[Lingtyp] Proto-World explains universals

Michael Cysouw cysouw at uni-marburg.de
Mon Jan 20 16:45:27 EST 2020

Whatever/When “Proto-World” was, it surely had a founder-effect in the sense that the original population of speakers was small, and whatever language-structures these people starting using were surely just a small selection of the many different possibilities that human language can have. Then, in the first tens of thousands of years that human language was around, the number of languages and the population of speakers for each language remained small. So there was a lot of possibility of founder effects here too.

Just to put things in perspective:

- immediately post-glacial (10kya) the total worldwide human population was in the order of 1-10 million
- even today the median number of speakers per language is in the order of 10-100 thousand speakers
- taking upper (10M humans) and lower (10K speakers per language) estimates for an upper boundary, this means that 10kya there were maximally 1000 languages, possibly much less.
- Estimates for human populations before the last glacial maximum are much less clear (but see e.g. Atkinson/Gray/Drummund 2008), but 100kya we are probably talking more about 10K humans in total, i.e. just a handful of different languages. By 50kya there are probably still clearly less than 50K humans in total in the worlds, i.e. a few dozens of languages.

In my opinion there is intriguing (though surely not conclusive) evidence that the few languages that started it all off would show rather different typological profiles as a sample of today’s languages (e.g. the citations by Harald, or hidden in some of my own work Cysouw 2002; Cysouw/Comrie 2012;2013). Some possibilities that might be considered for EHLS (“early human language structures”) are: much less fixed order, OV-type order (when fixed order is used), possibly some verbal morphology (with case only coming later?), no tone, no voicing oppositions.

It is even more difficult to speculate whether correlations between linguistic characteristics are also influenced by these early processes, i.e. are contemporary correlations between linguistic types an effect of founder effects? My guess is that most typological correlations are *not* influenced by EHLS. However, the contemporary statistical correlations between [OV ~ case ~ suffixing morphology] might be an example of such an effect of early human language structures.

Given the small number of humans and the small number of languages, my guess would also be that the rate of language change would have been much smaller for most of the history of human languages. There was simply not much pressure to introduce much change (less contact, less need for social separation, in total less interactions because simply fewer people).

What seems rather clear is that the development of languages with more than 1M speakers is recent (I would guess that there were no languages with more than 1M speakers before the last glacial maximum), and that the development of such large speaker communities has had a profound impact on the typological profile of these languages.



Quentin D. Atkinson, Russell D. Gray, Alexei J. Drummond (2008). mtDNA Variation Predicts Population Size in Humans and Reveals a Major Southern Asian Chapter in Human Prehistory. Molecular Biology and Evolution, Volume 25, Issue 2, Pages 468–474, https://doi.org/10.1093/molbev/msm277

Cysouw, Michael & Bernard Comrie. 2013. Some observations on typological features of hunter-gatherer languages. In Balthasar Bickel, Lenore A. Grenoble, David A. Peterson & Alan Timberlake (eds.), Language Typology and Historical Contingency, 383-394. Amsterdam: Benjamins.

Comrie, Bernard & Michael Cysouw. 2012. New Guinea through the eyes of WALS. Language and Linguistics in Melanesia 30. 65-95.

Cysouw, Michael. 2002. Interpreting typological clusters. Linguistic Typology 6(1). 69-93. 

> On 20. Jan 2020, at 18:25, Volker Gast <volker.gast at uni-jena.de> wrote:
> Hi Martin and Jürgen,
> According to Wikipedia, 'founder effect' does not refer to the retention of traits that were prominent in the original population (though this meaning seems to be intended by Cysouw 2011), but to the "the loss of genetic variation that occurs when a new population is established by a very small number of individuals from a larger population". This was also Atkinson's point about (the reduction of) phoneme inventories, if I am not mistaken.
> Is Stassen's work on A-languages and B-languages the same as his work on black and white languages?
> https://docserv.uni-duesseldorf.de/servlets/DerivateServlet/Derivate-31480/cq2yncuh/16_Black_and_white_languages_Stassen.pdf
> I don't think that he implied anything with respect to inheritance from Proto-World. I heard this talk in the late 1990s and I asked him what the implications of this distribution were, and how it was motivated. I remember quite well that he had no particular motivation in mind. He said that he had noticed it, and that he "got intrigued". The paper referred to above mentions "that geographical contact may have been much moreextensive than has been assumed up to now" (p. 335).
> Best,
> Volker
> Am 20.01.2020 um 18:57 schrieb Bohnemeyer, Juergen:
>> Dear Martin — I’m surprised you didn’t mention Atkinson 2011, the proposed (and intensely argued-against) founder effect on phoneme inventory complexity. 
>> Also, I remember Leon Stassen giving a talk in the late 90s in which he argued that if you throw a large set of typological properties in the hopper and look for the broadest clusters, you find two types of languages, which he called 'A-languages' and 'B-languages’. I’m not sure whether he explicitly suggested that these clusters have been inherited from a stage equivalent to Proto-World (on a polygenesis scenario), but that is definitely how I interpreted the talk at the time. However, as far as I know, Leon never published this study. 
>> Best — Juergen
>> Atkins, Quentin D. (2011). Phonemic diversity supports a serial founder effect model of language expansion from Africa. Science 332: 346-349.
>>> On Jan 20, 2020, at 12:45 PM, Haspelmath, Martin <haspelmath at shh.mpg.de>
>>>  wrote:
>>> Dear all,
>>> Does anyone know a case where it has been proposed (or suggested) concretely that an observed universal tendency (or absolute universal) is due to inheritance from Proto-World?
>>> Cysouw (2011: 417) has suggested this as a possibility:
>>> "It is possible that there are still founder effects available in the current distribution of the world’s languages, i.e., that there are preferences in the current world’s languages that go back to incidental events during the spread of languages over the world (Maslova 2000)."
>>> But while this is logically possible, are there any concrete suggestions with a global scope?
>>> Word order universals such as the Greenbergian correlations, or phonological universals such as vowel dispersion cannot be due to Proto-World (or some other founder effect), because the universality lies in the implicational patterns, not in specific structures that all languages share. Has anyone suggested that any other universal properties (e.g. the fact that all languages can express negation or questions, or that agent-patient organization is universal, or that all languages have recursion) may be due to Proto-World inheritance?
>>> Thanks,
>>> Martin
>>> ************
>>> References:
>>> Cysouw, Michael. 2011. Understanding transition probabilities. Linguistic Typology 15(2). 415–431.
>>> Maslova, Elena. 2000. A dynamic approach to the verification of distributional universals. Linguistic Typology 4. 307 – 333.
>>> -- 
>>> Martin Haspelmath (
>>> haspelmath at shh.mpg.de
>>> )
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