Fathers responsible for mother tongues

YOUR mother tongue may come from your father. The language of some cultures correlates with a prehistoric influx of foreign males. This is still reflected in the genetics of people today.

Written records are powerless to tell us about the evolution of language before writing was invented. Instead, Peter Forster and Colin Renfrew of the University of Cambridge wondered if changes could be traced via maternal or paternal genes, by studying mitochondrial DNA or Y-chromosome genes, respectively.

In a meta-analysis of studies that linked genetic markers to cultural heritage in North and Central America, Iceland, Australia, Africa and New Guinea, they found that only Y-chromosome DNA reflected the cultural origins of the local language. Iceland, for example, was colonised by Norse Vikings with women kidnapped from the British Isles. Most mitochondrial DNA found in Icelandic people today is similar to that in the British Isles, while Y chromosomes carry Scandinavian DNA. And the Icelandic language has Scandinavian roots, not English (Science, DOI: 10.1126/science.1205331).

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