Origins of human language in Southern Africa?

Ellen Contini-Morava elc9j at
Sat Apr 16 13:22:38 UTC 2011

The article is Quentin D. Atkinson, "Phonemic diversity supports a 
serial founder effect model of language expansion from Africa".  Science 
332, 346 (2011).  Available at but probably 
requires a library subscription to access the full text.


On 4/16/2011 8:12 AM, A. Katz wrote:
> One of my former interns sent me a reference to this, but it was in 
> the general press and not an academic article. If anyone does have 
> access to the article itself, I would be very interested in reading it.
> I think the idea was, according to the write up for the public, that 
> changes in syntax, morphology and phonology are historical, and can be 
> seen as step-wise accumulations, and are not explained by Chomskyan 
> theory as being motivated by language internal causes.
> Also that language changes as culture changes.
>    --Aya
> On Sat, 16 Apr 2011, john at wrote:
>> I just read an article in the International Herald Tribune about a 
>> biologist
>> from Auckland University, Quentin Atkinson, who seems to be claiming 
>> that human
>> language must have originated in the area that Khoisan languages are 
>> spoken
>> because they have the most different phonemes. I have to say that my 
>> initial
>> reaction to this is that it was so stupid and naive that it was 
>> difficult to
>> believe that anyone could take it seriously (or that anyone with a 
>> Ph.D. in ANY
>> discipline could even have thought of it), but there are references 
>> to Don Ringe
>> at Penn and Funknet's own Martin Haspelmath which seems to suggest that
>> real linguists are taking this seriously. What is the idea supposed 
>> to be, that
>> traveling over geographical distances somehow causes phonological 
>> mergers???
>> Maybe the article misrepresented this guy's claims? Any thoughts?
>> John
>> Quoting Daniel Everett <dan at>:
>>> Thanks for this, Shannon. Fascinating stuff.
>>> My book-length study on culture and language (Cognitive Fire: 
>>> Language as a
>>> Cultural Tool)  will be out from Random House in early 2012.  The 
>>> folks in NZ
>>> are doing some interesting research. Michael Corballis's new book, The
>>> Recursive Mind: The Origins of Human Language, Thought, and 
>>> Civilization
>>> ( is almost out and 
>>> looks to be a
>>> very worthwhile read.
>>> Dan
>>> On Apr 14, 2011, at 3:12 PM, s.t. bischoff wrote:
>>>> Hi all,
>>>> Here is an LA Times story that may be of interest...haven't had a 
>>>> chance to
>>>> track down the original Nature article yet...would be curious to hear
>>>> reactions.
>>>> Culture trumps biology in language development, study argues 
>>>> Researchers
>>>> construct evolutionary trees for four linguistic groups and 
>>>> conclude that
>>>> cultures, not innate preferences, drive the language rules humans 
>>>> create –
>>>> contrary to the findings of noted linguists Noam Chomsky and Joseph
>>>> Greenberg.
>>>> Are the rules of language encoded in our
>> genes<>, 
>>>> or are they primarily shaped by the speaker's cultural context?
>>>> Leading linguistic thinkers have argued that our brains are 
>>>> hard-wired for
>>>> languages to follow certain sets of rules. But a team of scientists is
>>>> challenging that premise in a study published online Wednesday in the
>>>> journal Nature.
>>>> The team used biological tools to construct evolutionary trees for 
>>>> four
>>>> language families and found that each of the families followed its own
>>>> idiosyncratic structural rules, a sign that humans' language 
>>>> choices are
>>>> driven by culture rather than innate preferences.
>>>> The authors say their findings run contrary to the idea of Noam
>> Chomsky<>'s 
>>>> generative grammar, which says the brain has hard and fast ordering 
>>>> rules
>>>> for language. They also contradict the "universal rules" of Joseph H.
>>>> Greenberg, who said languages tended to choose certain patterns over
>>> others.
>>>> Cheers,
>>>> Shannon
>> ------------------------------------------------------------------------
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Ellen Contini-Morava
Professor, Department of Anthropology
University of Virginia
P.O. Box 400120
Charlottesville, VA 22904-4120
phone:  +1 (434) 924-6825
fax:    +1 (434) 924-1350

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