We’re all familiar with the term “mother tongue,” but as it turns out, the phrase may be something of a misnomer. Scientists from the University of Cambridge have found that at least historically speaking, it is actually men who most strongly influence language change.
The scientists analyzed both mitochondrial DNA (passed down only by women) and DNA from the Y-chromosome (passed down only by males). They found that there was a definite correlation between DNA markers on the Y-chromosome and the language spoken in a given region. There was no such correlation between mitochondrial DNA and language. This pattern held true for different cultures across the world.
As study coauthor Dr. Peter Forster explained on the Oxford University website,
“Whether in European, Indian, Chinese or other languages, the expression ‘mother tongue’ and its concept is firmly embedded in popular imagination – perhaps this is the reason why for so many years the role of fathers, or more likely, specific groups of successful males, in determining prehistoric language switches has not been recognised by geneticists.”
Why does language change appear to have been driven by men? The most obvious conclusion is simply the fact that for thousands of years, men were more able to move and expand into new territories than women. Dr. Forster’s coauthor, Professor Colin Renfrew explained:
“It may be that during colonisation episodes by emigrating agriculturalists, men generally outnumber women in the pioneering groups and take wives from the local community. When the parents have different linguistic backgrounds, it may often be the language of the father which is dominant within the family group.”
In societies in which men had most of the power and social status, it makes sense that wives would be expected to learn their husbands’ language and teach it to their children, not the other way around. However, assuming the women involved had a choice in the matter, Forster speculated that “Prehistoric women may have more readily adopted the language of immigrant males, particularly if these newcomers brought with them military prowess or a perceived higher status associated with farming or metalworking.”
Maybe we should start calling the language you grew up speaking your “paternal tongue!”