02:16
TED2007

Murray Gell-Mann: The ancestor of language

Filmed:

After speaking at TED2007 on elegance in physics, the amazing Murray Gell-Mann gives a quick overview of another passionate interest: finding the common ancestry of our modern languages.

- Physicist
Murray Gell-Mann brings visibility to a crucial aspect of our existence that we can't actually see: elemental particles. He won the Nobel Prize in Physics for introducing quarks, one of two fundamental ingredients for all matter in the universe. Full bio

Well, I'm involved in other things, besides physics.
00:13
In fact, mostly now in other things.
00:17
One thing is distant relationships among human languages.
00:19
And the professional, historical linguists in the U.S.
00:24
and in Western Europe mostly try to stay away
00:28
from any long-distance relationships, big groupings,
00:31
groupings that go back a long time,
00:35
longer than the familiar families.
00:38
They don't like that. They think it's crank. I don't think it's crank.
00:41
And there are some brilliant linguists, mostly Russians,
00:45
who are working on that, at Santa Fe Institute and in Moscow,
00:48
and I would love to see where that leads.
00:52
Does it really lead to a single ancestor
00:56
some 20, 25,000 years ago?
00:59
And what if we go back beyond that single ancestor,
01:02
when there was presumably a competition among many languages?
01:05
How far back does that go? How far back does modern language go?
01:09
How many tens of thousands of years does it go back?
01:13
Chris Anderson: Do you have a hunch or a hope for what the answer to that is?
01:16
Murray Gell-Mann: Well, I would guess that modern language must be older
01:19
than the cave paintings and cave engravings and cave sculptures
01:22
and dance steps in the soft clay in the caves in Western Europe,
01:26
in the Aurignacian Period some 35,000 years ago, or earlier.
01:31
I can't believe they did all those things and didn't also have a modern language.
01:37
So, I would guess that the actual origin goes back at least that far and maybe further.
01:40
But that doesn't mean that all, or many, or most
01:45
of today's attested languages couldn't descend perhaps
01:48
from one that's much younger than that, like say 20,000 years,
01:52
or something of that kind. It's what we call a bottleneck.
01:56
CA: Well, Philip Anderson may have been right.
02:00
You may just know more about everything than anyone.
02:01
So, it's been an honor. Thank you Murray Gell-Mann.
02:04
(Applause)
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About the Speaker:

Murray Gell-Mann - Physicist
Murray Gell-Mann brings visibility to a crucial aspect of our existence that we can't actually see: elemental particles. He won the Nobel Prize in Physics for introducing quarks, one of two fundamental ingredients for all matter in the universe.

Why you should listen

He's been called "the man with five brains" -- and Murray Gell-Mann has the resume to prove it. In addition to being a Nobel laureate, he is an accomplished physicist who's earned numerous awards, medals and honorary degrees for his work with subatomic particles, including the groundbreaking theory that the nucleus of an atom comprises 100 or so fundamental building blocks called quarks.

Gell-Mann's influence extends well beyond his field: He's a member of the National Academy of Sciences, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the Council on Foreign Relations. He also serves on the board of the Wildlife Conservation Society and is a director of Encyclopedia Britannica. Gell-Mann, a professor emeritus of Caltech, now heads the evolution of human languages program at the Santa Fe Institute, which he cofounded in 1984.

A prolific writer -- he's penned scores of academic papers and several books, including The Quark and the Jaguar -- Gell-Mann is also the subject of the popular science biography Strange Beauty: Murray Gell-Mann and the Revolution in 20th-Century Physics.

More profile about the speaker
Murray Gell-Mann | Speaker | TED.com