Field of Science

Contact with hobbits simplified languages?

ResearchBlogging.orgJohn McWhorter, formerly a professor of linguistics at UC Berkeley, now at Manhattan Institute, wrote a short essay in 2005 for Edge in answer to the question of what he believes but cannot prove. What he knows is that a language only simplifies when the population that speaks it comes into contact with another population that does not. What he believes is that in the case of a small group of Indonesian languages this happened when humans came into contact with with Homo floresiensis.

In 2008 McWhorter published an article [1] in which he made the argument that it is not just rare that languages evolve to become simpler overall without the language being acquired by adults, but that such simplification is indeed impossible.

He phrases his thesis thus.
In the uninterrupted transmission of a human language, radical loss of complexity throughout the grammar is neither normal, occasional, nor rare, but impossible. The natural state of human language is one saddled with accreted complexity unnecessary to communication. Wherever this complexity is radically abbreviated overall rather than in scattered, local fashion, this is not just sometimes, but always caused by a sociohistorical situation in which non-native acquisition of the language was widespread enough that grammar was transmitted to new generations in a significantly simplified form. This is true not only in the extreme case of creoles, but also to a lesser but robust extent in many languages of the world.
Languages become more complex over time when there is no outside influence on them. In McWhorter's words: grammars naturally "maintain a considerable level of complexity over time: simplifications occur, but are counterbalanced by complexifications due to grammaticalization, reanalysis, and new patterns created by phonetic erosion."

The languages of Keo, Rongga, and Ngadh, spoken on the island of Flores in Indonesia, are completely analytic (meaning of a very simplex grammatical form), and yet are surrounded by hundreds of related languages that are much more complex.
Austronesianists treat these languages’ analyticity as a matter of chance, of little inherent interest. But under my analysis, these languages are utterly bizarre. Why did a descendant of Proto-Austronesian wend its way into eschewing all affixation?
Indonesia has a lot of spoken languages, and many of them are very much more complicated than they need to be. McWhorter explains that this is how languages often evolve, by picking up with 'complexifications' just because they can. Much to his surprise, he then encountered this small group of languages that are very simple, in contrast with hundreds of related languages. This mystery needed an explanation.
The reason languages like Keo and Ngada are so strangely streamlined on Flores is that an earlier ancestor of these languages, just as complex as its family members tend to be, was used as second language by these other people and simplified. Just as our classroom French and Spanish avoids or streamlines a lot of the "hard stuff," people who learn a language as adults usually do not master it entirely.

Specifically, I would hypothesize that the little people were gradually incorporated into modern human society over time—perhaps subordinated in some way—such that modern human children were hearing the little people's rendition of the language as much as a native one.
McWhorter's speculation that it was contact with H. floresiensis that led to the simplification of Keo, Rongga, and Ngadh is to me astonishing. There's currently no evidence for that whatsoever, though, but just to consider these two species communicating is enticing. Imagine what we could learn about ourselves during such an encounter. It would be like speaking with animals (which has been done using sign language, in the case of both gorillas and chimpanzees). He notes that linguists could in that case add interspecies contact to the list of factors that affect how languages evolve.

Whether Homo floresiensis was a different species or not is very contentious at the moment. It really doesn't matter for McWhorter's linguistic explanation of language simplification, though. If H. Floresiensis was a microcephalic human population, the languages could have simplified with contact with them nontheless. However, it does add momentous marvel to the story.

For a great review of the current debate over whether H. floresiensis was a different species of Homo or not, see 'What Is the Hobbit?' by Tabitha Powledge [2].

Some words that I had to look up to get through this paper: affixation, agglutination, analytic, ellipsis, enclitic, ergativity, inflection, morpheme, periphrastic, typology.

