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In linguistics, monogenesis refers to the thesis that all spoken human languages are descended from a single ancestral language spoken many thousands of years ago in the Paleolithic or Old Stone Age.

The first serious scientific attempt to establish the reality of monogenesis was that of Alfredo Trombetti, an accomplished Italian linguist, in his book L'unità d'origine del linguaggio, published in 1905 (cf. Ruhlen 1994:263). Trombetti estimated that the common ancestor of existing languages had been spoken between 100,000 and 200,000 years ago (1922:315).

The best-known supporter of monogenesis in America in the mid-20th century was Morris Swadesh (cf. Ruhlen 1994:215). He pioneered two important methods for investigating deep relationships between languages, lexicostatistics and glottochronology.

In the second half of the 20th century, Joseph Greenberg produced a series of large-scale classifications of the world's languages. These were and are controversial but widely discussed. Although Greenberg did not produce an explicit argument for monogenesis, all of his classification work was geared toward this end. As he stated (1987:337): "The ultimate goal is a comprehensive classification of what is very likely a single language family."

Three well-known living advocates of monogenesis are Merritt Ruhlen, John Bengtson, and Harold Fleming.

Monogenesis was dismissed by many linguists in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when the doctrine of the polygenesis of the human races and their languages held the ascendancy (e.g. Saussure 1986/1916:190). It is scarcely more popular today.

However, in the opinion of many scientists in other fields, such as Richard Klein in paleoanthropology (see glottogony), the ability to produce complex speech only developed some 50,000 years ago (with the appearance of modern man or Cro-Magnon man). Thus, if all recent human populations on Earth (including, for example, Australians, appearing 40,000 - 50,000 years before the present) stem from a single out-of-Africa migration, linguistic monogenesis becomes a conceivable hypothesis.

The difficulty lies in the time depth, which is far beyond what linguists can trace back today (e.g. 6,000 - 9,000 years in the case of Indo-European and 7,000 - 10,000 years in the case of Afroasiatic). Some linguists (e.g. Trombetti and, more recently, Ruhlen 1994) claim that this difficulty can be overcome. Methods proposed include simultaneous comparison of a greater number of languages to increase the data sample and pyramiding reconstructed proto-languages on top of each other to reach their common source (cf. Babaev 2008).

See also


  • Greenberg, Joseph H. 1966. The Languages of Africa, revised edition. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. (Published simultaneously at The Hague by Mouton & Co.)
  • Greenberg, Joseph H. 1971. "The Indo-Pacific hypothesis." Reprinted in Joseph H. Greenberg, Genetic Linguistics: Essays on Theory and Method, edited by William Croft, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005.
  • Greenberg, Joseph H. 1987. Language in the Americas. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
  • Greenberg, Joseph H. 2000-2002. Indo-European and Its Closest Relatives: The Eurasiatic Language Family. Volume 1: Grammar. Volume 2: Lexicon. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
  • Ruhlen, Merritt. 1994. On the Origin of Languages: Studies in Linguistic Taxonomy. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
  • Saussure, Ferdinand de. 1986. Course in General Linguistics, translated by Roy Harris. Chicago: Open Court. (English translation of 1972 edition of Cours de linguistique générale, originally published in 1916.)
  • Trombetti, Alfredo. 1905. L'unità d'origine del linguaggio. Bologna: Luigi Beltrami.
  • Trombetti, Alfredo. 1922-1923. Elementi di glottologia, 2 volumes. Bologna: Zanichelli.


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