Thursday, September 2, 2010

337. Did Music Originate as a Behavioral Adaptation? -- 8: Speech

Most linguists have managed to convince themselves that tone languages must have derived from non-tone languages, under the assumption that the earliest languages must have been non-tonal. The process through which a non-tone language evolves into a tonal one is known as "tonogenesis." Very strangely, however, almost all the research on tonogenesis has been centered in either East Asia or the Americas. Africa, the continent with the largest number of tone languages by far, has been all but ignored -- and for good reason, apparently:
What is quite surprising . . . is that there are no documented cases of tonogenesis in Africa, despite the wide variety of languages . . . and the widespread presence of tone on the continent. (George Tucker Childs, An Introduction to African Languages, 2003, p. 86.)
Since almost every single language in sub-Saharan Africa is tonal, "widespread presence" is something of an understatement. To illustrate, let's take a look at the world map of tone languages produced by WALS, the World Atlas of Language Structures:

The red and pink dots represent tone languages, the white dots non-tone languages. As is clearly evident, Sub-Saharan Africa is simply saturated with tone languages, with only two or three exceptions represented in the enormous WALS sample. It's interesting to note that a similar degree of tonal saturation is depicted for Southeast Asia and Melanesia. I've discussed the possible meaning of this very odd distribution in an earlier post, but it need not concern us here.

What does concern us at this point is the overwhelming genetic and archaeological evidence that's developed over the last 20 or 30 years pointing to Sub-Saharan Africa as the locus for the development of "modern" humans (homo sapiens sapiens), who are thought to have migrated from there to the rest of the world roughly 60,000 to 80,000 years ago. Since most historical linguists now agree that all human languages must have had a common ancestor, then, if the Out of Africa model is correct, that ancestor could only have originated in Africa. And since just about every language in Africa (including Khoisan, considered by many to be the oldest surviving language) is a tone language, then there is clearly something very wrong with the widespread assumption that the earliest languages must have been non-tonal, and linguistic tone could only have been produced via "tonogenesis."

Which returns us to the experiments by Diana Deutsch (see previous posts), and the surprisingly strong correlations she found between tone language and absolute pitch. Unlike some of the other common features of language and music, such as interactivity, cooperation, phrasing, etc., the use of discrete pitches is the only one generally regarded as uniquely musical. And the puzzle we've been considering, of how such tones could have developed, and, more important in the context of the present discussion, what sort of adaptational advantage they might have posed, can now be seen in an entirely new light.

Based on the evidence presented above, the following sequence may now be considered:

1. Interactive "hooted" vocalizations of early primates and pre-humans, along the lines of the "duetting" and "chorusing" of certain contemporary ape and gibbon populations. The adaptational advantage of such behavior would most likely be the facilitation of both long distance communication and cooperation.

2. The development from the above, among early humans, of precisely pitched vocalizations. Among the various means by which this may have come about, one stands out as particularly suggestive as far as adaptation is concerned. Since many birds sing using discrete pitches, there would have been an advantage for humans in learning how to imitate bird songs as a lure. This could have been accomplished through the morphing of pre-human "hooting" into precisely pitched yodeling. Since yodeling involves a process akin to the "overblowing" of wind instruments (such as pipes, flutes, etc.) to produce discrete overtones, it might have been the simplest means by which humans would have become aware of certain basic pitch relationships. Another possibility might have been the discovery that simple reed pipes or hollow bones could be blown into in such a way as to produce discrete pitches that in many cases could be used as bird-call imitations. Since each reed or bone could only play a single note, it would require close cooperation on the part of a group to imitate multi-pitched bird songs. Reed ensembles of this type are still widely found in Africa and elsewhere among indigenous peoples, and such performances are in many cases associated with birds and their calls. Vocal ensembles organized along similar lines may have developed either independently or in imitation of the wind ensembles.

3. Since bird songs are precisely pitched, hunters with absolute pitch would have been more effective than those without it, giving a selective advantage to those with absolute pitch.

4. On the basis of the above, admittedly speculative, sequence, it's not difficult to see how both vocalizing and playing with discrete pitches could have led to the development of a language of sorts, based exclusively on tonal relations. For one thing, each such musical sequence would have symbolized a specific species of bird. For another, it's possible to see how, for those with perfect pitch, each pitch could have been perceived as an easily identified semiotic "module," very close, in fact, to a linguistic phoneme, which it could have anticipated.

