> Using the best theories we have about human migration we could
> probably also say that the first words for "mud" and "dust" are
> earlier than the first words for "snow" and "ice". Just as "grass"
> might have come before "pine".

this seems to imply that whenever early humans stumbled upon something they
had never seen before (be it ice or pine trees or even fire), they would
just make up a word for it from random jumbles of available phonemes.  it
could be that, upon the discovery of some totally novel phenomenon, the
tribal shaman would be consulted and spout out a word for whatever it was.
and this isn't totally illegitimate, since the etymologies of many modern
technical terms, for instance, are either very absurd or nonexistent.  (take
the quark in particle physics, which doesn't really mean anything
historically, except the imitative sound of a duck in a certain james joyce
work; or "google," or what have you.)

but isn't it more likely that some extant lexical item was applied to the
newly discovered thing, rather than a word being made up from scratch
(excluding the possibility of loanwords from tribes already acquainted with
the novel thing)?  i am no expert on this aspect of linguistic anthropology,
but it makes sense to me that it would be far easier for the first
snow-discoverers (who probably had to exist, as you said, given the best
theories about human migration) to use a word that they already possessed to
describe this new thing, or throw two or three together (cold-water,
cold-fall, cold-fall-water, etc.), than simply to spout out a totally
ambiguous and unheard-of string of phonemes and apply it to the new thing.

so if this is true, in what sense can the "words" (by which we mean
historically continuous entities that evolve phonologically and semantically
throughout time -- or do you mean something else?) for the new discoveries
of snow or pine or fire to be "younger" than those that chanced not to be
applied to the new discoveries?

On Thu, Jul 21, 2011 at 8:35 AM, Gary Shannon <[log in to unmask]> wrote:

> On Wed, Jul 20, 2011 at 9:20 PM, Padraic Brown <[log in to unmask]>
> wrote:
> >
> > Words like "chicken" and "egg" certainly predate all written history and
> > quite possibly stretch back into such remote ages that we would now have
> > no hope of accomplishing this task.
> Even so  think that in some cases a compelling case could be made for
> certain word pairs. For example, it seems reasonable to hypothesize
> that early man occasionally raided nests for wild bird eggs for food.
> And it seems equally likely that this happened before the
> domestication of the wild bird that eventually, through selective
> breeding, became the domestic chicken. That being the case I think
> might be reasonable to hypothesize that the word "egg" came before the
> word "chicken". As for the pairs "duck/egg", or "goose/egg", those are
> probably impossible even to make reasonable guesses at.
> Using the best theories we have about human migration we could
> probably also say that the first words for "mud" and "dust" are
> earlier than the first words for "snow" and "ice". Just as "grass"
> might have come before "pine".
> Considering that for a very long time only the crudest of stone tools
> and implements were fashioned by chipping, it was probably a long time
> after a word for "tree" that the generalization "wood" came into
> existence, (not to mention a word for "board") and a word for "cloth"
> certainly came long after the words for "hide" or "fur".
> I would also guess that food was one of the earliest concepts to be
> immortalized in verbal form. The names of the animals they hunted and
> the berries and roots they gathered probably came pretty early. Even
> chimps have different vocal signals depending on what kind of food
> they've found. For all we know the first sentence ever uttered was
> along the lines of "Hey guys, come check out these blueberries I
> found!" At any rate, the tropical African species probably had words
> before the more temperate and arctic species did.
> So while I don't think we can ever put even approximate dates on
> words, I think we might be able to put quite a few of them into a
> reasonable chronological order. Archeologists refer to the process as
> "seriation". I was once involved in writing some software to do
> seriation of pottery shards for a university where I worked. It's
> fascinating stuff. So what would the process be called for seriation
> of words? I don't think "linguistic seriation" is quite right because
> that sounds like it's trying to put languages into a series. Nor would
> we be trying to put actual words in a series. Instead, the attempt
> would be to put concepts into a chronological series that reflected
> their relative introduction to human language as a whole. How about
> "semantic seriation"?
> --gary