Oldest known language(s)

Discussion in 'Linguistics' started by skaught, Feb 24, 2010.

  1. skaught The field its covered in blood Valued Senior Member

    I've been reading up on sanskrit, and the information seems to suggest that it is the oldest known of the indo-european languages. Do we know of any indo european languages that are older? Do we know of any language that is older?
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  3. skaught The field its covered in blood Valued Senior Member

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  5. mathman Valued Senior Member

    Sumerian is the oldest known language in terms of writing (approximately 3000 BCE). Indus valley language (not yet deciphered) is later. Sanskrit may be the oldest Indo-European language - do you have any dates? Middle East Indo-European languages date (I'm guessing) from a little later than 2000 BCE.
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  7. Fraggle Rocker Staff Member

    The only hard evidence we have of any language, prior to the era of electronic recording, is writing. The oldest writings in Sanskrit are dated around 1500BCE.

    Per Wikipedia, which I usually find reasonably accurate on topics of linguistics, especially in aggregate, we have writing dating from much older than Sanskrit, to contemporary with it, in the following languages (some of which are attested only in writings in another language):
    • Sumerian, 3100BCE
    • Egyptian, 2700BCE
    • Eblaite, 2400BCE
    • Akkadian, 2300BCE
    • Hurrian, 2000BCE
    • West Semitic, 1800BCE
    • Luwian, 1800BCE
    • Minoan 1700BCE
    • Hittite, 1650BCE
    • Canaanite, 1500BCE
    • Greek, 1400BCE
    • Hattic, 1300BCE
    • Ugaritic 1300BCE
    • Chinese 1200BCE
    Several of these cannot be related to any known language.

    Luwian, Hittite and Greek are members of the Indo-European family. Hittite and Luwian belong to the Anatolian branch of the family, which is long extinct, and broke off from the tree before the Eastern and Western branches separated, so they retain proto-Indo-European forms that are not found in any existing language.

    There are several Afro-Asiatic languages on that list, including Egyptian, Eblaite, Akkadian, West Semitic and Canaanite.

    Linguistic analysis of obviously related languages can be correlated with anthropological and genetic clues to the migrations of their speakers, providing evidence of ancestral languages that can only be reconstructed and dated hypothetically. Based on such evidence, Proto-Indo-European has been dated conservatively to 4000BCE, and less securely as far back as 7000BCE. A fair amount of this language's vocabulary, grammar and syntax has been reconstructed--meaning that a linguist could probably have a very simple conversation with a native speaker after a few days of learning the accent, correcting errors in the reconstruction and filling some important gaps.

    Anthropological and genetic evidence trumps linguistic analysis in tracing the Afro-Asiatic family. Its speakers were dispersed across two continents when the original Indo-European tribe was still confined to a relatively small area somewhere in the Ural-Caucasus region. Because of this, the most conservative estimate for earliest existence of a proto-Afro-Asiatic language is around 7500BCE, with some scholars pushing it to 15000BCE. The relationship between the Semitic languages and the languages of northern Africa was first noticed a thousand years ago by an Algerian scholar who was familiar with Berber, Hebrew and Aramaic. Five of the six branches of Afro-Asiatic are African: Cushitic, Berber, Ethiopic, Egyptian and Chadic.

    No other language family has been studied as thoroughly as these two. We're still arguing whether Finno-Ugric and Ural-Altaic are one family or two.

    It's especially unfortunate that we haven't managed to make sense out of the languages of the New World. If they all belong to a single family, then we can immediately date it to the arrival of Homo sapiens in the Western Hemisphere, which hasn't been firmly established but it's at least 13000BCE.

    In any case the bigger challenge is to find relationships among the language families, which would prove that the technology of spoken language was not invented many times in many places, but perhaps once, back in the African homeland, and all modern languages are descended from it. The 10,000-year veil makes that difficult: everything about a language--vocabulary, phonetics, grammar, syntax, even its underlying view of reality and the cosmos--can turn over completely in 10,000 years. Look at how far English and Russian have diverged from each other in three or four millennia; Chinese was not a tonal language a mere 2,000 years ago. So to be unable to imagine how Japanese, with its topic-description syntax, could be related to Indo-European, with its subject-verb-object, is merely to be unable to see through that 10,000-year veil.

