The Malagasy Language, Genes, and Gender Puzzle

Dec 9, 2014 by

[Many thanks to Rory van Tuyl for interesting and inspiring discussions.]

Recent research by Peter Forster and Colin Renfrew of the University of Cambridge, discussed in my earlier post, shows that in gender-biased mixed communities, language correlates better with Y-DNA than mtDNA. For example, Icelanders’ Y-DNA comes mostly from the Norsemen, while a large proportion of mtDNA lineages derive from Ireland (Goodacre at al. 2005). The language of the resulting mixed community is a descendant of Old Norse, not Old Irish. Similarly, in coastal Papua New Guinea Austronesian rather than Papuan languages are spoken in mixed communities where male lineages come from elsewhere in the Austronesian world and female lineages are local. Likewise, in northern European Russia male genetic lineages are more heavily Russian, whereas female lineages derive chiefly from the local Finnic-speaking groups. The language of the resulting mixed communities is Russian, while several historical Finnic languages disappeared through acculturation to Russian.


A challenging counterexample to Forster and Renfrew’s generalization comes from Madagascar: as a recent study by Sergio Tofanelli and colleagues shows, the gene pool there consists of African and South East Asian lineages, but the correlation between Y-DNA and language does not hold as strongly. As can be seen from their charts reproduced on the left, about two thirds of the female lineages in both Highlander (Merina) and coastal populations come from the first Austronesian settlers, while a much smaller proportion of male lineages do—and yet the language spoken by both the Merina and the coastal tribes is an Austronesian language, Malagasy, rather than African (specifically, Bantu) languages. Can the conclusions of Tofanelli et al. and those of Forster and Renfrew be somehow reconciled?

One possible scenario that fits with the research findings from both teams emphasizes the peculiarity of Madagascar’s migrational history: until fairly recently, it was uninhabited by humans. Unlike most gender-biased mixed communities examined by Forster and Renfrew, which result from an intermarriage of male newcomers with local women, the original Austronesian settlers in Madagascar did not find any local population to intermarry with. Thus, the original population of the island must have involved Austronesian settlers of both sexes. Another recent genetic study, carried out by Murray Cox of New Zealand’s Massey University and his team, discussed in Martin Lewis’ post, suggested that the original group of settlers included around thirty women. Naturally, these first settlers, both male and female, spoke an Austronesian tongue.

The African genetic admixture must have come later, with the arrival of Bantu-speakers, again both men and women. But as can be seen from the chart above, this admixture was more significant on the male side and among the less economically and technologically advanced coastal dwellers. This suggests that African immigrants arrived to Madagascar as workers, possibly even as slaves, to the Austronesians residing on the island. Under this scenario, the Africans were likely a socially less prestigious group, which goes a long way in explaining why their language did not replace that of the earlier Austronesian settlers. Thus, social power appears to be a more important factor that gender—or the group’s purely numerical significance—in determining the language of the resulting genetically-mixed community. In fact, social power may well be the real explanation behind Forster and Renfrew’s findings: in patriarchal societies, men have more social power and therefore it is their language that “wins out”. This hypothesis, of course, needs to be further tested by examining matriarchal gender-biased mixed communities.

If this scenario is correct, there are interesting similarities and differences between Madagascar and Iceland: in both cases, linguistic ancestors of current inhabitants settled their respective islands “from scratch”, without encountering any prior population. However, the genetic pools of the two groups differ as a result of distinct migration scenarios. In the case of Iceland, non-Nordic admixture began with the earliest waves of migration, was predominantly on the female side, and did not affect the social standing of these women or their husbands. In the case of Madagascar, African admixture must have happened after the island was initially populated by Austronesians, is found on both male and female side (although more heavily on the male side), and correlated with the lower social position.

While the hypothesis that Africans arrived to Madagascar later and had little social standing helps explain why the language of the island is an Austronesian rather than a Bantu one, intermarriage between Southeast Asian and African settlers and especially the presence of a significant African admixture among the female lineages accounts for the Bantu-like linguistic phenomena in Malagasy. As discussed in more detail in my Languages of the World: An Introduction, Malagasy exhibits not only many Bantu loanwords (e.g. ondry ‘sheep’, ampondra ‘donkey’, amboa ‘dog’, omby ‘cow’, osy ‘goat’, mamba ‘crocodile’, tongolo ‘onion’, akondro ‘banana’, etc.) and borrowed morphemes (e.g. Malagasy diminutive prefix ki- from the Bantu class 7 prefix), but also some Bantu-inspired grammatical patterns. For example, Adelaar (2009b: 740) claimed that “the development of the circumstantial voice, which can raise all sorts of non-core arguments to subject position” is a Bantu influence. As do many other Austronesian languages in Indonesia and the Philippines, Malagasy tracks who did what to whom by the so-called Philippine-style topic marking: one of the verb’s arguments is placed in the sentence-final position and referenced by special morphology on the (sentence-initial) verb. For example, the sentence ‘The girl washed the clothes with the soap’ may be rendered as ‘washed the clothes with the soap the girl’ or ‘washed     the girl with the soap the clothes’, with the corresponding changes in the verb’s morphology: manasa for the Actor topic (AT) and sasan’ for Theme topic (TT), respectively:

