The mother of all languages?

I keep a fairly close eye on where New Zealand science is covered in the international press.

So it was good then to see University of Auckland psychology lecturer Dr Quentin Atkinson featured in the Wall Street Journal and other major news outlets for his paper published in Science last week which suggests that our modern languages may have all descended from a single ancestral tongue spoken by early Africans between 50,000 and 70,000 years ago.

The research is a bit controversial as are many of the theories put forward by evolutionary psychologists because they are often difficult to test properly. Atkinson computer modelled 504 modern languages, looking specifically at the number of phonemes – distinct units of sound, that are included in each language.

He found that the further away from Africa he went in search of language, the less phonemes the language had – Pacific island languages had the least, as did South American languages.

As the WSJ explains:

His research is based on phonemes, distinct units of sound such as vowels, consonants and tones, and an idea borrowed from population genetics known as “the founder effect.” That principle holds that when a very small number of individuals break off from a larger population, there is a gradual loss of genetic variation and complexity in the breakaway group.

Dr. Atkinson figured that if a similar founder effect could be discerned in phonemes, it would support the idea that modern verbal communication originated on that continent and only then expanded elsewhere.

The idea is that languages tend to start out with more sounds in them, then become less complex as people migrate away and settle in smaller groups.

The research results mirror those reported in the world of genetics with analyses showing that African populations have higher genetic diversity than European, Asian and American populations. But some scientists are wary of settling on the mother tongue theory given the diaspora out of Africa happened so long ago.

Merritt Ruhlen, an expert on the evolution of human languages at Stanford University, California told New Scientist:

“Most linguists do not think it’s possible to trace linguistic history past 10,000 years. There is a lot of anger and tension surrounding that kind of analysis.”

Which is why the Dominion Post on Saturday described Atkinson as having been “thrust into a global media storm” with the publication of his Science paper.


In a separate article on Stuff, Michael Field covered some of the other sceptical comments from scientists such as Bart de Boer, a linguist at the University of Amsterdam.

“…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.'”

Atkinson for his part seems unfazed by the reaction. He told the Dominion Post:

“… I thought it would attract attention and I’m glad it has.”

An infographic from the Wall Street Journal that illustrates the change in linguistic diversity as you move out of Africa.

Source: Wall Street Journal
Source: Wall Street Journal


  1. bradluen

    Link to the paper for those with a sub:

    The one weird thing is that he has points that are over 25,000 km from Africa (Fig. 3), which is more than half a great circle. Maybe he’s using something like migration distance but I didn’t see anything in the article to that effect (I read it in ten minutes, so I might have missed something).

  2. Falafulu Fisi

    I haven’t read Dr Quentin Atkinson’s paper (just for curiosity only), but I suspect that his work (with colleagues) is similar to the work by the authors shown in the paper below, although the paper below only simulates the competition between different existing languages.

    “Sociophysics Simulations : Language Competition”

    Dr Quentin Atkinson’s coauthor Prof. Mark Pagel for their paper, Languages evolve in punctuational bursts (theme of this blog post), his work is cited in the paper above.

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