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The Origin of Language Families
Photo courtesy of UTA Magazine/The University of Texas

The Origin of Language Families

U of Texas-Arlington linguist Jerold A. Edmondson, whose doctorate is from UCLA, explains what the field of linguistic history might stand to gain from advances in population genetics and archaeology.

Kevin Matthews Email KevinMatthews

Though the histories of genes, languages, and cultures nowadays can diverge dramatically, this may not have been the case in the remote past.

"The first Asians," explained Jerold A. Edmondson, summarizing some findings at the fast-expanding intersection of studies of human genetics and the remote past, left the Horn of Africa roughly 50,000 years ago and traveled "by land and by boat, probably not away from the sight of land" across the tip of the Indian subcontinent and the Bay of Bengal to Southeast Asia and, much later, to Japan and then along a crescent leading to the Himalayas.

Accounts of human migrations that are, like this one, reconstructed on the basis of genetic evidence from nonrecombinant DNA could have important consequences for the histories of languages and language families, Edmondson told an audience of about 50 people at UCLA on April 13, 2007. A professor at at the University of Texas at Arlington (article), he earned his doctorate in Germanic linguistics at UCLA.

"Though the histories of genes, languages, and cultures nowadays can diverge dramatically, this may not have been the case in the remote past," Edmondson added in an e-mail message.

The talk focused on the development of Tai, Miao-Yao, and Tibeto-Burman languages in Southeast Asia and southern China—with reference to migrations that took place between 10,000 and 50,000 years ago—and was sponsored by the UCLA Centers for Southeast Asian Studies and Chinese Studies, with the Department of Asian Languages and Cultures.

Edmondson also said that powerful software used by geneticists to construct alternative "trees," or phylograms, displaying possible relationships among DNA data sets could be helpful to historical linguists trying to group the features they see in ancient texts.

"The software will give you a family of possible trees … and put a number on the probability of a tree," he said.

One of the deep questions such innovative studies might shed light on is "how different language families come about," Edmondson remarked in response to a question about the origins of Japanese and Korean. Migration patterns alone won't explain how these highly distinct languages developed, given that the Japanese and Korean peoples "apparently accompanied those groups that became the Chinese, so shared much in common genetically with them."

By constrast, the languages spoken by the aboriginal Andamanese peoples, who arrived on their islands southwest of Myanmar on that first long migration out of Africa, are thought to be related to languages spoken by the ancient beachcombers, Edmondson said. The men in this group and in the Negrito peoples of Southeast Asia share a genetic marker (M-174) in their Y chromosomes. (Markers in mitochondrial DNA point to other "haplogroups" along maternal lines of descent.)

Edmondson noted the many differences between genetic and linguistic change, including utterly unpredictable rates of change on the linguistic side, but suggested that some of the same research tools might apply to both kinds of evidence. Prompted after the talk, he declined to say that mechanisms for linguistic change could not be sought after.

"Well, we don't know," he said.

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