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Nicholas Wade has written in the NY Times about the research of Quentin D. Anderson, which indicates that southern Africa was the place where modern human language originated.
These findings fit with evidence from fossil skulls and DNA that modern humans did originate in Africa. Although it doesn’t prove that language originated only once (linguists have found this controversial), it does strongly imply it.
To detect an ancient signal in language is surprising because words change rapidly. Many linguists feel that because of the speed with which words change, language can’t be traced very far back in time.
So far, the oldest language tree constructed — the Indo-European family tree — goes back 9,000 years at most.
Atkinson is a biologist at the University of Auckland in New Zealand. He has shattered the 9,000 year time barrier by looking not at words, but at phonemes.
Not Words — Phonemes
Phonemes are the simplest elements of any language: our single consonant, vowel and tonal utterances. For example, there are three phonemes in the word “cat:” /c/ — /a/ — /t/.
Dr. Atkinson is an expert at applying mathematical methods to linguistics. He has found a simple but striking pattern in around 500 language throughout the world: he has observed that
a language area uses fewer phonemes the farther that early humans had to travel from Africa to reach it.
Some click-languages of Africa have more than 100 phonemes. English has 45. Hawaii — toward the far end of the human migration route out of Africa — has only thirteen.
Interestingly, this pattern of distance-related decreasing diversity is similar to the well-established decrease in genetic diversity that appear in populations the farther they are from Africa.
This certainly could imply that the origin of modern language is in the region of southwestern Africa.
Dr. Atkinson published his article on April 14, 2011 in the journal Science.
Modern humans dispersed from Africa approximately 50,000 years ago, so language is thought to be about that age. But some linguists even push the age of language back to 100,000 years.
Atkinson seems to be picking up a distant echo from this ancient beginning.
sole source: Nicholas Wade’s article in the New York Times on april 15, 2011. For the article, visit http://www.nytimes.com/2011/04/15/science/15language.html?_r=1&scp=2&sq=Nicholas%20Wade&st=cse
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