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

Friday, August 2, 2019

Language diversity (or the lack of it) does not support the Out of Africa theory

The diversity of human languages has been something that has always interested me -maybe I was really impressed back in Sunday school with the Tower of Babel story from the Bible.

But the biblical explanation in Genesis 11:1-9 is in itself an attempt at explaining the origin of the different languages we speak:

(from Genesis 11:1-9 English Standard Version), the bold highlight is mine:
"1. Now the whole earth had one language and the same words.
2 And as people migrated from the east, they found a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there.
3 And they said to one another, 'Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly.' And they had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar.
4 Then they said, 'Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be dispersed over the face of the whole earth.'
5 And the Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of man had built.
6 And the Lord said, 'Behold, they are one people, and they have all one language, and this is only the beginning of what they will do. And nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them.
7 Come, let us go down and there confuse their language, so that they may not understand one another's speech.'
8 So the Lord dispersed them from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city.
9 Therefore its name was called Babel, because there the Lord confused[a] the language of all the earth. And from there the Lord dispersed them over the face of all the earth.

So the idea of an "original" language which -in this case, due to divine intervention- became many, is very old indeed.

Now we know that languages evolve and change, as is the case of migrating people isolated from each other, even during short periods of time (think about British English and Australian English where "city" is pronounced "siddy" by the Aussies and "sity" by the Brits).

Even one established society as time goes by finds its language modified, an example is the "Great Vowel Shift" in British English between the 1300s and the 1600s, where vowels literally changed as we can see in the following sonnet by William Shakespeare (Sonnet 47):

With my love's picture then my eye doth feast,
And to the painted banquet bids my heart;
Another time mine eye is my heart's guest,
So either by thy picture or my love
Thyself away are resent still with me
For thou not farther than my thoughts canst move
And I am still with them and they with me

Back then, "guest" rhymed with "feast" and "love" with "move"!

Today I came across a paper that tries to use something called "phonemic diversity" to prove the Out of Africa theory of human origins.

It was published by Quentin D. Atkinson in April 2011: Phonemic Diversity Supports a Serial Founder Effect Model of Language Expansion from Africa, Science 15 Apr 2011: Vol. 332, Issue 6027, pp. 346-349 DOI: 10.1126/science.1199295. And very boldly claims that:

"Here I show that the number of phonemes used in a global sample of 504 languages is also clinal and fits a serial founder–effect model of expansion from an inferred origin in Africa. This result, which is not explained by more recent demographic history, local language diversity, or statistical non-independence within language families, points to parallel mechanisms shaping genetic and linguistic diversity and supports an African origin of modern human languages".

In other words, the further you move away from Africa -according to Atkinson- languages have less phonemes, in a similar manner as bottlenecks restrict genetic diversity, a similar effect affects language.

I am not too sure if I agree with Atkinson's idea, but I didn't have to look too far to find an excellent rebuttal of this theory: Asya Pereltsvaig wrote a great post in her blog which summarizes its detailed analysis as follows:"All in all, the Science article by Atkinson on phomenic diversity seems to be yet another example of shoddy work in which mathematical methods are applied in a simplistic fashion, without any understanding of concepts and phenomena under consideration. Such works produce results that contradicts well-known facts about the nature of human languages, as well as plain common sense".

In fact, there are several language hotspots outside of Africa, such as the Caucasus, Papua New Guinea and, the Americas (yes, the "last" place to be colonized by our errant ancestors -yes Polynesia is younger still, but America is the last big place to have been reached in the purported Out of Africa event).

I haven't been able to find any papers on the evolution of languages, a "clock" that can be used to explain why America supposedly first reached by humans 15 kya has roughly the same diversity as New Guinea which was reached 50 kya or the Caucasus and Southern Asia, which were populated by H. sapiens even earlier!

Patagonian Monsters - Cryptozoology, Myths & legends in Patagonia Copyright 2009-2019 by Austin Whittall © 


  1. Very interesting post! I am sure there must be some (theoretical) papers out there, where linguists explore how quickly languages diverge, you're the expert on this so I'll leave that up to you! However, I do have a question: knowing south America intimately as you do, how distinct language families are there in the region? Maybe that angle is worth exploring? I am a complete ignoramus when it comes to this stuff. NeilB

  2. Linguists say that Basque is an extremely ancient language with no related languages anywhere. Do you think it's possible that Basque is a Neanderthal language?


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