Monogenesis or polygenesis: a single ancestral language for all humanity?

Johanna Nichols

in The Oxford Handbook of Language Evolution

Published in print November 2011 | ISBN: 9780199541119
Published online September 2012 | | DOI:

Series: Oxford Handbooks in Linguistics

Monogenesis or polygenesis: a single ancestral language for all humanity?

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This article presents the principles of linguistic geography and palaeodemography, which indicate that language originated gradually over a diverse population of pre-languages and pre-language families. Many linguists discussing the origin of language assume there was a single origin of language and therefore a single ancestral language, a Proto-World, whether or not reconstructable from modern data. The cognitive capacity for symbolic behavior and complex knowledge is likely to have been present in modern humans from the very beginning, but its manifestation in actual transmitted behavior must have depended on population size. Ergativity is the identical coding of subject of intransitive verb and object of transitive verb, with subject of transitive verb differently marked. Languages with ergative case paradigms of nouns include Basque, Georgian, and Chukchi. A singularity is a linguistic phenomenon well attested only in one area or family on earth. Singularities show that highly unusual grammatical properties are hard to innovate, yet hence easier to acquire by diffusion or inheritance than by innovation. One of the examples of a singularity is, click, which are robustly attested in all three of the endemic language families of southern Africa and also well installed in some of the intrusive Bantu languages. They are also found as outliers in two language isolates of the southern Horn of Africa and one Cushitic language there, and the usual interpretation is that these survive from a once larger click-using area that has now been mostly overrun in the Bantu expansion of some 3000 years ago.

Keywords: palaeodemography; linguistic geography; ergativity; Proto-World; singularity

Article.  5711 words. 

Subjects: Linguistics ; Language Evolution

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