Father Tongue hypothesis

The Father Tongue hypothesis proposes that humans tend to speak their fathers' language. It is based on the discovery, in 1997, of a closer correlation between language and Y chromosomal variation than between language and mitochondrial DNA variation. The initial work was performed on African and European samples by a team of population geneticists led by Laurent Excoffier.[1][2] On the basis of these and similar findings by other geneticists, the hypothesis was elaborated by historical linguist Georg van Driem in 2010 that the teaching by a mother of her spouse’s tongue to her children is a mechanism by which language has preferentially been spread over time.[3]

Focusing on prehistoric language shift in already settled areas, examples worldwide[4] show that as little as 10-20% of prehistoric male immigration can (but need not) cause a language switch, indicating an elite imposition such as may have happened with the appearance of the first farmers or metalworkers in the neolithic, bronze and iron ages.

Early autosomal research

Before the discovery of mtDNA variation and Y chromosomal variation in the 1980s and 1990s, respectively,[5][6] it was not possible to distinguish male from female effects in population genetics. Instead, researchers had to rely on autosomal variation, starting with the first population genetic study using blood groups by Ludwik Hirszfeld in 1919.[7] Later other genetic polymorphisms were used, for example polymorphisms of proteins of the blood plasma, polymorphisms of human lymphocyte antigens or polymorphisms of immunoglobulins.[8] On this basis, correlations between languages and genetic variation occasionally were proposed,[9][10] but sex-specific questions could not be addressed until the 1990s, when both mtDNA and Y chromosomal variation in humans became available for study.

Origin of the hypothesis

The Y chromosome follows a patrilineal line of inheritance, meaning it is only passed on among males, from father to son. Mitochondrial DNA on the other hand follows a matrilineal line of inheritance, meaning it is only passed on from the mother to her children and from her daughters to their children. In 1997 Laurent Excoffier, his student Estella Poloni and his team reported that they had found a strong correlation between the Y-Chromosome sequence P49a,f/Taql variation and linguistics, while not being able to find such a correspondence for the mtDNA variation. Poloni et al. proposed the possible consequences of such a correlation, i.e. the father tongue hypothesis:

"As a consequence, the female-specific diversity of our genome would fit less well with geography and linguistics than would our male-specific component. [...] If that were to prove to be the case, then the common belief that we speak our mother's tongue should be revised in favor of the concept of a ‘father's tongue’."[1]

Estella Poloni also presented the father tongue hypothesis at an international conference in Paris in April 2000.[11]

On the basis of this population genetic work, historical linguist George van Driem elaborated the father tongue hypothesis in his ethnolinguistic publications and in population genetic publications which he has co-authored.[12] At the Indo-Pacific Prehistory Association conference in Taipei in 2002 he proposed that

"a mother teaching her children their father’s tongue has been a recurrent, ubiquitous and prevalent pattern throughout linguistic history, […] some of the mechanisms of language change over time are likely to be inherent to the dynamics of this pathway of transmission. Such correlations are observed worldwide."[13]

Discovery of Y markers for languages

The next development was the discovery of specific Y markers linked to a language.[14] [15][16] These Y variants do not cause language change, but happened to be carried by the historic or prehistoric male speakers spreading the language. These language-specific Y markers create correlations such as those observed by Poloni et al. 1997, and furthermore allow the geographic extent, the time depth and the male immigration level underlying an unrecorded (prehistoric) language change to be determined. Thus, as little as 10-20% of prehistoric male immigration can (but need not) cause a language switch, indicating an elite imposition such as may have happened with the appearance of the first farmers or metalworkers in the neolithic, bronze and iron ages.[4]

Examples of father tongues

There are several salient examples where the prehistoric diffusion of a language family correlates strongly with the diffusion of Y chromosomal haplogroups.[4]

Implications of the father tongue hypothesis

The father tongue hypothesis has far reaching implications for several processes in linguistics such as language change, language acquisition and sociolinguistics.

