Origins of human language in Southern Africa?

Geoff Nathan geoffnathan at
Sat Apr 16 17:59:43 UTC 2011

I was also somewhat surprised by this article, because the data seemed a little bit odd. Hasn't anyone looked at a phoneme inventory for any of the Salish languages? They're about as far away from southern Africa as you can get (it's 10,000 miles, or 16,000 km from Capetown to Vancouver, according to a random internet search). And the inventories of some of the Caucasian languages are pretty impressive too. Tbilisi is about 5000 miles from Capetown. I assume the premise is a little better based than the description in the press. 


Geoffrey S. Nathan 
Faculty Liaison, C&IT 
and Professor, Linguistics Program 
+1 (313) 577-1259 (C&IT) 
+1 (313) 577-8621 (English/Linguistics) 

----- Original Message -----

From: john at 
To: "Daniel Everett" <dan at> 
Cc: "s.t. bischoff" < at>, funknet at 
Sent: Saturday, April 16, 2011 5:16:10 AM 
Subject: [FUNKNET] Origins of human language in Southern Africa? 

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? 

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 
> > 
> > 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 
> > 
> > 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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