The Indonesian island of Flores and its neighbors host two unusual languages, called Ke’o and Ngadha. They have extremely simple grammar — surprising for Austronesian languages, which generally have complex grammar. Languages often simplify when they share land with foreign-language speakers, and the two groups communicate through a “creole” or simplified dialect. (English simplified that way after the Vikings invaded.) But until recently, Flores history hasn’t offered an obvious candidate for the foreigners in question. In 2004, however, anthropologists discovered fossils on Flores from a species they named Homo floresiensis: a small relative of ours often called “hobbits.” (See my post on hobbits and other pre-humans.) Linguist John McWhorter has suggested these hobbits provide Flores’ missing linguistic link.
We don’t have evidence of Homo floresiensis after 15,000 B.C.E.: too far back to have shaped a modern language. But folklore tells of “little people” living on Flores as late as 500 years ago. If the hobbits still lurked in the jungles during the last few thousand years — and if they spoke — they could be the “foreigners” who simplified the language that became Ke’o and Ngadha.
Sadly, we have reasons to doubt. McWhorter himself has pointed out another candidate for the foreigners who simplified Ke’o and Ngadha: plain old Homo sapiens from a neighboring island, Sulawesi, who ruled part of Flores during the 1600’s and 1700’s. But I’m holding out for further evidence supporting McWhorter’s hobbit theory.
- Check out McWhorter’s post on Ke’o and Ngadha.
- Photo: Restoration model of Homo floresiensis. Exhibit in the National Museum of Nature and Science, Tokyo, Japan, by Momotarou2012 — provided through Wikimedia Commons.
© 2014 by David W. Tollen. All rights reserved.