Language polygenesis: A probabilistic model

(1996)
Abstract
Monogenesis of language is widely accepted, but the conventional argument seems to be mistaken; a simple probabilistic model shows that polygenesis is likely. Other prehistoric inventions are discussed, as are problems in tracing linguistic lineages. Language is a system of representations; within such a system, words can evoke complex and systematic responses. Along with its social functions, language is important to humans as a mental instrument. Indeed, the invention of language,that is the accumulation of symbols to represent emotions, objects, and acts may be the most important event in human evolution, because so many developments follow from it. For example, Edward Sapir speculated that some embryonic form of language must have been available to early man to help him fashion tools from stone (Sapir,1921). Sophisticated biface stone tools date to early Homo erectus some 1.5 million years ago, suggesting a similar age for language. This paper considers whether the invention of language occurred at only one pre-historic site or at several sites. In other words, did language emerge by monogenesis or polygenesis? Early thinkers believed in monogenesis, against a background of divine creation. Perhaps the best known account is the biblical story of Adam giving names to plants and animals in the Garden of Eden. Similar legends are found among many peoples. Modern linguists too assume monogenesis, but on probabilistic grounds (see, for instance, Southworth and Daswani, 1974, p.314). The argument seems to be that the invention of language is an extremely unlikely event, because symbolization involves abstraction and requires synchronized insight by several individuals; therefore, the probability of occurrence at more than one site must be vanishingly small. We have found no explicit quantitative treatment of this question in the literature, but the underlying logic has to be the multiplication of probabilities. If p is small at one site,then p.p for two sites is smaller still, and so on. This reasoning is false, as we show here. The fallacy lies in the focus on two particular sites rather than consideration of all pairs of sites.
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