Razib Khan One-stop-shopping for all of my content

July 25, 2012

No vindication of Joseph Greenberg?

Filed under: Anthroplogy,Linguistics — Razib Khan @ 2:06 am

A reader pointed me to this critique of Nick Wades’ telling in The New York Times Reports that the recent Reich et al. paper on Native Americans is a vindication of Joseph Greenberg’s ideas on the languages of the Americas. 90-Year-Old Consensus:

Nicholas Wade’s reported the Reich et al. research in the New York Times (July 11, 2012). Wade treats it as a vindication of a three-way genetic (historical linguistic) distinction among languages of the Americas proposed in Joseph Greenberg’s (1987) book of the same name, although Reich et al. do not cite it in their paper in Nature. (The only reference to Greenberg by Reich et al. is to a paper coauthored with Turner and Zegura and published in 1986 as one of the proponents of the three-way split.) The “vindication” here is entirely Wade’s. The bottom line is that this three-way distinction was known linguistically since the 1920s (for example, Sapir 1921). Basically, it’s a division among the Eskimo-Aleut languages, which straddle the Bering Straits even today, the Athabaskan languages (which were discovered to be related to a small Siberian language family only within the last few years, not by Greenberg as Wade ...

July 3, 2012

Has Dienekes Pontikos found the signature of the Indo-Europeans?

Filed under: Anthroplogy,History,Indo-Europeans,Linguistics — Razib Khan @ 12:35 pm

I don’t know the answer to the question posted in title above, and I’m moderately skeptical that he has. But I wanted to give him full credit in the public record if researchers confirm his findings in the next few years. You can read the full post at his weblog, but basically he found that a West Asian modal element in a north British (Orkney) and Lithuanian individual seems to be negatively correlated with a Northwest European modal element and positively correlated with Near Eastern and South Asian components on a genomic level across different models in ADMIXTURE (e.g., does “South Asian” at K = 5 tend to match “West Asian” at K = 8).

Two major concerns:


- I don’t have a good intuition for this method. Could this be an artifact of the algorithm?

- When you have a hypothesis in mind you can unconsciously seek out confirmatory points. As you can see in the comments below Dienekes and his interlocutors have given this issue much thought. Frankly, I found it difficult to follow a lot of the dialogue, and I follow this topic more than most.

It seems that at this point someone should do follow up analyses ...

April 19, 2011

Language and serial founder effects

Filed under: Culture,Linguistics — Razib Khan @ 9:55 am

Mr. James Winters has finally offered his take on Phonemic diversity supports a serial founder effect model of language expansion from Africa. The Return of the Phoneme Inventories:

There are several assumptions made in the paper that I’ve already considered investigating in my own work. Most notable of these assumptions is that the serial founder effect model is the only explanation available. As in population genetics, where numerous papers have supposedly verified the out of Africa model, Atkinson doesn’t really test any other competing hypotheses. It therefore makes it hard for me to accept he’s really shown that geographic distance from Africa is concomitant with a series of population bottlenecks for phoneme inventories. Indeed, with bolstered support for Neanderthal admixture in some human populations, it is becoming increasingly likely that the serial founder effect model is unlikely to hold true in relation to genetic diversity…

… I’m not saying that Atkinson thinks that serial founder effects are solely responsible for the observed patterning (as noted in the quote above)… But I do think the model’s flawed on several theoretical grounds. Specifically, Atkinson hasn’t ruled out the possibility of selection as having shaped these languages according to different socio-cultural niches.

Again, I ...

April 17, 2011

A genealogy of alphabets

Filed under: Alphabets,Linguistics — Razib Khan @ 11:50 pm

The Xibo are one of populations in the Human Genome Diversity Project data set, so you’ve probably seen them here and there. They’re a Tungusic group affiliated with the Manchus, which explains why their script is a modified form of the nearly extinct Manchu script.

The Manchurian alphabet is itself a modification of the Mongolian alphabet. Though marginalized by Cyrillic, the old alphabet is making a comeback since the fall of Communism.

In its turn the Mongolian script derives from the old Uyghur alphabet. This has been extinct since the 18th century, having been replaced by and large by an Arabic derived script (there have been experiments with Cyrillic and Chinese, and now Latin, for Uyghur).

Old Uyghur was a descendant of the Sogdian alphabet. This was the alphabet of an ancient East Iranian people who are now extinct culturally (Yaghnobi is a linguistic descendant).

