Beyond Words - Language Blog

New Study of Phonemes Sheds Light on the Roots and Origins of Language

For centuries, linguists have examined a host of components within language to attempt to trace its roots and place its origins. While language is nearly as old as the people who speak it—or at least began to emerge some 50,000 years ago when human beings dispersed from Africa and spread throughout the globe— few linguistic remnants have been found that would date back further than 7,000-10,000 years. A new study conducted by psychologist Quentin Atkinson of the University of Auckland and published in the journal Science breaks language down into its smallest components, phonemes, in attempts to shed light on the birthplace of speech. His findings may well represent a breakthrough in historical linguistics, as they reconstruct the potential evolution of language before 10,000 years ago.

Historically, linguists track the evolution of language through grammatical and syntactical structure—words and sentences rather than morphemes and phonemes. Readily-traceable linguistic evolution—like the English word "brother" from the Latin frater and the Greek phrater before it—takes us back approximately 6,500 years, while phonemic change—like the one-letter meaning shift from "lip" to "rip" to "sip"—can go back much further.

Dr. Atkinson’s study applies a mathematical model to plot 504 languages around the world according to their distance from Africa and their phonemic variation. The study posited 2,560 potential points of origin and tested all of them for how well they corresponded with decreases in phonemic variation. If his thesis was correct, then phonemic variation—like genetic variation—would decrease the further populations were from their African source. Such a pattern was noted: African languages showed the most diversity, with some click-using languages having upwards of 100 distinct phonemes, while more distant points like South America and the islands of the Pacific showed the least—between 10 and 30. More specifically, the results imply that the earliest traces of language can be found in southwestern Africa. While the study is being hotly-contested by numerous linguists, its findings lay a substantial foundation for further research into the origins of language.

Further Reading:

Phonetic Clues Hint Language Is Africa-Born
Babel or babble?

Photograph by George L Smyth