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Earth's protolanguage from Africa: study
Fri, 15 Apr 2011 23:03:10 GMT
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Quentin Atkinson, an evolutionary psychologist at the University of Auckland in New Zealand
A new study has suggested that all modern languages may have descended from a single protolanguage spoken by early African humans between 50,000 and 70,000 years ago.

The study, published in the journal Science by an evolutionary psychologist at the University of Auckland in New Zealand, explained that verbal communication then spread across the globe as humans walked out of Africa, The Wall Street Journal reported on Friday.

The author of the study, Quentin Atkinson, claims that the first migrating populations laid the groundwork for all the world's 6,000 languages by taking their language to other parts of the planet, reaching Australia and New Zealand last.

Linguists face myriads of theories trying to track the emergence and evolution of languages. The most common method is to investigate and compare differences in the development of word and grammatical structures, but Atkinson applied a phonological approach, claiming to have found repeating themes within 504 languages that are currently spoken around the world.

He based his work on phonemes — the smallest segmental unit of sounds employed to form meaningful contrasts between utterances — arguing that the African languages have the highest number of phonemes in their phonological systems and the greater the distance that humans traveled out of Africa, the fewer number of phonemes were detected in their languages.

Some of the click-using languages of Africa have over 100 phonemes, but those with the fewest phonemes are toward the far end of the human migration route out of Africa in South America and on tropical islands in the Pacific. Hawaiian only has 13 phonemes, while English has about 45 and Persian has about 29 phonemes.

Atkinson's research is based on phonemes and an idea borrowed from population genetics known as "the founder effect."

That principle holds that when a very small number of individuals break off from a larger population, there is a gradual loss of genetic variation and complexity in the breakaway group.

The phoneme pattern mirrors the pattern of human genetic diversity as humans spread across the globe from sub-Saharan Africa around 70,000 years ago.

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