Guide to Patagonia's Monsters & Mysterious beings

I have written a book on this intriguing subject which has just been published.
In this blog I will post excerpts and other interesting texts on this fascinating subject.

Austin Whittall

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Language diversity and the peopling of America

For years I have wondered why do Native American people speak so many languages? They supposedly reached the New World recently (i.e. 15,000 years ago) yet evolved over 40% of the global languages! A figure higher than that found in Africa, the "cradle of Mankind".

Africans have had the time (they are supposedly the oldest humans) and the advantage of not going through bottlenecks (I do imagine that bottleneck that wipes out genetic diversity does the same to languages... kill the speakers and the language dies), so they should have evolved most languages than any other group of humans. But they have not.

The diversity of Languages: highest in America. From [1]

Then we have the island of divesity in New Guinea has the highest language diversity in the whole world! 820 languages out of a global total of around 7,000. That is 1 language every 820 Papuans.

I found that quite reasonable, the island is a jungle, with many mountain ranges that isolate populations and keep them from mixinng. New Guinea has been considered as one of the first places reached by mankind during our epic trek out of Africa.

But America is different, we are newcomers. The Papuans had 50 ky to develop their languages, the Amerindians less than 15 ky. So how do we explain this?

To make matters worse, America's native population fell to half or even less during the period of discovery and conquest. How many languages were wiped out before even being discovered? Even so, it has the highest global language diversity.

The origin of languages

Human beings speak, and we are all aware that Chinese and English sound different, that Spanish, Italian and French may seem similar but are also different. We are humans and speak different languages despite having a common origin.

An early attempt to explain this can be found in the Bible (Genesis 11: 1- 9): "... But the Lord came down to see the city and the tower the people were building. 6 The Lord said, 'If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them. 7 Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.'" So God made us all speak different languages by an act of his almighty power. Neat and simple.

But we now know that humans originated longe before any ziggurats were built in Mesopotamia. Language is something that arose tens of thousands of years ago. According to Chomsky, Tattersall, Bolhuis and Berwick (2014), "The faculty of language is likely to have emerged quite recently in evolutionary terms, some 70,000–100,000 years ago" [3]. Of course (I have posted on this before) that date range is not inferred from language studies, it is taken from the date suggested by anthropologists as the date of emergence of Modern Homo sapiens. So if that date was not correct, then the date given for the origin of languages is also incorrect.

In fact, our next of kin, the Neanderthals, could and did speak: "From the consilience of evidence from anatomy, archeology, and DNA, one can conclude that some language abilities, if not necessarily full modern syntactic language, were present in Neanderthals" so perhaps the ability to speak in Neanderthals predates that in humans. [4]

Daniel Nettle [2] suggests that people living near the Equator live easier lives regarding food supply and can split into smaller groups, which favours creation of new languages: "Where the climate allows continuous food production throughout the year, small groups of people can be reliably self-sufficient and so populations fragment into many small languages. Where the variability of the climate is greater, the size of social network necessary for reliable subsistence is larger, and so languages tend to be more widespread."

And this makes sense, as you can see in the map below, language diversity is highest close to the warm equatorial areas:

The diversity of Languages: location of highest densities. A. Whittall

Interesting, but this explains the evolution of languages during the last 11,000 years after the discovery of agriculture. I cannot imagine a large society of hunter-gatherers all speaking the same language, but one of farmers and tax collectors does make more sense.

But how fast do languages evolve? Take Australian English and English English or American English. They Aussies and Americans split from the mother tongue between 250 and 400 years ago, and did keep in touch with the distant British Metropolis yet evolved distinct stress and intonation for the same words. Something similar has happened with Spanish in the different Latin American countries and Spain over the past 500 years. But change has been small perhaps due to the lack of isolation.

The image above, from L. Luca Cavalli-Sforza & Marcus W. Feldman clearly shows that American languages are different to those in Asia, the "source" of the Native Americans' ancestors. This is surely conveniently explained by the "Beringian standstill" (how convenient) which allowed the future Amerindians to differentiate from those remaining behind in Asia.

Last but not least, I usually read that all indicators of genetic diversity fall as you move away from Africa, a clear indication of an African origin for all human beings. But, this is not seen in the case of human language diversity. Why?

I do believe that we should look into language diversity as an indicator of an older origin for mankind as a whole and for an earlier date for the peopling of America.

For those interesting in reading about this subject in depth, German Dziebel has written about linguistic diversity in support of his Out of America theory. Read More, and see an analysis of it here.


[1] Mobility and Ancient Society in Asia and the Americas, pp 117-126, chapter " How America Was Colonized: Linguistic Evidence. Johanna Nichols
[2] Explaining Global Patterns of Language Diversity, Daniel Nettle, journal of anthropological archaeology 17, 354–374 (1998) article no. AA98032
[3] Bolhuis JJ, Tattersall I, Chomsky N, Berwick RC (2014) >How Could Language Have Evolved? PLoS Biol 12(8): e1001934. doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.1001934
[4] Language Abilities in Neanderthals By:Johansson, S (Johansson, Sverker) ANNUAL REVIEW OF LINGUISTICS, VOL 1 Book Series: Annual Review of Linguistics Volume: 1 Pages: 311-332 DOI: 10.1146/annurev-linguist-030514-124945 Published: 2015

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  1. nice post Austin,
    The language diversity of the new world is astounding, specifically in California. The Yokuts of central ca. developed more than 30 languages within a couple of days walk, in a land with no natural barriers, and where the next village was only a hr away. T

    1. Thanks for your comment. Yes indeed, California has a great variety!
      I just found this very interesting map page


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