April 15, 2011

Did all human language originate at the same place (in southern Africa)?

New Zealand biologist Quentin D. Atkinson has an article that's getting a phenomenal — phoneme-able? — amount of attention. The NYT says:
[Atkihnson] 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 about 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...
Paleoanthropologist John Hawks asks:
Why should the origin of languages have had the largest inventory of phonemes? If small populations typically lose phonemic variation, why would sparse hunter-gatherer populations of Africa have built up the largest store of sounds just as they were getting started talking?
Perhaps when people were first talking, they made a lot of sounds, more like animal sounds. Then came the breakthrough: words. Once the idea of words arrived, you didn't need so many sounds. You can get lots of words out of very few sounds, differently arranged. The attention shifted to word making, and people didn't struggle to come up with more sounds. Indeed, they took advantage of the easy ones everyone could say and shed the extras.

61 comments:

AllenS said...

One of the earliest human phrases was: blah, blah, blah.

WV: pheights

Once again, WV rules!

cubanbob said...

Humans arose in Africa. Why would the development of language in Africa be such a sensation?

Mickey said...

Phoneme-able

I can't get over how funny that is. Especially for the irony. I mean, every word is phoneme-able.

bagoh20 said...

"the origin of modern human language is in the region of southwestern Africa..."

Cause that's where the spaceship landed. If you visited earth, wouldn't you go on safari too. I wonder if they tipped well.

E.M. Davis said...

Isn't this largely irrelevant?

Ann Althouse said...

"Why would the development of language in Africa be such a sensation?"

Because it has been unknown whether all language traces back to a single point. There could have been bands of humans or humanoids that trace back genetically to Africa to one point but who developed language beginning at a new point after they migrated. This is a mathematical analysis that provides evidence of the single-point origin.

Ann Althouse said...

Also, according to Hawks (at the link): " the genetic model of an [sic] founding bottleneck in Africa has taken some serious body blows this year."

AJ Lynch said...

How many of those phemones er whatchamacallits does your average commenter use compared to Huffpo?

MadisonMan said...

Just think how many phonemes these two would have if only they had been born in Africa!

Dust Bunny Queen said...

Because it has been unknown whether all language traces back to a single point

And still is.

It isn't impossible, but they are just speculating.

rhhardin said...

Once you have words, you get cliches, and then language begins.

bagoh20 said...

'"Because it has been unknown whether all language traces back to a single point."

It seems obvious to me that you have to have language first before you can discuss the travel plans. Then you leave home. Try getting the family to Disneyland without talking it over first. And don't you need to understand the GPS when she's talking.

That reminds me, I heard that for some GPS units, you can buy alternative voices. They have one for L.A. with Snoop Dog telling you where to turn and him pointing out places he used to hang. They need more of that.

Paddy O said...

Just watched "Journey of Man" again this past week, which explores the genetics side of this basic thesis, and also starts with the Bushmen (Bushfolk?). It's a pretty interesting documentary, sort of like an educated Huell Howser goes globe-hopping.

I think also of the cultural memories of the earliest Biblical stories. However, one views the veracity of the Babel narrative, it's interesting that it's arguing for a single language that branched out.

I also think it makes a lot of sense. People tend to be lazy. If something can be slurred or said with less effort or sounds it usually is. Do this over time, entire sounds start falling out of language. This would be especially true before writing, when sounds become enshrined a bit more

The Drill SGT said...

Althouse said...Because it has been unknown whether all language traces back to a single point. There could have been bands of humans or humanoids that trace back genetically to Africa to one point but who developed language beginning at a new point after they migrated. This is a mathematical analysis that provides evidence of the single-point origin.

I still dont get it.

In one case you start with the development of vocal apparatus capable of speech. Then language develops, BEFORE the spread of the human like folks outward. Occam's razor.

The next most likely, and still very unlikely is: Vocal apparatus, dispersion, then independent language. Not so likely

The least probable, dispersion, vocal apparatus, indepentent language discovery

Alternately, to option 2 I guess is, Vocal apparatus, dispersion, then independent language., but then something else (some other adaptation) or some natural disaster makes the SW African gene pool dominate, leaving no record of those other independent language discoveries (also not likely)

bagoh20 said...

Before language, when a person was sitting on a cliff looking out over the landscape, what was he thinking? He couldn't talk to himself, so...

DADvocate said...

What cubanbob said. Oldest human fossils found in Africa.

Here's something I've always found fascinating: the arrangement of subject, verb, object in different languages.

