Saturday, December 19, 2009

259. The Baseline Scenarios -- 35: The Migrants -- Culture

Since we have no way of knowing what the original Pygmy language might have been, or if Pygmies ever had a fully formed (i.e., fully syntactic) language of their own, it did not seem possible to formulate a meaningful hypothesis regarding the language spoken by HBP. While many have speculated that Khoisan (the click language of the Bushmen) could represent the earliest language, there is no real evidence of that -- we have no reason to believe Pygmies ever used clicks and for that matter no reason to believe clicks were used by either HMP or any of its Asiatic, European, Oceanic or American descendants, since clicks are absent from just about all world languages outside of south and east Africa.

I now realize that another, much more significant, aspect of language was staring me in the face all that time, so obvious I simply overlooked it. Almost every single language in SubSaharan Africa is a tonal language, i.e., a language in which differences of meaning are determined by differences in pitch. Thus, if homo sapiens originated in Africa, as is now generally believed, the first language is very likely to have been tonal -- which tells us that, if HBP had any language at all, it too would have been tonal -- and even if they didn't have a fully formed, fully syntactic language (as I suspect they may not have), then whatever vocabulary they had would most likely have contained tonally differentiated phonemes. This observation ties in rather nicely, I must say, with earlier speculations of mine that the development of music may well have preceded, and influenced, the development of speech, because musical notes in and of themselves operate like tonal phonemes (see "Echoes of Our Forgotten Ancestors").

Regardless of whether a fully formed tonal language was part of HBC, such a language was almost certainly employed by HMP -- first, because they were in all likelihood SubSaharan Africans, but also because, unlike clicks, tonal languages are in fact widely found among their descendants. If we expect to conclude, however, that tonal languages were spread via the migration initiated by HMP, along the southern route, we have a problem. A very puzzling gap can be seen in the distribution of tonal languages along this route:

As you can see, a great many tonal languages have been identified in Africa, and also in SouthEast Asia, as well as Near Oceania (New Guinea and Island Melanesia), with some also in the Americas -- but hardly any in South Asia (what is now India and Pakistan) and none at all in Australia. What could this mean?
(to be continued . . . )


German Dziebel said...

Blevins in her Evolutionary Phonology (2004) elaborates on a general consensus among linguists that recurrent sound patterns in world languages are results of parallel evolution. Get used to it, Victor: independent innovation is a common cause of cultural and linguistic similarities. It's not because people don't follow "Occam's razor" but because they observe those parallel changes take place in languages all the time. But it should good news for you: tonal language don't need to be found along the "southern" route.

On the other hand, clicks, which fall outside of the range of "natural" sound patterns, are considered to have evolved only once (or twice, if one counts artificial Damin language in Australia) in human history and then spread around Africa by diffusion.

DocG said...

There are more things in heaven and earth, German,
Than are dreamt of in Blevin's philosophy.

Trust me. ;-)

Maju said...

Interesting feature and interesting question.

Looks to me like the HBP could have got a simple tonal language, maybe with dialectal tendencies (even neighbors have dialects often) to full tonality. The tonal persistence is particularly strong at the Eastern Eurasian branch, more than in Africa maybe, specially if we consider that includes virtually all China and has offshoots in America.

Tonality in "the mother of all languages" makes some sense because guttural expression, like that found in other hominids, is dependent on tones rather than phonemes. This might also be argued for clicks, which are common among the "fossil" groups that have kept their own languages (Bushmen, Hadza, Sandawe, even one Afroasiatic language has them (believed to be a substratum remnant) - but the intensity of use of such sounds may have varied.

All very tentative anyhow.

Loss (or gain) of tonality in any case may well have happened in direct relation with musical evolution.

It seems obvious that, in any case, the founding parents of the South/West Eurasian population had already lost any tonality. Instead the trait seems to have prevailed in more cases in the East.

Founder effects (or independent re-evolution) seem to happen at several spots: New Guinea and various American spots.

Nice to think about this.