Shock: Language Spread by Specific Sex

by Translation Guy on February 6, 2012

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.”


  1. Gary Cohen says:


    As usual great post. Some thoughts that hit me upon reading. One way in witch we have seen society oppresses is through illiteracy of women. How does this impact this study as it relates to cause and effect, Also we find that in today’s media that women are under represented as powerful figures. If you go back to ancient Greece or Italy the media was sculpture witch again favored keeping men in power via representation .. I am sure it started way before then… By the way how often was the ruler, medicine “man” philosopher advisors to the community women. Is it the gene or oppression. My musings….

  2. Glenn says:

    Fascinating stuff and no surprise to me.

  3. Chris says:

    Perhaps language transmission is less dependent on the sex of foreign speaker(s) but rather the power they bring to bear on the cross-cultural experience. That is, hostages may be less likely to influence cultural change than warriors bearing spears, force of numbers and resources.

    • Ken says:

      Different weight classes too.

  4. Corinna says:

    Always knew that… learned all my languages from men….

  5. I’m not a betting man, but now that women seem to play a more central role in culture, I think there may be a change in this. Althought I don’t see any major language changes occuring anytime soon.

  6. Rhonda Kang says:

    Makes sense to me. Famers or military invasion would bring many men into an area. If women arrived, too, they would stay at home anyway. Right? It would be the men out and about talking with others and spreading language.

    • Ken says:

      Or women speaking two languages and the men sticking to guy talk.

  7. I agree, I think that the weight of a person would heavily (no pun) influence how language would persist in a community – at least formally.

  8. Juju says:

    This doesn’t surprise me. Look at today’s youth and the language they speak. A lot of it comes from male entertainment figures – Forshizzel. (my best snoop dog).

  9. Well, if prehistoric man was anything like most of modern day man, then the women didn’t get to make the decisions either back then and what ever the man of the cave said, that is what was spoken. Really, how long have women been able to speak freely?

  10. Zero says:

    Not to take anything out of context, but it almost sounds as if the male just isn’t as “gifted” with language and doesn’t adapt as easily as women could/ or can.

    • Ken says:

      That’s my theory, Zero. Look who does all the translation?

  11. Gaurav Kumar says:

    If you go back in history, there were plenty of women in power. Of course, languages were generally solidified and how much influence a women would have in changing them would most likely have been miniscule. Still, it would have been the men going out and spreading it.

    • Ken says:

      But it’s the queen’s boys that’s got all the sharp, pointy stuff.

  12. Muhammed says:

    It boggles my mind to think that there are genetic markers for language. How in the world did someone figure this stuff out?

  13. Gigi says:

    Don’t point the finger at me…I didn’t spread anything!

    • Ken says:

      Well, we’re still waiting on the lab cultures, Gigi, so we’ll just have to see about that.

  14. Rick Choi says:

    Believe it or not, but I have had my husband learn my native language and it is the one we use the most around the kids. We still use English in public, but I want our family to be multilingual.

    • Ken says:

      Your husband is a better man that I, Rick.

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