[lg policy] Languages Grew From a Seed in Africa, Study Says

Jeremy Graves 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.

Jeremy Graves
Adjunct Lecturer
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
	* 	* L
	* Digg

	* MySpace
	* Permalink

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 
modern  humans. 


 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

-------------- next part --------------
An HTML attachment was scrubbed...
URL: <http://listserv.linguistlist.org/pipermail/lgpolicy-list/attachments/20110414/3c8bac0b/attachment.html>
-------------- next part --------------
This message came to you by way of the lgpolicy-list mailing list
lgpolicy-list at groups.sas.upenn.edu
To manage your subscription unsubscribe, or arrange digest format: https://groups.sas.upenn.edu/mailman/listinfo/lgpolicy-list

More information about the Lgpolicy-list mailing list