February 15, 2012

Origin of language in Africa questioned

A new paper in Science is criticial of another recent paper in the same journal, which proposed that there was a diminution of phonemic diversity away from Southwest Africa, suggesting that region as the "birthplace of language".

I had expressed scepticism of that paper on different grounds; also somewhat related, I recently chanced upon a piece in Scientific American suggests that click sounds, for which languages of South Africa are famous are also found in English.

Getting back to the current article, quoting from a preprint I had obtained a while back:

Notwithstanding this criticism, we replicated Atkinson’s method using the UPSID data, but instead of a single origin in West Africa, we found two separate ‘origins’, one in East Africa and one in the Caucasus (Fig. S10). The BIC+4 range of possible origins covers a large area including also the Middle East and South Africa. Although this finding does not necessarily contradict an expansion form Africa, it does not provide clear support in its favor, either. Further, adding a quadratic distance factor to the model substantially improves the fit and suggests an alternative origin located in New Guinea with a small phoneme inventory (Fig. S10). Even more problematic, when we apply the original method to other inventory-like linguistic characteristics from WALS (Fig. 1) we find origins of global clines all over the world, not just in Africa, and not always corresponding to the highest structural ‘complexity’ (Fig. S11). Therefore, the observation of an Africa-based phoneme inventory cline does not generalize to other linguistic characteristics of a similar kind.

It would be great if linguistic methods could pinpoint the origin of language, but I am not so sure that it can be done. We don't even know which groups of hominins could speak. Interestingly a Kebaran Neandertal apparently had hyoid bones that suggested a modern-like capacity for speech. On the other hand, Kebara was apparently atypical of Neandertals in other aspects of morphology, deviating in a modern human direction, and postdating the major human expansion placed c. 70,000 years ago.

So, it may very well be that language was indeed unique to Homo sapiens, although, as the current paper aptly shows, tracing its origin in space may prove to be quite a challenge.

Science 10 February 2012: Vol. 335 no. 6069 p. 657 DOI: 10.1126/science.1208841

Comment on “Phonemic Diversity Supports a Serial Founder Effect Model of Language Expansion from Africa”

Michael Cysouw et al.

We show that Atkinson’s (Reports, 15 April 2011, p. 346) intriguing proposal—that global linguistic diversity supports a single language origin in Africa—is an artifact of using suboptimal data, biased methodology, and unjustified assumptions. We criticize his approach using more suitable data, and we additionally provide new results suggesting a more complex scenario for the emergence of global linguistic diversity.



Mike Keesey said...

As I understand it, this method isn't supposed to find where language originated, but where the last common ancestor of extant languages was spoken (i.e., the language "crown group"). (Although it seems pretty dubious that that could be done, either.)

terryt said...

"It would be great if linguistic methods could pinpoint the origin of language, but I am not so sure that it can be done. We don't even know which groups of hominins could speak".

To me it seems doubtful that language has a single 'origin' anyway. Throughout the world incoming languages have consistently replaced older languages, with the earlier language in each region leaving its mark as a substrate within the next language. Over time languages have become thoroughly mixed I would guess. So even if other hominin species could talk it is extremely unlikely that any of their languages survive other than as a tiny substrate within some modern group of languages.

Jim said...

"To me it seems doubtful that language has a single 'origin' anyway. "

The biggets impediemtnis is that the necessary data are simply missing, gone forever. Languages are not like organisms - in kanguage there is no DNA to read that can go back hundreds of million of years. all you get is what presents on the surface - the phonology, the lexicon, the morphology if there is any, and ll the other grammr. And all that stuff changes constantly, and once it's gone it can never be recovered. and there is nothing else to look at.

This stuff with counting the clicks was lauhable form the start. Why are phonemes more diagnostyic than anything else? They aren't. But they are easily to quantify than anything else. That's the only justification for the guy's entire method.

And he ignores data that conflcts with his thesis. Phonological complexity is a conservative trait? Okay then - then why are Pacific NW Coast languages, for one obvious example, so consonant heavy when so many languages much closer to Africa are not. how does hsi theory account for that? Presumably those languages should be more rahter than less "conservative".

And he doesn't even treat all phonolgical data equally - he ignores tones, which usually reflect earlier consonant complexity in a langauge - and he doesn't care to explain that.

Andrew Oh-Willeke said...

I'm sympathetic with what Atkinson is trying to do, but, as in some of his prior projects (where he got tree shape basically right, but had little solid basis for his absolute date) he overstates the power of the tools he's using with the evidence that he has to back it up.

There are some interesting hypotheses on phonological evolution in the paper that are interesting to explore, but he doesn't do a great job of doing that and gets distracted with an origin of language tale that the time depth of the data don't support instead.

I have very little doubt that all known languages are linguistic descendants of prior languages (i.e. that no prehistoric languages were simply constructed languages with no source in a prior language), that every group of proto-Eurasians spoke a language descended by one spoken by their ancestors in Africa, that modern humans evolved in Africa, that pre-Eurasian Africans have languages, and that no group of African modern humans with the possible exception of the very first one derived their language from a linguistic system used by archaic humans. Whatever various modern humans obtained genetically and/or technologically from archaic humans it seems very unlikely that more than a loan word or two came from them linguistically. Moreover, the expansion of modern humans was almost surely one involving serial founder effects.

But, we know enough about how fast languages chance from evidence going back to Sumerian and Egyptian writing and to what can be inferred from matching branches of language families to archaeological cultures, that we know that we can't look back even 10,000 years from linguistic evidence alone, that there was a vast amount of language extinction in the post-food production prehistory period, and that our phonetic record is unreliable at a much later date than our lexical record because phonetic writing that was very reliably transcribed in most languages came quite late.

Blue Heron said...

Typo, first sentence, critical. Not harping, just bringing it to your attention if such things are important to you.