Featured Research

from universities, journals, and other organizations

Africa the birthplace of human language, analysis suggests

Date:
April 15, 2011
Source:
University of Auckland
Summary:
A new study by a New Zealand researcher provides strong evidence for Africa as the birthplace of human language. An analysis of languages from around the world suggests that, like our genes, human speech originated -- just once -- in sub-Saharan Africa. The research studied the phonemes, or the perceptually distinct units of sound that differentiate words, used in 504 human languages today and found that the number of phonemes is highest in Africa and decreases with increasing distance from Africa.

An analysis of languages from around the world suggests that, like our genes, human speech originated -- just once -- in sub-Saharan Africa.
Credit: Philippe Martin / Fotolia

Psychologists from The University of Auckland have just published two major studies on the diversity of the world's languages in the journals Science and Nature.

The first study, published in Science by Dr Quentin Atkinson, provides strong evidence for Africa as the birthplace of human language.

An analysis of languages from around the world suggests that, like our genes, human speech originated -- just once -- in sub-Saharan Africa. Atkinson studied the phonemes, or the perceptually distinct units of sound that differentiate words, used in 504 human languages today and found that the number of phonemes is highest in Africa and decreases with increasing distance from Africa.

The fewest phonemes are found in South America and on tropical islands in the Pacific Ocean. This pattern fits a "serial founder effect" model in which small populations on the edge of an expansion progressively lose diversity. Dr Atkinson notes that this pattern of phoneme usage around the world mirrors the pattern of human genetic diversity, which also declined as humans expanded their range from Africa to colonise other regions.

In general, the areas of the globe that were most recently colonised incorporate fewer phonemes into the local languages whereas the areas that have hosted modern humans for millennia (particularly sub-Saharan Africa) still use the most phonemes.

This decline in phoneme usage cannot be explained by demographic shifts or other local factors, and it provides strong evidence for an African origin of modern human languages -- as well as parallel mechanisms that slowly shaped both genetic and linguistic diversity among humans.

The second study, published in Nature by University of Auckland researchers Professor Russell Gray and Dr Simon Greenhill and their colleagues Michael Dunn and Stephen Levinson at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics in the Netherlands challenges the idea that the human brain produces universal rules for language.

"The diversity of the world's language is amazing," says Professor Gray. "There are about 7,000 languages spoken today, some with just a dozen contrastive sounds, others with more than 100, some with complex patterns of word formation, others with simple words only, some with the verb at the beginning of the sentence, some in the middle, and some at the end."

"Our work shows that the claims some linguists have made for a really strong role of the innate structure of the human mind in shaping linguistic variation have been hugely oversold," he says.

Using computational methods derived from evolutionary biology, Gray and his team analysed the global patterns of word-order evolution. Instead of universal patterns of dependencies in word-order features, they found that each language family had its own evolutionary tendencies.

"When it comes to language evolution, culture trumps cognition," Gray observes.


Story Source:

The above story is based on materials provided by University of Auckland. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.


Journal References:

  1. Q. D. Atkinson. Phonemic Diversity Supports a Serial Founder Effect Model of Language Expansion from Africa. Science, 2011; 332 (6027): 346 DOI: 10.1126/science.1199295
  2. Michael Dunn, Simon J. Greenhill, Stephen C. Levinson, Russell D. Gray. Evolved structure of language shows lineage-specific trends in word-order universals. Nature, 2011; DOI: 10.1038/nature09923

Cite This Page:

University of Auckland. "Africa the birthplace of human language, analysis suggests." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 15 April 2011. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/04/110415165500.htm>.
University of Auckland. (2011, April 15). Africa the birthplace of human language, analysis suggests. ScienceDaily. Retrieved September 19, 2014 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/04/110415165500.htm
University of Auckland. "Africa the birthplace of human language, analysis suggests." ScienceDaily. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/04/110415165500.htm (accessed September 19, 2014).

Share This



More Mind & Brain News

Friday, September 19, 2014

Featured Research

from universities, journals, and other organizations


Featured Videos

from AP, Reuters, AFP, and other news services

Food Addiction Might Be Caused By PTSD

Food Addiction Might Be Caused By PTSD

Newsy (Sep. 18, 2014) New research shows that women who suffer from PTSD are three times more likely to develop a food addiction. Video provided by Newsy
Powered by NewsLook.com
Corporal Punishment on Decline, Debate Renews

Corporal Punishment on Decline, Debate Renews

AP (Sep. 16, 2014) Corporal punishment in the United States is on the decline, but there is renewed debate over its use after Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson was charged with child abuse. (Sept. 16) Video provided by AP
Powered by NewsLook.com
FDA Eyes Skin Shocks Used at Mass. School

FDA Eyes Skin Shocks Used at Mass. School

AP (Sep. 15, 2014) The FDA is considering whether to ban devices used by the Judge Rotenberg Educational Center in Canton, Massachusetts, the only place in the country known to use electrical skin shocks as aversive conditioning for aggressive patients. (Sept. 15) Video provided by AP
Powered by NewsLook.com
Shocker: Journalists Are Utterly Addicted To Coffee

Shocker: Journalists Are Utterly Addicted To Coffee

Newsy (Sep. 13, 2014) A U.K. survey found that journalists consumed the most amount of coffee, but that's only the tip of the coffee-related statistics iceberg. Video provided by Newsy
Powered by NewsLook.com

Search ScienceDaily

Number of stories in archives: 140,361

Find with keyword(s):
Enter a keyword or phrase to search ScienceDaily for related topics and research stories.

Save/Print:
Share:

Breaking News:
from the past week

In Other News

... from NewsDaily.com

Science News

Health News

Environment News

Technology News



Save/Print:
Share:

Free Subscriptions


Get the latest science news with ScienceDaily's free email newsletters, updated daily and weekly. Or view hourly updated newsfeeds in your RSS reader:

Get Social & Mobile


Keep up to date with the latest news from ScienceDaily via social networks and mobile apps:

Have Feedback?


Tell us what you think of ScienceDaily -- we welcome both positive and negative comments. Have any problems using the site? Questions?
Mobile: iPhone Android Web
Follow: Facebook Twitter Google+
Subscribe: RSS Feeds Email Newsletters
Latest Headlines Health & Medicine Mind & Brain Space & Time Matter & Energy Computers & Math Plants & Animals Earth & Climate Fossils & Ruins