    So to summarize:
    • The oldest languages of which we have written evidence go back at least five thousand years.
    • The oldest language of which we have good evidence from other sciences but no actual records goes back almost ten thousand years.
    • Anything beyond that, regarding when and where language was first invented, and whether this occurred only once, is speculation.
  8. kmguru Staff Member

    As usual, history is by the white man....what the people were speaking during African Exodus? (Christopher Stringer) - some 40,000 to 98,000 BCE?
  9. superstring01 Moderator

    What does it matter whether it was a white man or a black man, as long as the information is correct?

  10. Jack_ Banned Banned

    Anything beyond that, regarding when and where language was first invented, and whether this occurred only once, is speculation.

    Nice post.

    There is an issue.

    Early languages are very diverse.

    This could indicate humans evolved language independently and simultaneously.

    If there were trade and interaction, we would see similarities in the ancient languages.

    It would be quite remarkable if a large collection of human groups evolved language at the same time.
  11. kmguru Staff Member

    That is the point. The information is usually biased since there were few researchers born and raised in those part of the world that was ignored. It is like Mr. Universe. Do people really come from the Universe. Most of the time, they are localized fact...not global.
  12. superstring01 Moderator

    You state "usually biased", but this is not a "usual" case. Linguistic researchers THRIVE on finding out the newest, bestest thing. I doubt you could prove that there is a "white bias" in linguistic research and all you've essentially got is a racially charged epithet that fits nicely into your worldview. The few linguists I've ever known have spent oodles of time in places like Peru, South Africa and various Native American tribes desperately scribbling down whatever they could get before the information disappears.

  13. kmguru Staff Member

    So have you read the book "Real Roots of German, Greek, Latin & English" by Rangi Ranganath?

    See at: http://www.authorsonline.co.uk/book...tin and English - Mini Word Origin Directory/

    Let us see how racially neutral you are!
  14. Fraggle Rocker Staff Member

    I don't quite see your point. The grouping of humans into a "white race" and a "black race" appears to have been an American invention 200-250 years ago, as a way to justify slavery. Europeans have never been quite so focused on skin color as my people are. Religion and language were more important to them as reasons for discrimination or persecution.

    Americans persecuted people with dark skins. Europeans persecuted Jews--and often other Europeans.
    As I noted prominently, we don't even know if the technology of language had been invented yet. We have not yet found any way to trace the development of any language further back than about 10,000 years.

    It has been suggested (obviously by linguists) that language may have been the key technology that allowed humans to successfully migrate out of Africa at all. It's a little hard to believe that no one had tried it before, so what thwarted them? Perhaps they didn't have language, which makes the planning and coordination of a major project much easier to do successfully. Perhaps language was invented 65KYA, right before the first successful emigration. But if so, then because of that 10,000 year limit, we have no way of knowing what language they spoke.
    As a result of the revolution in DNA analysis, the migration has recently been dated with much greater precision than that. It turns out there were two waves. The first was around 60KYA, during an ice age when rainfall was low and there was a famine in Africa. Sea level is much lower during an Ice Age, because so much of the planet's water is trapped in the polar icecaps, so it was rather easy to walk into Asia. They kept going, walking along Asia's southern coastline, looking for a place with more food. Eventually they reached Australia, which wasn't as difficult as it seems because of those low sea levels, which made it easy to travel across the narrow straits between the islands in Stone Age boats. Because of the vagaries of the climate, Australia was not having a famine, so they settled there and became the ancestors of the Native Australian people. This shows clearly in their DNA. Traces of this DNA are found in people living today along Asia's southern coast--which of course is much further north with today's higher sea level--evidence that a few people decided to stop walking and make a life in Asia.

    The second wave of migration occurred about 10K years later. The weather wasn't so bad then and there was food in Asia; perhaps they were just interested in exploring, or perhaps population pressure in Africa made them feel like looking for a new place to live. These people became the ancestors of all modern non-African people except the Native Australians. (Some of them came back to Africa around 10KYA. The spread of the Sahara Desert had forced the Africans to move south, so eventually a few tribes from Asia came over and managed to establish colonies there. They became the Berbers, Egyptians, etc.)

