Biologist May Have Discovered the Origin of Language

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Everyone who’s ever studied Shakespeare knows that languages change over time. And if you look at the vocabulary, it’s obvious that language like French and Spanish are related. Professional linguists classify languages based on how closely they are related, and try to uncover how ancient languages evolved and branched off to form new languages over time.

But looking at how words from different languages are related to each other will only take you back so far. 9,000 years to be precise, which is how old the Indo-European language tree is.

According to the New York Times, biologist Quentin D. Atkinson, working at the University of Auckland in New Zealand, decided to take a different approach: looking at phonemes instead of words. For the non-language geeks out there, phonemes are the smallest elements of language that are capable of changing the meaning of a word. Think consonant sounds and vowel sounds, or, in certain African languages, clicks.

Different languages have different numbers of phonemes. By analyzing the number of phonemes in different languages around the world, Dr. Atkinson discovered that the number of phonemes in each language decreases the further away you get from Africa. This implies that not only did the human race get its start in Africa, but that spoken language did, too.

But why would the number of phonemes in a language decrease over time? The pattern is probably due to something called the “serial founder effect.”

The New York Times explains how this works:

“Each time a smaller group moves away, there is a reduction 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.”

So far, the reaction from professional linguists has been cautiously encouraging. Brian D. Joseph, an American linguist from Ohio State University, told the New York Times:

“We’re uneasy about mathematical modeling that we don’t understand juxtaposed to philological modeling that we do understand”,  but added “I think we ought to take this seriously, although there are some who will dismiss it out of hand.”