Wednesday, 20 April 2011

Phonetic Hints towards Language Origins

An article was published in Science and covered in the New York Times on April 14th.  Entitled, "Phonetic Clues Hint Language Is Africa-Born", I was understandably intrigued!!  Here is the online coverage:

Two young girls from Kalahari, Namibia. 
San is one of the languages famous for its 'clicks'
I haven't read the article published in Science yet, so maybe I shoud withold my judgements... but any theory that makes claims about the specific characteristics of an ancestral language farther back than 10,000 years makes me brace for a lot of skepticism!

The article in the Times says, "Quentin D. Atkinson, a biologist at the University of Auckland in New Zealand, has shattered this time barrier, if his claim is correct, by looking not at words but at phonemes — the consonants, vowels and tones that are the simplest elements of language.  Dr. Atkinson, an expert at applying mathematical methods to linguistics, has found a simple but striking pattern in some 500 languages spoken throughout the world: A language area uses fewer phonemes the farther that early humans had to travel from Africa to reach it."

But surely this can't always be the case - there are quite a few language areas that have considerably high phonemic inventories, for example the Northwest Coast of North America, and the Caucasian mountain regions.  The African Continent is covered mainly by very large language families, with a few isolates.  I was looking through some papers on African Language Diversity, and this one here: speaks of 10, which isn't very much when I wouldn't be suprised if North America, a continent that has been populated by a speaking species for only a tiny fraction of the time, probably can equal or succeed that number (I'm guessing, I haven't checked!)

To me Africa looks like a continent that has had major language shifts and growths over so many millenia that looking back in time to try and retrieve information on the first languages spoken and what they sounded like, or what phonemes they contained - seems very far fetched to me.  But then again, this is coming from someone who has not yet read the article.  Or the abstract for that matter.  That is great science.  Anyhoo, here is a link to the abstract (which I have yet to read):

1 comment:

  1. Good discussion of the article is here. Also Language Log reviews it.
    It's not all that.


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