Origins of human language in Southern Africa?

john at john at
Sun Apr 17 06:51:07 UTC 2011

There are so many problems with Atkinson's claims that it is difficult to know
where to begin. First of all, you can't just point out statistical patterns
without some connection to reality--arguments about ambiguity are just
irrelevant. I am extremely familiar with sociolinguistic research on ongoing
phonological changes, including gaining or losing phonemic distinctions, and I
have never heard of a change motivated by or prevented by considerations of
ambiguity. Of those cases for which some motivation can be identified, the main
reason for change is language contact, e.g. Ashkenazic Jews couldn't pronounce
the Hebrew pharyngeals so they got lost, and now Sephardic Israelis are losing
the pharyngeals as well, immigrants to Hawaii from e.g. China and Japan
couldn't pronounced the English dental fricatives so they turned into stops,
etc. In some cases phonemes are simply borrowed from another language (e.g. the
English postalveolar voiced fricative from French). For many changes, the
motivation isn't clear but has no connection with ambiguity--for example the
English velar nasal became a phoneme rather than an allophone of /n/ when the
velar stop stopped being pronounced in final position--who knows why? Short a
has divided into two phonemes in the northeastern US (so that e.g. in NYC the
vowel in 'dad' and 'bad' are different) but not in the Midwest--who knows why?
None of these have anything to do with ambiguity. It's possible to identify
cases in which an ambiguity argument can be made (and in some cases IS made by
people who don't know any better)--for example by saying that the phoneme split
in the northeastern US helps to distinguish between 'can' and 'can't'
considering that the t is often not pronounced or reduced to a
barely-perceivable glottal stop--but this can hardly explain an entire phonemic

Apart from this, there is the entire question about 'what is a language?'
In some cases, languages are defined very narrowly, resulting in smaller numbers
of speakers; in other cases, languages are defined very broadly, resulting in
greater numbers of speakers. When a language is defined more broadly,
phonological analyses will in some cases require more phonemes.
For example, if one were to consider the Arabic spoken in Haifa to be a language
rather than a dialect of a larger language, it would have fewer phonemes because
of mergers between dental fricatives and stops and also between the voiceless
uvular stop and the glottal stop--but since it's considered to be a dialect of
a larger language, the [q] and the dental fricatives are considered to be
'underlying' different phonemes. This has nothing to do with anything that
Atkinson mentions.

Quoting ײsten Dahl <oesten.dahl at>:

