African Languages origins of the Rest?

Quentin Atkinson of the University of Auckland, New Zealand, has done a computer analysis of certain sounds (phonemes) in about 500 languages, and concludes that all of them likely descended from African tongues. African languages, like African human genetic endowments, are the richest in diversity. A greater diversity of phonemes in African languages and less diversity in diaspora languages (with the least being the Polynesian languages) would make sense if humans brought language out with them when they exited Africa 50,000 to 70,000 years ago.

The New Scientist notes that many historical linguists reject Atkinson’s conclusions. Those who use ‘glotto-chronology’ or the study of how fast languages change, believe that there is a 10,000-year barrier to studying language relatedness. Let us say you had a band of people 10,000 years ago in Central Asia. Let us say that they split, and some went to India, and others went to Europe. Their languages would then evolve independently. After 10,000 years they would have changed so much that the similarities between them would be reduced to the same level as random chance. So you can’t prove them related any more, because while there might be some related words or cognates, they cannot be scientifically demonstrated to be such.

Atkinson took a detour around this roadblock by a quantitative approach, in which he used diversity of phonemes as a proxy for ancientness. Me, I think it makes perfect sense that most languages originally evolved in what is now Africa, along with homo sapiens sapiens itself.

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5 Responses

  1. Ge’ez (ግዕዝ, Gəʿəz [ɡɨʕɨz]; also transliterated Gi’iz, and less precisely called Ethiopic) is an ancient South Semitic language that developed in the northern region of Ethiopia and southern Eritrea in the Horn of Africa. It later became the official language of the Kingdom of Aksum and Ethiopian imperial court.
    there is linguistic evidence of Semitic languages being spoken in Eritrea and Ethiopia since at least 2000 BC.

  2. How does a computer analyse sounds?

    maybe the value of the phonemes IS sounds, and therefore whether ‘sounds’ is African.

  3. The technique Atkinson used is analogous to that used by molecular biologists. Diversity of base pair variation is greatest in sub-Saharan Africa, strongly suggestive of an older population group there. But I wonder about the statistical strength of Atkinson’s inter-population calculations using variations amongst 100 phonemes, as compared with genome-based calculations using variations amongst a bit over 3 billion base pairs.

  4. Juan, it sounds like the question is can the the timewindow to determine if two languages are related be pushed back that far? Is Atkinson’s new technique a breakthrough in this regards? Just because the conclusion is plausible does not imply that the method works.

  5. First of all, I apologize for my bad English, which is not my mother language, but I hope I can still make myself clear.

    This theory does not hold water for several reasons: as already pointed out by someone, the number of exceptions is so big, e.g. the paucity of phonemes of Spanish compared to Portuguese, although there are at the same distance from Africa.

    Indeed, by studying history, we realize that Spanish has lost phonemes because of a sort of law of the lowest common denominator between variants of the same language.

    1) I can think of a mechanism by which the number of phonemes increases.

    In some Indian villages, there are two different ethnic groups who speak completely different languages. The inhabitants are fully bilingual when dealing with people speaking the different language.

    In some villages, each language has borrowed heavily for the other. Suppose, for example, that there were originally 50 phonemes in each language, with only 20 in common. Suppose that after a few hundreds of years the original languages were lost. A visitor today, would find a village where they speak a single language, with 20 +30 +30 = 80 phonemes

    But there would be nothing particularly “ancient” in the language of the deriving “rich” language, therefore the lack of knowledge of the history that has produced such a language means a lack of understanding of the situation.

    2) It is a blatant misunderstanding for another reason.

    Europeans, Asians etc. do not descend from “Africans”, whatever the number of phonemes “Africans” can speak.

    We are descended from a small group of perhaps a hundred individuals who crossed the Red Sea and spread to Asia and Europe etc. FROM A WELL-DEFINED EAST AFRICAN REGION, PROBABLY IN THE AREA OF ETHIOPIA.

    Therefore, what matters is only the language they spoke there, not the ones they could speak for example in Mali or Uganda or in the Kalahari.

    Just to say something about making up researches to demonstrate a pre-conceived theory.

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