In the mid nineteenth century, organismal evolution might have been controversial, but the idea of linguistic evolution was not, despite the fact that a literal interpretation of the Bible (Genesis 11:1 "Now the whole world had one language and a common speech.") would seem to rule it out.

Indeed, Edenists who argue that the pre-Babel language was ancient Hebrew don't actually claim that language evolution is false. They simply claim that the process was set in motion at Babel, and claim to know the identity of the original language.

Why, in a world full of powerful biblical-literalists rising up against the teaching of evolution, are there so few Babelist-literalists?

Answer: Because for centuries, any literate person could pick up copies of old texts like Chaucer's Canterbury Tales and see that language has definitely changed through time. Indeed, in the first edition of the Origin, Darwin attempts to support organismal evolution through the comforting analogy with the familiar idea of language evolution.

"It may be worth while to illustrate this view of classification, by taking the case of languages. If we possessed a perfect pedigree of mankind, a genealogical arrangement of the races of man would afford the best classification of the various languages now spoken throughout the world; and if all extinct languages, and all intermediate and slowly changing dialects, had to be included, such an arrangement would, I think, be the only possible one. Yet it might be that some very ancient language had altered little, and had given rise to few new languages, whilst others (owing to the spreading and subsequent isolation and states of civilisation of the several races, descended from a common race) had altered much, and had given rise to many new languages and dialects. The various degrees of difference in the languages from the same stock, would have to be expressed by groups subordinate to groups; but the proper or even only possible arrangement would still be genealogical; and this would be strictly natural, as it would connect together all languages, extinct and modern, by the closest affinities, and would give the filiation and origin of each tongue." - Darwin, Origin, 1859, chapt. 13

How do these changes occur?

All of this happens in historical time and is often noticible in the span of a human lifetime. No big surprise, therefore, that scholars whose profession had witnessed the breakup of Latin into the Romance Lanugages thought of linguistic change in evolutionary terms, long before the idea was brought to biology. Indeed, people had long noted the similarities in languages. E.G.:

Ancient Greek thereon beast
Russian tsvier animal
German Tier animal
Anglo-Saxon deor animal
English deer deer

Babelists: Like the modern Edenists, from Classical Era to the mid 18th century, scholars essentially bought the "Babelist" idea that one of the known languages was the Mother Tongue from which others were derived. Typically they favored prestigious languages such as Hebrew, Classical Arabic, or Ancient Greek. Of course, by identifying the "Mother Tongue" they also hoped to see which nations were "getting it wrong."

Sir William Jones 1786: The breakthrough was the work of an administrator in the British Raj, Sir William Jones. A polyglot, he was familiar with 28 languages, of which we spoke English, Latin, Ancient Greek, Farsi, Arabic, and Sanskrit very well (despite three of them being "dead" languages). His big contribution came from his study of Sanskrit, the ancient language of the Vedas - the oldest Hindu scriptures. He noted, in this Asian language, an odd similarity to the languages of Europe. He wrote:

"The Sanskrit language, whatever be its antiquity, is of a wonderful structure, more perfect than the Greek, more copious than the Latin, and more exquitely refined than either, yet bearing to both of them a stronger affinity, both in the roots of verbs and in the forms of grammar, than could possibly have been produced by accident; so strong indeed, that no philologer could examine them all three, without believing them to have sprung from some common source, which, perhaps, no longer exists; there is similar reason, though not quite so forcible, for supposing that both the Gothick and the Celtick, though blended with a very different idiom, had the same origin wth the Sanskrit, and the old Persian might be added to the same family."

(Italics are mine - JM)
Jones made two remarkable innovations:

This table shows the basic similarities. Note the last two languages, Arabic and Hebrew, were not mentioned by Jones and are quite different:

Language "Father"
Sanskrit Pitár
Ancient Persian Pitar
Ancient Greek Pater
Latin Pater
Gothic Fadhar
Old Irish Athir
Arabic Abu
Hebrew Av

Jones' hypothetical mother tongue is known today as Proto-Indo-European. Most, (but not all) of the languages of Europe and Northern India are descended form it. This group of descendants is called Indo-European

Within it are sub-groups consisting of descendants of intermediate common ancestors. E.G.:
Language "Five" "Fish"
1. Sanskrit Pangja Maksya
2. Ancient Greek Pente Ikhthos
3. Latin Quinque Piscis
4. Russian Pyat' Ryba
5. Welsh Pump (pronounced "pimp") Pysg (pronounced "pisg"
6. Old Norse Fimm Fiskr
7. German Fünf Fisch (pronounced "fish")
8. Anglo-Saxon Fif Fisc (pronounced "fish")

All of the languages in this table are Indo-European. This list shows a key derived feature of the Germanic languages (6 - 8), a subgroup of Indo-European, - a tendency to replace a "P" with an "F". This innovation was presumably present in the common ancestor of Germanic languages but not in Proto-Indo-European.

So, languages can be grouped in an internested heirarchy based on recency of common ancestry.

When was Proto-Indo-European spoken?

Language change is not clocklike. Rates vary with social circumstances and status of communications media.

Nevertheless, we can tell, in a general sense how long ago the mother tongue of a language group was spoken based on the diversity of variations of a given word. In the case of the IE languages, it's roughly 5000 years. Where was Proto-Indo-European spoken?

Good question. There are two major hypotheses:

Were there more ancient mother tongues?


The Moral: Because languages evolve in a branching pattern, we can use the same cladistic techniques to recover their histories that we would use on organisms.