The following is a letter written by Ives Goddard and Bruno Frohlich of the Department of Anthropology at the Smithsonian Institution in response to the paper by Q. D. Atkinson claiming that the distribution of speech sounds in the world's languages demonstrates a single point of origin for human languages in Africa. Mark discussed this paper here. The letter was submitted to Science, which declined to publish it.
Atkinson (1) claims that 19% of the variation in the size of the phoneme inventories in a sample of 504 languages from the World Atlas of Language Structures (WALS) (2), controlled for population size, is accounted for by distance along assumed ancient human migration routes and argues that this clinal distribution “fits a serial founder-effect model of expansion from an inferred origin in Africa,” This explanation rests on the unrealistic assumption that in population bottlenecks phonemes are likely to be lost according to the “same scenario” that brings about a loss of diversity in genetic makeup and material culture. Children have always learned to talk from a small number of speakers, regardless of the total size of the speech community, and no mechanism of language change is known that would plausibly explain why speakers should lose phonemes from a language they already speak just because the speech community becomes smaller, as Atkinson, offering no evidence, suggests “can” happen (3). This reduced population will expectably have fewer alleles per locus and less cultural knowledge at the margins, but there are no data that suggest that the number of phonemes will not stay the same until they are affected by the usual processes of language change. The fundamental scientific principle of uniformitarianism excludes positing for unattested ancestral languages mechanisms of change that have not been documented in the observable world.
As WALS states, “languages with larger or smaller inventories …. display quite marked regional disparities in their distribution.” Such features shared by contiguous, unrelated languages may define linguistic areas (4), and postulating the diffusion of areal influences (which Atkinson did not control for) in addition to inheritance within language families uncontroversially explains the correlation of phonological features and geography, such as the clustering of the 91 languages in WALS with small consonant inventories (6 to 14 consonants) in Oceania (47 languages, 29 on New Guinea alone) and South America (19). Number of consonants is a moderately robust measure of an objectively determined feature (though WALS has errors and gaps here), but the ranking of vowel quality and tone inventories in WALS lumps together phonological subsystems of widely differing complexity, and the “phonemic diversity” index produced by Atkinson’s averaging of normalized rankings of the size ranges in all three inventories does not correspond to a recognized feature of human language.
- Q.D.Atkinson, Science 332, 346 (2011).
- I. Maddieson, in The World Atlas of Language Structures Online, M. Haspelmath, M. S. Dryer, D. Gil, B. Comrie, Eds. (Max Planck Digital Library, Munich, 2008 [revised edition posted April 2011]).
- Q.D.Atkinson, Supporting Online Material (http://www.sciencemag.org/cgi/content/full/332/6027/346/DC1), sect. 2.1.
- M.S. Dryer, Studies in Language 13, 257 (1989); S. Thomason, in D. Gilbers, J. Nerbonne, J. Schaeken, Languages in Contact (Rodopi, Amsterdam, 2000), pp. 311–327.