LINGUIST List 14.2577

Sat Sep 27 2003

Disc: Re: Genetic clicks?

Editor for this issue: Sarah Murray <>


  1. Leslie Ash, Re: Genetic clicks?

Message 1: Re: Genetic clicks?

Date: Thu, 25 Sep 2003 10:46:14 -0400
From: Leslie Ash <>
Subject: Re: Genetic clicks?

When I read this article last month, my first instinct was to shoot
off an angry letter to Discover for publishing what seemed to me to be
bad science, for the following reasons:

1) The authors undertook a study with a hypothesis consisting of,
basically, "Clicks in two languages related language related people".
They apparently chose not to consult with any linguists regarding the
validity of such a proposition. What evidence leads these researchers
to claim that a given phonological item (take your pick) which appears
in a few world languages (located where have you) indicates genetic
relation of the speakers? I don't believe that any linguists would get
a citation in such a widely-read magazine as Discover if they were to
do the opposite, namely, make some spurious claim about people's
genetics without at least consulting a geneticist. Indeed, how would
we be able to test such a genetic hypothesis without expert help?
(How did _they_?)

2) I do not have a reference on this, but other linguists report
having run across this tidbit as well, and I think it may have been
Peter Ladefoged (?) who theorized that clicks are probably an older
historical phonological item, in that there is no known phonological
process by which another sound can evolve into a click. Therefore, if
an ancient, click-using people split (the authors of the study claim
40,000 years ago, I believe) then the results of their study are
hardly remarkable and certainly not worthy of a citation in Discover.
They do probably validate what a linguist might have predicted, as far
as those people not bearing any significant genetic relation. Not to
mention that some people's hypothetical point for language and culture
evolving is around 50,000 years ago, which if true makes the finding
truly uninteresting.20

3) The authors then propose that the clicks have evolved so that
hunters will not spook their quarry. At this point I wonder if
evolutionary anthropologists are also shaking their heads. How is this
any different from my making a claim that Semitic languages have
pharyngeal sounds because camels respond better to them? Or that
Germanic languages evolved interdental fricatives because they are
easier to speak while shivering in higher, colder latitudes through
clenched teeth?

Most importantly, in my opinion, is that these people chose to publish
research on language without any input from those who make a living
studying language. It seems to me that a cooperative effort leading
to studies similar to this (albeit focused on something worth
"Discover"ing) is something we ought to insist upon.

Leslie Frieden Ash
Brain Imaging Research Division (BIRD)
Wayne State University
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