Subject-[Verb-Object] 42% English, Indonesian
Subject-[Object-Verb] 45% Japanese, Turkish
Verb-Subject-Object 9% Welsh, Zapotec
[Verb-Object]-Subject 3% Malagasy
[Object-Verb]-Subject 1%
Object-Subject-Verb 0%

An obvious human tendency to structure sentences in certain ways.

Sixty Grit said...

Phun with Phonemes!

EDH said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Bob Ellison said...

Now it can be told: linguistic theory is the silliest pseudo-science in academia.

EDH said...

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.

"That's all he said? ...Is that everything? It seemed like he said quite a bit more than that."

edutcher said...

Agree with cubanbob, but I see Ann's point.

Until science can prove how it happened, it's all conjecture, although, as several have noted, another conclusion would be extremely counterintuitive.

PS Tends to bear out the Old Testament story of the Tower of Babel.

cahlmeeishmael said...

This is evidence corroborating something one would have logically thought might be true, not that I personally had given this subject a lot of thought, I nonetheless find it interesting.

bagoh20 said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
bagoh20 said...

Imagine all those years of developing language by millions of people, some very bright ones, and now with all that foundation under us, we arrive at the pinnacle of it all here at Althouse.

Titus, you're up.

Maguro said...

It seems obvious to me that you have to have language first before you can discuss the travel plans.

No, typically animals don't make "travel plans" so much as they incrementally move on and claim new territory in order to survive. There's really no deliberate planning involved.

We assume that the possums and the armadilloes didn't sit down and discuss whether or not they wanted to move out from South America into North America, they just gradually moved out in search of enough food and water to survive and ended up here as a result. The same could be true of early humans without the ability to use language.

PatCA said...

Maybe that's one reason Africa has resolutely stayed near the bottom of modern development. Africans stayed in one place, kept their word thingies, and missed the development of the world the exiles had to build.

Roger J. said...

Very interesting post, professor--I do have one question that perhaps the commentariat could help me with--Why are asian languages tonal and indo european languages not? Is it possible as some recent finds in asia suggest there are two separate branches of modern humans? We find fossils in africa because thats where we look--is an asian origin (eg the "hobbits") recently discovered in indonesia a separate strand of our species?

Anyway--interesting questions all and enjoyed the link. Thanks

Roger J. said...

AllenS--the most ancient of human speech is the phrase "let me be clear..." wherein lies and obfuscation follow

bagoh20 said...

"typically animals don't make "travel plans"... There's really no deliberate planning involved.
"


That's why armadillos don't have budget deficits.

ricpic said...

Language may have started in Africa but it's pretty obvious humans did a whole lot of evolving after leaving Africa.

Cedarford said...

Not sure how relevant this is. Humans are not the only animals using language and presumably all their language traces back to the original bird colony that came up with a mating call adapted by subsequent birds if the species, 1st bonobo chimps, origin orca pod, etc.

Presumably, many primitive things in long use in humankind - like all fire technology use traces back to African origins, arrowheads as well. But once man left Africa and innovation was mostly with the Caucasian and Mongoloid races, then diffusion origin points for this and that and whatever obviously left Africa.

A lot of this is intuitively obvious and of little practical use.

Other "origin point" inquiries are of more academic interest and knowing does have practical implications. Backtracing the chicken to 3 subpopulations of jungle fowl assists in breeding better chickens today. Ancestor strains of emmer wheat in Turkey, wild potato varieties in the Andes, the origin strains of the grass maize was developed from are invaluable.

And going the other way, if an origin time is known, like the arrival of the 1st chile pepper in the Old World..we see all the trade routes extant at the time and their efficiencies from learning the diffusion rate of where and when the chile first got to distant lands.

George Grady said...

The argument doesn't make any sense to me. The languages in Africa aren't any older than the languages anywhere else. If the conclusion of the argument is correct (that all languages ultimately are descended from some ur-language that was located in southwestern Africa which had a large inventory of phonemes), it seems to be saying that by virtue of remaining in place (did the people in SW Africa really always stay in place?) the people over time lost fewer phonemes in their language than other people who migrated. Why should that be?

I mean, it's not as if less time has somehow passed for the supposed sedentary people than it has for the supposed migratory people.

If you're really arguing that languages over time lose phonemic inventory, wouldn't you have to conclude that the languages of SW Africa are in fact younger than the languages elsewhere? After all, they have a larger phonemic inventory!

Roger J. said...