> Atkinson says:
> "Human genetic and phenotypic diversity declines with distance from Africa,
> as predicted by a
> serial founder effect in which successive population bottlenecks during range
> expansion
> progressively reduce diversity, underpinning support for an African origin of
> modern humans"
> and
> "If phoneme distinctions are more likely to be lost in small founder
> populations, then a succession
> of founder events during range expansion should progressively reduce phonemic
> diversity with increasing
> distance from the point of origin, paralleling the serial founder effect
> observed in population genetics".
> -- It is possible that there is such a founder effect in phonology, but if it
> exists, it is not parallel to the genetic founder effect. In a genetic
> bottleneck, interindividual variation in the gene pool is reduced due to the
> small size of the population. But the number of phonemes has nothing to do
> with interindividual variation. Perhaps we would have a parallel if the
> average number of allophones per phoneme decreased in a founder event. If the
> number of phonemes is reduced, that would rather correspond to the loss of
> genes.
> - צsten
> -----Ursprungligt meddelande-----
> Frוn: funknet-bounces at
> [mailto:funknet-bounces at] Fצr A. Katz
> Skickat: den 16 april 2011 21:54
> Till: Bill Croft
> Kopia: Funknet
> ִmne: Re: [FUNKNET] Origins of human language in Southern Africa?
> Much of what you explain here makes a great deal of sense, but is the
> assumption really that the original phonetic inventory was small, and that it
> increased over time. I would think it would be the other way around.
> Wouldn't a larger number of interlocutors level phonetic distinctions due to
> noise in the signal?
>     --Aya
> On Sat, 16 Apr 2011, Bill Croft wrote:
> > I have just read Atkinson's article, including the supplementary materials
> -
> > the supplementary materials for a Science or Nature article are essential
> > reading, because the actual article is too short to be more than just a
> long
> > abstract for the real paper.
> >
> > A number of linguists, here on Funknet just now but also in the comments
> > section of the NY Times article by Nicholas Wade, have pointed out
> languages
> > that are at a substantial distance from Africa but have large phoneme
> > inventories as evidence against the hypothesis. It is worth putting this in
> > context of what the paper actually says:
> >
> > "We expect the number of phonemes present in a language today to reflect
> past
> > phoneme inventory size, combined with complex group dynamic processes
> driving
> > relative rates of merging, splitting and borrowing of phonemes. Many
> > factors are likely to influence the rates at which these processes occur,
> and
> > their relative rates will determine the trajectory of phonemic diversity in
> a
> > language
> > through time." (supplementary materials, p. 8)
> >
> > "It is worth noting that fitting a serial founder effect model to phoneme
> > inventory data
> > describes an inherently stochastic (probabilistic) process and does not
> > entail that
> > phonemic diversity is entirely determined by population size via a serial
> > founder
> > effect. Distance from the best-fit origin in Africa and population size are
> > shown to be
> > significant predictors of phonemic diversity, explaining approximately 30%
> of
> > global
> > variation, but other sociolinguistic processes and more recent population
> > movements clearly also play a role. Neither of these factors are expected
> to
> > systematically bias results to produce the observed global cline in
> phonemic
> > diversity."
> > (supplementary materials, p. 11)
> >
> > "In a general linear model,
> > language family as a factor explains 50% of the variance in phonemic
> > diversity
> > (adjusted r-squared=0.502, df=49, p<0.001) and 48% of the variance in
> > phonemic
> > diversity across the largest 10 families (adjusted r-squared=0.476, df=9,
> > p<0.001).
> > This level of conservation within major language families indicates that
> > robust
> > statistical patterns in global phonemic diversity can persist for many
> > millennia and
> > could plausibly reflect a time scale on the order of the African exodus."
> > (supplementary materials, p. 7)
> >
> > In other words, Atkinson argues that distance from Africa is only one of
> many
> > factors accounting for phoneme inventory size, and explains only part of
> the
> > variance in phoneme inventory size. The conclusion of the main article
> states
> > that distance from Africa explains 19% of the variation in phonemic
> diversity
> > (p. 348). Population size (also documented by Hay & Bauer, Language 2007)
> > explains another part, and language family explains yet another, quite
> large,
> > part of variation in phoneme inventory size. These statistical models are
> > examples of the competing motivation models that many functionalists argue
> > for. The point of the article is that there is still a signal of an African
> > phylogenetic origin of modern human language in the geographical
> distribution
> > of this typological trait.
> >
> > Atkinson offers an explanation based on the small size of founder
> populations
> > leading to the reduction of phoneme inventories, in turned based on the
> > correlation between population size and phoneme inventory. So the
> explanation
> > is in turn based on whatever explanation is offered for the latter
> > correlation. That is the most interesting and most problematic part of the
> > whole story, in my opinion. Atkinson presents an implausible explanation on
> > p. 3 of the supplementary materials, but the more extended discussion on
> pp.
> > 8-10 is better. Hay and Bauer do not endorse any specific explanation, but
> > suggest that in small social networks context allows more ambiguity to
> exist
> > (hence fewer phonemes are necessary), and exposure to a larger number of
> > interlocutors may enhance the creation and maintenance of a larger number
> of
> > phonemic distinctions, citing respectively social network theories and
> > frequency- and exemplar-based theories of phonology.
> >
> > Atkinson's conclusion seems reasonable to me. The statistical signal seems
> > robust, even if we have difficulty in explaining it. I encourage you to
> read
> > the article and supplementary materials and judge for yourself.
> >
> > Bill
> >
> >

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