[lg policy] Languages Grew From a Seed in Africa, Study Says
jayrkirk42 at YAHOO.COM
Thu Apr 14 22:39:35 UTC 2011
This is an absolutely fascinating article. Forgive me if I get my facts wrong,
since I've been a little out of touch with the theoretical aspect of Linguistics
lately (I miss it, though!) while teaching ESOL. But I wonder how this fits with
the principle that if a language has a phoneme with a more complex manner of
articulation, it usually has a simpler version of the phoneme in the same place
of articulation. For example, if a language has a voiced aspirated bilabial stop
/bʰ /, it will probably have an unaspirated bilabial stop /b/. In addition, I
believe /p/, /t/, and /k/ are the most common phonemes among languages of the
world. So the question is, how does Atkinson's view that the diversity of
phonemes in languages has decreased fit with this well-established principle? I
think it fits quite well, but I'm not entirely sure.
University of Florida
English Language Instittute
From: Harold Schiffman <haroldfs at gmail.com>
To: lp <lgpolicy-list at groups.sas.upenn.edu>
Sent: Thu, April 14, 2011 5:28:16 PM
Subject: [lg policy] Languages Grew From a Seed in Africa, Study Says
Languages Grew From a Seed in Africa, Study Says
By NICHOLAS WADE
* * L
A researcher analyzing the sounds in languages spoken around the world has
detected an ancient signal that points to southern Africa as the place where
modern human language originated.
Tracing the Origins of Language
The finding fits well with the evidence from fossil skulls and DNA that modern
humans originated in Africa. It also implies, though does not prove, that
modern language originated only once, an issue of considerable controversy among
The detection of such an ancient signal in language is surprising. Because
words change so rapidly, many linguists think that 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.
Quentin D. Atkinson, a biologist at the University of Auckland in New Zealand,
has shattered this time barrier, if his claim is correct, by looking not at
words but at phonemes — the consonants, vowels and tones that are the simplest
elements of language. He has found a simple but striking pattern in some 500
languages spoken throughout the world: a language area uses fewer phonemes the
farther that early humans had to travel from Africa to reach it.
Some of the click-using languages of Africa have more than 100 phonemes,
whereas Hawaiian, toward the far end of the human migration route out of Africa,
has only 13. English has 45 phonemes.
This pattern of decreasing diversity with distance, similar to the
well-established decrease in genetic diversity with distance from Africa,
implies that the origin of modern human language is in the region of
southwestern Africa, Dr. Atkinson says in an article published on Thursday in
the journal Science.
Language is at least 50,000 years old, the date that modern humans dispersed
from Africa, and some experts say it is at least 100,000 years old. Dr.
Atkinson, if his work is correct, is picking up a distant echo from this far
back in time.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,” said Martin Haspelmath, a linguist
at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany.
Dr. Atkinson is one of several biologists who have started applying to
historical linguistics the sophisticated statistical methods developed for
constructing genetic trees based on DNA sequences. These efforts have been
regarded with suspicion by some linguists. In 2003 Dr. Atkinson and Russell
Gray, another biologist at the University of Auckland, reconstructed the tree of
Indo-European languages with a DNA tree-drawing method called Bayesian
phylogeny. The tree indicated that Indo-European was much older than historical
linguists had estimated and hence favored the theory that the language family
had diversified with the spread of agriculture some 10,000 years ago, not with a
military invasion by steppe people some 6,000 years ago, the idea favored by
most historical linguists.
“We’re uneasy about mathematical modeling that we don’t understand juxtaposed
to philological modeling that we do understand,” Brian D. Joseph, a linguist at
Ohio State University, said about the Indo-European tree. But he thinks that
linguists may be more willing to accept Dr. Atkinson’s new article because it
does not conflict with any established area of linguistic scholarship.“I think
we ought to take this seriously, although there are some who will dismiss it out
of hand,” Dr. Joseph said.
Another linguist, Donald Ringe of the University of Pennsylvania, said, “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.”
Dr. Atkinson’s finding fits with other evidence about the origins of language.
The bushmen of the Kalahari desert belong to one of the earliest branches of
the genetic tree based on human mitochondrial DNA. Their languages belong to a
family known as Khoisan and contain many click sounds, which seem to be a very
ancient feature of language. And they live in southern Africa, which Dr.
Atkinson’s calculations point to as the origin of language. But whether Khoisan
is closest to some ancestral form of language “is not something my method can
speak to,” Dr. Atkinson said.
His study was prompted by a recent finding that the number of phonemes in a
language is related to the number of people who speak it. This gave him the idea
that phoneme diversity would increase as a population grew but fall again when a
small group split off and migrated away from the parent group.
Such a continual budding process, which is how the first modern humans expanded
round the world, is known to produce what biologists call a serial founder
effect. Each time a smaller group moves away, there is a dilution in its
genetic diversity. The reduction in phonemic diversity over increasing
distances from Africa, as seen by Dr. Atkinson, parallels the reduction in
genetic diversity already recorded by biologists.
For either kind of diversity dilution to occur, the population budding process
must be rapid, or diversity will build up again. This implies the human
expansion out of Africa was very rapid at each stage. The acquisition of modern
language, or the technology it made possible, may have triggered the expansion,
Dr. Atkinson said.
“What’s so remarkable about this work is that it shows language doesn’t change
all that fast — it retains a signal of its ancestry over tens of thousands of
years,” said Mark Pagel, a biologist at the University of Reading in England
who advised Dr. Atkinson.
Dr. Pagel sees language as central to human expansion across the globe.“Language
was our secret weapon, and as soon we got language we became a really dangerous
species,” he said.In the wake of modern human expansion, archaic human species
like the Neanderthals were wiped out and large species of game, fossil evidence
shows, fell into extinction on every continent shortly after the arrival of
Harold F. Schiffman
Professor Emeritus of
Dravidian Linguistics and Culture
Dept. of South Asia Studies
University of Pennsylvania
Philadelphia, PA 19104-6305
Phone: (215) 898-7475
Fax: (215) 573-2138
Email: haroldfs at gmail.com
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