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Human language originated in Africa?

india Updated: Apr 15, 2011 14:53 IST
human language

Wondering where did humanity utter its first words? Sub-Saharan Africa.

A new linguistic analysis attempted to rewrite the story of Babel by borrowing from the methods of genetic analysis – and found that modern language originated in sub-Saharan Africa and spread across the world with migrating human populations.

Quentin Atkinson of the University of Auckland in New Zealand designed a computer program to analyse the diversity of 504 languages. Specifically, the program focused on phonemes – the sounds that make up words, like "c", "a", and "tch" in the word "catch".

Africa turned out to have the greatest phonemic diversity – it is the only place in the world where languages incorporate clicks of the tongue into their vocabularies, for instance – while South America and Oceania have the smallest. Remarkably, this echoes genetic analyses showing that African populations have higher genetic diversity than European, Asian and American populations.

This is generally attributed to the "serial founder" effect: it''s thought that humans first lived in a large and genetically diverse population in Africa, from which smaller groups broke off and migrated to what is now Europe. Because each break-off group carried only a subset of the genetic diversity of its parent group, this migration was, in effect, written in the migrants'' genes.

Atkinson argued that the process was mirrored in languages: as smaller populations broke off and spread across the world, human language lost some of its phonemic diversity, and sounds that humans first spoke in the African Babel were left behind.

"One of the big questions is whether there was a single origin of language", New Scientist quoted Atkinson as saying.

"This suggests there was one major origin in Africa," added Atkinson.

The study has been mentioned in the Journal Science.