Finally, Sogdian itself derives from Syriac, which was the child of Aramaic, the “original alphabet,” though it itself may derive from Proto-Sinaitic.

The point of this post was to show how cultural connections can stretch long and far, often in strange unexpected ...

April 16, 2011

African ur-language reconsidered

Filed under: Culture,Language,Linguistics — Razib Khan @ 2:22 pm

Mark Liberman at Language Log has looked through the Science paper Phonemic Diversity Supports a Serial Founder Effect Model of Language Expansion from Africa. Overall he seems to think it is an interesting paper, but he has some pointed criticisms. Here’s the utility of the post: Liberman uses analogies to domains (e.g., genomics) which are comprehensible to me. My main issue with linguistic evolution is that I’m so ignorant that I barely understand the features being discussed. I may know their dictionary.com definition, but I have pretty much no deep comprehension with which to test the inferences against. By analogy, imagine trying to evaluate a morphological cladistic model with no understanding of anatomy. Here’s the part which may be of particular interest to readers of this weblog:

However, this combination of coarse binning into ranges, for functionally-defined subsets of elements with radically different numbers of members, seems to me to be much more problematic for Atkinson’s purposes. It’s as if a human genomic survey made geographically localized counts of the number of alleles involved in color vision and in blood physiology, divided each set of counts into a few bins (“a little variation”, “a ...

April 14, 2011

The African ur-language

Filed under: Human Evolution,Linguistic Evolution,Linguistics — Razib Khan @ 2:49 pm

Several people have emailed/tweeted at me about the new paper in Science, Phonemic Diversity Supports a Serial Founder Effect Model of Language Expansion from Africa:

Human genetic and phenotypic diversity declines with distance from Africa, as predicted by a serial founder effect in which successive population bottlenecks during range expansion progressively reduce diversity, underpinning support for an African origin of modern humans. Recent work suggests that a similar founder effect may operate on human culture and language. Here I show that the number of phonemes used in a global sample of 504 languages is also clinal and fits a serial founder–effect model of expansion from an inferred origin in Africa. This result, which is not explained by more recent demographic history, local language diversity, or statistical non-independence within language families, points to parallel mechanisms shaping genetic and linguistic diversity and supports an African origin of modern human languages.

Though there are major differences between biological evolution, constrained by relatively regular forms of inheritance, and cultural evolution, which is much more potentially protean, I think that there is great potential for unity of model and process. That is why I read A Replicated Typo (and presumably why several of the contributors ...

February 21, 2011

The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language


Short comment: An often forgotten gem in Steven Pinker’s oeuvre. More technical than The Blank Slate.

February 4, 2011

Empires of the Word: A Language History of the World

Link to review: Empires of the Word & anti-Babel

July 26, 2010

The rise (and fall?) of second-tier lingua francas

Filed under: Culture,Economics,History,Linguistics — Razib Khan @ 2:51 pm

The New York Times has an interesting piece, As English Spreads, Indonesians Fear for Their Language. It is dense with the different strands of this story. Basically, upper and upper middle class Indonesians are switching from Bahasa Indonesian to English to give their children a leg up, and are sending their children to English-medium schools. Because these children have a weak command of Indonesian some authorities are fearing for the cohesion of the Indonesian nation. Though the piece alludes to other languages in Indonesia, such as Javanese, it does not emphasize the fact that the widespread knowledge of Bahasa Indonesian was the outcome of a top-down project of nation-building, and that that language is the native tongue of only a minority of the citizens of Indonesia!

From Wikipedia:

Whilst Indonesian is spoken as a mother tongue (first language) by only a small proportion of Indonesia’s large population (i.e. mainly those who reside within the vicinity of Jakarta), over 200 million people regularly make use of the national language – some with varying degrees of proficiency. In a nation which boasts more than 300 native languages and a vast array of ethnic groups, the use of proper or ‘good and correct’ Indonesian (as opposed to Indonesian slang or regional dialects) is an essential means of communication across the archipelago. Use of the national language is abundant in the media, government bodies, schools, universities, workplaces, amongst members of the Indonesian upper-class or nobility and also in many other formal situations.


The origins of Indonesia are complex. Though the islands of maritime Southeast Asia were long part of the Dutch “sphere of influence,” true direct rule came to much of the archipelago only in the early 20th century. Before that local identities were paramount, whether it be Javanese, the various ethnic groups in Sumatra or Sulawesi, and of course the culturally more distinctive peoples to the east on the island of New Guinea (the pre-modern precedent for an Indonesian state is Majapahit, but like the Dutch colonial empire for most of its history, Majapahit directly controlled and influenced only a small proportion of the archipelago).

