Sunday, September 12, 2010

338. Tonoexodus

As I see it, there is little question that the earliest languages must have been tone languages. Since modern humans are almost universally thought to have originated in Africa, and since the great majority of African languages are tonal, it would be extremely difficult to explain how an originary non-tonal language could have produced so many tone languages on the continent of its birth. The hypothesis is reinforced by the fact that "there are no documented cases of tonogenesis in Africa, despite the wide variety of languages . . . and the widespread presence of tone on the continent" (George Tucker Childs, An Introduction to African Languages, 2003, p. 86.).

Since linguists are in agreement that tonogenesis represents some sort of universal process through which all tonal languages are generated from non-tonal ones, the abundance of tone languages in Africa, plus the lack of evidence for tonogenesis anywhere on that continent, should represent something of an embarrassment -- but apparently not. From what I've read in the surprisingly extensive literature on tonogenesis (not to mention many other topics in linguistics), linguists seem much too preoccupied with the discovery of universally valid principles and far too little concerned with the messy contingencies of history, as reflected in the worldwide distribution of the traits they study (the WALS project being a notable, and very welcome, exception).

Given the preponderance of tone language in Africa, it seems likely that the original Out-of-Africa migrants must have also spoken a tone language. And since this is generally understood as the founding group, both genetically and culturally, for all peoples outside of Africa, it seems likely that non-tonal languages could only have arisen via a process that must be regarded as the reverse of tonogenesis, i.e.: tonoexodus.

When I "coined" this term in a tongue-in-cheek comment on the previous post, I wasn't aware that it was already in circulation. And, yes, some linguists have considered the possibility of what they too have named (with a straight face, apparently) "tonoexodus":
Tone systems are not static. A language can acquire tones and then increase the complexity of this tone system but it can also decrease the number of its tones and ultimately become non-tonal. These two processes, acquisition and recession of tones, have been termed tonogenesis [Matisoff 1970, 1973) and tonoexodus [Lea 1973). Cases of tonoexodus are rare and it is not clear what the intermediate historical stages between the tonal and non-tonal stages are. (CONSONANT TYPES, VOWEL HEIGHT AND TONE IN YORUBA, by Jean-Marie Rombert, 1977, p. 174.)
I suspect that "cases of tonoexodus are rare" only because 1. linguists aren't looking for them; and 2. they tend to focus on very specific processes within specific languages, rather than taking the big picture into account. I've seen countless studies of "tonogenesis" as it appears to have developed in a single language, but have noticed not one study of the topic as applied to the worldwide distribution of tone.

But the (apparently revolutionary) notion that tone language came first, is only part of the story. Because if the first language was a tone language, then it seems only logical to go a step farther to consider whether it might have consisted exclusively of tones. Or, to be more accurate, specific tones presented in specific rhythms, which also happens to be a way of defining music. In a comment on the previous post, Marnie reminds us that a great deal of content in a great many African languages can be conveyed by the "talking drum," limited exclusively to differences of tone and rhythm. She asks the very sensible question, "is it possible that pitch and rhythm developed together in our earliest languages?"

In response to my previous post, I received an email from a very perceptive reader, Alex Petrov, who provided a link to this extremely interesting Wikipedia article on Whistled Language. I had always assumed that so-called whistled "languages" were merely elaborate signalling systems, but there is clearly more to it than that:
A whistled language is a system of whistled communication which allows fluent whistlers to transmit and comprehend a potentially unlimited number of messages over long distances. Whistled languages are different in this respect from the restricted codes sometimes used by herders or animal trainers to transmit simple messages or instructions. Generally, whistled languages emulate the tones or vowel formants of a natural spoken language, as well as aspects of its intonation and prosody, so that trained listeners who speak that language can understand the encoded message.

Whistled language is rare compared to spoken language, but it is found in cultures around the world. It is especially common in tone languages where the whistled tones transmit the tones of the syllables (tone melodies of the words). This might be because in tone languages the tone melody carries more of the "functional load" of communication while non-tonal phonology carries proportionally less. The genesis of a whistled language has never been recorded in either case and has not yet received much productive study.
Especially interesting is the observation that "In continental Africa, speech may be conveyed by a whistle or other musical instrument, most famously the "talking drums . . . As two people approach each other, one may even switch from whistled to spoken speech in mid-sentence." If so much in so many African tone languages can be communicated by tone and rhythm alone, then it is only logical to wonder whether any of the other features of such languages are necessary -- and whether their existence could be undersood as the initial stages of a progression from a language of pure tones to a tonal language, and from there to a non-tonal language -- i.e.: tonoexodus.


