Monogenesis and "simple Darwinian grounds"

Richard Janda rjanda at
Thu Jan 29 13:45:52 UTC 1998

----------------------------Original message----------------------------
  While agreeing with most of Scott DeLancey's last posting, I believe that
it is a demonstrable fallacy to claim that, "on simple Darwinian grounds",
"monogenesis has to be correct".  I'm no geneticist, but it seems clear to
me that there's a major confusion here between biological prerequisites for
language and the initial set of arbitrary sound/meaning associations charac-
terizing the ultimate ancestor of some language family.  That is, even as-
suming that, due to selection, some mutation which provided the prerequisites
for language came to characterize all living humans at some point, it does
not follow that there was only one occasion on which sound/meaning associa-
tions were arrived at and then passed on to succeeding generations.  Rather,
a language-facilitating mutation could have been selected for but then not
immediately acted on, as it were (and this does not strike me as unlikely).
It hardly strains credulity to imagine that two groups of early humans living
widely separated from each other could independently have stumbled onto the
use of sound/meaning associations for communication in specifically linguistic
ways.  Even if their syntaxes and morphologies were extremely similar or
identical, we again must recognize the possibility that their lexicons (lexi-
ca?) were virtually non-overlapping.  A number of writers have suggested that
pre-existing ritualized behaviors (particularly vocalizations) could have
provided the impetus or at least the model for the development of a lexicon,
and these behaviors might well have been pan-human, but the factor of arbi-
trariness leads us to the conclusion that their specific extensions to new
instances of sound/meaning association need not have been universal.  In that
case, though, we would not have monogenesis of the actual substance of lan-
guages--at least not necessarily.  After all, arbitrariness is a historical
linguist's best friend in arguments intending to sh?w that extensive sound/
meaning correspondences (of certain types) between languages require the as-
sumption of a shared ancestral linguistic stage, rather than borrowing or ac-
cidental convergence.  So doesn't one basic tool of our trade that is con-
stantly used in establishing convergences projected backward from the present
force us to allow for the possibility that primeval arbitrariness permitted
and perhaps even favored polygenesis (as long as we distinguish the monogene-
sis of ability from possibly multiple, independent exercises of that ability)?
     Richard Janda

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