Origins

Language May Have Emerged in Africa

A biologist at the University of Auckland in New Zealand may have found that human language first emerged in southern Africa. Quentin D. Atkinson analyzed the sounds in language—the consonants, vowels, and tones that are its simplest elements—and found that they became less diverse the further they were from Africa. This fits with the way genetic diversity is believed to operate: as small groups break off from larger ones, populations become less genetically diverse the farther they are from the original source population. Some of the click-using languages of Africa have more than 100 sounds, or phonemes, whereas Hawaiian, at a far point on the human migration route, uses only 13. Linguists have generally dismissed any claims to have found traces of language older than 10,000 years, “but this paper comes closest to convincing me that this type of research is possible,” said Martin Haspelmath, a linguist at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology.