Publication details [#66589]

Graffi, Giorgio. 2019. Origin of language and origin of languages. Evolutionary Linguistic Theory 1 (1) : 6–23.
Publication type
Article in journal
Publication language
Place, Publisher
John Benjamins
Journal DOI


The question of monogenesis vs. polygenesis of human languages was essentially neglected by contemporary linguistics until the appearance of the research on the genetics of human populations by L.L. Cavalli-Sforza and his collaborators, which brought to light very exciting parallels between the distribution of human populations and that of language families. The present paper highlights some aspects of the history of the problem and some points of the contemporary discussion. It first outlines the “Biblical paradigm”, which persisted until the 18th century even in scientific milieus. Then, it outlines some aspects of the 19th century debate about monogenesis vs. polygenesis of languages and about the relationships between languages and human populations: in particular, it will discuss the views of Darwin on the one hand and of some linguists on the other (Schleicher, M. Müller, Whitney and Trombetti). It will be seen that their positions only partly coincide; at any rate, it will be shown that Darwin was partly inspired by the problems of the genealogy of languages and that the linguists, for their part, took account of Darwin’s views. Turning to today’s debate, this paper first presents the positions of the linguists arguing for monogenesis, namely J. Greenberg and M. Ruhlen, as well as the criticisms raised against their methods by the majority of linguists. Other scholars, such as D. Bickerton or N. Chomsky, essentially argue, from different points of view, that the problem of monogenesis vs. polygenesis of languages is a “pseudo-problem”. This paper however thinks that, although the question cannot be reasonably solved by linguistic means, it cannot be discarded as meaningless: it is an anthropological rather than a linguistic problem. It presents some reflections and suggestions, in the light of which the monogenetic hypothesis appears as more tenable than the polygenetic one.