Manasa              ny lamba            amin’ny savony                 ny zazavavy.

AT.wash               the clothes         with  the soap                    the girl

‘The girl washes the clothes with the soap.’


Sasan’                ny zazavavy         amin’ny                savony                  ny lamba.

TT.wash               the girl                  with                       the soap              the clothes

‘The clothes are washed with the soap by the girl.’

There is also a third way to structure this sentence, with the so-called Circumstantial topic (CT) on the verb, referencing the non-Actor, non-Theme argument (in this case, an instrument), which is placed in sentence-final position:

Anasan’              ny zazavavy        ny lamba            ny savony.

CT.wash               the girl                 the clothes         the soap

‘The soap was washed (with) the clothes by the girl.’

Other languages that use the Philippine-style topic marking, such as Tagalog, distinguish different roles of the non-Actor, non-Theme arguments by having several distinct “circumstantial topics”. For example, Tagalog has Location, Beneficiary, Instrument, Reason, Direction, and Reciprocal topic structures, all with the corresponding topic marking on the verb. Adelaar’s proposal is that grouping the distinct types of arguments under one umbrella of “Circumstantial topic” is an influence of Bantu languages, which treat non-Actor, non-Theme arguments as one category for purposes of the so-called applicative constructions. These applicative constructions are different from the Philippine-style topic marking in many technical ways that need not concern us here, but like the Philippine-style topic marking, applicative constructions involve promoting one of the verb’s arguments to a special syntactic position and the corresponding changes in the verb’s morphology.

If Adelaar’s analysis is correct, the grammatical patterns of Malagasy’s Philippine-style topic marking have been “tweaked” under the influence of the Bantu languages of the later migrants to Madagascar, not unlike Russian has been “tweaked” under the influences of Finnic languages (see also Grenoble 2010 and McAllen 2011). And if John McWhorter’s (2008) theory of Celtic influence on English is correct, the 40% of African mt-DNA lineages among both the Merina Highlanders and the coastal dwellers are vital in explaining why Malagasy has those Bantu-influenced grammatical patterns.

All in all, in appears that biological gender alone cannot account for all the patterns of language retention vs. language shift, and social power and prestige are a better correlate for language in mixed communities.



Adelaar, Alexander (2009b) Loanwords in Malagasy. In: Haspelmath, Martin and Uri Tadmor (eds.) Loanwords in the World’s Languages. A Comparative Handbook. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter. Pp. 717-746.

Cox, M.P., M.G. Nelson, M.K. Tumonggor, F.-X. Ricaut and H. Sudoyo (2012) A Small Cohort of Island Southeast Asian Women Founded Madagascar. Proceedings of the Royal Society B 279: 2761-2768.

Forster, Peter & Colin Renfrew (2011) Mother Tongue and Y Chromosomes. Science 333 (6048): 1390.

Goodacre, S., A. Helgason, J. Nicholson, L. Southam, L. Ferguson, E. Hickey, E. Vega, K. Stefánsson, R. Ward & Bryan Sykes (2005) Genetic evidence for a family-based Scandinavian settlement of Shetland and Orkney during the Viking periods. Heredity 95: 129–135.

Grenoble, Lenore A. (2010) Contact and the Development of the Slavic Languages. In: Raymond Hickey (ed.) The Handbook of Language Contact. Wiley-Blackwell. Pp. 581-597.

McAllen, Julia (2011) The History of Predicative Possession in Slavic: Internal Development vs. Language Contact. PhD dissertation, UC Berkeley.

McWhorter, John (2008) Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold History of English. Gotham Press.

Tofanelli, Sergio; Stefania Bertoncini; Loredana Castrì; Donata Luiselli; Francesc Calafell; Giuseppe Donati; and Giorgio Paoli (2009) On the Origins and Admixture of Malagasy: New Evidence from High-Resolution Analyses of Paternal and Maternal Lineages. Molecular Biology and Evolution 26(9): 2109-2124.




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