I think the complexities and peculiarities of Indonesian history before the rise of the nation-state can be illustrated by Blambangan in eastern Java. This kingdom was deeply influenced by, and to a large extent a cultural satellite of, Bali. As such it was the last major Hindu polity within Java in the 18th century (though isolated communities managed to avoid Islamicization, all Javanese political entities had switched to Islam as their state religion except Blambangan). The VOC, the Dutch East India Company, participated and encouraged what was notionally religious war, a jihad against Blamgangan. The Dutch collusion with Muslim religious enthusiasm was purely a matter of self-interest, as the rulers of Bali were major impediments to VOC hegemony. With the fall of Blamgangan this last region of Java was subject to Islamicization and most of the population converted.

The point of recounting this episode is to show that prior to the construction of Indonesian identity after World War II the ties which bound the archipelago together were very loose. Some regions, such as Aceh, had been Muslim for nearly one thousand years. Java, the demographic and cultural heart of the archipelago had switched to Islam far more recently, and retains a strong pre-Islamic stamp to its culture (e.g., Hindu epics remain popular in Java, while the Javanese elite has not repudiated its own mystical tradition which pre-dates Hinduism and Islam). And finally, the eastern islands were only marginally influenced by the Indian and Islamic trends which were prominent in more populous western islands, and their population converted to Christianity during the colonial period. Many Ambonese, who feared Javanese Muslim hegemony in Indonesia because of their support for Dutch rule were relocated to the Netherlands.

Abstract principles such as Pancasila and concrete policies such as the promotion of Bahasa Indonesian, which was already an interregional lingua franca analogous to Swahili, were seen as critical to cementing national cohesion. Despite the national motto of Indonesia, loosely translated as “unity in diversity”, the post-World War II period has seen the spread of a unifying national language, and a deeper connection among many of the nation’s Muslims with international-normative Islam. The rise of santri Islam as Islam qua Islam in Indonesia, and the decline of local Muslim traditions which are strongly inflected by Dharmic and indigenous religious influences, is part of the cultural revolution in uniform manners.

Indonesia’s conundrum is simply a more extensive and contemporary manifestation of what many European nations faced centuries ago. When France was declared a republic some estimate that only 1/3 of the citizens spoke standard French. The proportions of Italians and Germans who spoke the standard national languages may have been even smaller (in the case of Italy I have seen estimates of less than five percent speaking Italian at the founding of the Italian nation-state!). The period of the Wars of Religion in the 17th century may have pushed theological motivations to the back-seat in the game of kings, but it is important to note that religious homogeneity increased due to the migrations compelled by the conflicts, as well as subsequent expulsions in France, and persistent legal and social disabilities for Roman Catholics in England. The emergence of Germany in its modern form, which did not include the Austrian domains, was driven in part by considerations of religious and ethnic homogeneity (the Austrian lands included many more Magyars and Slavs, and would have resulted in Catholic demographic majority, as opposed to a overwhelming Protestant dominance in the Prussian-dominated “Little German” state).

In A Study of History Arnold Toynbee introduced the concept of “still-born” civilizations. The Christianity of the Church of the East, which grew out of the Christianity of the Sassanid Empire, is a perfect illustration of the type. On the eve of the Islamic conquest of Persia there was a vibrant Christian community, which in some ways was engaged in a rivalry with the Zoroastrian state religion. It had pushed beyond the frontiers into Central Asia, to the point where it managed to persist even after the collapse of the Sassanids in the face of the Arab conquests. In the early 13th century many of the Turkic and Mongol tribes of Central Asia were Christians in the tradition of the Church of the East, including one of Genghis Khan’s daughter-in-laws (the mother of Kublai and Hulagu Khan). But this Christian tradition never gained the prominence, the embeddedness within steppe society, to become a religious monopoly and spread its wings with the rise of the Mongol Empire. Though many of the Mongols were sympathetic to Christianity, none of the great leaders died as Christians (though some were baptized at some point in their life), and the Mongol Empire was religiously pluralistic. Without this state support Eastern Christianity did not bloom, and became a minority sect in the lands of Islam and South India, fading away in Central Asia and China after the decline of the first Mongol Empire.