Nijma said...

How interesting.

Although the origin of humans in Africa is pretty well accepted, it is also a truism that "History begins at Sumer"--written language at least arose in the fertile crescent.

How on earth would you go about finding out where spoken languages came from? Has anyone figured out when humans were first capable of speech--tones, consonants etc., or is the capability of speech part of the definition of human?

Perhaps you are posing a question that cannot be answered.

Nijma said...

Oh, and what about yodeling? Has that ever been used for communication?

DocG said...

Welcome Nijma. You ask a sensible question: "How on earth would you go about finding out where spoken languages came from?"

I'm not sure if you're familiar with the television program "House." Dr. House is a specialist in diagnostic medicine and has a team of young assistants. At one point, he gets upset with his assistants: "Your problem is that you are thinking like doctors. I need someone who can think like a plumber."

And sure enough, the problem turns out to be not really medical, but more like a plumbing problem: a toothpick is blocking the patient's "drain" (aka bowels).

Since House has become my role model, I'll paraphrase his complaint: "Your problem is that you are thinking like a [linguist, historian, archaeologist, anthropologist, etc.]. I need someone who can think like a detective."

This is how I try to think: like a detective. A "crime" has been committed, i.e., someone defied the Gods and invented language. So now we must identify the culprit and track him down.

At first we have no idea where to look, but then we manage to find some traces of DNA, an important clue. The DNA evidence strongly suggests that all modern humans originated in Africa, and that a small group migrated from Africa to Asia roughly 90,000 to 60,000 years ago.

This is a huge clue, but as we know, the suspect's lawyer can always argue thus: "Just because my client happens to be African doesn't mean he invented language, because for all we know it could have been invented by some of his descendants, after they had left Africa for Asia."

Luckily our detective has read his Sherlock Holmes and knows something about logical deduction. If language had been invented after the colonization of Asia, and spread to the rest of the world from there, then how do we explain its presence throughout every corner of Africa?

According to the same DNA evidence, there was in fact some small "backflow" from Asia to Africa, but this was a relatively minor event. Almost all haplotypes found in Africa originated in Africa, and only a very few originated elsewhere, strongly suggesting that there was very little in the way of a "reverse migration" from Asia back to Africa.

If that's the case, then one would expect to find many regions of Africa where the spread of language never penetrated. Moreover, we would not expect to find a language such as Khoisan in Africa, because Khoisan, with its many "clicks," is very different from any other language, and is thought by many to be the oldest of all surviving languages.

The simplest and most convincing explanation for the evidence we see for the spread of language throughout all regions of the the world is that it must have originated in Africa and spread from there via the Out of Africa migration.

Is this a circumstantial case? Sure it is. But many culprits have been convicted and sent to the chair based on just this sort of evidence. So as I see it, our African has to be the guilty party and what I say is: book him!
(No pun intended.)

DocG said...

As far as yodeling is concerned, to my knowledge it has not been used for communication, other than as a simple signaling device, i.e., to simply get someone's attention or let them know you are there. The reason it interests me is that it is a method of vocal "overblowing," analogous to the the overblowing of flutes, trumpets or clarinets. Discrete pitches, conforming more or less to the familiar Pythagorean ratios are produced by such overblowing, and thus yodeling, along with flute and trumpet playing, is a prime "suspect" in the search to identify the source of the "rational" intervals that are such an integral part of just about all musical traditions found anywhere in the world.

DocG said...

In the interest of scientific rigor, I must add that the methodology I described above, inspired by both House and Sherlock Holmes, is based on certain assumptions, and since my preference generally is to avoid making assumptions, it's necessary for me to come clean in this respect.

The first assumption is that language originated only once, and was disseminated, for the most part, through inheritance from a common ancestral source. It's always possible that language was invented more than once and in more than one place, though in my opinion that theory is starting to sound more and more unlikely.