    Interestingly enough, both groups of emigrants from Africa were from the same tribe: the San, or "Bushmen" as they used to be called. We can tell this from DNA. The DNA of the San is very close to ours (and that of the Native Australians), whereas the other modern African people are not so closely related to us. The San used to live up in northeastern Africa so the march into Asia was not so far. Over thousands of years they have moved south--like all the other original African peoples--so they are no longer in their original homeland.

    To get back on topic, the language that the San speak today bears no discernable resemblance to any non-African language. Just as the non-African language families have no discernable relationship to each other. It could be that language was invented after that intrepid band of San waved goodbye to their friends, or it could be that their language has changed so much in 50,000 years that any trace of similarity has vanished. That 10,000 year limit is certainly annoying.
    We don't know very much about the earliest languages we have available to study: Proto-Indo-European, Proto-Afro-Asiatic, a few fundamental building blocks of Finno-Ugric and Ural-Altaic, guesses about ancient Sino-Tibetan, ancient Malayo-Polynesian, ancient Athabascan, ancient Na-Dene, etc. So to say that we know anything at all about the even older languages is just wishful thinking.

    Still, even modern languages are very diverse. To learn Hopi requires learning to look at the universe from a completely different perspective than ours. Japanese is almost as alien to us: a sentence is a description that pertains to a topic, rather than an action that links a subject to an object. Even Chinese challenges our assumptions about how time works and how things relate to each other: no present, past and future, no singular and plural; no prepositions: relationships are expressed in intricate detail using nouns and verbs; no adjectives: attributes are expressed as states rather than properties.
    Well sure. Many technologies were invented in more than one place and time by more than one community: the bow and arrow, pottery, farming, animal husbandry, the wheel, metallurgy. But then there were some that were only invented once and were so successful that they spread quickly: the domestication of dogs and cats, the phonetic alphabet, treating zero as a number.

    We can only guess which category language falls into. We know that it is more than ten thousand years old because we can trace a couple of language families that far back. A language can change unrecognizably in ten thousand years, so we have no way of knowing if the ones that exist today have a common ancestor.
    Well don't trip over the Paleolithic/Neolithic cusp. Before the Agricultural Revolution, around 9500BCE, the "economy" produced no surplus, so there wasn't much of anything to trade. Trade was limited to the occasional talisman for good luck, or the occasional daughter to clean up the tribal gene pool, until farming and animal husbandry were invented. Then the Neolithic Era ("the Late Stone Age") dawned; people stopped chasing game through the forest and settled down into permanent farming villages. The first surplus in history existed, and there was a little division of labor so a few things could be produced that were not essential to survival. At this point, ancient tribes began to engage in commerce. And also at this point, their languages began to loan and borrow words.

    So you wouldn't expect ancient languages in the Paleolithic Era (the "Early Stone Age," when people lived in small extended-family units of nomadic hunter-gatherers) to borrow very many words from each other.
    I would use the phrase "statistically unlikely."

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    Nonetheless, it could have been invented at different times in several different places that were distant from each other, and as each language spread, after a hundred generations its speakers would eventually run into speakers of another language, and neither would have any way of knowing which one was older.

    We linguists, of course, think that language was the key technology that turned Homo sapiens into the apex predator, the dominant species on this planet. So if one tribe had language, they would be more successful than their neighbors, who would borrow the technology. It would spread pretty fast that way.

    Language makes it possible to plan and organize an endeavor in greater detail. Considering that in the modern era the vast majority of our thoughts are formed in words, with a few exceptions like musicians and sculptors, it's easy to adopt a haughty attitude and assert that our pre-linguistic ancestors were very limited in their thinking ability.
  15. kmguru Staff Member

    According to Wikipedia at

    The only archaeological evidence for an invasion of the Basque Country dates to some 40,000 years ago when Cro-Magnon people first arrived in Europe and superseded Homo neanderthalensis. Another possibility is that a precursor of the Basque language may have arrived with the advance of agriculture, some 6,000 years ago.

    The Basque genetic markers also reveal a very strong relationship with the Celtic peoples of Ireland, Wales and Cornwall.[6][7] The shared markers are suggestive of having passed through a genetic bottleneck during the peak of the last ice age, which would mean the two peoples were in Europe by at least about 17,000 years ago, and probably 45,000 to 50,000 years ago.

