November 05, 2011

Darwinian linguistic controversies

There is an interesting essay titled Darwin's Tongues, which covers some of the controversies associated with the use of biological evolutionary methods on linguistic problems. A couple of the papers mentioned in the article are Dunn et al. (2011) and Atkinson (2011). This little bit sparked my interest:
Using this database, Cysouw’s team repeated Atkinson’s technique and found two separate geographic origins for language, one in East Africa and another in West Asia’s Caucasus region, with a large swath of the Middle East and South Africa also possible. Crucially, Cysouw’s analysis suggests that none of these regions contain phoneme-rich languages that stand out as having far more speech sounds than any of the others.
I've contacted Dr. Cysouw to see if anything on this has been published/is available, and I will update this blog entry if it has.


Anonymous said...


The forthcoming issue of Linguistic Typology has about 10 critical papers of both Atkinson 2011 and Dunn et al. 2011 (the latter of which I'm an author). Michael Cysouw's comment will be in there.


German Dziebel said...

Florian Jaeger has his lab's critique of Atkinson (to appear in Linguistic Typology) available on his website:

In any case, the fact that there are 140 language families in the Americas, 80 in Papua New Guinea vs. some 20 in Africa suggests that if there's a pattern of variation in phonological inventories that has a phylogenetic significance it should show a gradient of decreasing diversity into Africa and not out of Africa. If individual African languages carry more phonemes than languages outside of Africa, this by itself means just as much for phylogeny as the fact that there are more languages classified as Niger-Congo than as any other language family. All of them, no matter how many, go back to proto-Niger-Congo, which is likely of Neolithic origin, which brought about a demographic outburst and population expansion with corresponding proliferation of individual, closely related languages.