Random Thoughts

Ontogeny & Phylogeny In Life,

Language & Script

Ontogeny is the development of an embryo and phylogeny refers to the development of a phylum (group of related individuals). Earlier, an incorrect belief called recapitulation, implied that a given embryo goes through phases starting from the earliest ancestor and metamorphoses to its current form via stages. Thus a human embryo would begin as a unicellular one, then multicellular invertebrate, followed by a fish with gills, then a lizard like reptile, a bird, a mammal like mouse and then human. This is obviously false, but the human embryo does go from unicellular to multicellular, develops gills and branchial arches, a notochord and vertebral system and four limb buds before looking like a human.

All progeny of plants and those of many animals like insects, amphibians, fishes and some reptiles and rare birds like the cuckoo, get no care, input or guidance from their parents and thus have an inborn genetic program for their behavior, choice of food, living place and mating.

This happens because evolution is a tinkerer, and not an engineer. It modifies what is available and does not first make a blueprint and design, followed by building to specification. Its preferred mode is  mutating the switches more than even the genes, so that master genes products can effect small changes without wrecking the system. If you are studying a slide under the microscope and have brought the lens down on it by twiddling the gross adjustment knob so that the slide is visualized but slightly out of focus, then further improvement of visualization, requires twiddling a different (fine adjustment knob). If you twiddle the gross adjustment knob, you are more likely to break the slides by pushing the lens down into it or go completely out of focus by pulling the lens up.

It is usual for various nerves and arteries to retrace their original path in the ancestors. It is like the homeward or birthplace return of salmon for spawning. The young salmon migrate from their river birthplace to the sea and carry an imprint of the direction and smell of that water, to which they return to mate, spawn and die. The seventh cranial nerve known as the facial nerve arises from a bunch of neurons called its nucleus, which have migrated down, out and forward due to changed chemotactic signals in the human embryo together with the whole second branchial arch (precursor of gill slits in fishes), whose dedicated nerve it is. The nerve arises from its down, out and forward migrated nucleus and proceeds upward, inward and backward, and loops around the nucleus of the sixth nerve and forms a bump in the floor of the fourth ventricle of the brain, which is called the facial colliculus (from the Greek word “kolliculi” meaning a bump or elevation). Because of its close vicinity to the sixth nerve nucleus, it is damaged together with it by lesions in that area. This combined malfunction serves to localize the pathology in a patient.

A similar situation occurs with the recurrent laryngeal nerves whose lesions cause a hoarse voice. The recurrent laryngeal nerve lies in front of an artery as it descends and then loops around it behind the artery an ascends up to the larynx on each side. The problem is that during further development, the artery on the right becomes the subclavian, which supplies the right arm in its totality. On the left, the blood vessel grows bigger and becomes the aorta, the main artery from the heart. Thus the left recurrent laryngeal nerve has to descend further and rise higher to reach the larynx and lies in close proximity to the arch of the aorta and the left main bronchus (left branch of the windpipe). Because of this location, aneurysms of the arch of the aorta and carcinoma of the left bronchus, both, damage the nerve and cause hoarseness, an ominous sign in an elderly patient or a chronic smoker.

An additional point I wish to make is that all progeny of plants and those of many animals like insects, amphibians, fishes and some reptiles and rare birds like the cuckoo, get no care, input or guidance from their parents and thus have an inborn genetic program for their behavior, choice of food, living place and mating. This makes their behavior difficult to analyze. One way is to get independent confirmation about them from more than one source.

Let us take the Old Testament as an example. In Exodus, there is a description of Moses with his miraculous divine support from God, parting the Red Sea and freeing the Jews from slavery. On face value it is an impossible event and there is no confirmation from any other independent source in Egypt which kept meticulous records of the reign of pharaohs. There are similar problems about the resurrection of Christ and his many miracles and many conflicting reports of the same event in Mark, Matthew and Luke. Thus these events are of questionable validity.

On the other hand, the library of Ashurbanipal, the Assyrian king has documents confirming the Bible described attack of his grandfather Sennacherib, on the kingdom of Hezekiah, the Jewish king. It provides independent confirmation of the biblical story. While the stories of David and Solomon are profuse in Jewish and even Islamic literature, there is no convincing archaeological evidence for their existence and they fall in the same category as Rama and Ramayana and Mahabharata and Krishna. Until some Heinrich Schleimann does for David, Solomon, Rama and Krishna, what he did for Troy, we will have to persist with agnostic doubt.

