Well, it’s my bounden duty to tell you about the latest theory of language spread, but I’m damned if I know what to say. According to an article by Nicholas Wade in today’s NY Times, Jared Diamond of the University of California at Los Angeles and Peter Bellwood of the Australian National University in Canberra are claiming that the world’s languages were spread by agriculture.

The premise is that when humans lived as hunters and gatherers, their populations were small, because wild game and berries can support only so many people. But after an agriculture system was devised, populations expanded, displacing the hunter-gatherers around them and taking their language with them.

On this theory, whatever language happened to be spoken in a region where a crop plant was domesticated expanded along with the farmers who spoke it.
Even if the farmers interbred with the hunter-gatherers whose land they took over, genes can mix, but languages cannot. So the hunter-gatherers would in many cases have adopted the farmers’ language. That is why languages “record these processes of demographic expansion more clearly than the genes,” Dr. Bellwood said.

Aside from the usual Times quota of misstatements (Bantu is not the same thing as Niger-Congo) and presentation of hypotheses as fact (“The founder language [of Austronesian] was spoken by rice growers in southern China”), the piece—and I presume the original Science article—is full of “may have” and other warning signals. Cautionary voices are left till almost the end of the article (“Dr. Christopher Ehret of U.C.L.A., an expert in the history of African languages, said the authors had overstated the role of agriculture in explaining the pattern of language distribution”). Neither of the authors is a linguist (Diamond is a physiologist, Bellwood an archaeologist), and they naturally accept whatever linguistic theories best fit the story they want to tell. But my main reaction is: so? This theory is not blatantly silly, like the genetic click one the Times was excited about a few weeks ago (they seem to have forgotten all about it, since they mention “the Khoisan, or click-language speakers” without reference to their unique genetic heritage), but there’s no way of knowing how true it is, and what good is yet another unprovable theory? Call me small-minded, but I’d rather have one honest fact pried from the great blooming, buzzing confusion of the world than a dozen ambitious but untestable hypotheses.


  1. What is this garbage about “languages cannot mix”? These people *do* speak English, right? The Germanic language whose vocabulary is, what, less than half actually Germanic at this point? Have these people never heard of pidgins and creoles?
    Gah, what utter nonsense.

  2. Yeah, it would have been nice to see some references rather than just claims, but it’s probably asking for too much from a daily newspaper.
    I didn’t see much in the way of ideas that I hadn’t seen before. I’ve heard that the proto-Indo-Europeans had horses, or copper smelting technology, or barley… Who knows? Last time I checked, I thought the presence of Mon-Khmer languages in southern China before the Han expansion was fairly well accepted, but I haven’t been paying close attention. And the last theory I heard about Japanese was that it might well have started as a creole of Austronesian languages moving north from Taiwan and proto-Korean (and/or Altaic) speakers moving in from mainland Asia, although I remember being told that that was impossible to demonstrate on linguistic grounds alone.
    It seems to me that the whole point about creole studies is that languages can and regularly do mix, and often a lot more easily than genes.

  3. Two fairly obvious theories:
    Languages are spread by nomadic and/or conquering people. (Romans, Arabs).
    Agricultural civilizations came to be dominant in particular parts of the world. Their languages expanded along with their political power (e.g. Ancient Egyptians).
    This latter seems too obvious to merit a Times article, or am I missing something? Language expands with power.
    Counter-example: A conquering people adopt language of the conquered. The Visigoths learned Latin, rather than impose their language on the population of Hispania. This is usually explained by the fact they felt culturally inferior to native population, didn’t really bring their own culture with them.

  4. Yes to all of you. I had meant to mention that idiocy about “languages cannot mix” but got bored and distracted. Some days I just can’t get it up for bashing the Times with my usual gusto.
    Scott: Yeah, I think it is pretty well accepted, but it’s still a theory, and not a “proved” one like evolution. I just get pissed off at seeing such things presented as fact. What’s wrong with “Most scholars believe…”? I mean, it’s pretty well accepted by economists that the administration’s tax plans are going to bankrupt the country, but you don’t see the Times presenting that as fact, do you? [/rant]
    Oh, and nothing is “too obvious to merit a Times article.”