    Assuming Basque is the oldest language in Europe, here is Tamil in India that has too many similarities. Based on the thesis and books by Rangi Ranganath, Tamil supersedes Basque language and hence could be the oldest living language.

    More From Mahadeva
    by Rangi Ranganath


    This book identifies the parents of euskara (Basque) language, the oldest language of Europe. euskara (Basque) language is no longer isolate. Its Indian origins could not be traced by anybody not familiar with ancient Indian languages like Tamil, Sanskrit, Brahui, Hindi and Urdu.

    Many people in Europe and the Americas identify themselves with the Basque people who have made outstanding contributions to art and music.

    As such harsh revisions of phony history are mandated.
  16. princelove Registered Senior Member

    Hello every body
  17. Fraggle Rocker Staff Member

    * * * * NOTE FROM THE MODERATOR * * * * Lack of evidence for a hypothesis is not equivalent to evidence to the contrary.

    It's universally acknowledged that the Basques are a pre-Indo-European people, the only one surviving in modern Europe. (There are other non-Indo-European peoples there, such as the Turks, Bulgars, Magyars, Finns, Estonians, Sami and Jews, but they all arrived later, during historical times.)

    There is plenty of evidence of other pre-Indo-European peoples which are either extinct, or which were marginalized and assimilated when the Indo-Europeans arrived, bringing the more advanced agriculture and other technologies their forebears had been exposed to while living near the early civilizations in west Asia. The only one we can name is the Etruscans (although that's our name for them, not theirs), who founded a civilization in Italy about the same time the Greeks were founding theirs. They had a written language and have been studied extensively, but their language is an isolate and we have no idea where they came from, aside from speculation that they were related to the Minoans.

    Stonehenge was built before the Indo-European Celts arrived in the British Isles, but our knowledge of them is minimal and does not explain their origin. The Picts lived in Scotland clear up into Roman times. But the border between Scotland and the southern part of Britannia (now England and Wales) has always been rather difficult to traverse. Even the Romans didn't have enough contact with the Picts to figure out whether they were a Celtic tribe or pre-Indo-Europeans, perhaps related to the Stonehenge people.

    The Romans--always meticulous recordkeepers--recorded the names of tribes in Iberia and southern France who were probably pre-Indo-European, but (with the single exception of the Basques) they overran, marginalized and/or assimilated them before getting around to cataloguing their languages, leaving us no clue to their ethnicity.
    It's not clear to me whether the Indo-Europeans were only the second wave of H. sapiens migration into Europe, and therefore everyone who was already living there would have to be descended from the very first wave 40K years earlier. In that long period there could easily have been multiple migrations from various parts of Asia and/or Africa. Each successive wave would bring new technology that was radiating outward from the rapidly developing Middle East, India, China and/or North Africa, facilitating their dominance over the people they found there. The ancestors of the Basques might have come over in one of the intermediate migrations.

    Technology, especially early technology, is primarily composed of knowledge rather than artifacts and materials. As such it can spread almost as fast as people can talk. When we find the technology of agriculture introduced into a region, we can't automatically know whether it was invented there independently, or simply the result of the exchange of ideas with the neighbors. We know the places where agriculture was invented for the very first time because they are so geographically disparate: Mesopotamia, India, China, Egypt, southern Mexico, Peru, southeastern USA, etc. But after that it's almost impossible to discern the genesis of newer sites.

    So I'm not sure we know how many layers of colonization there are in prehistoric Europe. Hopefully we'll get that all sorted out rather quickly as DNA analysis becomes faster and cheaper. A quantum improvement in our knowledge of the migrations of ancient people has already occurred in this century--that's how we know so much about the two waves of migration out of Africa 60KYA and 50KYA. A few people along the southern coast of Asia are the only ones outside of Africa who share genetic markers with the aboriginal Australians; it makes that migration path stand out like an airport runway at night.
    That seems to be an opinion included in the Wikipedia article for completeness, not part of the consensus summarized at the end. The origin of the Celts is well attested in the archeological record: they were the first Indo-European tribe in Europe and colonized the entire continent south of Scandinavia, the British Isles, and parts of Turkey.

