The Fastest-Growing Language in the U.S.

Geoff Pullum has a Lingua Franca post with the hook suggested by the title:

Few would guess correctly if asked which foreign language has the fastest-growing population of speakers in the United States. It is (so Quartz India reported this week) Telugu, a Dravidian language of Andhra Pradesh and Telangana states. In 2000, the U.S. had less than 88,000 speakers of Telugu; by last year it was more than 415,000.

He briefly describes the Dravidian languages, then writes:

There’s actually just one other major group of languages with retroflex consonants: many of the Australian Aboriginal languages. You may immediately be thinking, could that be a sign of where the Aborigines came from? Well, yes and no. There does seem to have been an influx of Dravidians into northern Australia, probably Tamils traveling by boat, about 4,000 years ago: About 11 percent of today’s Aborigines seem to have some Dravidian DNA. But four millennia ago is far too recent to account for most of the Australian Aboriginal population. They have been there for more like 50,000 or even 60,000 years, and they would have come ultimately from East Africa, like all the rest of the world’s human population, possibly on foot, via land bridges (that’s controversial). The structure of a stop-consonant system (which can change in a couple of millennia) cannot justify an assumption of kinship. Positing an Australian-Dravidian superfamily would be just fantasy.

I agree with his Afterword: “A slew of Telugu workers in the US has…” is ungrammatical. As he says, “Slew is a typical number-transparent noun, like lot, number, and couple.”

Comments

  1. John Cowan says:

    I hold that both singular and plural are grammatical with these nouns. And so did Tolkien, in replying to a letter addressed to “any Professor of English Language”. He said, “You can say what you like.” And so I do. Nyaaaah.

  2. Stu Clayton says:

    On “slew”:

    I have adopted a writing and speaking practice that has proved useful – I make every effort to avoid words that excite discussions about their proper use or meaning, “slew” for instance. As another example, I don’t use the word “transparent”, as in “number-transparent” here. Of course I can peeve about it with the best of them, but that’s just for fun and socializing. When the party’s over, “transparent” goes back into the doghouse.

    Another such word is “reality”, but you all know that already, ha ha. To see if I can formulate ideas about something without using particular words (or their sort-of equivalents), is a big help in clearing up my thoughts. Sometimes I conclude that the ideas are zombies under the control of their words.

  3. David Marjanović says:

    possibly on foot, via land bridges (that’s controversial)

    That’s an interesting misunderstanding. Not in 45 million years has it been possible to walk to Australia from any other continent, and then that other continent was Antarctica (still attached at the time to South America, which was otherwise isolated). Paleoanthropologists have known this for several decades, of course, and have often tried to use the date of the first settlement of Australia – which Pullum gets right – as the latest possible date for the appearance of whatever human behavioral trait it is that lets a human population cross a seaway that they couldn’t even see the other side of.

    (Pre-)Dravidians reaching Australia some 4000 years ago would have made sense from several points of view (retroflexes, dingoes and whatnot), but the genetic evidence for this seems to have evaporated in larger datasets; we’ve discussed this before.

  4. Oboesha55 says:

    I have heard the hypothesis (or maybe it’s proven, I don’t know) that Sanskrit has retroflex stops due to influences from Dravidian languages. But given the distance between Southeast Asia and Australia, why would anyone say that’s the only way for two families to have large number of languages with retroflexed.

  5. David Marjanović says:

    Retroflex stops are more widespread, occurring in the region also in Burushaski and Pashto. Elsewhere, Vietnamese has one, and so did Middle Chinese.

    Retroflex affricates and fricatives are much more widespread, but absent from Australia.

  6. Not in 45 million years has it been possible to walk to Australia …

    Yes the hypothesis is controversial. I think the theory is people could island-hop down the Indonesian archipeligo then across the Torres Straits. Those are still very shallow patches of sea. Wouldn’t there be more land/shorter distances by sea ~50,000 years ago? Specifically, couldn’t you see the next island from this one? If not see land, at least see a cloud pattern above it? Then take a long fishing trip … (wp says archaeological evidence of deep-sea fishing in Timor Leste ~42,000 years ago).

    Contrast that settlement of the Pacific, much later, needed formidable seafaring and navigation skills: no guarantee you’d find land, so you always need to find your way home. It’s those long sea voyages where all the retroflex consonants died out: you were too liable to swallow a mouthful of seawater whilst retroflexing.

  7. marie-lucie says:

    David M: whatever human behavioral trait it is that lets a human population cross a seaway that they couldn’t even see the other side of.

