Recently, we noted a scholarly attack on Quentin Atkinson and colleagues’ study of the origin of language. Atkinson claimed that language must have originated in southwest Africa because the languages spoken there have many sounds that supposedly dropped out of language the further away one got from the original.
His thesis is that language develops according to the same pattern as described by the theory of allopatric speciation in biology (later descendants have a smaller gene pool from which natural selection can select adaptations). Which assumes, in turn that the development of language proceeds according to natural laws that bypass conscious human preferences and adjustment to circumstances. Indeed, a companion study’s findings were said to support the view that the role of the innate human mind is “hugely oversold.”
Michael Cysouw and colleagues have dismissed it all as full of “suboptimal data, biased methodology, and unjustified assumptions.” The most notable unjustified assumption was the basic one, that languages became simplified the further one moved from southwest Africa. Responding to “Evolution of language study the controversy in science,” linguist Noel Rude – whose specialty is Northwest Native American languages – writes,
Khoisan languages of southern Africa really do have far and away the most complex sound systems on earth–lexical tones, clicks, everything. Those ingressive clicks, in fact, are found only in South Africa. To hear some of these sounds you might go to http://www.africanlanguages.org/khoesan.html and see if you can access any of Peter Ladefoged’s sound files hosted at the UCLA Phonetics Lab.
(For audio files of clicks, go here.)
So what does that mean? Quentin Atkinson’s theory was that small groups on the move fanning out from the original “Sprachbund” would tend not to evolve complex sound systems whereas the stay-at-homes would. The most far flung languages–the Polynesian–have the simplest of all sound systems–those of aboriginal Australia also qualify as simple. However, the native languages here in the Pacific Northwest (USA and British Columbia) may have the second most complex sound systems and they also are very far from South Africa. It was an interesting hypothesis but hardly provable on its own.
Comparative studies are a fairly exact science when dealing with dialect splits only a few thousand years old (the split between Greek and Sanskrit, for example) but become quite controversial beyond that. Then there is historical syntax. My old mentor T. Givón once proposed that Proto-World might have had a verb final (final in the clause) syntax and later Murray Gell-Mann and Merritt Ruhlen take up the theory.
The Proto-World theory seems to suggest that languages cannot just be invented, but that isn’t clear. Esperanto was invented using roots from a number of languages, but the same feat could have been done with words created from whole cloth (it just wouldn’t have been as easy for speakers of European languages to learn.)
Tolkien, himself a linguist, did it for his trilogy, The Lord of the Rings, and for some people it caught on. Some words entered everyday English (“hobbit,” “orc”) through his work. When diminutive Flores man was found, the first skeleton was called the “hobbit lady” – and good luck to the person trying to trace that right back to Proto-World (complete with evolutionary psychology’s just-so explanations).
Something, perhaps, can be traced back to Proto-World, but the popularity, the instant recognition of the term “hobbit” owes everything to specific stuff that happened post-2000. Hence the folly of attempts at reconstruction in the absence of history.
Follow UD News at Twitter!