Mother tongue comes from prehistoric fathers

The claim is made by two University of Cambridge academics, Peter Forster and Colin Renfrew, in a report published in Science journal.

They studied the instances of genetic markers (the male Y chromosome and female mtDNA) from several thousand individuals in communities around the world that seem to show the emergence globally of sex-specific transmission of language, a university release said.

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. “It may be that during colonisation episodes by emigrating agriculturalists, men generally outnumber women in the pioneering groups and take wives from the local community,” Professor Renfrew said.

“When the parents have different linguistic backgrounds, it may often be the language of the father which is dominant within the family group,” he added.   Dr Forster, of Murray Edwards College, also pointed to the fact that men have a greater variance in offspring than women – they are more likely to father children with different mothers than vice-versa.

This has been recorded both in prehistoric tribes such as the 19th and 20th century Polar Eskimos from Greenland and in historic figures like Genghis Khan, who is believed to have fathered hundreds of children. Indeed, his Y chromosome is carried by 0.5 per cent of the world’s male population today.

Perhaps the most striking example of sex-biased language change comes from a genetic study on the prehistoric encounter of expanding Polynesians with resident Melanesians in New Guinea and the neighbouring Admiralty Islands.

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