C4--Joseph Bronowski would agree with your comments re agricultural development--a brilliant mathematical topologist he became interested in the evolution of modern humans and focused on the development of agrarian society--which according to his thesis transformed human kind from nomad hunter gatherers to settled human kind. His work was captured by public broadcasting as "the ascent of man" in the early 1970s--a great tour de force.

You comments on the development of our agricultural resources is certainly germane to the discussion. thanks

Doug Wright said...

Very interesting discussion. However, there's so much about early human history that we don't know anything about, that who really knows how we got to our current place.

Gobekli tepe is another mystery that might clarify early human development or it might instead muddy the waters regarding the so-called timeline of human growth. The Sphinx might be 4,500 years old or according to some, it might be 7,000 years old.

Who really knows where or how language developed. Heck, we have yet to truly master that skill of communicating with each other.

Oligonicella said...

Ann Althouse --

"Because it has been unknown whether all language traces back to a single point. ... This is a mathematical analysis that provides evidence of the single-point origin."

No, mathematical analysis provides support for evidence, not evidence.

As many primates (and non) have been shown to possess language (however rudimentary), there is no 'origin' for human speech. We've always had it.

Scott M said...

Bushmen (Bushfolk?)

Bushpeople, you knuckle-dragging, reactionary, misogynist.

Scott M said...

But once man left Africa and innovation was mostly with the Caucasian and Mongoloid races, then diffusion origin points for this and that and whatever obviously left Africa.

It's always been my thought that peoples who's far-distant ancestors lived in temperate climates, ie four-seasons, had to adapt more and come up with a greater range of skills. The opposite would be try in fairly rigid climes.

Carol_Herman said...

No.

But if you look no further than the Africans who were shoved onto slave ships, one of the ways they were contained was that they lived isolated, before they ended up on the ships. So the local dialects didn't give them all that much room to communicate.

Still we know they somehow figured this riddle out. No matter what country they ended up in.

bagoh20 said...

I just see two variables: distance and number of phemones. They correlate. That's it. The travel itself could be what made them develop simpler language all on their own. Namely, they were busy traveling and adapting to new locations meeting new people who it would be easier to communicate with if you kept it simple. Usually, a simple tool is more versatile than a complicated one.

Revenant said...

That's a very interesting observation. Thanks to Althouse for the link. :)

Lucien said...

Seems like a (possibly unspoken) premise of the hypothesis is that reduction in number of phonemes is analogous to reduction in genetic diversity. Unless there is support for this premise, the hypothesis really shouldn't benefit from the parallel discussed, which could be purely coincidental.

Also, as has been noted in prior comments, the hypothesis implies that phsycal dispersal of humans occurred after the development of language and not before.

Of course, there might have been waves of dispersal, so that, hypothetically, Neanderthals developed and spreasd as a species before the development of more modern humans, who then spread and in counterd/bred with them. If you pretend that such a thing happened then maybe one group had no language, while the other did, or that both groups had different kinds of language, which, you could argue, might lead to a blended/simlified version with fewer phonemes. OF course, the same types of encouners probably happended in both souterhn africa and other places.

Scott M said...

Usually, a simple tool is more versatile than a complicated one.

The hell you say, sir. The Swiss Army would disagree.

Ron said...

I wouldn't go ape over this particular study. Language Hat points to some questions about both methodology and conclusions.

Revenant said...

Humans are not the only animals using language

Don't confuse verbal communication with language.

Language requires not only vocabulary, but grammar. Lots of animals have a vocabulary of sounds used for communication. Humans are alone in having grammar.

Without grammar, the number of ideas you can communicate is limited to the number of words in your vocabulary. With grammar, the number of ideas you can communicate is literally infinite.

Methadras said...

There is still a great debate amongst anthropologists on whether humans really have origins to Africa at all. Modern humans maybe, but it is being debated if the origin point/area is actually impossible to locate or pinpoint.

Chip Ahoy said...

That's a very good theory you put together there.

Maybe the original African language had sounds that imitated each individual animal. So a speaker had to be a fairly good imitator of animal sounds. And maybe verbs imitated the sounds of specific action. And nouns sounded like the things they looked like. Then eventually words took over.

I think it is interesting the many ways different languages have for the the sound that a rooster makes. Although in English a rooster is not called cock-a-doodle-do, one can easily imagine it being called a rrroo-oo-oo-oo-oo, leading to rooster.

Oligonicella said...

Revenant --

"Humans are alone in having grammar."

