People keep sending me links to Nicholas Wade’s latest ill-informed NY Times blort about a linguistic topic, in this case based on Quentin Atkinson’s Science paper “Phonemic Diversity Supports a Serial Founder Effect Model of Language Expansion from Africa,” whose abstract says:
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.
But I get tired of wading through, and then whaling on, the ever-out-of-his-depth Wade (see, e.g., here, here, and here), so I decided to wait until I could link to a decent analysis, and thanks to marie-lucie, I hereby present Richard Sproat‘s “Science Does It Again,” a thoughtful discussion that pokes at some important holes in the theory. I will quote his summary and let you read his (quite brief) review for the details: “Atkinson’s thesis is striking, but as I said above such striking conclusions require striking support, and I believe that the paper in its current form does not provide enough support.”