    Like all early colonizers, the Celts were eclipsed by those who came later with superior technology, in this case other Indo-Europeans: the Hellenic, Italic, Germanic and Slavic tribes. Their descendants now live only in Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Cornwall and Brittany. (The English people have some Celtic DNA, but they are culturally and linguistically Anglo-Saxons who appropriated the name of the original "Britons" and renamed their country Angle Land--and then were in turn conquered by the Normans, who made Anglisc resemble French almost more than German.) If they share genetic markers with the Basques, it has to be due to intermarriage back in their heyday when the Celts ruled Europe. The Celts have only been in Europe for around 3,000 years.
    I question Ranganath's scholarship.
    • True scholars submit their work for peer review before publication, and inflammatory language like "harsh revisions of phony history" is blue-penciled. This book appears to have been vanity-published. That means we have no verification of the author's credentials, competence or integrity.
    • His reference to the cave paintings in the Basque region do not include evidence that the Basques lived there when they were painted. As I noted above, I have not seen a consensus of anthropologists that the people who lived in Europe when the Indo-Europeans arrived were the descendants of the very first wave of Homo sapiens migration that displaced the Neanderthals. The author does not explain why he thinks those paintings were the work of the Basques rather than an earlier unidentified ethnic group.
    • No scholar would casually group Tamil, Sanskrit, Brahui, Hindi and Urdu together without at least a qualifying footnote (or an annoying parenthetical expression like mine

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      ). Tamil and Brahui are Dravidian languages, a completely separate family from Indo-European.
    Therefore, as a linguist * * * * AND A MODERATOR * * * * I do not hold this source in high regard.
  18. superstring01 Moderator

    How "racially neutral" Wow. This is just ridiculous.

    First, I draw no conclusions myself. Second, if I'm going to believe anybody, it's not going to be a lone voice, in a book I've never heard of. Third, now that I HAVE heard it, and read the synopsis, my conclusion is: facinating. I don't know enough to agree or disagree with Ranganath's conclusions, but it seems that he, like the people you accuse, is equally motivated by "race" especially considering his Indian heritage.

    Last edited: Feb 25, 2010
  19. S.A.M. uniquely dreadful Valued Senior Member

    Many languages are lost. But what were Aboriginal Australians speaking? Arguably their civilisation extends 40,000 years
  20. sifreak21 Valued Senior Member

    sumarian is the oldest i know of VERY interesting TBH we dont even have all the dialect "spelling" decipherd
  21. iceaura Valued Senior Member

    A minor objection to Fraggle's posting:
    It's quite difficult to form thoughts in words, actually. Most people are only reasonably good at it, as we have all noticed when attempting to follow directions, recognize descriptions, interpret stenography without the framing and explanatory situation, or even remember what somebody said as opposed to what they seemed to have meant.

    Most of us can outthink our word forming abilities to a noticeable degree.

    On the other hand: When babies babble, when humans sing, in the process of naming, in entire arenas of of linguistic expression, we find nonsense syllables, strings of sounds that are not formations of thought. We have a sophisticated ability to invent and remember them.

    So language appears to be separable capability overlaid on thought, a different aspect of mental functioning. The feedback is of course huge, of very great significance - but it is feedback, between separate realms.

    Talking is not thinking, thinking is not talking - even to oneself.

    And this bears on the speculation regarding the early development of language.

