Out of Africa? Data fail to support language origin in Africa

Last year, a report claiming to support the idea that the origin of language can be traced to West Africa appeared in Science. The article caused quite a stir. Now linguist Michael Cysouw from Ludwig-Maximilians-Universitaet in Munich has challenged its conclusions, in a commentary just published in Science.

In the beginning was the word – yes, but where exactly? Last year, Quentin Atkinson, a cultural anthropologist at Auckland University in New Zealand, proposed that the cradle of language could be localized in the southwest of Africa. The report, which appeared in Science, one of the world's leading scholarly journals, was seized upon by the media and caused something of a sensation. Now however, Michael Cysouw from Ludwig-Maximilians-Universitaet (LMU) in Munich has published a commentary in Science which argues that this neat "Out-of-Africa" hypothesis for the origin of language is not adequately supported by the data presented. The search for the site of origin of language remains very much alive.

Atkinson based his claim on a comparative analysis of the numbers of phonemes found in about 500 present-day languages. Phonemes are the most basic sound units – consonants, vowels and tones – that form the basis of semantic differentiation in all languages. The number of phonemes used in natural languages varies widely. Atkinson, who is a biologist and psychologist by training, found that the highest levels of phoneme diversity occurred in languages spoken in southwestern Africa. Furthermore, according to his statistical analysis, the size of the phoneme inventory in a language tends to decrease with distance from this hotspot. To interpret this finding Atkinson invoked a parallel from population genetics. Biologists have observed an analogous effect, insofar as human genetic diversity is found to decrease with distance from Africa, where our species originated. This is attributed to the so-called founder effect. As people migrated from the continent and small groups continued to disperse, each inevitably came to represent an ever-shrinking fraction of the total genetic diversity present in the African population as a whole.

So does such a founder effect play a similarly significant effect in the dispersal and differentiation of languages? Michael Cysouw regards Atkinson's finding as "artefactual". Cysouw, whose work is funded by one of the prestigious Starting Grants awarded by the European Research Council (ERC), heads a research group that studies quantitative comparative linguistics in LMU's Faculty of Languages and Literatures. He says he has no objection in principle to the use of methods borrowed from other disciplines to tackle questions in linguistics, but that problems arise from their inappropriate application. For example, he finds that if Atkinson's method is employed to examine other aspects of language, such as the construction of subordinate clauses or the use of the passive mood, the results "do not point in the same direction".

Indeed, in their article in Science, Cysouw and his coauthors Steven Moran (LMU) and Dan Dediu of the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics in Nijmegen show that, depending on the features considered, Atkinson's method places the site of origin of language in eastern Africa or the Caucasus or somewhere else entirely. As Cysouw points out, linguists have long sought to throw light on the origin of language by analyzing patterns of distribution. The problem is that such relationships can be reliably traced only as far back as about 10,000 years before the present. (math/PH)

Explore further

All languages may originate from Africa: study

More information: Science, 02/10/2012.
Journal information: Science

Provided by Ludwig-Maximilians-Universitat Munchen
Citation: Out of Africa? Data fail to support language origin in Africa (2012, February 15) retrieved 19 April 2019 from https://phys.org/news/2012-02-africa-language.html
This document is subject to copyright. Apart from any fair dealing for the purpose of private study or research, no part may be reproduced without the written permission. The content is provided for information purposes only.

Feedback to editors

User comments

Feb 15, 2012
The Founder Effect is based in the decrease in diversity (diminishing number of alleles) with distance for specific genes. There is no analog for alternative alleles among phonemes. *Analogy fail*

Feb 15, 2012
The Founder Effect is based in the decrease in diversity (diminishing number of alleles) with distance for specific genes. There is no analog for alternative alleles among phonemes. *Analogy fail*

I think Hume would have argued that an analogy can only operate on subjects that are necessarily different. If there were no difference, the items would be the same thing and no comparison would be necessary or logically possible. I think the analogy served its purpose and you are being overly critical.

