For the 1981 film, "Quest For Fire", the late linguist, Anthony Burgess, constructed a language called Ulam (or at least that was the tribe's name). Given that I'm helping a friend who's an anthropology professor with a project for the classroom — we want to understand the roots (conjectural or not) of pre-Indo-European language and overlay it with a plausible and constructed syntax. Here are some words in Ulam from the Quest for Fire that I've collected:

atra - the fire sees me
atrom - I see the fire
atrois - I am surrounded by many fires
buuuunan - I love the moon
buuuunu - the moon loves me
aga - water
atra hidoop - fire lives
bratt - brother
djan vitrash - go quickly, action!
ehyu - grief
kharrd - the heat/soul of a group
muuv - breast
nya Ulam - property of the Ulam tribe
oowa - alarm
otim tir preng - a good hunt today
smerdolor - pain
taka taka taka - aggression
tir hor ro - horse
tir meg - mammoth
vir - men
virku - women

Unfortunately, some of these words have Indo-European roots and some are simply made-up so can someone provide a better example or source material that we may use to research a proto-European language that might have existed 80,000 years ago?

  • 3
    Hi, Brandon! As interesting as the question is, it has two main problems for this particular SE: it is about meanings of words for a single language and it's about a constructed language. Do you think you can make it more linguistic-oriented? As the question now stands, it's going to be closed, unfortunately. – Otavio Macedo Jan 24 '12 at 14:08
  • 2
    This book has a Chapter on "Palaeofiction and Language Origins" that discusses Burgess' lanaguage in Quest for Fire. Burgess himself wrote an article in the 1981 New York Times, "CREATING A LANGUAGE FOR PRIMITIVE MAN" discussing his methods. – Mark Beadles Jan 24 '12 at 16:47
  • 2
    I removed the PIE tag because this language is purely fictional and unrelated to proto-indo-european. In fact, for the given time period, there are a lot of suspicions that the people who live in that area spoke an Afro-asiatic language, sort of a proto-arabic or proto-hebrew. PIE arrived only in Europe in the last 6 thousand years, no the last 40,000. I'd also add that nit pickers sometimes like to call PIE fictional because the reconstruction might not actually match (exactly) up to any historical language, if there were records. – MatthewMartin Jan 24 '12 at 18:45
  • 1
    @MatthewMartin, I altered my original question and it's content a bit based on your suggestion. Thank you for the facts as I'm a mere layman to linguistics but you've helped point me in the right direction. Given my objective, what would you do or what would you suggest reading (regardless if someone disagrees :) ) – Brandon Minton Jan 24 '12 at 21:16
  • 1
    @MatthewMartin Theories on the rates of language change would have to be altered a lot in order to stipulate that an Afro-Asiatic language was spoken 80,000 years ago. A more usual hypothesis is that Semitic split up around 8,000 years ago, Afro-Asiatic about 12,000 years ago. Even proponents of the Nostratic hypothesis would usually say it split up something like 15,000 years ago. – Daniel Briggs Jan 25 '12 at 2:41

Well, I'm re-reading your question. If you're trying to help your Anthropology Prof friend, then I don't understand what his goal is. Conlangs are either used for recreational or fiction writing goals. There is some overlap with science, but not a lot. Now the intersection of anthropology and PIE is interesting-- the gist is that culture affects language (which is less controversial than the idea that language affects culture), so a society with a word for sheep, probably at least has seen a sheep and maybe considers it important enough to have a simple word for it.

The Horse, The Wheel and Language is a reasonably accessible book on this approach of linking the evidence of PIE with the archeological record in trying to say something about Old Europe. http://www.amazon.com/Horse-Wheel-Language-Bronze-Age-Eurasian/dp/0691058873

Here is a dictionary to proto-indo european: http://www.utexas.edu/cola/centers/lrc/ielex/

The words in "Quest for Fire" have no relationship to PIE except that Burgess may have been influenced by modern IE languages in picking his words ("vir" and "bratt" especially). Anatomically modern humans arrived in Europe 50,000 years ago and either arrived right after the collapse of Neanderthal life or helped finish it off. Your 80,000 number is solidly in the time of Neanderthals in Europe-- you'll get different estimates from different archaeologists and the time line has been evolving rapidly over the last few decades. In the movie, the language for which you provide the wordlist is the Neanderthal langauge. At best, it appears that a small number of Neanderthals bred with modern humans (as there appear to be Neanderthal genes in modern Europeans), but I doubt any substrate language would have persisted. We aren't even sure if Neanderthals could talk (I think they did, but there aren't a lot of slam dunk pieces of evidence for it). In any case, PIE wasn't spoken in Europe until ~6000 years ago (tops!) before that, according to Anthony, PIE was a language spoken in the south of the Ukraine.

"...overlay it with a plausible and constructed syntax..."

This is the realm of pure fiction and art. There are several attempts in the origin of language to speculate on what plausibly could have come first-- for example, in Adam's Tongue, there is a discussion about if the earliest syntax was non-recursive "beads on a string" or if it used recursion and would be diagrammed with tree diagrams that look something like the sentence diagrams you saw in English class. But that is a long way from putting together a specific list of rules and saying, this is how they would have formed sentences.

  • You read between the lines well! The point of my Anthro friend's (he's primarily a primatologist with an interest in early human migration) project is to recreate a living and experimental display for students to observe and cogitate over. It's a sort of recreateion involving creating primitive clothing with primitive tools for the given environment that existed during the time Homo heidelbergensis/Homo neanderthalensis would have interacted with Homo sapien. We decided that having a bit of language would help compliment the material culture created for the project- it is not field science. – Brandon Minton Jan 24 '12 at 22:11
  • That said, I agree with all your comments. Our project is the realm of fiction meets art, but we would like to, as a foundation, base it on something close to reality as possible but it appears this is not possible. Without being totally fantasy-oriented, it appears PIE is the most reasonable option for early homo sapiens (but obviously not neanderthalensis) in your opinion then? – Brandon Minton Jan 24 '12 at 22:22
  • 1
    No, PIE misses the dawn of man (Homo heidelbergensis) by about 34,000 to 74,000 years (i.e. 40-80 minus 6) See "The Origin of Language" by Ruhlen, who uses some rather clever techniques to group language families and as a side effect, create some interesting conjectures for common words in proto-Human, like water, pronouns systems, etc. Also, the culture that spoke PIE had wheels, wagons, domesticated animals-- a long way from the hunter gatherers of the dawn of man in. – MatthewMartin Jan 25 '12 at 20:43
  • 2
    @BrandonMinton Yes, if you're after pure fiction then Merrit Ruhlen's works are what you want. See the review by Trask here. – Gaston Ümlaut Jan 27 '12 at 2:07
  • 1
    @MatthewMartin There are people doing work on the origin of language that is methodologically sound, and with whom most historical linguists are willing to engage, but Ruhlen is not one of them. Surely SE is not the place to promote fringe theorists and crackpots? – Gaston Ümlaut Jan 28 '12 at 1:58

PIE was spoken in Eastern Europe between 4000 and 3000 years BC (6000-5000 years before now). Apparently it is far from what time scale that u want. The language was similar to Ancient Greek and Latin.

Therere is a lot of online sources on PIE language, including the Pokorny dictionary, Wikitionary and others. If u want I can provide some links, but I am afraid it is not exactly what u would want.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.