A problematic prediction of nativism

john at research.haifa.ac.il john at research.haifa.ac.il
Tue Oct 26 05:34:07 UTC 2010

You're probably looking for something more complex that this, but I
remember some phonetician (Ladefoged?) saying that people speaking
languages with clicks (Khoisan and neighboring Bantu languages like
Xhosa and Zulu) have some sort of more highly developed musculature
somewhere in the mouth which makes it possible to pronounce these
sounds as they do and that other people simply can't do it (I remember
in particular hearing the retroflex click, which sounds like a wood
block, and thinking 'how can a human do this?'). I don't know to what
extent this musculature is developed from a very early age and to what
extent it's become genetic, I have the recollection that the person
believed it had become genetic but I'm not sure. I also remember Ian Catford,
another phonetician, pointing out the obvious correlation between ejective
consonants and groups living in high altitudes (which I think a lot of us have
noticed but had no explanation for) and explaining it in terms of air pressure
(he's done a lot of work on Caucasian languages) but I didn't really understand
what he was saying and I don't remember if he was suggesting that had become in
any way  genetically inbred (the way that features related to distance running
may have become genetically inbred in populations living in high altitudes).

Quoting Daniel Everett <dan at daneverett.org>:

> I believe that  Phil Lieberman was the first to point this out. Nativism
> predicts that some peoples could learn some languages but not others. This is
> so because we know that cultures can affect genes (even leading within the
> last 5,000 years to new genes) and that there can also be random  mutations.
> So there ought to be some mutation, nativism predicts it in fact, that
> prevents some people from learning some languages. Different populations
> would develop different genotypes over time.
> It is possible that this is correct, but that it is an accident of the
> current population of languages that we haven't seen this yet. But it is a
> prediction.
> It is not a prediction, however, of the idea that language is a result of
> more general cognitive properties.
> Dan

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