    If the seaway is not extremely large, getting away from one (still visible) coast can result in seeing another coast, on the other side of the seaway. Also, winds, currents, storms, can push a boat away from one coast and toward an unknown one, even if quite far. Also, even if the next coast is too far to be seen by daylight, the night sky provides careful observers with points and figures which help them be aware of their position and route. In addition, as is known from Polynesian navigational practices, sailors attuned to the sea can also sense currents and other characteristics.

  8. David Marjanović says:

    Yes the hypothesis is controversial. I think the theory is people could island-hop down the Indonesian archipeligo then across the Torres Straits.

    The trick is that there are several stretches of ocean, thousands of meters deep, through the archipelago. In an ice age you can walk to Bali, and that’s it.

    Also, winds, currents, storms, can push a boat away from one coast and toward an unknown one, even if quite far. Also, even if the next coast is too far to be seen by daylight, the night sky provides careful observers with points and figures which help them be aware of their position and route.

    Yes, yes – all these things seem to require a modern human intellect (or at least that’s what everyone assumes), so its use 60,000 years ago means that the modern human intellect – again: whatever that actually means in concrete terms – must have evolved earlier than that. Which shouldn’t surprise anybody, given out-of-Africa, but apparently still does.

  9. David Eddyshaw says:

    Kabiyè, a Gur language of Togo (politically salient as the mother tongue of quondam president-for-as-long-as-I-damn-well-please Gnassingbé/Étienne Eyadéma and his family) has retroflex ʈ ɖ ɳ but no retroflex fricatives.

    (The Wikipedia account of Kabiyè phonology seems to be wrong, incidentally; I got this from Lébikaza’s grammar, which seems pretty reliable as far as I can judge, and goes into a lot of detail on phonology.)

  10. marie-lucie says:

    Of course, the occurrence of retroflex consonants in Australia and India could be pure coincidence, since there are such consonants elsewhere on the globe.

  11. Ancestors of South American monkeys crossed the Atlantic from Africa 20 million years ago.

    How they did that despite having no seafaring skills (or for that matter intelligence) is quite a mystery.

    Perhaps a big enough tree carried by winds and currents is all it takes

  12. There was a PBS show about out-of-africa migrations that described a genetic study of South Indians to look for DNA related to Australian Aborigines. The study found positive results among some South Indians.

    The basic concept is that at around 50000 years ago the easiest way to migrate would be along the seacoast. That should have left DNA traces behind, although it would get mixed up with later migrations.

    Australian aborigine DNA shows an initial arrival around 50000 ya and then essentially no new arrivals until modern times. Also it appears the initial group was quite small.

    The first migration appears to have started by going directly east across the Red Sea instead of going up around through Egypt, so there was some seafaring capability right at the beginning.

    The Australian settlement pattern suggests being accidently blown a long way in a storm and managing to survive, not the existence of regular sea routes.

  13. marie-lucie says:

    maidhc: The Australian settlement pattern suggests being accidently blown a long way in a storm and managing to survive, not the existence of regular sea routes.

    That would be my opinion too. And this would probably not have happened with just one small boatload but a series over time, perhaps depending on climate.

    As far as languages are concerned, an origin in South India would not necessarily imply a linguistic link with Dravidian: there are still non-Dravidian languages spoken in remote areas of India, which might be candidates for relatedness, and in addition, the accepted length of time since the separation would make it unlikely that much in the way of resemblances would have persisted to our day.

    About the origin of the Australian aborigines, we should not forget the Tasmanians, who seem to have become separated from the Australian continent at a fairly early period. Has it been possible to retrieve their DNA, or any other features that would link them to people still existing or even just known to have existed in the rest of the world?

  14. squiffy-marie von bladet says:

    Textbook Swedish has retroflex consonants: when dental stops are preceded by /r/ they are both replaced by a retroflexed stop of the same flavour.

    This is of course because the Vikings – noted sea-farers – stopped off in India on the way from their ancient Australian homelands.

  15. squiffy-marie von bladet says:

    (Of course “fastest growing” is a notorious swindle if you work by *ratios*: it can hardly mean anything other than that the starting point was tiny.

    Hippopotamus taunting is Belgium’s fastest-growing spectator sport if no-one watched last year.)