5. If the earliest "language" consisted essentially of discrete pitches, then we can see how, for early humans, the development of musical awareness would have had a powerful adaptational advantage (now lost, of course). This would also explain the widespread presence of tone languages in the continent where early humans developed, since the use of tonal phonemes would have persisted even after non-tonal elements were added.

The above is highly speculative of course. A great deal depends on whether or not Deutsch's results, based on research among East Asians, can be replicated with African subjects.


Maju said...

I think you would like to take a look at this new PLoS ONE paper on tone and vowel length in language sounds. While I don't understand it well, it seems the authors argue for a close relationship between these two features.

Marnie said...

Along the lines of the paper Maju has put up, is it possible that pitch and rhythm developed together in our earliest languages?

I lived in Ghana as a kid. There, the languages are tonal.

However, the same people speaking a tonal language also have precise rhythmic capability from a young age. They even have a way of tonally communicating using drums. (It was used to communicate between villages.)

Ghanaian Talking Drums:

So early language may have employed both rhythm and pitch, just a birds do.

DocG said...

Thanks for the link to this very interesting paper, Maju. What leaps out of the page for me is the fact that the association between tone and "quantity" (i.e., syllable length) was found in Finnish, one of the very few non-Indoeuropean languages in Europe. Like Estonian, also cited as a "quantity language," Finnish is classified as Uralic. So is the Saami language, as well as many Paleo-Siberian languages. I wonder if these too are also quantity languages.

If the earliest language was indeed tonal, as I strongly suspect (due to the saturation of tone languages in Africa, and the lack of evidence for "tonogenesis" on that continent), then the association these linguists found between tone and quantity could represent a first step in an evolution from tonal to non-tonal language.

I'm now wondering whether Uralic languages such as Finnish, Estonian and Saami were among the "native European" language families displaced by the advent of Indoeuropean. If so, then the close association with tone language demonstrated in this paper would make a great deal of sense.

The evolution from a tone to a quantity language would have been the exact opposite of the "tonogenesis" so confidently assumed by so many linguists. Which calls for a new term. I propose: "tonoexodus." :-)

DocG said...

I agree, Marnie, that pitch and rhythm may have developed together and if so this paper could be a first step in the investigation of that possibility. Thanks also for your comments on talking drums and the link to the very useful video.

Notice that the rhythms played by the drums appear to reflect the "natural" speech rhythms of the language, while also being strictly in time and very meaningful, even when heard simply as music.

The linguistic tones are known to have an important influence on sung melodies as well, and this aspect of tone and music has been carefully studied, as has the function of tone in drum language. What hasn't been studied, as far as I know, is the association you suggest between rhythm and language. As far as I know, drum language has been studied only in terms of its tonal structure and not the relation of its rhythms to the rhythms of speech.

Maju said...

"Finnish is classified as Uralic. So is the Saami language, as well as many Paleo-Siberian languages. I wonder if these too are also quantity languages".

Can't say but guess so.

"I'm now wondering whether Uralic languages such as Finnish, Estonian and Saami were among the "native European" language families displaced by the advent of Indoeuropean. If so, then the close association with tone language demonstrated in this paper would make a great deal of sense".

The alternative possibilities about the origin Uralic are, I think:

1. It's a native European family. If so it could be native from specifically (a) NE Europe (the Volga bend and/or Arctic Europe in general) or generally from (b) Eastern Europe (same but more southernly in Paleolithic) or even (c) all Europe. In this scenario I'd strongly favor option 1a.

2. It is a Siberian family, as supported by the presence of a major branch among Siberian peoples and also by the strong presence of Y-DNA N1c, N surely originating in East Asia (possibly in China ultimately) among all Uralic peoples (save Hungarians).

3. It was formed in parallel to Indoeuropean. Indo-Uralic theory supports this quite strongly however it is yet controversial whether the similitudes respond to sprachbund (in the Volga coalescent period after Neolithic) or genuine common origin.

In most options (and supported by archaeology in Europe at least) you have anyhow Uralic peoples living just north of proto-Indoeuropeans at the Volga-Ural area, with Uralics quite apparently specialized in Arctic Neolithic or in some cases (Nganasan at least, which are a Siberian people) in an Arctic hunter-gatherer economy.

