Origins of language
Posted: 07 June 2019 12:47 PM   [ Ignore ]
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I’ve just come across this post, based on an article by a New Zealand biologist:

Quentin D. Atkinson, a biologist at the University of Auckland in New Zealand, has shattered this time barrier, if his claim is correct, by looking not at words but at phonemes — the consonants, vowels and tones that are the simplest elements of language.  Dr. Atkinson, an expert at applying mathematical methods to linguistics, has found a simple but striking pattern in some 500 languages spoken throughout the world: A language area uses fewer phonemes the farther that early humans had to travel from Africa to reach it.

Some of the click-using languages of Africa have more than 100 phonemes, whereas Hawaiian, toward the far end of the human migration route out of Africa, has only 13. English has about 45 phonemes.

What, if any, validity does this have? Or has it already been comprehensively debunked somewhere?

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Posted: 07 June 2019 02:31 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]
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If https://www.eupedia.com/linguistics/number_of_phonemes_in_european_languages.shtml is accurate, there doesn’t appear to be much relation even if one just looks at the languages in Europe. Danish wins, and it’s pretty far north.

It doesn’t sound intrinsically plausible, does it? Languages tend towards simplification in grammatical structure, and it wouldn’t surprise me if there were a similar tendency with sounds, but it would seem odd if there was any more consistent a pattern for the latter than the former. This makes it sound as though every wave of migration meant some sounds got left behind.

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Posted: 08 June 2019 06:56 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 2 ]
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It’s an intriguing idea and paper, but there are issues with the assumptions Atkinson makes and how he classifies phonemes. Mark Liberman at Language Log says:

I have some concerns about what lies in between the assumptions and the results, especially concerning the way “Total Phoneme Diversity” is estimated. This measure gives (what seems to me to be) excessive weight to certain features, ignores syllable structure, and (as a result) is heavily influenced by a few areal characteristics that are as likely to be innovations as survivals.

Liberman’s response is here.

And two others wrote a letter to Science (the journal that published Atkinson’s paper), but that journal declined to publish it.

Both of these criticisms are rather technical. But the long and short of it is that Atkinson’s results rely on assumptions for which there is no evidence as to their validity.

Whenever questions about studies like this arise, the first place to look is Language Log. It’s not a substitute for a more thorough search of the literature, but it’s easy and not behind a paywall.

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