Where And When Did Language Begin?

The origin of spoken language has stumped linguistics dating as far back as the Twenty-sixth dynasty in Egypt and the first recorded language experiment conducted by a Pharaoh named Psammetichus I. While it is widely understood that our ability to communicate through speech sets us apart from other animals, language experts, historians and scientists can only hypothesize how, where and when it all began. Some new findings may provide some real insight into this conundrum.

A recent study conducted by Quentin D. Atkinson, a biologist at the University of Auckland in New Zealand, suggests two very important findings: language originated only once, and the specific place of origin may be southwestern Africa.

While most studies focus on words in order to trace the birth of modern language, Atkinson zeroed in on phonemes (the basic distinctive units of sound by which words are represented) of over 500 languages around the world. By applying mathematical methods to linguistics, Atkinson discovered that the further humans traveled from Africa, the fewer number of phonemes survived.

To put this into perspective: Many African click languages or “click consonants,” found in all three Khoisan language families, have more than 100 phonemes while the languages of Oceania, the spoken language of the Pacific Islands, Papua New Guinea and New Zealand – the latter being the furthest migration route out of Africa, have only 13. The Modern English language has approximately 45 phonemes.

Atkinson’s findings challenge a long-held belief by linguistics that the origin of spoken language only dates back some 10,000 years. Atkinson hints that if African populations began their dispersal from Africa to Asia and Europe 60,000 years ago, perhaps the spoken language had to exist around that time and, as Atkinson hints at, may have been the catalyst for their dispersion and subsequent migration.

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