Monday, July 11, 2011

Origin of Language: New Thinking

What is the origin of language? When I was a kid, I was told that Sanskrit — which originated in India — was “the mother of all languages,” including English and most European languages.

Not any more, apparently.

Based on a recent study published in Science, all modern languages — like human beings themselves — may have originated in Africa. This means that the world's 6,000 or so modern languages may have all descended from a single ancient tongue spoken by early humans between 50,000 and 70,000 years ago.

It’s a fascinating story that I first found in Presurfer. It has also been covered by the Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, and Boing Boing, among others.

Quentin Atkinson, an evolutionary psychologist and the author of the study, examined phonemes — distinct units of sound such as vowels, consonants and tones — as if they were genes, to determine how they changed over time and from place to place.

The finding fits well with the evidence from fossil skulls and DNA that modern humans originated in Africa. It also implies, though does not prove, that modern language originated only once, an issue of considerable controversy among linguists.

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