Beyond Words - Language Blog

Could All Languages Have Originated in Africa?

Language and its origins have been a heated source of debate for centuries, with the end result being that there’s no clear consensus on its origin or even its age. In fact, many scholars have flat out avoided the subject, claiming that there is no factual basis on which to even begin to derive an opinion.

The debate was reignited in 2011, however, when Quentin Atkinson, a cultural anthropologist at Auckland University in New Zealand, proposed that the cradle of language had its origins in southwest Africa. Much of Atkinson’s research was based on a comparative analysis of the numbers of phonemes found in about 500 contemporary languages. Remember Hooked On Phonics? Well, that’s basically what phonemes are—the phonetic elements of a word; they’re the most basic elements of a spoken language. They include sound units, such as consonants, vowels and tones and are a major element in the study of linguistics, as they play a large role in semantic differentiation between languages.

A biologist and psychologist by training, Atkinson discovered that the greatest levels of phoneme diversity appeared in languages spoken in southwestern Africa. Much of this was based on the amount of phoneme inventory found in the genetic diversity of the area, where it is believed that our species originated. This genetic diversity apparently decreased over time as people migrated from this specific area, with each phoneme eventually representing a shrinking fraction of the overall African population, dating back roughly 70,000 years.

The Controversy Over Atkinson’s Study

Atkinson’s report was highly touted in the media, yet caused some inevitable dispute amongst his peers. One such critic was linguist Michael Cysouw, who stated that Atkinson’s discovery was in fact “an artifact of various methodological decisions and biased interpretations” and that Atkinson’s method is used to explore other aspects of language and that the results, in the end “do not point in the same direction.”

In the February 10, 2012 issue of Science magazine, Cysouw – who leads the Quantitative Language Comparison research unit at Ludwig-Maximilians-Universitaet (LMU) in Munich, Germany – and his co-authors Steven Moran (also of LMU) and Dan Dediu (Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics in Nijmegen, Netherlands) claimed that Atkinson’s method was unfocused, placing the origins of language in such diverse locations as eastern Africa or the Caucasus, rather than simply in southwestern Africa.

The article also claims that Atkinson’s study uses suboptimal data, a biased methodology, as well as assumptions that are unjustified and offer no real “insights into human prehistory based on geographic patterns of linguistic diversity.” Cysouw’s article mentions that he has no objection in principle to the use of methods borrowed from other disciplines to tackle questions in linguistics, but that problems can often arise from their inappropriate application.

A major problem for all involved remains that the phonemes can only be traced back to around 10,000 years ago. With such limited data available, linguists and scientists – in fact, all of us – still can’t be entirely sure of the origin of language. Even though Africa does seem as if it’s pretty darn close, the debate will continue. What do you think?

Photograph by Wilfraco