Kiwi's mother of language discovery creates stir

02:55, Apr 15 2011
A South African Khoisan, the earliest inhabitants of Africa's southern tip.
EARLY SETTLER: A South African Khoisan, the earliest inhabitants of Africa's southern tip.

A New Zealand evolutionary psychologist has created a scientific sensation by claiming to have discovered the mother of all mother tongues.

But Quentin Atkinson of the University of Auckland has now sparked turmoil in the academic world with his idea - published in the prestigious journal Science -  of using a unique computer programme to work out what was the first and founding language.

New Scientist in their report say Atkinson is creating a stir by claiming to work out languages from the dawn of humanity.

"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."

Atkinson said the world's 6000 languages descended from a single ancestral tongue spoken by early southern African humans between 50,000 and 70,000 years ago. The Mother of all Mother Tongues is known as Khoisan, a family of the Kalahari Bushmen click language.

By studying the sounds made in 504 modern languages, Atkinson said he had found an ancient signal in them.

For linguists the controversial part was not so much the location of the first language, but the implication that modern language only emerged once.

Atkinson looked at phonemes, distinct units of sound such as vowels, consonants and tones.

For example, the English words "rip" and "lip" differ by a single phoneme, one corresponding to the letter "r" and the other to the letter "l".

Atkinson found that languages with the most phonemes were spoken in Africa, while those with the fewest phonemes were spoken in South America and in Polynesia.

Areas in sub-Saharan Africa, where human life has existed for thousands of years, had more phonemes than more recently colonized regions do.

Some of the click-using languages of Africa had more than 100 phonemes, while Hawaii, New Zealand Maori and other Polynesian languages had only 13.

English had 45 phonemes.

The Wall Street Journal said Atkinson's theory was being hailed.

"It's a wonderful contribution and another piece of the mosaic,” Ekkehard Wolff, professor emeritus of African Languages and Linguistics at the University of Leipzig in Germany, told the WSJ.

The New York Times said Atkinson's work fits well with the evidence from fossil skulls and DNA that modern humans originated in Africa.

NYT said detection of such an ancient signal in language was surprising.

Because words change so rapidly, many linguists think that languages cannot be traced very far back in time. The oldest language tree so far reconstructed, that of the Indo-European family, which includes English, goes back 9,000 years at most.

NYT said the work was causing fierce debate among academics but the latest paper had won support.

“I think we ought to take this seriously, although there are some who will dismiss it out of hand,” Brian Joseph, a linguist at Ohio State University told the newspaper.

Another linguist, Donald Ringe of the University of Pennsylvania said: “It's too early to tell if Atkinson's idea is correct, but if so it's one of the most interesting articles in historical linguistics that I've seen in a decade.”

The Economist has given extensive coverage to Atkinson today, saying the obvious place to look for the mother tongue was Africa.

“And, to cut a long story short, it is to Africa that Dr Atkinson does trace things. In doing so, he knocks on the head any lingering suggestion that language originated more than once.”

Science Now quoted Robin Dunbar, a psychologist at the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom, calling Atkinson's study a "really novel approach" that overcomes the limitations of earlier studies.

"The key to this was using phoneme diversity rather than words or grammar."

Bart de Boer, a linguist at the University of Amsterdam, adds that the paper "looks methodologically quite sound."

But he said he was surprised that phonemes can be used to trace language evolution so far back in time — and that over the course of tens of thousands of years phoneme diversities in far-flung areas of the world have not "drifted back to the sizes found in Africa" because cultural evolution of phonemes is "much faster than genetic evolution."

De Boer said that he would be happy if the paper turned out to be correct, but researchers must first be sure that its conclusions were not "caused by some methodological artefact we have all missed."


Quentin Atkinson
LANGUAGE MAN: Quentin Atkinson.