Origin of language – Genetics determines it may have begun in Africa

Origin of language - picture of Saharan Africa

The origin of language has eluded us for a long time, yet the search has driven scientists and linguists for millennia. Now, one linguist believes he has finally found the answer. Using a technique based on the study of animal genetics, he thinks that language was first invented in sub-Saharan Africa.

Has the origin of language been discovered?

Linguist Dr Quentin Atkinson has applied a principle of genetics to the study of phonemes, the building blocks that make up language, to work back towards an origin point in Africa.

The main principle in genetics that he used is that the further a population moves from its origin, the less diverse its genes will be. Applying this to phonemes, Dr Atkinson found that languages originating further from Africa had fewer phonemes.

While African languages that use clicks can have over 100 phonemes, English only has 45. Even farther still, Hawaii has only 13.

Dr Atkinson and his team believe that this shows us that language originated in Africa.

Not everyone agrees though

As is often the case with theories like this, there are differing views. Michael Cysouw and Dan Dediu published a journal in response to the theory saying that if you look at other aspects of language than phonemes, such as subordinate clauses like “when I looked at it,” a different outcome is the result.

However, Dr Atkinson believes that his cross-disciplinary approach to linguistics will continue to yield promising results.

Why is this important?

The origin of language is important to the study of linguistics because we know that language evolves. That’s why learning a language such as French can make it easier to learn similar languages, like Spanish or Italian. You can trace the roots of many languages back to the same origins.

If you’re interested in learning a new language for work, study, professional development and socialising, contact All Languages and ask about our language learning courses.

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