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Languages Grew From a Seed in Africa, Study Says

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Lone_Star_Dem Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Thu Apr-14-11 06:26 PM
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Languages Grew From a Seed in Africa, Study Says
This is going to be a source of much contention in the linguistic community for years to come. Personally, I find it fascinating.

A researcher analyzing the sounds in languages spoken around the world has detected an ancient signal that points to southern Africa as the place where modern human language originated.

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.

The detection of such an ancient signal in language is surprising. Because words change so rapidly, many linguists think that languages cannot be traced very far back in time. The oldest language tree so far reconstructed, that of the Indo-European family, which includes English, goes back 9,000 years at most.

Quentin D. Atkinson, a biologist at the University of Auckland in New Zealand, has shattered this time barrier, if his claim is correct, by looking not at words but at phonemes the consonants, vowels and tones that are the simplest elements of language. Dr. Atkinson, an expert at applying mathematical methods to linguistics, 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.
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arcane1 Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Thu Apr-14-11 06:31 PM
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1. I LOVE stuff like this!!!
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pinto Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Thu Apr-14-11 06:32 PM
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2. I love language and this looks really interesting. Thanks for the post.
Saved for later. :thumbsup:
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bobbolink Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Thu Apr-14-11 06:40 PM
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3. Thanks! A young man mentioned to me last night that he finds this sort of thing fascinating,
so this caught my eye.

Good article, and thanks for posting!

Recommended. :thumbsup:
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Bucky Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Thu Apr-14-11 06:42 PM
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4. The single origin point theory of language would seem to work against "innate capacity" theory
I know a lot of DUers are fans of Noam Chomsky and thus won't like this idea. Chomsky's "generative grammar" views that the human brain comes hardwired with an innate orientation toward a particular formatting for language. If that's so, then human languages would be able to arise in multiple locations. Suggesting that there's only one sources of language then implies that verbally transmitting ideas was a particular technological innovation that's simply been built upon over the last 10 millennia.

For what it's worth, a lot of research with ape acquisition of sign languages tends to argue against Chomsky's theories. If apes, who diverted from the human evolutionary track a very long time before the African Genesis (much less before the advent of language), are capable of learning and processing cognitive language, then the cranial hardware for passing along language is much less specific to humans.

Of course you don't have to buy into Chomsky's theories about innate language nodes in the brain's architecture to accept the multiple origins of language. Humans need only have an evolutionary advantage to gain by acquiring language skills along with a brain that, like Ko-Ko the gorilla's, has the capacity to process ideas in literal form.
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muriel_volestrangler Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Fri Apr-15-11 05:52 AM
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7. But this is more about the mechanics, rather than 'capacity to understand and communicate'
The African languages have more phonemes than English, which has more than Hawaiian, but that doesn't mean the expressible concepts are larger. The phonemes are just the building blocks used - and the theory is that when a group splits off, it sometimes loses a block or two. And this goes back 100,000 years, not 10,000 (the latter is just how far back linguists can trace language relationships using existing techniques).

You make a good point about the cognitive skills of other apes, but I suspect Chomsky might say that those are still limited compared to humans, and so his theory still holds up.

I don't find it surprising that human language originated just once, and in Africa; our anatomy for speaking is the same across the whole species, and that is probably tied to the appearance of language. What's interesting is that this research points to southern, or even south-western, Africa, while most early human fossils have been found in eastern Africa. This may swing the story of the evolution of modern humans back to southern Africa.
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applegrove Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Thu Apr-14-11 11:52 PM
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5. Cool!
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Odin2005 Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Fri Apr-15-11 12:17 AM
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6. There is growing skpeticism of the popular "click consonants are ancient" notion.
An increasing number of historical linguists think it is simply an odd areal feature of southern Africa, much like the strong tendency of tonality and monosyllabism in SE Asia, or rounded front vowels in northern Eurasia (think German umlauts), or the loss of case endings in Western Europe.
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