Bzzt! Incorrect. It has been observed elsewhere. Primitive, but grammar.

chickelit said...

@Ron. Thanks for those links to the critiques: This one especially. I smell gay caveman.

D. B. Light said...

The basic idea is that within an interacting population pool there will be a range of genetic and linguistic variation and that no subgroup of the population exhibits the entire range of the whole population. If a subgroup separates from, by migration or other barrier, the original population it will carry with it only part of the total variation. Originating populations will therefore show a wider range of variation than daughter populations. At least, that's the theory [in very abbreviated form].

Revenant said...

Bzzt! Incorrect. It has been observed elsewhere. Primitive, but grammar.

Well offer an example of it, then.

Megan said...

It's amazing how quickly history has been rewritten. History of the English Language circa 1967 shows a single point from which all language originated, how all of the language families developed, etc. No big surprise there. It's controversial now because it opens the door to the truth of the Tower of Babel...

Penny said...

"Maybe that's one reason Africa has resolutely stayed near the bottom of modern development. Africans stayed in one place, kept their word thingies, and missed the development of the world the exiles had to build."

You are on to something here.

Tribal customs are difficult to break, and not only in Africa. If you think of your own family unit, YOUR tribe growing up, contrast the difference between siblings who stayed close to home with those who moved away and only come home for Christmas.

Methadras said...

Penny said...You are on to something here.

Tribal customs are difficult to break, and not only in Africa. If you think of your own family unit, YOUR tribe growing up, contrast the difference between siblings who stayed close to home with those who moved away and only come home for Christmas.


Well, when you don't have or develop a written language from the spoken language, then your society tends to become splintered and fractious with other ones. Even ones within the next valley. American indians suffered from the inability to form a written language and it cost them in the end. Africans seem to have paralleled that same distinction.

Gladys said...

Because it has been unknown whether all language traces back to a single point
But indoeuropean is thought to be the origin of almost all languages spoken today. Noah Chomsky was known for showing the evolutionary origin of language.
Back to the early xix century it was known that sancrist, latin and greek were the same language.
The only new is that neither Turkey nor India, 10 k years ago is the point of origin.

Gladys said...

are two separate branches of modern humans? Yes, three Most humanity, pigmeans and the hobbit.

Revenant said...

It's controversial now because it opens the door to the truth of the Tower of Babel...

Oh goody, here come the biblical conspiracy theories.

D. B. Light said...

Lets not forget that the original population keeps on evolving too. The "bushmen" are just as highly evolved as any other human population on the face of the earth. They are not living fossils.

John Hawks said...

Awesome!

The animal sounds idea is a good one. It turns out that other primates each use a very limited range of sounds and have very limited flexibility compared to us. But maybe early humans were using these sounds collected from their sonic environment, could be.

jayniejaynie said...

EDH said...

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.

"That's all he said? ...Is that everything? It seemed like he said quite a bit more than that."

4/15/11 10:01 AM

To EDH -

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=REOhgsT65UE&feature=related

starting at 5:45.

"She said no"
"What took her so long?"

huaracheblog said...

There might be an interesting parallel to the origin of human language:-

The English Independent Newspaper published and article today about the creation of a tool to communicate with dolphins.

"A Cetacean Hearing and Telemetry, or CHAT, interface has been designed as will be tested this summer of the Bahamas. It is a processor that contains a complex algorithm or pattern detector that, it is hoped, will learn to identify the fundamental units of dolphin acoustic communication to enable humans to decode dolphin and then reply."

Maybe there is a similarity between the dolphin 'clicks' and 'squeals' that CHAT is trying to decode and the original human language consisting of more Phonemes than modern language; a language of sounds instead of words.

Maybe dolphins are at a similar evolutionary stage as the first humans in Africa.

huaracheblog said...

There might be an interesting parallel to the origin of human language:-

The English Independent Newspaper published and article today about the creation of a tool to communicate with dolphins.

"A Cetacean Hearing and Telemetry, or CHAT, interface has been designed as will be tested this summer of the Bahamas. It is a processor that contains a complex algorithm or pattern detector that, it is hoped, will learn to identify the fundamental units of dolphin acoustic communication to enable humans to decode dolphin and then reply."

Maybe there is a similarity between the dolphin 'clicks' and 'squeals' that CHAT is trying to decode and the original human language consisting of more Phonemes than modern language; a language of sounds instead of words.

Maybe dolphins are at a similar evolutionary stage as the first humans in Africa.