I am currently setting to investigate on a subject in the history of languages, but as a self-taught outsider I am stuck before finding out some key words to start searching the Web.

I want to investigate the following hypothesis: the split between the most distinct language groups in today's existence may have its origin in Africa, before the colonization of the "outside world" began. The population that flowed out of Africa would have consisted of many individual bands, each with its own, very distinct language. Some of these must be the origin of all today's out-of-Africa languages, but not necessarily exactly one.

I have several related questions:

  1. has this hypothesis been considered at all?

  2. if yes, has it already been positively dismissed?

  3. are there any key terms related to this which would be googlable?

  • 3
    Note that the idea that all human languages derive from a single source is an unproven hypothesis. There is no prima facie reason to rule out two or more independent creations of language. I think monogenesis is likely to be true, but I'm dubious that we will ever be able to prove it.
    – Colin Fine
    Jul 19, 2014 at 20:24
  • 1
    You might have a tough time showing that a language like Nicaraguan Sign Language can trace its ancestry to Africa. And if NSL did spring up spontaneously then it shows that it is possible that other languages could go back to origins that arose spontaneously too. Jul 20, 2014 at 1:46
  • @hippietrail Each language obviously has roots in a language which has arisen spontaneously at some point. My question is actually about something else: it would be "obvious" to assume that only a single language group emerged from Africa, diverging from that point on. I am entertaining the idea that today's diversity in world languages owes more to the origins within Africa than that "obvious" assumption. Jul 20, 2014 at 17:48
  • This assumption is unlikely to be true as there is an enormous amount of linguistic diversity within Africa just as there is an enormous amount of DNA diversity there. It would only be true if it there were only a single migration out of Africa or if all migrations out of Africa involved speakers of the same language. Jul 20, 2014 at 22:34
  • 1
    @hippietrail BTW thanks for the googling tip, that indeed led me to on-topic links. Jul 22, 2014 at 8:29

1 Answer 1

  1. Yes. It's called the "out-of-africa" theory. It's a paleoanthropological hypothesis with substantial support from genetics, in particular studies on mitochondrial DNA. Much work has been done by Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza and others. See his book Genes, Peoples, and Languages. The linguist Merritt Ruhlen is one of the most important linguists to test Cavalli-Sforza's hypothesis, see the Santa Fe Institute website.
  2. No. But language superfamilies remain a problem.
  3. All the links provided above are relevant. A further term is diversity (but try to google more, the Wikipedia section is not that illuminating), see also language families.

Concerning your specific assumption that isolated bands leaving Africa contribute to the founding of distinct language families, is, however, problematic. Diversity studies comparing African vs. non-African languages consistently show that the two major African language families Niger-Congo and Nilo-Saharan are much more diverse among themselves than all other non-African language families combined. (That, by the way, is also consistent with genetic diversity: there's more genetic diversity within Africa, than in the rest of the world combined.)
This can either mean that many bands leaving Africa have not contributed to the current "gene-pool" of language(s), or it can mean that there weren't that many bands to begin with.

Personally, I believe that the latter is the more compelling assumption because it matches what is known from studies on mitochondrial DNA. See this picture, which shows that only group L3 left Africa. This group may have been diverse, and surely consisted of different bands over a certain time span, but their genetic proximity suggests cultural proximity, and hence linguistic proximity. The assumption that members of this group used mutually incomprehensible languages is far-fetched, given that these bands weren't that large to begin with.

I hope that helps.

  • 2
    I was actually starting from the familiar fact of deep divergence of languages in Papua New Guinea. The language families there are as distinct as, say, French and Korean. So if just one island has this kind of diversity, my logical extension would be that it was also the case in African bands, even if they lived nearby. Jul 19, 2014 at 20:33
  • 2
    I'm curious about your statement about Niger-Congo and Nilo-Saharan having more diversity among themselves than all non-African language families combined: do you have a reference to support that? @MarkoTopolnik the time depth back to the original departure from Africa is so great that we can most likely never know any detail about the diversity of the languages spoken either in Africa or by the original migrants. Jul 21, 2014 at 4:58
  • @ Gaston Ümlaut I remember reading that somewhere, and it was a reputable source. Not that that couldn't make it controversial. But I should've included the Khoi-san family as well. Jul 21, 2014 at 7:01

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.