Borrowing in hunter-gatherer languages

Bowern C, Epps P, Gray R, Hill J, Hunley K, et al. 2011 Does Lateral Transmission Obscure Inheritance in Hunter-Gatherer Languages? PLoS ONE6(9): e25195. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0025195

[Heavy focus on data from Australian languages. NB, this is open access.]

In recent years, linguists have begun to increasingly rely on quantitative phylogenetic approaches to examine language evolution. Some linguists have questioned the suitability of phylogenetic approaches on the grounds that linguistic evolution is largely reticulate due to extensive lateral transmission, or borrowing, among languages. The problem may be particularly pronounced in hunter-gatherer languages, where the conventional wisdom among many linguists is that lexical borrowing rates are so high that tree building approaches cannot provide meaningful insights into evolutionary processes. However, this claim has never been systematically evaluated, in large part because suitable data were unavailable. In addition, little is known about the subsistence, demographic, ecological, and social factors that might mediate variation in rates of borrowing among languages. Here, we evaluate these claims with a large sample of hunter-gatherer languages from three regions around the world. In this study, a list of 204 basic vocabulary items was collected for 122 hunter-gatherer and small-scale cultivator languages from three ecologically diverse case study areas: northern Australia, northwest Amazonia, and California and the Great Basin. Words were rigorously coded for etymological (inheritance) status, and loan rates were calculated. Loan rate variability was examined with respect to language area, subsistence mode, and population size, density, and mobility; these results were then compared to the sample of 41 primarily agriculturalist languages in [1]. Though loan levels varied both within and among regions, they were generally low in all regions (mean 5.06%, median 2.49%, and SD 7.56), despite substantial demographic, ecological, and social variation. Amazonian levels were uniformly very low, with no language exhibiting more than 4%. Rates were low but more variable in the other two study regions, in part because of several outlier languages where rates of borrowing were especially high. High mobility, prestige asymmetries, and language shift may contribute to the high rates in these outliers. No support was found for claims that hunter-gatherer languages borrow more than agriculturalist languages. These results debunk the myth of high borrowing in hunter-gatherer languages and suggest that the evolution of these languages is governed by the same type of rules as those operating in large-scale agriculturalist speech communities. The results also show that local factors are likely to be more critical than general processes in determining high (or low) loan rates.