even shared my doubts in classroom. Fortunately, my Ancient Greek teacher (I had two teachers of Greek in the Literature Department, both very good and competent), like every teacher of classical languages, also knew Latin, and quickly explained what actually happened.

For those of you who already know phylogenetic analysis and thus are used to read and interpret cladograms, the explanation is relatively simple. Neither ego was transmitted from Latin to Greek, nor ἐγώ passed from Greek into Latin. In fact, the nominative singular pronoun for the first person is the same in these two languages ​​because Greek and Latin originated from a common language, ancestral to both. Greek and Latin are Indo-European languages, and both originated from Proto-Indo-European (PIE). There are numerous other similarities, such as father: in Latin, pater; in Greek, patér (πατήρ); in Sanskrit, vater; in Armenian, pitar; in Gothic, fadar; in Tocharian, pacar.

The similarity between languages ​​due to a common origin is evident not only in the vocabulary or grammar, but in virtually all aspects of linguistic construction. For example, on the synthetic languages, the grammatical cases and the declination patterns of the cases are quite similar. Take, for example, rosa (rose), in Latin:

Nominative: rosa
Dative: rosae
Accusative: rosam
Vocative: rosa

Now take oikia (ὀικíα), house, in Greek:

Nominative: oikia (ὀικíα)
Dative: oikiai (ὀικíᾳ)
Accusative: oikian (ὀικíαν)
Vocative: oikia (ὀικíα)

Another striking similarity: in Latin, for some adjectives, masculine, feminine and neuter forms are built with us-a-um, such as bonus, bona, bonum. In Greek, most adjectives of the vowel declension have almost the same endings: mikros (μικρός), mikra (μικρά), mikron (μικρόν). Regarding verb conjugation, there is something rather curious: Ancient Greek has two different systems, the omega-verbs and the mi-verbs. The conjugation of omega-verbs is quite similar to Latin conjugation, to the west of Greece. But the mi-verbs follow a conjugation similar to the Sanskrit conjugation, to the east of Greece. It’s almost like as in Greece the two combined systems, geographically opposite to each other, had mixed together.

This “evolutionary” conception regarding the origin and formation of new languages ​​is by no means something new, but I think that the development of phylogenetic systematics, on the 60’s, can bring us a new way to analyze and explain this phenomenon. Phylogenetic systematic tools, especially regarding to the construction of matrices and determination of relationship patterns can help us, indeed, to build explanations regarding the development and formation of different linguistic families and units.

I became interested in this theme because, apart from loving evolutionary biology and respecting phylogenetic systematists (whose practical work, I confess, goes far beyond my understanding and my supposed patience), I really like to read about languages, about linguistics and about philology, and I recommend to anyone who has time, money and idle nerve cells to study Ancient Greek or Latin (remembering that, in mathematics, or does not require an exclusion, that is, one can study both Greek and Latin… )

A mayan language tree, drawn as a cladogram (source: Regis Lachaume)

A mayan language tree, drawn as a cladogram (source: Regis Lachaume)

However, there are a number of warnings about this phylogenetic approach on the study of language families.

The first and the most serious of them is that, unlike biological species, when dealing with languages, two different branches (the lines in the cladogram) can merge, giving origin to one branch only. This happens, for instance, when two languages ​​come to coexist and end up forming one language. In the case of Pidgin languages ​​and Creole languages, formed by contact between two different languages ​​(Pidgin immediately, and Creole in a more permanent way), what usually happens is that the two original language that came into contact continue to exist, while the Creole emerges as a third and new language. If we put that in a cladogram, we would have the very strangest image of two branches approaching, bifurcating into four branches (two for each), with the two central branches fusing together, and ending with three terminal branches. We don’t see this in evolutionary biology.

Another obvious objection is that there are indeed contaminations between languages. In my example of ego in Latin and Greek, it happens that the word came from the common root of these two languages, but in many other cases the explanation for a given similarity is simply contamination, after both languages ​​have been established. For example, science in Portuguese (ciência) and in French (science) are similar because they are derived from scientia in Latin, their ancestral language. However, the words garagem (garage), toalete (toilet) or guichê (counter) are similar in Portuguese and French because, in Portuguese, those words came directly from French (garage, toilette, guichet), not from Latin, common to both languages.

Also, unfortunately (and fortunately at the same time), we live in a time — on the last one hundred years, particularly — where language contacts have become vastly more common, and in which miscegenation will be increasingly more frequent, with English language dominating the world. Who knows if this will culminate in the formation of a universal Creole, a natural Esperanto? It would be interesting for the day-by-day communication, but then, we would lose something that I find very beautiful: diversity.


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