My idea in this long preamble is to lay the background for ontogeny and phylogeny in languages. There is also a parallel in decipherment of ancient languages. The first was for Egyptian hieroglyphics in the Rosetta stone, dating from the rule of the Ptolemies and is in the British museum. It is an inscription in hieroglyphic (script), demotic script and Greek script and language. The Egyptian custom of enclosing the ruling pharaoh’s name in a cartouche, helped to decipher the script (Champoleon with earlier contributions from Young and Helmholtz) by comparing the Greek letters spelling Kleopatra with the other scripts and the extant language Coptic gave confirmation. The second such example is that of the inscriptions at Behistun in Iran. A smart British Civil Servant from India, named Rawlinson compared the inscription, all in cuneiform script, but in three languages Akkadian, Elamite and ancient Persian. Once again, the oversized ego of Darius, (the phrase, son of Cambyses and grandson of Cyrus with his title, king of kings - shah-en-shah) helped to decipher the script. Incidentally the final word in chess - checkmate - comes from the Persian shah mat or the king is dead.

The writing of languages was a later innovation. Human beings from the age of eighteen months to about 14 years have a window of extreme susceptibility to learning language and they do so by age two+ without ever having been formally taught grammar or reading a dictionary or thesaurus. Even severely retarded children with IQs of 60 or less are able to speak and understand the language they hear and speak it with the fluency and accent of a native speaker, even if it is not their parent’s or national language. This means that human vocalization is capable of perfectly reproducing all different consonants, phonemes and even clicks (in Bantu languages) and seem to lose this ability in their early teens. A similar short window for development of critical function exists for the eyes in kittens and human children.

The earliest scripts were pictographic and Chinese is probably the best example of a persistent one with modifications. The cuneiform script which was used for Sumerian, Akkadian, Hittite, Old Persian, Elamite. Aramaic, the lingua franca of the Middle East in 5th century BCE, was written in the script currently used for Hebrew. This family of scripts does not denote vowels and the natural conclusion is that it has to be either syllabic (alphabet signs read as pi, mo, nu etc. like Linear B, or incomplete like ancient Hebrew and Arabic. Thus we have pictographic scripts like ancient Chinese and early Sumerian, Syllabic scripts like Linear B in which Greek was written before and the Semitic consonant based script which is incomplete. The two most refined scripts were formulated by the Greeks who added vowel signs to the Semitic Phoenician alphabet and the Hindus of India who modified the Semitic alphabet by adding vowels as well, but denoted the vowels by specific notations above, below or after the letter (Devanagri script). It is impossible to mispronounce words in the Devanagri script and spelling mistakes are only in vowels, but rare, and do not obscure the meaning.

Linear B, a script in which ancient Greek was written was syllabic and deciphered by an architect named Michael Ventris, who was an amateur. Later Semitic languages were written in the Phoenician alphabet which we use today. The Semitic scripts for early Hebrew and Arabic were written only as consonants and without vowels. The king or leader in Mesopotamia was spelt as mlch and pronounced malek. In Sanskrit speaking India which had taken the Semitic alphabet and added the vowels, a, aa, ay, ai, au, u, oo, by marks above or below the letters denoting consonants, that word was pronounced mleccha and meant something like a foreign devil in Chinese. The Greeks are the other civilization which took the Semitic Phoenician alphabet and added vowels to it. Indians with their idea of a perfect language, Sanskrit, devised the perfect Devanagri script in which there can be no ambiguous spelling or pronunciation.

Consonant Signs (with Inherent a-Vowel)

Velar ka kha ga gha nga
Patal cha chha ja jha yan
Retroflex ta ttha da dha ana
Dental ta ttha da dha ana
Labial pa pha ba bha ma
Semi-Vowels ra la va
Sibilants sha sha sa
Aspirate ha

Over three thousand years ago, the Hindu linguists  had classified the consonants depending on whether their articulation was from the throat (velar or guttural), front end of the hard palate (palatal), apex of the hard palate (retroflex), tongue touching the back of the front teeth (dental), purely lip motion (labials), semi-vowels and sibilants. About 2800 years later modern Western scientific improvement divided them further into voiced and unvoiced, aspirated and unaspirated, though the Hindus had remarked on it, without the sub-classification.

In the second part we will see how in the eighteenth, nineteenth and early twentieth century Sanskrit became the compass to explore the entire family of Indo-European languages because of its etymology and clear lucid rules of  inflection. We will look at the etymology of English words as an exploration of English’s ontogeny and the seemingly perverse nature of its spelling and pronunciation and the phylogeny of the Indo-European family and differentiate the arbitrary nature of dissociation (cleavage) between meaning and script in human language and the unbreakable association of script and meaning (also cleavage - auto-antonym) in the language of genes. 
Continued Part 2 


More by :  Gaurang Bhatt, MD

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