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The Origin of All Language
April 16, 2011 6:13 AM   Subscribe

In the current issue of Science, a New Zealand researcher, Quentin Atkinson has published his findings there was a single origin of human language. (abtract only: article behind paywall) Using the phoneme as the unit of analysis, Atkinson investigated whether phonemes demonstrated a serial founder effect, analogous to the genetic process. Results support an African origin of human language.

News reports: Stuff: Kiwi's mother of language discovery creates stir, The Economist: Babel or babble?, and NPR's Science Friday.
posted by palindromic (30 comments total) 16 users marked this as a favorite

 
See also: NYTimes.
posted by palindromic at 6:16 AM on April 16, 2011


Uggh
posted by sammyo at 6:31 AM on April 16, 2011


This is interesting. The founder effect is really freaking interesting to me, since I would have thought the opposite to be logical. But it isn't because he's proposing a single point of origin for language. Freaking wow.

Besides that:

1. The author took a gigantic leap and tried to pinpoint the origins of language to 50,000 years ago while the standard in academia was to pinpoint it to about 10,000 years ago.

2. Everyone is talking about how methodologically sound this paper is.

So yeah...big news.
Also, an explanation of the clicking language of the Bushmen of the Kalahari. Kinda neat.
posted by hal_c_on at 6:33 AM on April 16, 2011 [1 favorite]


Ah, the phoneme geeks are at it again.

This is not the last we will hear about this, and don't even think there is much consensus on something as slippery as the roots of human language.

There are a lot of just-so stories being told, even by scientists who should know better but have fallen in love with their pet paradigm.
posted by clvrmnky at 6:36 AM on April 16, 2011 [3 favorites]


So does this clear up the six, sex or sux dilemma?
posted by Samuel Farrow at 6:47 AM on April 16, 2011 [1 favorite]


Lots of interesting aspects. The anti-Chomskyan stuff in the Economist is noteworthy.

However, given that modern humans all spread from one point in Africa, it's not all that surprising that modern languages should have spread from the same place at the same time, is it?
posted by Segundus at 6:52 AM on April 16, 2011 [3 favorites]



So does this clear up the six, sex or sux dilemma?


If that comes up as a dilemma for me, I will know that my dating life is going very, very well.

However, given that modern humans all spread from one point in Africa, it's not all that surprising that modern languages should have spread from the same place at the same time, is it?

I'm no linguist, but that was exactly my reaction. I had always just assumed (not knowing any better) that language came from Africa, just like people did. I'm sure in the Clan of the Cavebears version, language was invented by tall blonde people in Europe, along with bows and arrows, firestarter, and Arabic numerals (wait....).
posted by Forktine at 7:12 AM on April 16, 2011


It sounds like the issue is that there's a tremendous burden of proof required to say that language existed 50,000 years ago, in order to piggyback on the last major migration out of Africa. Since it's impossible to have any direct evidence of that, a sophisticated computer model is necessary to make a truly scientific claim that language is (at least!) that old.
posted by nev at 7:18 AM on April 16, 2011


Claims of a single origin for all human languages, like those of Merritt Ruhlen, have a history of not being widely accepted. As I understand it, the standard answer is that you can't prove such a claim with the methods that linguists use.
posted by gimonca at 7:22 AM on April 16, 2011


And it turns out one of the articles quotes him:

"Most linguists do not think it's possible to trace linguistic history past 10,000 years," Merrit Ruhlen of Stanford University, California, told New Scientist.

"There is a lot of anger and tension surrounding that kind of analysis."
posted by gimonca at 7:25 AM on April 16, 2011


Or: once you've proved it, so what? We already know that modern humans all have the same cognitive and perceptual capacities, and are only disputing the relative modularity and context dependence of those faculties.

It took a long time to establish that baseline, and there's plenty we don't know about that common endowment in its particularities, particularly its context dependence in the course of early development.

We also know its core functions (and competencies) are a good deal older than 10K or 50K years old, so we're really arguing about relatively recent refinements of those capacities with almost any of this grammar-specific exaltation of the language faculty (as if we knew the boundaries of that faculty either in the past or in the future, or for that matter in the present, my own interest being the amusing distinction science still wants to make between music and language).

