Ancestral Languages

“Comparative Reconstruction of Ancestral Language – Excercise 5″

There are two facts that allow for an approximate timeline of the latest contacts between Prometheus’ Indo-European languages and the Mala’kak on Earth.

The first and most obvious one is stated by Prof. Biltoo in the film, when he talks about the “five millenia or more” that separate our languages from Prometheus’ Ancestral Language (PAL); that sets a theoretic terminus ante quem ca. 3000 BC for PAL in the Prometheus world.

The second one is hinted by the ‘reconstructed’ PAL and one of its main features: the merge of Proto-Indo-Hittite (PIH) laryngeals. Linguists usually reconstruct three, but some have reconstructed as many phonemic variants as nine, with rounded and palatalized variants of the standard three. In PAL, there is only an /h/, which – as we will see in future posts – corresponds usually to *h₂, but also to *h₁ and *h₃ in certain environments.

A  third one, more controversial, would be the non-canonical name of the ‘Engineer race’, Mala’kak. The only explanation for the apostrophe – unless the name is taken as alien to the Mala’kak themselves (a common phenomenon in many languages) – is that the unified laryngeal *H is evolving into a glottal stop /ʔ/, which is commonly written ‘. The glottal stop is a common output of *H in the reconstructed Late Indo-European dialects, which we assume are the same as in the real world – as does the movie by letting people speak in English dialects, and in English with foreign Indo-European accents.

If we accept the scheme drawn by Bomhard about the “disintegrating Indo-European”, where all laryngeals merge into one *H in some environments, and then turn into a glottal stop, and disappear as they lengthen and/or colorize the vowels next to them, PAL would be coeval to – and probably in contact with – the disintegrating, Late Indo-European, roughly corresponding to the early development of LIE dialects, i.e. Proto-Indo-Iranian, Proto-Greek and North-West Indo-European. If we take into account the morphological and phonetic changes that PAL/Mala’kak has already undergone, we cannot agree on a date earlier than that of the disintegrating LIE.

PAL as shown in the film is then probably equivalent to LIE early dialects in its grammar and vocabulary separation from LIE, and possibly slightly more distanced in morphology and especially phonetics.

The real timeline

While Prof. Biltoo and the SOAS team have their own timeline concept for PIE/PAL – whether or not that is for Prometheus alone or for the ‘pure’ PIE  is irrelevant -, we have also worked in a general timeline agreed to by linguists and archaeologists, and we shall call it “the real timeline” (see below under the section See Also). Within the real PIE timeline, therefore, PIH is discarded, i.e. we have a ‘real’ terminus post quem of 3500 BC.

As we have seen, PAL must have been coeval with Late Indo-European, from the laryngeal and vocalic point of view. Hence PAL corresponds to Late Indo-European dialects, which split and spread ca. 3500-2500 BC, remaining in contact for some centuries. Taking into account the phonetic and morphologic developments of PAL, similar to Southern LIE branch / Proto-Indo-Iranian dialects (of ca. 3000-2000 BC), the real timeline equivalent for PAL/Mala’kak (if they are both the same) would be ca. 2500 BC, or slightly earlier for PAL (viz. nahəst) vs. Mala’kak (viz. na’əst/na’ast?).

In any possible case, what is important is the relationship between the languages, and not the dates – these change depending on linguistic and archaeological findings and views.

While this explanation is more or less consistent – with the information we have right now about PAL (possibly an immediate ancestor of the Mala’kak language, if not the same) -, there is a flaw: PAL is said to be derived from “comparative grammar of ancestral languages”, maybe suggesting that PAL is also ancestor to our IE languages. However, taking the oldest attested IE languages as examples, the reconstruction of PAL phonetics for a common (older) PIE is probably almost impossible. Hence the movie, apart from the “alien creationism“, gives another scientific jump in ‘reconstructing’ PAL phonetics: The only explanation that would fit PAL with what we know today is that there had been, by the time of Prometheus’ Earth (in the end of the 21st century), another dead language attested, possibly older than Hittite – hence the earliest attested Indo-European dialect – which would allow us reconstruct its immediate proto-language, the Prometheus Ancestral Language, of ca. 3000-2500 BC.

Too much wishful thinking for today!

#EDIT 24-SEP-2012: I have separated the ‘real timeline’ dates from the ‘PAL timeline’, and explained that there are many ‘real timelines’ for PIE (PIH, Late Indo-European, dialectal split), depending on who you ask in this amazing linguistic/archaeological field of Indo-European studies… Nevertheless, ca. 3000 is in my opinion a fair selection by Prof. Biltoo, given the state of affairs, for this fiction setting. Take into account, for example, the latest article supporting the Anatolian Homeland 11,000(!) years ago.

See Also

Laryngeal Loss

Proto-Indo-European Timeline