Thursday, February 16, 2012

Was language born in Africa? Maybe not.

Atkinson based his claim on a comparative analysis of the numbers of phonemes found in about 500 present-day languages. Phonemes are the most basic sound units -- consonants, vowels and tones -- that form the basis of semantic differentiation in all languages. The number of phonemes used in natural languages varies widely. Atkinson, who is a biologist and psychologist by training, found that the highest levels of phoneme diversity occurred in languages spoken in southwestern Africa. Furthermore, according to his statistical analysis, the size of the phoneme inventory in a language tends to decrease with distance from this hotspot...

For example, he finds that if Atkinson's method is employed to examine other aspects of language, such as the construction of subordinate clauses or the use of the passive mood, the results "do not point in the same direction." Indeed, in their article in Science, Cysouw and his coauthors Steven Moran (LMU) and Dan Dediu of the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics in Nijmegen show that, depending on the features considered, Atkinson's method places the site of origin of language in eastern Africa or the Caucasus or somewhere else entirely. As Cysouw points out, linguists have long sought to throw light on the origin of language by analyzing patterns of language distribution. The problem is that such relationships can be reliably traced only as far back as about 10,000 years before the present.

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