Saturday, August 28, 2010

language of the fishers

National Geographic is getting much Twitter buzz for their recent article "Lost" Language Found on Back of 400-Year-Old Letter. The title alone evokes Indiana Jones and The Da Vinci Code, so people naturally get all jazzed. But note the clever use of scare quotes in the title. What was actually discovered was an apparent translation of base ten number names from a language, likely one of two known only by the mention of their names in contemporary texts: Quingnam and Pescadora—"language of the fishers".

I found this quote interesting:

"Even though [the letter] doesn't tell us a whole lot, it does tell us about a language that is very different from anything we've ever known—and it suggests that there may be a lot more out there," said project leader Jeffrey Quilter, an archaeologist at Harvard’s Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology. (emphasis added).

Ummm, if the letter doesn't tell us a whole lot, how do we know this lost language is "very different from anything we've ever known"?


John Cowan said...

Well, numbers are pretty strongly conserved diachronically, so if the claim means anything at all, it means that these numbers are not recognizably related as a whole to any known language in the region. Sound change can do scary things, of course, as in Armenian erku 'two', which actually is regularly derived from PIE *dwo, but it would hardly conceal a family resemblance completely.

Chris said...

fair point about number names. they do tell us a lot.

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