What I mean is this: Archeologically and genetically speaking, most indigenous peoples of North and South America (namely, all but the ones descending from those who brought the Na-Dené and Eskimo-Aleut languages) descend from a single population that crossed the Bering Strait around 20.000-30.000 years ago, at a point where most seem to agree language already existed. On the other hand, it seems that the idea that all those peoples' languages are related, like in Greenberg's Amerind family, is not widely accepted.

So my question is: If these indigenous languages are truly unrelated, what would have motivated a people to completely abandon their language in favor of a novel one?

One could ask this same question about a proto-human language of course, but it seems to be a disputed topic whether language existed before humans left Africa.

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    There being no linguistically demonstrated relation between a given pair of languages does not mean there is not an actual relation. Otherwise we would have to assume that all language isolates (like Ainu or Basque) and all isolated families (like the Koreanic language family) sprang up out of nowhere even though that is extremely unlikely for multiple reasons. Commented Oct 9, 2023 at 4:57
  • Even if those languages were truly unrelated, why would that mean people needed motivation, rather than co-incidence or some kind of topical necessity to abandon their language? What is a 'proto-human language'? Doesn't that translate as a language in development before there were humans? How could it matter whether language existed before humans left Africa, except for someone insisting that language developing before that made all other tongues necessarily subservient? Commented Oct 9, 2023 at 20:13
  • @RobbieGoodwin I don't really get either of your comments... a topical necessity is still a motivation, and I don't think an entire people is just gonna wake up one day and "coincidentally" speak another language.
    – Cecilia
    Commented Oct 9, 2023 at 21:01
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    @RobbieGoodwin As for proto-human language, what I meant is: If language didn't exist when humans left Africa, then it could be possible that e.g. PIE and Proto-Afroasiatic are both completely original inventions of language, but if language only developed once, then PIE and PAA necessarily have a common ancestor, unless some people just spontaneously changed languages at some point. And that latter possibility was what my question was about.
    – Cecilia
    Commented Oct 9, 2023 at 21:02
  • You seem to be confusing possibility with necessity. Of course people won't wake up one day and start to speak another language and since you're clearly going back long before writing two things: do you doubt language was more simple then, so change more easy? Either way, what about prehistoric language could be more than speculation? I recall no details but I attended a lecture by a world-class etymologist or philologer who speculated on no evidence but obvious logic, fairly sophisticated language must have pre-dated the building of any vessel, including the simplest dug-out canoe. Commented Oct 10, 2023 at 17:11

2 Answers 2


"Unrelated" in linguistics doesn't mean "have different origins". The convention is that we don't say that languages are related unless we have evidence of that relationship from study of the languages themselves.

The origin of Language as a whole is unknown, and the same is generally true of the origins of spoken natural languages. (For sign languages, which are less ubiquitous, there seem to be more cases where we may have observed the emergence of a language not born from a preexisting language.)

While constructed languages such as Esperanto exist, I don't think any linguist thinks it likely that ancient peoples decided to adopt a novel language of this kind. Development from preexisting natural languages is the expectation.

I'm not familiar with the Amerind hypothesis, but based on what I see in Wikipedia, it seems like Greenberg's proposal did not encompass all languages of the Americas: rather, it allegedly encompassed most languages not in the established Eskimo–Aleut or Na–Dene families.

This means that if any of the "Amerind" languages was actually more closely related to Eskimo-Aleut or Na-Dene, it would invalidate Greenberg's proposed grouping.

In practice, "unrelated" also encompasses the scenario of "even if these languages are related, we can't demonstrate how, so we can't draw a tree or convincingly reconstruct which features/words go back to their common ancestor".