Feb 16, 2012
Verkle - I think there is some merit to what you are saying, but much of it would depend on your understanding or interpretation of the bible. I am of the opinion that the Babel event most certainly occurred but I would prefer it stripped from it religious connotations.
Also perplexing to me is the absence in some languages of words describing universal phenomena, as an example in the xhosa language there is no word for the colour blue. Thus it would seem to me that language or better its underlying logical constructs at some point took a jarring blow to the head.

Feb 16, 2012
There is currently no even plausible extra-biblical explanation for the 10,000 languages heard in the world today.

This is so basic even you can understand it:

Free mobility is a scant 50 years old. Before that the largest distance travelled by a man in his lifetime was to the next two villages. If you have ever been in the country you will notice that dialects change between one village and the next. Where I grew up you could go a few villages further on and wouldn't understand a word the old people were saying.

Think of how even today the language of young people is barely understandable to adults, and you can get an idea how quickly language can mutate.

Without any standards (i.e. dictionaries, which came long after the printing press) AND mandatory schooling (which came even after that - new languages can develop within a generation.

Feb 17, 2012
I think you are confusing dialects with languages.

Nope. Come over here. The dialects are so strong that they are basically different languages. Different languages can have a common stock (of the 500 mentioned in the article many do share some common ground)

Then there is the environment to consider. Languages that need to carry over distances (e.g. in mountainous regions) will develop entirely different phonemes than those that develop in desert environments.
Cultural changes come into it too (e.g. by monarchs dictating that a certain type of language is to be used as the standard - e.g. as happened in ancient Egypt)
Intermingeling on a trade level affects languages (phoenicians acquired letters from other alphabets - certainly made trading easier)
There are many factors that shape languages - and very quickly, too. Traders don't wait around for generations if they can turn a profit now by speaking differently.

Feb 20, 2012
It was expected that Atkinson's result would be criticized. But it is interesting that the criticism isn't based on the problematic data, but an acceptance of his methods.

As for that, there is no reason to believe subordinate clauses or passive moods are as old as the language sounds themselves. They are features of languages, not features of an underlying semantic differentiation, so can't reach back much further than the ~ 10,000 years of modern languages.

While I'm not an expert (and haven't read the article), I would expect Atkinson's results would stand well against such criticism.

@ verkle:

Creationists shouldn't comment on science.

And specifically here, there is no evidence for existence of a "tower of Babel". While there is every evidence that it is made up, simply because it derives entirely from a well known made up story.

Feb 20, 2012
This report is unclear. In referring to the suggested place of origin of language, it says "the southwest of Africa" in one place, "West Africa" in another. Southwest Africa would be Namibia. West Africa would not.

Feb 20, 2012
"Free mobility is a scant 50 years old. Before that the largest distance travelled by a man in his lifetime was to the next two villages. " This is complete nonsense.

In every age millions of people have been on the move as sailors, merchants, pilgrims, soldiers and nomads. Roman legionaries, originating around the Empire, went from Egypt to Britain and back. The Mongols went from East Asia into the heart of Europe.

It is only with the rise of agriculture that a substantial number of people were tied to the land as peasants, serfs and slaves. Including, presumably, the ancestors of the person quoted in this comment.

Feb 20, 2012
The question of language origin will always be interesting. Two things to consider:

1) Is the question of origin the same as the question of recognition? Surely, we were speaking for millions of years before we knew we were, no? Language had to have developed out of existing primate communication skills; it would have taken a long, gradual time to know that our skills were qualitatively different.

2) Could language have developed more than once in more than one place? Could different parts of language have been developed in different places?

And how come languages seem to start out complex and simplify with time rather than the other way around? Shouldn't English be complex and Old Germanic simple? French and Latin? How did a bunch of thugs sitting around a campfire at night come up with declensions?

Feb 20, 2012
Recently another evidence emerged, that the origin of civilization emerged in the Asia instead of Africa.



or maybe not


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more