  5. tallguy says

    I have not read the Science article and I am generally a fan of Jared Diamond’s work. However…
    I am not a fan of this thesis. It’s primary assumption is that agriculture always makes a community more powerful and increases their ability to expand. This has been the received wisdom for years and is only approximately correct. Physical anthropologists have demonstrated that most early agricultural communities are actually much less healthy than their predecessors or than their hunter-gatherer neighbors. Often early agriculturalists gather 50-90% of their calories from a single crop, and this leads to serious nutritional deficiencies, which lead in turn to high rates of illness, weaker overall bones, and the first incidences of tooth cavities. (Ouch!) So why do people turn to agriculture? Largely, it reduces some risk. You always know where to find the crops. And the typical first crops (rice, wheat, barley, maize, potatoes, etc.) can be stored more easily than other resources. So the community can buffer against bad years.
    What is significant about agriculture, however, is that it allows for some really dramatic social changes. More people living sedentary lives in close proximity with each other have more time and opportunity to develop the elaborate social rules that bind people to each other. Also, these stores of crops become easy targets for self-aggrandizing individuals. Most hunter-gatherers have social and economic rules that actually discourage people from accumulating personal wealth. They are encouraged to share extensively with their neighbors to ensure, among other things, that their friends and family will reciprocate when times are bad. With the advent of agriculture, societies can now begin to accumulate goods, and the path to wealth and class distinctions becomes possible. In turn, these new social formations create incentives for groups to extract tribute from their neighbors, and in time to colonize them. Ultimately, this frequently leads to the language replacement that this article wants to talk about.
    So indirectly, agriculture is an important ingredient in the types of social structures that could go about spreading a language far and wide. But agriculture is not always present, and more importantly, the presence of agriculture does not always lead to inegalitarian social forms.
    So I think the thesis misses the point. It would be far more interesting to look at the conditions behind the spread of each of the major language families. Without knowing anything else, I can probably guess that these spreads will be related to inegalitarian societies since they tend to leave larger “footprints” on the world. As a result, most were also agriculturalists. However, for the most part, I would also guess that when one language replaced another that it was the case of one agriculturalist’s language replacing the language of another agricultural group. Therefore, agriculture is probably not the most interesting reason for why one language replaces another. It is merely epiphenomenal.
    Anyway, that is how one hack sees it.

  6. Now that was a fascinating little essay, far more interesting than the Times article, which I’m now glad I blogged.

  7. >and I presume the original Science article—is
    >full of “may have” and other warning signals
    I don’t know about the Science article but here’s the UCLA press release.

  8. “Counter-example: A conquering people adopt language of the conquered.”
    – The Normans in Normandy.
    – The Normans in Britain.
    – Genghis Khan and descendants in China.
    – Khan’s descendants again in India
    Common thread among all these; tiny numbers of conquering, huge numbers of conquered.

  9. Aidan,
    But in all those cases you had agriculturalists or pastoralists conquering other agriculturalists/pastoralists. So that doesn’t really advance Diamond’s thesis. Sure, lots of language replacement occurs because of conquest, but the point I made in may last point is that the agriculturalists/hunter-gatherer distinction seems like a small factor in many of those conquests. Either it doesn’t exist (both sides are agriculturalists) or it is indirect (agriculture assists the advent of social changes that leads to conquest).
    There is one important point in Diamond’s work I did not raise in my last post that is important. Before agriculture and pastoralism, humans did not have most of the infectious diseases they have today. Many of our diseases come from close contact with animals and most of the diseases do not become endemic until the population has reached a certain threshold, and that threshold is not usually reached without the aid of agriculture (smallpox requires a population of 500,000 to be endemic). So early agriculturalists contracted some nasty diseases. If they could survive them, and then expand at the same time they were sharing these diseases with their neighbors they could do extremely well. Just see the European conquest of the New World as the biggest example. But timing is everything here. Share agriculture, and diseases, with your neighbors before you start expansion and there is not much of a benefit. The bubonic plague started in China or possibly East Africa and spread to Europe, but since it was not followed by an army there was no conquest involved.
    So it may be that agriculture gave rise to diseases giving rise to conquest which led to language replacement, but the exact series of events can be difficult to prove. And in the most massive example of language replacement, the conquest of the New World, a focus solely on agriculture misses the point. The Europeans largely were conquering other agriculturalists because the H-Gs didn’t have enough wealth to make their conquest worthwhile. So I am back to advocating a particularist method of study in order to understand language replacement and conquest. Agriculture seems too indirect to be a really useful as a priamry explanatory variable.

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