phylum

The first I ever recall seeing this word was in an amusing collective art project called Beyond Exceptional Pass, displayed in the Whyte gallery at the Banff Public Library in 1978 (and preserved in a book, of which my father bought a copy – the which is now sitting in my lap as I write this). It was a fanciful natural and explorational history of an exceedingly strange place somewhere in the Canadian Rockies (in the Rear Ranges, to be precise). Somewhere around Tunoa Vale and Wake-Up Col, in an area explored by such notables as the Swedish pair Bjorn Frie and Liv Frie, along with the Azzyu lichens, are various exotic life forms belonging to the forgotten phylum. The explorers, not knowing just how to deal with them, assigned them all to the phylum Phorgettum.

Those who have studied biology and remembered much of it will know that a phylum is a rather high level in taxonomy, a division of kingdom and itself in turn divided into classes. Originally, the idea was that all members of the phylum were assumed to have had a common ancestor; now it’s more accurate to say they share a basic body plan.

So humans, for instance, are members of the phylum Chordata (of the kingdom Animalia), because we have backbones. So do an absolutely huge number of the critters around us; they’re all in the same phylum as we are. Taxonomically, we humans are just off in a little corner: Mammalia are just one type of chordate, and primates just one type of mammal, and hominids just one type of primate… In the kingdom Animalia, there are about 35 phyla, of which most are slimy things you’re probably never heard of, including quite a few different kinds of worms, which are apparently more different from one another than we are from, say, fish. And while there are over 100,000 species of Chordata and well over a million species of Arthropoda (which includes insects), some of these phyla have fewer than 100 species; two of them have one each (Placozoa and Micrognathozoa).

But I’ve been encountering the term phylum lately in linguistic contexts. When we study languages and their relations to one another, a phylum really is a group that is assumed to have a common single ancestor; family is another word sometimes used interchangeably. From that proto-whatever, various dialects formed and then diverged enough to be distinct languages (the line between dialect and language is very fuzzy, but at a certain point you know it’s a different language), and those diverged some more and so on. Indo-European is one language phylum. In Africa, there are generally thought to be four phyla: Afroasiatic (which includes Arabic and Hebrew, as well as Hausa and Somali, and a few hundred others), Nilo-Saharan (which includes Maasai and couple hundred you’re sure never to have heard of), Khoisan (which includes a couple dozen languages of the “Bushmen” and “Hottentots” – languages with a lot of click sounds), and Niger-Congo (which includes more than a thousand languages, some 500 of which are Bantu languages, ranging from Swahili to Zulu and Xhosa – yes, Xhosa is Bantu, not Khoisan). The especially interesting thing is that if you draw a tree of descent and divergence of the Niger-Congo languages, you have all these branches off near the top with just a few languages on them, and further down some branches with more languages, and then, way down in one corner several levels down, are all those Bantu languages. It’s like going down a hall with offices off it, opening a door into one office and finding doors into a few other offices from that office, and then opening what looks like a closet door in one of those offices and finding a concert hall.

It seems that in languages, as in creatures, most branches at high levels of division don’t branch that much further, but some just keep going and going and going. It’s sort of like file folders – real ones or ones in your computer: many have just a few items in them, but some have subfolders within subfolders within subfolders, and they’re pretty stuffed. Well, that’s just the way you file ’em.

Phylum is clearly taken from Greek, with that ph (which is typically either professorial or, lately, rad); its etymon is phulon “race, tribe”. It brings to mind (for classicists) the Battle of Phyle, about 404 BC, which was fought to restore democracy to Athens. It may also make one think of philtrum, the grooved bit of your upper lip under your nose. It may seem a lumpy kind of word, perhaps presenting itself humbly; at the very least, it has a softness and roundness to it, and nothing especially sharp-seeming. Which is fair enough for such a blunt instrument. It cannot escape having a bit of a silly or jokey overtone for me… presumably because of my first experience of it.

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