The second assumption is that language was primarily disseminated via demic diffusion, rather than cultural diffusion. We know, of course, that there were many instances of the latter in history. The question is whether languages could have been disseminated throughout Africa by such means. If so, then the DNA evidence for only minimal backflow into that continent might not matter so much.

So it's possible that I'm posing a question that cannot be answered. Nevertheless, I think it well worth asking.

Nijma said...

Thank you for your welcome—although I can't say I share your enthusiasm for television. :)

Does anyone know if those who originally migrated from Africa had language capability? Where language dispersed from might depend on where it originated. Here's a short piece in a similar vein:

If you wish to make a small wager, payable when the first time machine is invented, my money is on some agricultural area in the Middle East, probably Sumer.

Until we get the time machine, your best bet is a real linguist, and a knowledge of how real languages have been known to develop. The Hatters are of mixed talents, but you are lucky to have marie-lucie, a linguistics academic specializing in historical linguistics, following that particular thread.

Interesting about overtones. I once went through an overtone chart for the flute and concluded that although I was able to play some very high and sort-of-on-key tones, many that were off the fingering charts, none of the sounds I was able to make were useful for alternate fingerings.

DocG said...

Nijma: "Does anyone know if those who originally migrated from Africa had language capability? Where language dispersed from might depend on where it originated."

As I see it, the best evidence is the musical evidence. According to a model I've been developing for some time now, the shared musical "language" of certain African Pygmies and Bushmen most likely dates back to an era well before the Out of Africa migration.

For details on how I developed this hypothesis, and the evidence that supports it, you'll have to browse through this blog, or else download some of my papers (see "Publications Available for Download" in the table of contents).

A very significant aspect of this music (as with almost all music) is the presence of what we call "pitch classes," and pitch classes are in fact the musical equivalent of phonemes. This isn't only me, but was first noted by Roman Jacobson, a key figure in 20th century linguistics and semiotics.

If we find "phonemes" present in the music of certain African peoples, prior to the Out of Africa migration, then it seems likely that some form of spoken language must also have been present, either fully formed or nascent. If language as we know it was NOT present, then the presence of phoneme-like structures in their music strongly suggests that such music could already have constituted a kind of proto-language. This is reinforced by the strong presence of tone languages in Africa at the present time. If either language or proto-language already existed in Africa prior to the Out of Africa expansion, then there can be little question that language originated in Africa -- and was most likely tonal.

"If you wish to make a small wager, payable when the first time machine is invented, my money is on some agricultural area in the Middle East, probably Sumer."

As I see it, we already have a time machine at our disposal, in the form of the music of these two populations, what I call "Pygmy-Bushmen" style. And they are NOT located in Sumer or anywhere close.

"Until we get the time machine, your best bet is a real linguist, and a knowledge of how real languages have been known to develop."

There is no such knowledge, only a long list of speculations and assumptions. And believe me, I have read extensively in the linguistics (and semiotics) literature. The article by Jackendorf you pointed me to is typical. He speculates like crazy, makes all sorts of assumptions, but presents neither a coherent hypothesis nor any relevant evidence.

Nijma said...

For details on how I developed this hypothesis, and the evidence that supports it, you'll have to browse through this blog

I poked around a little without knowing exactly what I was looking for, but most of what I saw was written in language incomprehensible to anyone but a genetics specialist.

Jackendorf...presents neither a coherent hypothesis nor any relevant evidence

It wasn't meant to. The reason mentioned that particular piece was because first, it puts the basic definition of the problem into context, and second, it passes Eugene Bardach's "New York taxi driver" test, meaning the explanation is clear and succinct enough to be able to explain to a taxi driver during a trip through city streets, both of which are needed for a non-specialist to follow the premise.

You may be interested in this discovery, just published this week:

"Artifacts dating back at least 100,000 years unearthed in the Arabian desert might be evidence of the first step our lineage took in our march across the globe. These new findings suggest modern humans first left Africa by at least 40,000 years earlier than researchers had expected, which could rewrite our understanding of ancient sites elsewhere on the planet."

See |here| and |here|. (I hope have got the links right for your software.)