Origins of Language

More at the New York Times


6 thoughts on “Origins of Language

  1. I have a lot of issues with the statement “a language area uses fewer phonemes the farther that early humans had to travel from Africa to reach it”. For one thing, the area where Navajo is spoken is about as far from Africa as you can get, and it’s got one of the largest phonemic inventories in the world. For another, there are processes like language replacement (which did happen in southern Africa during the Bantu expansion), pidginization and Sprachbund effects that can reduce the phonemic diversity of an area, even across languages. Finally, there’s a recent history of biologists repeating the mistakes of early glottochronology by applying their methods to language without consultation with any practicing linguists.
    That said, it’s a pretty novel idea and has some real potential. Not having read the paper, the endorsement from Donald Ringe carries a lot of weight. I was just citing a guest blog post by Ringe this morning and wondering when the next volume in his Linguistic History of English is coming out.

  2. Readers might also be interested in this old Language Log post on Atkinson’s previous work applying his methods to Proto-Indo-European chronology. It involves a bit more statistical theory than I understand, but has some really good background on why language change isn’t quite the same thing as genetic mutation.
    (I’m currently half-way through this excellent book, which dates the PIE spread to specific archaeological horizons in the 3rd and 4th millennia BCE, a dating which agrees with the linguistic consensus. Laura, I’d recommend it to Steve if he’s at all fond of pre-history.)

  3. You should try killing threads with bad puns. But, the WSJ article you link to say, “In an analysis of 504 world languages, Dr. Atkinson found that, on average…”
    In other words, they may have not even counted Navaho in the study. If they did, it was only one language among those averaged.

  4. As a former linguist, I have to say: interesting theory. Without knowing the details, I can state that within the period of historical language change, there has been cases of languages that shift from fewer sounds to more (within the Indo-European family, which was what I studied–although not reconstructed Indo-European, which is, I think, unnecessarily complicated), and there’s been plenty of language migration within Africa, known both historically and from comparative historical linguistics. So if it’s a good paper, it’ll account for these things.

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