Speaking as the wrong kind of linguist, it's the differences that are both interesting and informative.
posted by fourcheesemac at 7:43 AM on April 16, 2011


As I understand it, the standard answer is that you can't prove such a claim with the methods that linguists use.
Well that's what's interesting here. This guy used statistical techniques developed to study genetics, and applied it to language. In fact, the author of the paper is a biologist, not a linguist. Very interesting.
posted by delmoi at 8:27 AM on April 16, 2011 [4 favorites]


Or: once you've proved it, so what? We already know that modern humans all have the same cognitive and perceptual capacities, and are only disputing the relative modularity and context dependence of those faculties.
You don't think it's interesting that at one point all humans spoke the same language, or that all languages descended from the same root, as opposed to people developing different languages in different places?
posted by delmoi at 8:29 AM on April 16, 2011 [1 favorite]


The BBC Article on this subject is interesting.
posted by marienbad at 8:39 AM on April 16, 2011


It's also possible that as language developed, human brains evolved as well in tandem. There is a feedback effect between cultural evolution and genetic evolution.
posted by delmoi at 8:41 AM on April 16, 2011 [1 favorite]


You don't think it's interesting that at one point all humans spoke the same language, or that all languages descended from the same root, as opposed to people developing different languages in different places?

The first part of this statement is an misinterpretation of the second part.

The study only claims to show that all existing languages share a common origin. There very well could have been multiple independent evolutions of languages. The study simply claims that only one of those survived the linguistic bottleneck(s) out of Africa.
posted by DavidandConquer at 8:44 AM on April 16, 2011 [3 favorites]


See also a recent and relevant languagehat.
posted by RGD at 9:54 AM on April 16, 2011


See, black all people talk like this.
posted by Halloween Jack at 10:30 AM on April 16, 2011


You don't think it's interesting that at one point all humans spoke the same language, or that all languages descended from the same root, as opposed to people developing different languages in different places

First, what DavidandConquer said. Second, of course it's *interesting,* but it is ultimately a) speculative in all but broad outlines, and b) otherwise trivially obvious as the best explanation, and c) a secondary and relatively recent example of the common mental endowment of all modern humans. So I find this kind of thing interesting, of course, but I don't see why claims such as this generate such heated debate. They're speculative, but proving them definitively would not change the modern scientific understanding of the brain, of language, of culture, or of hominid evolution. It would in fact be entirely consistent with what we already know.
posted by fourcheesemac at 10:46 AM on April 16, 2011


How far back can snarky comments be traced?
posted by Postroad at 10:55 AM on April 16, 2011 [2 favorites]


>How far back can snarky comments be traced?

SCENE 1: THE DAWN OF MAN

UG points to UGATHA and tells the young UGLET:

"Mu-tha! Muuu-tha!"

UGLET mouths the word. "Muuuu.... tha. Muuutha. Mother!"

UGATHA simpers. UG beams.

UG: "Your mother!"

UGLET pauses. "Nah, YOUR mother."

SCENE TWO: THE INTERNET, NOW AND FOR EVER...
posted by Devonian at 11:54 AM on April 16, 2011


> The author took a gigantic leap and tried to pinpoint the origins of language to 50,000 years ago while the standard in academia was to pinpoint it to about 10,000 years ago.

That summary's not quite right. The techniques of historical linguistics, which rely on similarities of vocabulary, affixes, grammatical structure and reconstructible sound changes, can't trace the relationships between languages any further than 10,000 years, if that. That doesn't mean that languages and language families whose relationships with other languages can't be established aren't distantly related somehow; it's just that once you go back far enough you run out of data to work with.

The idea that language is universal human capacity, and that people who migrated out of Africa or stayed there in early human history must have spoken languages, and that modern human languages evolved from those is not controversial or revolutionary.

