Warning. Language is sexually transmitted. Or more specifically, spread by a specific sex. Cambridge researchers, Peter Forster and Colin Renfrew put language and DNA under the microscope to blow the lid of the mother tongue myth. Looks like it’s the guys, and not the girls who have the gift of gab when it comes to spreading a language.
Scientists investigated male and female genetic markers from several thousand communities to study patterns of prehistoric language transmission.
They found that what language is spoken by a community largely depends on the arrival of men, whether through the migration of pioneering farmers or military invasion.
The proof is in the Y chromosome. By studying the instance of genetic markers from several thousand people around the world, they were able to show that language was sexually transmitted, that is spread by men only. Language change among our prehistoric ancestors came about via the arrival of immigrant men – rather than women – into new settlements, according to new research.
“When the parents have different linguistic backgrounds, it may often be the language of the father which is dominant within the family group,” say the researchers. If women are more linguistically gifted then men, it makes sense that they would end up speaking the language of the man of the house. That and the different weight class.
The authors of the study say, “From Scandinavian Vikings who ferried kidnapped British women to Iceland – to African, Indian and Polynesian tribes, a pattern has emerged which appears to show that the arrival of men to particular geographic locations – through either agricultural dispersal or the arrival of military forces – can have a significant impact on what language is spoken there.
Forster says: “Whether in European, Indian, Chinese or other languages, the expression ‘mother tongue’ and its concept is firmly embedded in popular imagination – perhaps this is the reason why for so many years the role of fathers, or more likely, specific groups of successful males, in determining prehistoric language switches has not been recognized by geneticists.”
“Prehistoric 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.
This is additional evidence for Renfrew’s “Anatolian Hypothesis,” that farmers helped spread language and culture through Europe, Africa, and Polynesia. As Renfrew wrote in the 1996 The origins and spread of agriculture and pastoralism in Eurasia, that ancient distributions of language and farming are so closely related “that an adequate understanding of world genetic diversity and its origins will scarcely be possible without an insight into this fundamental relationship.”