With the rise of the idea of the nation-state, modern communication, and the models of European states in their generation of cohesion via both top-down and bottom-up processes, you are seeing I suspect both the flowering and still-birth of new national complexes bound together by common language. Both India and Pakistan have attempted to forge a national unity with a South Asian language, overlain atop the preexistent diversity. Pakistan privileged Urdu, the traditional language of upper class Muslims throughout the subcontinent, as well as the day to day language of the Muslim population of the Gangetic plain excluding Bengal. At independence only a small minority of the population of the state spoke Urdu as their native tongue, but while in the western provinces there was acceptance of the necessity of Urdu as a link language, in the east Bengalis objected, and the rejection of Urdu became one of the symbolic aspects of conflict which led to the emergence of Bangladesh.* India has not had the same faction due to language, but standard Hindi plays the same role that Urdu does in modern Pakistan. And yet over 60 years since independence English remains commonly used as an elite language among a segment of the upper classes. Hindi is not understood in much of southern India, but since this region is demographically inferior to the north, as opposed to Bengal, which was demographically superior to West Pakistan, the tensions are not of the same magnitude. Additionally, English serves as a prestigious alternative lingua franca for Indians with a weak or nonexistent command of Hindi. Over the long term Hindi may suffer the same fate of Nahuatl and Quechua after the Spanish conquest. Because of the superior communication technologies, as well as the more persistent and powerful integrative institutions introduced by the Spaniards, the language of the fallen pre-Columbian empires actually spread in the centuries leading up the independence of Mexico and Peru from Spain, at the expense of local languages. Only in the modern period has Spanish started to marginalize the elite native languages.  Why the change? In The Rule of Empires the author notes that the Peruvian highlands in the centuries after the Spanish conquest was dominated by a local indigenous elite who served as intermediaries between the authorities of the Crown based out of Lima and the vast Andean peasantry.  With the rise of international trade, the collapse of the Spanish Empire and greater national integration, and globalization writ large, the power and attraction of such sub-national elite identities faded. Quechua or Nahuatl may have been lingua francas in segments of the Spanish Empire, but Spanish opens up much more of the world to aspirants for status, power and wealth.

It is cliche today to say that the “world is flat,” and that globalization is inevitable. There was famously another period of globalization before World War I, and it took 50 years after its collapse for the engine of international integration to slowly start up. But assuming that globalization and an international political economy is inevitable I wonder as to number of languages which we will stabilize at. Consider religion. Since the rise of Islam there really hasn’t been another great international religious revolution which has given rise to a global civilization. The fracturing of Western Christianity into Protestant and Roman Catholic domains are the closest analog, but do not rise up to the same level of impact (the shattering of the Western Christian commonwealth with the rise of Protestantism was healed in large part by the marginalization of religion in the public realm after the Enlightenment and the acceptance by most Christian groups that religious monopolies enforced by the state were no longer feasible or moral). There are really only four religions of civilizational import, Islam, Christianity, Hinduism, and Buddhism (Judaism is culturally influential, but there is only one Jewish nation, so no Jewish bloc could emerge). Why so few religions, and why such religious homogeneity so early in relation to language? I think this is because world religions are the concern of elites, whose numbers are small, and whose information networks were much more globalized in the pre-modern era than that of the masses. A “republic of letters”, or peregrinations of men such as Ibn Battuta, are only relevant for tiny elites in a pre-modern era because of economic constraints. No longer today; every man is a potential prince of letters with mass literacy and the internet. If the international dynamics which were long operative with world religions are now operative with languages, then will we see the world winnowing down to half a dozen languages? Right now linguistic diversity experts the focus on the small-scale societies and micro-languages hovering at the point of extinction, but over the next century much of the change might occur in the “middle-weight” category. Languages which rose to prominence in the era before globalization as regionally prominent mediums, but which lack comparative advantage set next to global languages. Bahasa Indonesian for many families is a new language, of only the past few generations, so its sentimental value should be relatively shallow. It is a utility, and when a newer utility offers superior services for a cheaper price, why not switch? Well, sometimes the government imposes monopolies and shields native firms. So we’ll see.

* My parents grew up in the united Pakistan, and do recount the imperiousness of Urdu speakers in Bengal during that period. For example, Urdu speakers would demand the best positions on a buses, and berate drivers in Urdu (who likely did not have a good grasp of what they were saying) when their demands were not met. Though both know Urdu, I definitely get a sense that their experiences during this period left them with little sympathy for the idea that Urdu should be the common language of South Asian Muslims.

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