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    Ah, okay, I think I get it now! So, the null hypothesis is always that languages have absolutely no common origin, even if that hypothesis is most probably not true, and then we say that they're related if we can explicitly show what the relation looks like and reconstruct a common ancestor. (More or less well, depending on the languages)
    – Cecilia
    Commented Oct 8, 2023 at 11:12
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    @Cecilia: Right, linguists typically use "unrelated" as the null hypothesis and reserve "related" for cases where we can demonstrate something about the relationship. It's a bit fuzzy, since sometimes some linguists might think that a small amount of material can be reconstructed (like n- and m- in pronouns in the case of Amerind), while others disagree that the reconstruction is reliable Commented Oct 8, 2023 at 11:56
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    "we can't demonstrate how, so we can't draw a tree": I find it interesting to note a difference in the approach adopted by linguists with respect to the approach used in phylogeny, my initial field of specialization: We usually find a way to keep all taxa in a tree, even if we have no clue where to place them. This will possibly result in a highly unresolved tree, but at least we acknowledge the fact that all taxa share a common origin.
    – bli
    Commented Oct 9, 2023 at 10:42
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    “the null hypothesis is always that languages have absolutely no common origin” — I’m not sure most linguists would put it that strongly. “Unrelated” is used to mean “no demonstrated common origin”, not “absolutely no common origin” — and the null hypothesis is that languages are “unrelated” in this weak sense. Whether they actually do have some (unresolved, perhaps undetectable from existing data) common origin or not is a much more debated question; but “unrelated” in the sense of “no demonstrated relationship” is an uncontroversial null hypothesis.
    – PLL
    Commented Oct 9, 2023 at 12:07
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    It's helpful to think of the analogous question "how can unrelated humans exist" here. You and I are, presumably, unrelated, according to the normal usage of that word. So you could equally well ask, how is this possible, despite the fact that on general grounds we know that we have a common ancestor if you look far enough into the past? It's not that "the null hypothesis is that you and I have no common ancestor", it's that just because we must have an unknown common ancestor thousands of years into the past that wouldn't normally be considered sufficient grounds to call ourselves "related".
    – Pilcrow
    Commented Oct 9, 2023 at 12:16

Some of your historical presumptions are questionable (esp. "single migration"), but that's not a fatal problem. The crux of the problem is the definition of 'related'. This is a scientific claim, that languages X and Y can trace back to a common ancestor at some point in time. English and Norwegian trace back to a common ancestor language about 3000 years ago. There is massive evidence that these languages are relatable in that technical sense, and even reasonable evidence for the time period.

In the case of Mapuche and Yupik, we lack such evidence, which means that we cannot relate these languages to a common ancestor. When we say that two languages are "not related", that does not mean that we have proof that the languages derive from independent hominid species that separately developed the faculty of language 200,000 years ago. It simply means that there is no evidence that the languages are related. More generally, we have to accept that some conjectured scenarios are inaccessible to current scientific investigation, and will have to await the development of time-travel, for example.

People commonly abandon one language in favor of another. A descendant of Egyptian used to be spoken in Egypt, then a bunch of guys on horses came in with a religion (not saying which on, there are two candidates) and their language, and the result is that the language is that Coptic is no longer spoken. People move all the time, therefore (some) descendants of the Hittites now speak Turkish because the Turks moved into the area (there were other languages spoken there in the interim).

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    I guess you don't understand what we mean when we say "related". You ask a "why" question, duh, it's obvious that there are many answers to the question "why", you should just delete the "why" part if you don't want an explanation.
    – user6726
    Commented Oct 7, 2023 at 17:05
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    @Cecilia: The point they're trying to make is that they may be related, but we have no way to prove that, so we consider them "not related" from the standpoint of empiricals. The problem is the "language record" is very incomplete, especially given few cultures developed durable recording of language, and all them quite late in human history. Commented Oct 7, 2023 at 23:22
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    (Note this is different from the case with biological evolution, where nature does a great job of preserving evidence on its own simply by fossilizing creatures' bodies - though note even there it's incomplete, but still is much more complete. We can infer whole extinct species; the languages that we'd need to reconstruct high-order language relationships are completely evaporated, because no human brain exists containing a record of them at this point; all those that did having died and decayed long ago.) Commented Oct 7, 2023 at 23:23
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    (Which is to say, there is no reason to suppose those relationships don't exist - we just have no idea what they are. ) Commented Oct 7, 2023 at 23:24
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    @The_Sympathizer The analogue of fossils in biological evolution is written documents, which of course don't exist for many ancient languages but have been immensely important for our understanding of language evolution in the cases where they do exist. Commented Oct 9, 2023 at 14:18

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