Mother tongue comes from your (prehistoric) father, or does it?

Sep 22, 2011 by

According to a recent study, conducted by Peter Forster and Colin Renfrew of the University of Cambridge and discussed in Science Daily, “language change among our prehistoric ancestors came about via the arrival of immigrant men — rather than women — into new settlements”. Of course, this claim only applies to the language of mixed groups, where men and women come from different linguistic communities; most (prehistoric) migration was by groups containing members of both sexes. But let’s consider such instances of language contact where men and women come from different language backgrounds.

The Forster-Renfrew team studied genetic signatures in the male Y chromosome and female mtDNA from several thousand individuals in communities around the world that seem to have arose from sex-specific migrations, such as the Icelanders and Austronesian tribes. (Note that the Science Daily reporter does not seem to have a clear idea about the distinction between Austronesians and Polynesians.)

Whether migrations were driven by agricultural dispersal or the arrival of military forces, it appears that men moved, married local women and imposed their language on their wives and the communities at large. For example, DNA research suggests that the majority of Icelanders descend from Scandinavian (Viking) men and Irish women. As you can see from the chart below (from Goodacre et al. 2005), unlike in Orkneys and Shelands, where the proportion of Scandinavian DNA is roughly equal among men (Y-DNA) and women (mtDNA), in Iceland roughly 75% of Y-DNA is Scandinavian in origin, whereas only about 30% of mtDNA is Scandinavian. A significant proportion of non-Scandinavian mtDNA can be traced back to Ireland: according to Bryan Sykes, it was common for Vikings headed to Iceland to make a detour via Ireland and pick a wife there. Obviously, Icelandic is a North Germanic (Scandinavian) language rather than a Celtic one, meaning that it was the Viking men whose language “won over” the idiom of their Irish wives.

Similarly, a genetic study on the prehistoric encounter of expanding Austronesians with indigenous groups in New Guinea and the neighbouring Admiralty Islands shows the familiar pattern: it is males that determine prehistoric language switches. As I’ve discussed in a posting last summer, Papua New Guinea is one of the most linguistically diverse places on Earth: almost one language in 8 is spoken in Papua New Guinea and the degree of linguistic diversity (e.g. the number of language families here) is staggering. The New Guinean coast contains pockets of Austronesian-speaking areas separated by non-Austronesian-speaking areas (see the Ethnologue map below).

But there is a pattern in this linguistic mosaic. According to Forster and Renfrew,

“the Polynesian mtDNA level (40-50%) is similar in these areas regardless of language, whereas the Y chromosome correlates strongly with the presence of [Austronesian] languages”

Once again, it seems that it is men who determine what language is spoken by the community, not women.

The researchers have also examined the genetic and linguistic situation in the Indian subcontinent and in the Americas and found similar patterns.

Although not discussed by Forster and Renfrew, similar patterns can be found elsewhere. For example, a genetic study by Malyarchuk et al. (2005), published in Human Biology 76(6), and discussed in more detail in an earlier posting, found that “Russian colonization of northeastern territories might have been accomplished mainly by males rather than by females” (Malyarchuk et al., p. 877). As a result of this colonization, Finnic languages such as Murom, Meschera and Merya gradually disappeared in the late 11th and early 12th centuries CE through acculturation to the Slavic-speaking Russians. This is another good example of a sex-specific migration and language switch.

But Forster may be a bit too quick in rejecting “the expression ‘mother tongue’ and its concept …firmly embedded in popular imagination”. After all, it may be true that

“…women may have more readily adopted the language of immigrant males, particularly if these newcomers brought with them military prowess or a perceived higher status associated with farming or metalworking”

But it was those women who “corrupted” the language of their husbands: as any non-native speaker would, they made subtle “mistakes”, subconsciously introducing patterns and constructions familiar from their native tongues. (The effects of a substratum language on the superstratum language are further discussed here.)

Given the predominance of male-driven language switches, it would be interesting to explore why this pattern holds. Is it because men are more conservative by nature and women are biologically better at adapting to their environment (including their linguistic environment)? Or is it because men have a more powerful social status, which allows then to impose a language on their families and communities? Or a bit of both? It would be interesting to see what anthropologists, biologists and socio-linguists think about that.

I would also be curious to find out if the pattern of sex-specific migrations and language switches holds in present-day mixed communities (e.g. in Russia’s Far East, where many Chinese men move to Russian territory and marry Russian-speaking wives) or even just mixed families. Are children growing in bilingual households, who do not grow up bilingual, adopt the Mommy-language or the Daddy-language? I do not know if there is research on this subject; if you know of any, please leave me a link in the comment section.

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