Atkinson's method of demonstrating a common assumption was neat, though. As I understand it, African languages have more phonemic diversity than languages in other regions, analogous to the greater genetic diversity in African populations, supporting the idea that human languages started diverging there earlier and have diverged more there than in other areas.

(Of course, i haven't read the original article since it's behind a paywall.)
posted by nangar at 12:26 PM on April 16, 2011


That summary's not quite right. The techniques of historical linguistics, which rely on similarities of vocabulary, affixes, grammatical structure and reconstructible sound changes, can't trace the relationships between languages any further than 10,000 years, if that. That doesn't mean that languages and language families whose relationships with other languages can't be established aren't distantly related somehow; it's just that once you go back far enough you run out of data to work with.

(Of course, i haven't read the original article since it's behind a paywall.)

?!?
posted by hal_c_on at 12:40 PM on April 16, 2011


Atkinson's method of demonstrating a common assumption was neat, though. As I understand it, African languages have more phonemic diversity than languages in other regions, analogous to the greater genetic diversity in African populations, supporting the idea that human languages started diverging there earlier and have diverged more there than in other areas.

Bingo! And that's just friggin' cool.

This Science paper essentially recapitulates (in reverse) other studies that show that the immense amount of African genetic variation nevertheless correlates with language/culture.

It's one of those correlations that makes intuitive sense in hindsight, but which nobody thought possible until it was proven.
posted by DavidandConquer at 1:17 PM on April 16, 2011


Well that's what's interesting here. This guy used statistical techniques developed to study genetics, and applied it to language. In fact, the author of the paper is a biologist, not a linguist. Very interesting.

Historical linguistics and biology actually have a long history of using similar methods. Interestingly, both fields (as well as textual criticism and other forms of genealogical reconstruction) face similar issues in constructing trees where the historical record is imperfect and horizontal transfer between lineages is commonplace.
posted by GeorgeBickham at 1:37 PM on April 16, 2011 [1 favorite]


Mark Liberman on Language Log has posted a fairly detailed article about Atkinson's paper.
This paper's premises are intriguing, if far from obvious, and its results are pretty compelling ,,, However, I have some concerns about what lies in between the assumptions and the results, especially concerning the way "Total Phoneme Diversity" is estimated.

Many such features are "areal" — spread over geographical areas of related (and even unrelated) languages, and also spread over local descriptive practices among linguists. The areas in question often approach continental size, and thus these phenomena (and our choices about how to code them) can have a big influence on the outcome of algorithms that look for world-wide clines in the "diversity" measures that result from these choices.
posted by nangar at 5:54 AM on April 17, 2011


By the way: Supporting online material for "Phonemic Diversity Supports a Serial Founder Effect Model of Language Expansion from Africa" [pdf] (39 pages).
posted by nangar at 6:40 AM on April 17, 2011


Richard Sproat's response (via languagehat).
How large could any single population of humans speaking the same language have been prior to 10K BP? If we are very generous and assume that the distribution of languages was similar to today ... then maybe 100K speakers.

But who seriously believes that there were any groups of 100K speakers of a single language at such an early date? Prior to 10K BP, humans lived in hunter-gatherer societies, not the larger settled communities that formed after agriculture, let alone what one saw after the foundation of cities. For such societies very small groups are the norm. Would we expect to see any groups that had populations of more than a few hundred or a few thousand? ... if the norm for most languages was indeed a few thousand speakers at a maximum, then all languages in the earliest periods would be tiny.

Another issue is that Atkinson's model assumes that we are talking about loss of inventory when populations get smaller ...
posted by nangar at 7:10 AM on April 17, 2011


I clicked through on that "african origin" link because I've heard about this before (click languages probably being the most like a language they all descended from), in John McWhorter's TTC linguistics lectures. Those lectures predate this finding. The article's author? John McWhorter.
posted by DU at 5:09 AM on April 19, 2011


I am also a fan of the McWhorter lectures for TTC!

I think this study is flawed. The founder effect kind of assumes that diversity in a population decreases as it propogates. Language doesn't seem to do that. I think language grows more diversified as it evolves.
posted by illuminatus at 9:08 PM on May 15, 2011


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