A new study points to Africa as the sole birthplace of modern language, and phonemes — the distinct sounds of consonants, vowels and tones — as the key to how language expanded around the world.
It’s an interesting finding because “it could help explain how the first spoken language emerged, spread and contributed to the evolutionary success of the human species,” as the The Wall Street Journal notes.
Quentin D. Atkinson, an evolutionary psychologist at the University of Auckland in New Zealand and author of the study published in the journal Science last week, traced the evolutionary origin of language to sub-Saharan Africa tracking the use of phonemes in a sample of 504 out of the approximately 6,000 modern languages in use today.
Atkinson found that dialects containing the most phonemes are spoken in Africa, while those with the fewest are spoken in South America and the islands of the Pacific Ocean. Think of it this way: English has about 45 phonemes, some African dialects have twice as many, and Hawaiian has 13.
The “Out of Africa” hypothesis
Atkinson’s findings dovetail with evidence that Africa is also the birthplace of modern humans, and what’s known as the “out of Africa” hypothesis: that about 50,000 to 70,000 years ago, modern humans scattered and colonized the rest of the world.
“Just as geneticists see a decline in genetic diversity with such diversity decreasing as you move away from Africa, language diversity shows a similar decline,” Atkinson said in a news release. “It seems like the obvious explanation is that people carried language – along with their genes – with them as they expanded out of Africa,” he continued.
Did language lead to colonizing the world?
Atkinson’s study suggests that complex language was a key cultural innovation and one of the earliest archaeological symbols of modern human culture — and one that led to colonization of the world.
“Modern humans are just one, big genetic family with a single common ancestor,” Atkinson said. “One of the things I like about these results is that, to the extent that language is an identity, we all seem to be part of one, big cultural family as well.”
How far back can scientists trace language?
Atkinson’s study is not without controversy. As the New York Times pointed out:
The detection of such an ancient signal in language is surprising. Because words change so rapidly, many linguists think languages cannot be traced very far back in time. The oldest language tree so far reconstructed, that of the Indo-European family, which includes English, goes back 9,000 years at most.
In fact, linguists tend to dismiss any claims to have found traces of language older than 10,000 years, “but this paper comes closest to convincing me that this type of research is possible,” Martin Haspelmath, a linguist at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany said in an interview with the Times.
Another linguist, Donald A. Ringe of the University of Pennsylvania, told the Times, “It’s too early to tell if Atkinson’s idea is correct, but if so, it’s one of the most interesting articles in historical linguistics that I’ve seen in a decade.”
Photo courtesy of juhansonin via Flickr