All languages may originate from Africa: study

Apr 15, 2011 by Deborah Braconnier report

(PhysOrg.com) -- Published in Science, a new report from biologist Quentin D. Atkinson from the University of Auckland is sparking controversy among linguists. Atkinson has been analyzing the sounds of the many languages around the world and has detected signals that lead to southern Africa as a place where all human language began.

Previous trees only go back as far as 9,000 years and have believed that language was not able to be traced farther back than that. However, Atkinson’s claims could have language going back as far as 100,000 years.

In Atkinson’s study he looks, not at words, but at phonemes which are the consonants, vowels and tones which make up language. By applying mathematical methods, he has discovered a pattern within the more than 500 languages throughout the world.

He has discovered that the farther humans had to travel from , the less phonemes their language used. When looking at African based languages, some have more than 100 phonemes as a base. The English language only has around 45. Travel even further on the migration route, and you find Hawaiian with only 13 phonemes.

These findings correlate well with the fossil and DNA evidence that modern humans originated in Africa. When it comes to genetic diversity in humans, there is also an established pattern of decreasing diversity the greater the distance from Africa. Because of this, it was not a surprise that language would follow in that same decreasing pattern.

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More information: Phonemic Diversity Supports a Serial Founder Effect Model of Language Expansion from Africa, Science 15 April 2011: Vol. 332 no. 6027 pp. 346-349 DOI: 10.1126/science.1199295

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User comments : 15

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BigTone
1 / 5 (2) Apr 15, 2011
Hmmm - wonder if I started off with American English as my way of cataloging unique sounds in our language. With this as my baseline to measure other languages against - I might discover that human language comes from Texas as there will be fewer overlaps with the languages from Africa.

Mix that with the conflicting evidence of human migration and giant holes in our understanding of the spoken methods of very ancient languages - I would be cautious to over interpret these results... The really trippy thing is if we could figure out if the languages of other hominds actually formed hybrids with modern man...
Rohitasch
5 / 5 (3) Apr 15, 2011
Hmmm - wonder if I started off with American English as my way of cataloging unique sounds in our language. With this as my baseline to measure other languages against - I might discover that human language comes from Texas as there will be fewer overlaps with the languages from Africa.

The number of basic sounds, like a palette of sounds, with which all words are made, decreases with distance. Texas English has fewer sounds in its palette than Arabic or Hindi. So, Texas English shows up really late in the history of linguistic evolution.
rgwalther
3.2 / 5 (5) Apr 15, 2011
I guess now we can all enter 'African American' as race on forms.
RobertKarlStonjek
1.7 / 5 (6) Apr 15, 2011
Culture, innovation, tool making etc all followed the opposite pattern with more sophisticated forms occurring outside Africa. It is unlikely that language would be any different. What evolved was an ability to create languages, and that ability migrated with everything else. The idea that language was an idea does not merit serious consideration ~ the fact that apes can be taught language but do not adopt it among themselves proves this point beyond any possible doubt.
StandingBear
5 / 5 (3) Apr 15, 2011
Heard a lot of 'Texas English' in basic training for the Air Force. Not very large a vocabulary once ya gets past the 'cussin.
jscroft
1 / 5 (1) Apr 16, 2011
I wasn't aware that cursing was allowed in the Air Force. Did you throw down your stress card when you heard it?
cisono
3 / 5 (3) Apr 16, 2011
Talking about language:

"...the farther humans had to travel from Africa, the FEWER (not less!!!) phonemes their language used"

I might have taken this research more seriously if this article had used better grammar.

robert_FL
5 / 5 (3) Apr 16, 2011
Well if humans walked out of Africa, does it not also stand to reason that is where language came from?
Skeptic_Heretic
5 / 5 (2) Apr 16, 2011
I wasn't aware that cursing was allowed in the Air Force. Did you throw down your stress card when you heard it?

Not many people would understand the sarcasm in this response. I enjoyed it.
210
1 / 5 (1) Apr 16, 2011
I guess now we can all enter 'African American' as race on forms.

Well, at least you spoke to THE issue so many, so very many will have who read or comment on this article. In fact ESPECIALLY those who defensively claim' NO ISSUE' whatsoever...or who have never seen the actual research data, not just this article, and are certain THEIR LANGUAGE is far more advanced.(Sure, we have words that could not have existed 100,000 years ago but without those humble roots, we would have no words at all!)
You have backbone, I'll grant you that!
-word-to-ya-muthas-
FrankHerbert
1 / 5 (8) Apr 16, 2011
It's absolutely hilarious how people are offended over this article.
jimbo92107
not rated yet Apr 16, 2011
"Mix that with the conflicting evidence..."

Ah yes, science as a form of cookery. A little of this, a pinch of that, and poof, you're Einstein!

I guess that's why those peer reviewed journals are so darned hard to get yer stuff published in. All them egg-head notions about evidence and logic. Bunch of facto-elitists!
rgwalther
not rated yet Apr 17, 2011
You have backbone, I'll grant you that!
-word-to-ya-muthas-

From Blade Runner...

Holden: Describe in single words only the good things that come into your mind about... your mother.
Leon: My mother?
Holden: Yeah.
Leon: Let me tell you about my mother.
[Leon shoots Holden with a gun he had pulled out under the table]
rgwalther
not rated yet Apr 17, 2011
"Mix that with the conflicting evidence..."

Ah yes, science as a form of cookery. A little of this, a pinch of that, and poof, you're Einstein!


Or Eisenstein...
rgwalther
5 / 5 (2) Apr 17, 2011
Talking about language:

"...the farther humans had to travel from Africa, the FEWER (not less!!!) phonemes their language used"

I might have taken this research more seriously if this article had used better grammar.


Better grammar or correct grammar?