The historical linguist George van Driem interpreted the correlation of Y chromosomal haplogroups and language families as indicating that the spread of language families was often mediated by male-biased migration, whether these intrusions were martial or something less glamourous. He conjectured that the majority of language communities spoke father tongues rather than mother tongues.[17]

Focusing on prehistoric language shift in already settled areas, examples worldwide[4] show that as little as 10-20% of prehistoric male immigration can (but need not) cause a language switch, indicating an elite imposition such as may have happened with the appearance of the first farmers or metalworkers in the neolithic, bronze and Iron Ages.

The father tongue hypothesis has implications for linguists’ understanding of language change. It must be assumed that the dynamics of language change whereby mothers pass on the language of their spouses to their offspring differ from the dynamics of language change in a monolingual community and even from the dynamics of change in a bilingual community where mothers pass on their own language to their children.[21] As a consequence, such dynamics can introduce a discontinuity with the past. For example, it has been observed that Michif, genetically an Algonquian language was relexified by Métis women with French, the language of their husbands, and so the genetic affinity of Michif has come to be almost unidentifiable.[22][23][24] If the process of relexification went beyond the possibility of linguistic reconstruction, the dynamics of such a process may preclude the true linguistic heritance of a community.[21]

The father tongue hypothesis also has implications for language acquisition, as the hypothesis suggests an evolutionary explanation for why females may be better in some aspects of language performance and acquisition.[25][26][27][28][29][30][31][32][33]

Exceptions to the father tongue hypothesis

Genetics does not determine the language spoken by a human being, and the link between Y chromosomal haplogroups and linguistic affinities is an observed correlation and not a causal link. Therefore, it must be assumed that, while father tongues predominate, exceptions to father tongues exist in the world. Two very well known exceptions are the Balti in northern Pakistan and Hungarians. The mtDNA haplogroups most frequent among Balti are the same as those of the neighbouring Tibetan communities, whereas the Y chromosomal haplogroups most frequent in Balti males appear to have entered Baltistan from the west with the introduction of Islam. The Balti speak among the most conservative dialects of Tibetan.[12] The language of the Baltis corresponds with the mtDNA and not with the Y chromosome and is in effect a salient example of a mother tongue.[17] The other well known exception is Hungarian. The N1c haplogroup of the Y chromosome, distinguished by Tat-C deletion is found at a high frequency throughout Uralic language communities, but it is virtually missing in Hungarian males. Therefore, while the intrusion of the Magyars into what is today Hungary is historically attested and has left clear linguistic evidence, genetically the Magyar intrusion has left no salient genetic traces. Instead, from a genetic point of view, Hungarians strongly resemble a Western Slavic language community.[21]

See also


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  2. Barbujani, Guido (1997). "Invited Editorial: DNA Variation and Language Affinities". American Journal of Human Genetics. 61: 1011–1014. doi:10.1086/301620.
  3. van Driem, George (2010). "The Shompen of Great Nicobar Island: New linguistic and genetic data, and the Austroasiatic homeland revisited". In Keralaputra Shreevinasaiah Nagaraja and Kashyap Mankodi. Austroasiatic Linguistics: Proceedings of the Third International Conference on Austroasiatic Linguistics, 26-28 November 2007. Mysore: Central Institute of Indian Languages. pp. 224–259.
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  5. Ferris, SD; Brown WM, Davidson WS, Wilson AC (1981). "Extensive polymorphism in the mitochondrial DNA of apes". Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA. 78 (10): 6319–6323. doi:10.1073/pnas.78.10.6319. PMC 349030Freely accessible. PMID 6273863.
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  8. Cavalli-Sforza, Luigi Luca; Menozzi P, Piazza A (1994). The history and Geography of Human Genes. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press.
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  10. Cavalli-Sforza, LL; Piazza A, Menozzi P, Mountain J (1988). "Reconstruction of human evolution: bringing together genetic, archaeological, and linguistic data". Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA. 85 (16): 6002–6006. doi:10.1073/pnas.85.16.6002. PMC 281893Freely accessible. PMID 3166138.
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