A Linguist Used Genetics Principles To Determine That Language Originated In Africa

Language is arguably the single facet of humanity that sets us apart from all other animals (sign language-speaking apes aside). But we aren't born speaking, so where did language come from? Linguist Dr. Quentin Atikinson believes it was invented in sub-Saharan Africa, and he bases that theory on an innovative technique based on animal genetics.

You Say Phoneme, I Say Genome

There's a strange quirk of genetics that makes more sense the more you think about it. It goes something like this: the farther a population strays from where it started, the less diverse its genes. In other words, if a certain type of crane originally evolved in Mongolia, then millions of years later, its descendants that settled in Portugal will have a lot more genes in common with each other than the ones back in the motherland will. That's because the Mongolian cranes have the same diverse pool of genes that they've been working with this entire time, while the Portuguese cranes have only the genes of their ancestors that made the journey.

But what does this have to do with language? According to Dr. Atkinson and his team, the same principle applies to phonemes, the building blocks of language. A phoneme is basically the sound of a vowel, a consonant, or another sound (the word "bowl" has three—"b-", "oh", and "-l"). It turns out that languages that originate farther from Africa have consistently fewer phonemes. English has approximately 45 phonemes, while Hawaiian has only 13. The click-using languages of Africa, by contrast, can have well over 100. To many, this is evidence enough that humanity's ultimate mother tongue arose in the same continent where we first evolved.

A Controversial Theory

However, not everybody is convinced. Michael Cysouw and Dan Dediu point out that if you aim your study not at phonemes but at other aspects of language (such as the construction of subordinate clauses, like "when I read it" in the sentence "I didn't understand the term 'subordinate clauses' when I read it"), a very different picture emerges. They also argue that although these methods work well enough when predicting where an animal species evolved, they aren't used correctly in the field of linguistics.

While Atkinson concedes that genes and languages might not be 100 percent comparable, that hasn't stopped him from pursuing other cross-disciplinary research. One study, which draws links between viral DNA and linguistic cognates (that is, words that come from the same root), has been met more positively, and helps explain the origins of the continent-spanning Indo-European family of languages. So while this subject might be something of an academic minefield, it's certainly nothing to give up on yet.

Hear linguist Arika Okrent talk more about how languages originated and have changed over time on the Curiosity Podcast. Stream or download the podcast using the player below, or find the episode everywhere podcasts are found, including iTunesStitcher, and Gretta.

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Written by Reuben Westmaas April 12, 2017

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