    Last edited: Feb 25, 2010
  22. Fraggle Rocker Staff Member

    Correction: The aboriginal Australians had not invented the technology of civilization, which is, quite literally, "the building of cities." The timeline of human societies is as follows:
    • Paleolithic Era, "the Early Stone Age." It refers to stone tools, but specifically to the shaping and sharpening of stone tools by knapping, not simply the use of conveniently shaped stones that were found. Stone tools were also used for working wood. This began roughly 2.5MYA. Homo habilis was the first species in our genus and is referred to as "human" rather than "hominid" like the species of Ardipithecus, Pithecanthropus, etc. H. habilis invented the technology of stone toolmaking. Paleolithic tribes were nomadic hunter-gatherers, generally extended-family groups of a couple of dozen people who had known each other intimately since birth. Our species' pack-social instinct motivated them unconsciously to trust and care for their pack-mates, but in an "economy" with no way to produce or store a significant surplus, competition with other packs could be fierce during lean times. There were Paleolithic tribes in remote places like New Guinea and the Amazon well into the modern era, but contact with civilization immediately began to change them unpredictably (now they have chain saws and iPods) so it's not clear how much we can learn about our distant ancestors by studying these people.
    • Mesolithic Era, "the Middle Stone Age." Both the name and the era are not precisely defined, but it seems to me that the key technology was pottery, which is nearly useless to nomads because it's too fragile and bulky to carry around without wheels or draft animals, so it's normally a Neolithic identifier. Some tribes were able to establish semipermanent settlements, particularly based on fishing, where they lived for several months and could build and keep possessions. They even managed to transcend their nature, override their pack-social instinct, and trade with nearby Neolithic communities. Oddly, the Mesolithic Era was a dead end everywhere evidence of it has been discovered (with one glaring exception, keep reading), rather than a path toward the Neolithic Revolution. It didn't happen very often and I haven't encountered much information about Mesolithic societies. I don't know if any of them survived into the modern era (again with that one glaring exception).
    • The Neolithic Era, "the Late Stone Age." This was a Paradigm shift, even in Toffler's stingy three-shift model. The twin technologies of agriculture (farming and animal husbandry) created the first significant and reliable food surplus the planet had ever seen, freeing humans from the famine cycle and the need to treat other tribes as rivals. It also required humans to give up the nomadic lifestyle and build permanent settlements. An efficient farming community has to be larger than one extended family. So the paradigm shift of the Agricultural Revolution put pressure on humans to transcend their nature, and use reasoning and learning to overcome their pack-social instinct in order for several packs to live together in harmony and cooperation for their mutual benefit. As I noted above, there are no known instances of a society transforming from Mesolithic to Neolithic. All Neolithic communites emerged from the Paleolithic, i.e., the Late Stone Age directly followed the Early Stone Age. During the Neolithic Era many of the most significant technological advances occurred, such as the invention of the wheel and the domestication of draft animals, which greatly increased our ability to travel. Neolithic societies routinely traded with one another.
    • Civilization, literally the technology of "building cities." Toffler does not count this as a Paradigm Shift, but I do because it forced a major change in our species' world view. Cities require learning to live in harmony and cooperation with total strangers, a quantum jump in our transcendence over the pack-social instinct that is our nature. So many new concepts were necessary for cities to work, such as government, recordkeeping and money. Together, I insist that this was just as big a shift in our world view as the Agricultural Revolution. The first cities were built with stone tools out of stone and wood, so this was still the Neolithic Era. The original cities were Stone Age cities in the six places where they arose independently: Mesopotamia, Egypt, India, China, Mexico and Peru.
    • Writing was invented during the Bronze Age so we all know considerably more about that period in history and all the subsequent ones. This was finally the end of the Stone Age: the invention of the technology of metal toolmaking. I have written in other threads of why I call the Bronze Age and the Iron Age Paradigm Shifts (each caused a major change in our world view), but Toffler skips them and goes directly to the Industrial Revolution, followed by the Age of Electronics. (He called it the Information Age but he was writing forty years ago. I'll hold telephony, recorded music and TV up against computers and the internet for having instituted fundamental changes in our world view.) That's how he gets three Paradigm Shifts instead of my six.
    So let's get our terminology straight. The aborigial Australians had not started to build cities, so their culture cannot be called a "civilization," a word with a very precise anthropological meaning, especially on the Linguistics subforum. Dictionaries don't define it as succinctly as I do, but their primary definitions all include attributes that only cities have, such as a high level of government and industry.

    The Australians were hunter-gatherers, but only semi-nomadic, so they were in the Mesolithic Era, the Middle Stone Age. They had no metal technology. They were quite advanced and had formed alliances.

    If they had been left alone, perhaps they would have been the first people to successfully make the transition from a Mesolithic culture to Neolithic, by planting crops, domesticating food animals, and building permanent settlements. The world might eventually have seen a seventh independently created civilization arise.
  23. kmguru Staff Member

    I gave you an alternate view, rather than discussing the merits of the information contained therein, you think he has a bias and therefore he made up the words that people have been using for thousands of years!

    Amazing! You still did not get my point. That is understandable. In this forum, we all are common people trying to discuss ground breaking ideas - that is bound to fail.

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