Origins of human language in Southern Africa?

Tom Givon tgivon at
Sat Apr 16 18:13:10 UTC 2011

Absolutely, John, ****in'-insane-ridiculous; especially now that Ellen 
Contini-Morava has sent me the original. An ignoramus who knows nothing 
of language change, and does not understand the radical difference 
between genetic evolution, where multiple, in-sequence developmental 
stages are preserved virtually intact in the genome, and historical 
language change, where phonological and grammatical systems undergo 
repeated RE-CYCLING, are ground down to zero, and then start all over 
again (and again, and again)--often along rather different typological 

What worries me most, I suppose, are esteemed colleagues in linguistics 
who should surely know better and still seem to encourage this kind of 
nonsense. To allow ignorami from other fields to trash our discipline 
and peddle their shoddy wares to gullible media babblers like Nicholas 
Wade is truly self-defeating. But--to quote Paddy Shaemus O'Sullivan 
("Weep Not My Children", 1959)--Weep not, my children, for I still 
amused. Cheers, TG


On 4/16/2011 9:27 AM, john at wrote:
> Meaning what? You agree it's ridiculous?
> John
> Quoting Tom Givon<tgivon at>:
>> Right on! TG
>> ==============
>> On 4/16/2011 3:16 AM, 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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