The NY Times has a very silly article today suggesting that the click languages of southern Africa “still hold a whisper of the ancient mother tongue spoken by the first modern humans.” Let me establish right off the bat why this is silly. Languages change at a rate that, while not constant, is in a broad sense predictable; over the course of centuries sounds inexorably alter, so that without written records we can peer back only a few millennia by comparing modern languages and seeing what the common ancestor must have been like. Written records, of course, go back only five thousand years or so. Beyond that, all is conjecture; people who claim to reconstruct “Nostratic” and similar alleged ancestors of all languages are snake-oil salesmen. The very idea that we can find remnants of a language spoken 50,000 years ago (or “112,000 years, plus or minus 42,000 years,” depending on who you listen to) is ludicrous.
So why are they saying otherwise? Well, click consonants sound funny to speakers of languages that don’t have them, so they appear to demand explanation (unlike our “normal” consonants), and it happens that they’re found almost exclusively in the languages of southern Africa (they also occur in Damin, an Australian language, but nobody speaks it anymore, so we can ignore it), and Africa is the earliest home of mankind (and of course frequently thought of as strange and primitive), so… it all fits together. The specific hook the article is based on is the discovery that the speakers of two of these languages are genetically divergent: “The Stanford team compared them with other extremely ancient groups like the Mbuti of Zaire and the Biaka pygmies of Central African Republic and found the divergence between the Hadzabe and the Ju|’hoansi might be the oldest known split in the human family tree…. (“Ju|’hoansi” is pronounced like “ju-twansi” except that the “tw” is a click sound like the “tsk, tsk” of disapproval.)” Why then it follows as the night the day that the clicks are inherited from our earliest ancestors, if you ignore inconvenient facts like the inevitability of language change, the irrelevance of genetics to linguistics, and the propensity of language communities to borrow sounds from each other (the Bantu languages of the region, for instance, have borrowed clicks from the languages that were there when they arrived). In the whole article, only one sensible person is quoted, well after the point when most readers will have turned the page:
Dr. Bonnie Sands [sic; her name is spelled Bonny], a linguist at Northern Arizona University, said click sounds were not particularly hard to make. All children can make them. Dr. Sands saw no reason why clicks could not have been invented independently many times and, perhaps, lost in all areas of the world except Africa.
“There is nothing to be gained by assuming that clicks must have been invented only once,” she said, “or in presuming that certain types of phonological systems are more primordial than others.”
I don’t want to suggest that the localized occurrence of clicks isn’t an interesting question. Olle Engstrand of Stockholm University suggests that “the reason for the areal skewness of clicks lies in the African phonetic-typological environment rather than in production or perception constraints”; in other words, the languages of the region happened to develop phonetic structures that made the production of clicks likely. I have no idea whether this is correct, but it’s a scientific argument. Genetic mumbo-jumbo is not.
[Thanks for calling my attention to this article go to a Bonnie who does spell her name that way.]