  16. I sure hope there is an another world where the hippopotamuses taunt Belgians

  17. Lars (the original one) says:

    @Countess Des: dental stops — dental anythings. It applies to /n/, /l/, /s/ as well as to /t/ and /d/. And it’s not just in textbooks, unless by that you mean spoken Standard Swedish — actual Stockholmers do it consistently and in total disregard of morpheme or word boundaries. Very hard to learn if not born to the habit.

  18. Trond Engen says:

    Not only Swedish. I do it too. This is very much a Central Scandinavian feature.

  19. David Marjanović says:

    (The Wikipedia account of Kabiyè phonology seems to be wrong, incidentally; I got this from Lébikaza’s grammar, which seems pretty reliable as far as I can judge, and goes into a lot of detail on phonology.)

    Then fix it and cite the grammar as your source; nobody will dare touch your edit.

    Perhaps a big enough tree carried by winds and currents is all it takes

    Er, yes; specifically, “vegetation rafts” have been proposed – storms today sometimes rip off whole chunks of soil with trees and set them adrift. But there we’re talking about “sweepstakes dispersal” that happened once in 45 or 50 million years, and also about animals small enough that a little population can fit on one such raft.

    Well, maybe twice – the caviomorph rodents did the same thing. But the error margins for the molecular dating in rodents and primates overlap so much that perhaps both came on the same raft.

  20. There was a PBS show about out-of-africa migrations that described a genetic study of South Indians to look for DNA related to Australian Aborigines. The study found positive results among some South Indians.

    Is that because the relevant DNA arrived in Australia 4000 years ago from India or because it arrived in India 3995 years ago from Australia?

  21. Trond Engen says:

    I think it’s rather that south Indians have a little more DNA from ancien Indian hunter-gatherers. According to recent genetic surveys of the Indian subcontinent, the Pre-Dravidian, Pre-pretty-much-everything-we-see-today-except-in-the-Andaman-islands, genetic element is stronger in the south than in the north.

  22. squiffy-marie von bladet says:

    By “Textbook Swedish” I meant the kind taught to L2 learners like me, without any further insight as to the ‘lectical distribution. Clearly the Indo-Australians made a big impact!

  23. @squiffy: I’m curious, does that kind of Swedish include pitch accents? The few times that I’ve flirted with Swedish, I’ve been tempted to pick up something akin to a Finland Swedish accent in order to bypass them – but I have no idea how that would go over with Swedes.

  24. marie-lucie says:

    DM: little animals crossing the ocean on a big tree ?

    A Northwest Coast legend recorded by Boas tells of a group of children, led by a chief’s daughter, whose favourite play space was the inside of a very large hollow log lying on the beach (as are frequently seen on the coast, carried up by high tides). One day as they were about to go back to their homes, they found themselves floating quite far from shore. After a few days of drifting, during which they survived by catching and eating seagulls that landed on the log, they arrived at an unknown coast which turned out to be Haida Gwai (formerly the Queen Charlotte Islands). (Iakon, you might know this story or a version of it -)

    [ Here is the rest of what I know – remember that these are societies with matrilineal inheritance]

    They landed and were welcomed, and the chief’s daughter ended up marrying the Haida chief’s son and having several children with him. But as her children were growing up she decided to go back to her own people, where her oldest brother would have become a chief and her male children would be in his line of succession (for titles and control of lands), while the Haida children had begun to taunt her own, saying “You have no uncles, where are your uncles?” (her brothers, from whom her male children could inherit). The husband was sad to see them go but fully understood his wife’s reasoning, which also insured his sons’ future, while they had no status among the Haida and no way to acquire it. He gave them a boat provided with everything they would need on the voyage (presumably including paddles and perhaps sails), and they sailed back home.

  25. squiffy-marie von bladet says:

    @lazar: Yes, we had pitch. It’s more of a seasoning in Swedish than an ingredient, though, so we didn’t belabour it. (I don’t remember it being much of an issue, really.)

  26. Lars (the original one) says:

    In practice, trying to acquire pitch probably plays a large role for not being lumped with the large immigrant minority that ethnic Swedes have been doing their worst to keep from integrating.

    A Danish/Norwegian/Finnish accent (well-known to Swedes) combined with a Scandinavian phenotype will prevent such lumping, but other foreigners beware.

  27. Trond Engen says:

    A correctly placed and well-performed pitch is not necessary to communicate. There are dialects that do well without it, as there are Danish dialects that do well without its counterpart, the stød. If you lack it and don’t sound like any of those dialects, you will, as Lars says, sound like a foreigner. But you’ll sound like a foreigner anyway.

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