Flores, Indonesia:

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[1] John McWhorter (2008). Why does a language undress? Strange cases in Indonesia Miestamo, Matti, Kaius Sinnemäki and Fred Karlsson (eds.), Language Complexity: Typology, contact, change. 2008. xiv, 356 pp., 167-190

[2] Tabitha M. Powledge (2006). What Is the Hobbit? PLoS Biology, 4 (12) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pbio.0040440


  1. This is a fascinating idea!

  2. "Mind-blowing" is how I think of it.

  3. But, if I'm not mistaken, H. floriensis died out tens of thousands of years ago. That's far too long for any contact-induced simplicity to remain. And analytic doesn't mean simple, anyways. It generally means that complexity in morphology is exchanged for complexity in syntax.

  4. Ranka, I contacted John McWhorter for a reply to your comment. Here is what he had to say:

    The answer here is:

    1. There are folkloric reports of the "little people" existing as recently as when Europeans first reached the area in the 1500s, which would allow that the "little people" could have had contact with Austronesian.

    2. Actually, there is no process in language change that automatically replaces morphological complexity with syntactic complexity. Languages of Flores like Keo are undoubtedly complex in ways (as I have written about), but it would be quite impossible to say that they are anywhere near as grammatically complex as, say, Russian, syntactically, morphologically or otherwise.

    Complexity is a tricky concept when it comes to language, of course, and a language without affixes can be hugely complex regardless (like many languages of Southeast Asia). But all one has to do in this case is take a look at the dissertation devoted to Keo grammar and then look at maybe the first twenty pages of a Berlitz self-teacher of Russian. There's simply no comparison. All languages are complex, but all languages are not equally complex.

    In any case, what's weird is that Keo and some other languages are so devoid of affixation when that is so unusual in the whole Austronesian family; it suggests that there was some kind of unusual occurrence.

  5. Bjørn,

    This was a really interesting post, many thanks. I am somewhat late to the party :)

    Two things I would like to add. The first regard's John Whorter's first point (regarding overlapping Human and Hobbit populations as late as the 1500s):

    --- quote ----
    Bert Roberts, of the University of Wollongong, whose team carried out the dating, said there were a lot of detailed folk tales on Flores about little people.

    "These stories suggest there may be more than a grain of truth to the idea that they were still living on Flores up until the Dutch arrived in the 1500s," Professor Roberts said. "The stories suggest they lived in caves. The villagers would leave gourds with food out for them to eat, but legend has it these were the guests from hell. They'd eat everything, including the gourds."

    --- end quote ---

    The second, and to me, far more exciting is the possibility that some remnant population of Hobbits still exists on Flores:

    --- quote ---
    Chief Epiradus Dhoi Lewa (...) on the remote Indonesian island of Flores, he recalls how people from his village were able to capture a tiny woman with long, pendulous breasts three weeks ago.

    "They said she was very little and very pretty," he says, holding his hand at waist height. "Some people saw her very close up."

    The villagers of Boawae believe the strange woman came down from a cave on the steaming mountain where short, hairy people they call Ebu Gogo lived long ago.

    "Maybe some Ebu Gogo are still there," the 70-year-old chief told the Herald through an interpreter in Boawae last week.

    The locals' descriptions of Ebu Gogo as about a metre tall, with pot bellies and long arms match the features of a new species of human "hobbits"

    --- end quote ---

    Picking up on one other point you raise regarding inter-species communication: sign language is not the only way humans directly communicate with others. Bonobos (and chimps I think) have been taught to use pictograph keyboards. TED have an interesting video "Susan Savage-Rumbaugh: Apes that write, start fires and play Pac-Man". Its about 17mins long (all good) but you may like to skip forward to about 8 mins in -

    We can now also speak with bees using robot bees (and have been able to for 10 or more years).

    Most startling however is Dr Irene Pepperberg's work with (the late) Alex (lots of refs on this, I link to the wikipedia entry)

    The work with Alex may have bearing on brain size vs functionality issues that have been raised re hobbits because some birds (eg Alex) have demonstrated neo-cortical functions without the requisite neo-cortex.

  6. Peter, thanks for sharing those links. I will check them out.


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