Protolanguages: Decoding Words from the Past?

Protolanguage Tree for the Hypothetical Proto-Mayan Language

Protolanguage Tree for the Hypothetical Proto-Mayan Language
Attribution: Régis Lachaume
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Protolanguages are hypothetical ancestors of modern languages. For example, modern Maya, as well as other ancient Mesoamerican scripts (Olmec, Zapotec, Classic Maya to name a few) are believed to have descended from an original language called Proto-Mayan (see chart). Needless to say, decoding protolanguages is a massive undertaking. Here’s more on a new computer system which appears to do the job quickly and with decent accuracy from the University of British Columbia:

University of British Columbia and Berkeley researchers have used a sophisticated new computer system to quickly reconstruct protolanguages – the rudimentary ancient tongues from which modern languages evolved.

The results, which are 85 per cent accurate when compared to the painstaking manual reconstructions performed by linguists, will be published next week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“We’re hopeful our tool will revolutionize historical linguistics much the same way that statistical analysis and computer power revolutionized the study of evolutionary biology,” says UBC Assistant Prof. of Statistics Alexandre Bouchard-Côté, lead author of the study…

(See the rest at University of British Columbia)

Esperanto: The Language of World Peace?

In 1887, L.L. Zamenhof published Unua Libro in which he detailed a new language of his own creation. His goal was to have this language, since dubbed Esperanto, go global, fostering peace and international understanding in the process. Obviously, he didn’t succeed, at least not yet. But how popular is Esperanto today?

The Invention of Esperanto?

Dr. L.L. Zamenhof’s goal was ambitious – he wanted nothing less than to create a single language which would be used by the entire world. He believed that this would improve communication and break down walls between enemies. Rather than support an existing language, which he considered unfair, he created Esperanto during the late 1870s and early 1880s while living in the Russian Empire.

He published his first book regarding the Esperanto language in 1887. Although based on European root words, it contained its own grammar and vocabulary. It began to grow in popularity and spread across borders. By 1905, there was a World Congress of Esperanto and this event has continued on a nearly annual basis.

Today, there are somewhere between 10,000 and two million speakers of Esperanto, located in 115 countries. While amazingly successful on one level, the movement has fallen far short of Zamenhof’s goals. What went wrong?

Guerrilla Explorer’s Analysis

The biggest obstacle to the growth of Esperanto, as I see it, was already stated by Will Rogers.

“They ain’t gonna do it.” ~ Will Rogers

In other words, the difficulties in learning a new language constituted a barrier that few people were willing to cross. Those who choose to learn a new language often do so for very practical, often economic reasons. That may explain why the English language has “usurped the role of global lingua franca coveted by Esperanto.”

Will Esperanto ever become humanity’s sole language? It seems unlikely. Still, its advocates should be proud. Esperanto is the most popular “constructed language” in history, far outdistancing its many competitors. In addition, it has led to the creation of a unique culture, with publications, music, and even shared traditions. And from where I stand, that makes Esperanto a gigantic success.

Identifying Psychopaths…by their Words?

Psychopaths are people who lack empathy and remorse while displaying traits like egocentrism and deceptiveness. They’re extremely difficult to identify since they tend to be skilled at faking emotions. However, recent research may help solve that problem. Have scholars found a way to successfully identify psychopaths?


As a quick reminder, I released my first novel, Chaos, on Monday. It’s an adventure thriller along the lines of Indiana Jones or books written by Clive Cussler, James Rollins, Douglas Preston, or Steve Berry. If you haven’t already done so, please consider picking up a copy at one of the following locations:

Kindle * Nook * Kobo * iBooks * Smashwords * Paperback

Identifying Psychopaths?

Now, the trick to identifying psychopaths may not lie in trying to read emotions or looking for visual cues. Indeed, the secret to psychopathy may lie in something seemingly innocuous…word choices.

“Previous work has looked at how psychopaths use language. Our paper is the first to show that you can use automated tools to detect the distinct speech patterns of psychopaths.” ~ Professor Jeff Hancock, Computing & Information Science

Working with Michael Woodworth and Stephen Porter from the University of British Columbia, Professor Hancock analyzed the words of 52 male murderers in Canadian prisons. Each murderer, 14 of which were diagnosed as psychopaths, was asked to describe his crime in detail. These words were then “subjected to computer analysis.”

The word choices of the psychopaths showed some interesting similarities. They were more likely to present a murder as something that “had to be done.” This was related via conjunctions like “because,” “since,” or “so that.” Also, they tended to emphasize physical needs such as sex or money as opposed to social needs. They made greater use of the past tense, which might “[suggest] a detachment from their crimes.” And finally, their speech included a greater number of “ums” and “uhs,” which could indicate that they were forced to work harder to “frame the story” in a way that makes them look good.

Guerrilla Explorer’s Analysis

All in all, psychopaths appear to choose words that reflect “selfishness, detachment from their crimes, and emotional flatness.” In other words, while they can fake emotions, they are far less successful at controlling their word choices. These implications could “lead to new tools for diagnosis and treatment.”

Of course, we can’t get too far ahead of ourselves here. After all, this study only covered 52 murderers in the first place. Also, it’s based on the fairly questionable assumption that all 52 people were correctly identified as either psychopaths or non-psychopaths in the first place. And finally, it only covers word choices used to describe one’s crime.

It’s important to remember that there are tons of factors influencing one’s choice of speech, including upbringing, peers, and the stress of a particular situation. And although this study is interesting, it’s far from absolute. Overall, I’d caution researchers on drawing too many conclusions from these findings. The last we need to do is to start wrongfully accusing ordinary people of being psychopaths when in fact, they just speak a little differently than the rest of us.