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Linguists lobbying against evolutionary oversimplifications refuse to yield to the authority of statistics
Evolutionists demand evolutionary explanations for all things cosmological, biological, and sociological, and they’d like to stuff linguistics into their model. As with all analyses of the untestable past, data is interpreted through the tinted glasses of worldview and personal bias. Cramming linguistic complexities into the evolutionary mold has created controversy chronicled in Science News.
Traditional linguists maintain that languages, being complex and vulnerable to non-random factors (like foreign invasions and cultural interchange), cannot yield to phylogenetic evolutionary explanations. Anthropologists vying for conflicting models of human evolution, however, seek support from linguistics. If a theory of language evolution matches a theory of biological evolution, both appear more credible. And evolutionary geneticists maintain the statistical methods that have made evolutionary sense of the genetic code can surely handle the complexities of spoken language.
The Science News journalist reviews a number of studies and conflicting opinions, including those covered in News to Note, April 23, 2011. Evolutionary biologist Russell Gray thinks linguists can gather data but believes his methods are needed to interpret it. He says, “Linguists spin a bit of a story with case studies of individual languages. Statistical methods can now be used to examine languages rigorously and on a global scale.”
Gray and his colleague Russell Atkinson maintain language origin—and with it humanity’s biological and geographical origins—can be deduced from statistical analysis. They boil language down to seemingly simple data that can be objectively tallied. They note how many different sounds (phonemes) a language has and how many different word orders are permissible, for instance. Since language seems to decrease in complexity among small migrating groups over time, these comparisons should, they maintain, allow them to trace humanity’s evolutionary roots. Atkinson explains, “Languages apparently expanded out of Africa, [specifically southwestern Africa] with a loss of phonemic diversity along the way.”
Linguists counter that the phylogenetic studies are based on erroneous assumptions. For example, Michael Cysouw says Atkinson failed to consider the many African languages using clicks in place of vowels. When Cysouw analyzed data with that in mind, results were completely different. Cysouw’s analysis indicates multiple language origins throughout western Asia, Africa, and the Middle East.
Linguist Lyle Campbell disagrees, asserting, “Nothing of what’s known about language acquisition or change suggests that either fewer or more phonemes will appear as people move around.” Other linguists counter that the phylogenetic studies are based on erroneous assumptions. For example, Michael Cysouw says Atkinson failed to consider the many African languages using clicks in place of vowels. When Cysouw analyzed data with that in mind, results were completely different. Cysouw’s analysis indicates multiple language origins throughout western Asia, Africa, and the Middle East.
While liberally quoting from both sides, the Science News feature derides skeptical linguists but notes “those with a statistical background suspect that the techniques those studies use have a future.” After all, statistical methodology has “revolutionized molecular genetics,” so perhaps some will see the light the “fossils-and-genes crowd” has to offer.
These conflicting approaches share the assumption that evolving humans had to develop the ability to think in symbols before they could develop speech. Time calculations are based on molecular clock dating1 and anthropological dating of artifacts demonstrating abstract thinking. Controversy focuses not on if humans evolved but where and whether they evolved the ability to speak in one place or many.
From the Bible we know God created Adam with the ability to communicate. Genesis 11:1 documents that people still spoke a single language after the global Flood. Less than two millennia had passed since God created Adam and Eve, and they certainly had the ability to speak to God and to each other. Our real ancestral parents did not suffer from lack of intelligence. They spoke and reasoned perfectly well, but they made a very bad decision—choosing to rebel against God.
To thwart mankind’s ongoing rebellious plans at Babel, God confused man’s language, and Noah’s descendants dispersed from the plains of Shinar. The languages God created then are the forerunners of today’s languages. Today, about 4,400 languages lack a single verse of Scripture, presenting a challenge for missionaries and Bible translators and leaving over 600 million people without access to God’s Word in their own tongue.
Linguists who wish to have the correct historical starting point should begin with the Bible’s eyewitness account rather than the evolutionary house of cards built on imaginative assumptions about missing links, molecular clocks, and various forms of “Homo evolving.” Linguistic analysis will never determine which model of human evolution is the real one because the answer is none of the above.
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