The Northern Eurasian extent of both Uralic speakers and related Y-DNA haplogroup N also support a Siberian East to West general direction of migration, surely still in Paleolithic or at least Epipaleolithic times. Then probably there was a long time of sharing with proto-Indoeuropeans in Easternmost Europe, which may have borrowed the language, leased it or just get both languages to converge by several millennia of sprachbund. This period was surely also the time when Western Uralics (Finnic peoples specially) became morphologically Europeans by mostly female blood (almost all Finnic mtDNA is European, though there are residues of North Asian clades like C, Z and D - the same pattern is often apparent in autosomal studies, which show a minor Siberian or East Asian component, roughly 15%).

So I'm inclined to think that the ultimate origins of Uralic are in North Asia. And would not think this family as typically archaic European nor unrelated to Indoeuropean either.

"I propose: "tonoexodus." :-)"

You're happy today, it seems. ;D

DocG said...

Maju: "So I'm inclined to think that the ultimate origins of Uralic are in North Asia."

Are you a compulsive wet blanket, Maju, or do you do this sort of thing professionally? :-)

Uralic languages are called "Uralic" because they are thought to have orginated in the Urals (duh!), which, last time I checked, are exactly midway between Europe and Asia. So the North Asiatic links you've found are most likely due to an early expansion in both directions, east and west, from a central origin in the Urals.

The interesting question is when did this expansion take place? My guess is that it most likely preceded the Indoeuropean expansion, which is (by archaeological standards) relatively recent.

While it's possible that Uralic expanded into polar regions only, it's also true that the extreme north could be considered a refuge area to which peoples from the south may have migrated to avoid contact with more agressive invaders from the east (possibly Gimbutas's Kurgans).

As I see it, any language family that paleosiberians, Lapps, Finns and Hungarians have in common has to be VERY old. This impression is reinforced by the scattered distribution so characteristic of archaic survivals.

According to a recent study, as reported in Dienekes blog (, the eastern and western groups appear to have diverged somewhere around 18566 years ago, long before the Indoeuropean "invasion."

Maju said...

You have a point with U4, an aspect I oversighted (not much info around on U4, the best I could find is this paper).

Tambets claims it as a very typical European haplogroup and aDNA supports this claim to some extent, at least for the Baltic area. She seems to argue for a "Germanic area" origin of this lineage (where it's most diverse) and secondary expansion, without U4b, in the Uralic context.

But the dominant Y-DNA is from East Asia, via Siberia. So you have Easterner guys mixed with Westerner girls at the Great Uralic Party. Who do you think brought the language (if any at all, it may be an old creole branch of PIE after all).

"The interesting question is when did this expansion take place?"

Tambets argue for the post-LGM scenario (24-16 Ka, following Richards 2000). Ancient DNA rather tends to confirm such old presence further west at least (8-9 Ka ago in East Germany and Lithuania -- then in the 3rd millenium BCE in Sweden and Syria, and in the 2nd millenium in steppe Indo-Iranians).

But for me more interesting question is when did Y-DNA N and specifically Uralic N1b and N1c1, which are the ones widespread among Uralic peoples.

It seems that Derenko argues that (from Wikipedia's reference, I don't have access to the paper):

[N1c1, formerly N3a] "first expanded in south Siberia (approximately 10,000 years ago on their calculated by the Zhivotovsky method) and spread into Northern Europe where its age they calculated as around 8,000 years ago. Meanwhile, the younger subcluster, which they labelled N3a2, originated in south Siberia (probably in the Baikal region) approximately 4,000 years ago".

This Y-DNA could give support to the Ural-Altaic hypothesis but it does not support at all a European origin of Uralic unless you think the language was provided by the female element, which is clearly European in most Uralic peoples, and not the male component, which is clearly Siberian/East Asian by origin and of, apparently, more recent arrival.

"... the extreme north could be considered a refuge area to which peoples from the south may have migrated to avoid contact with more agressive invaders from the east (possibly Gimbutas's Kurgans)".

You'd need to propose an archaeologically consistent model. If a connection could be established between Kunda (which may have expanded eastwards) and Combed ware, then we could argue for what you say. Still the absolute lack of Y-DNA N in Poland and elsewhere in Europe except the NE, specially towards the North and among Uralic speakers, clearly suggests a gender-biased second layer of Siberian origin.

I have a hard time believing that the mtDNA U4+U5 "clan" kept their language upon the arrival of the Y-DNA N "clan" from the East. But, of course, you might be right, who knows?

(I've decided to ignore some of your comments for the sake of rational discussion).