Still Contemplating Tones & Genes


A few months ago, I was remarking that I was dubious about the purported connection between geneses and tone language. However a new overview from Scientific American may convince me...just a little more.

In this version of the hypothesis, the innovation is LOSS OF TONE, not the use of tone. That is, the new genes, which are in the European and Eurasian populations, are making more likely that tone will be lost. This actually makes a little more sense historically. Despite the fact that Westerners consider tone to be fairly "exotic", it's actually pretty common around the world EXCEPT for Europe/the Middle East. Also, there are some indications that certain types of pitch accent markings have been lost over the centuries in several Indo-European languages such as Sanskrit.

If tone had been the innovation the genes would have been spreading from Africa to Asia bypassing India and the Middle East. This pretty much disputes modern thinking on how populations spread through the Old World.

Having said that, I still wonder how this genetic difference really affects phonology. I suspect there are many speakers of Central Asian non-tonal languages who theoretically have the right tone genes.

I also wonder if non-tonality is just an areal (regional) feature. If tones are the norm, and non-tones are the exception, then what you really need to explain is the lack of tone in Europe/Middle East/North Africa!

Beyond tone, languages in Europe and the Middle East often share similar features including distinctions such as grammatical gender in nouns (i.e. masc/feminine nouns). A regional account might explain why Central Asian speakers from Mongolia and Manchuria are still toneless despite being next to China. Historically, the language family may have also been influenced by also being next door to the Middle East.

A regional account would predict that tones could spread from Southeast Asia into Northern India such as in the case of Punjabi.

I'm also concerned that the other "exotic" phonological features don't have genetic cues. They didn't even find a genetic marker for CLICKS which is pretty much only used in Southern Africa (although again by different language families).

Is the use and development of tone so different from other phonological features...or do we in the West only think it is?