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Last Update: 2012-03-09   Source: Research Headlines
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Study counters 'cradle of language' theory

Most researchers believe that the origins of human language are found in Africa, in particular the south-west part of the continent. But a new study from the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München (LMU) in Germany counters this belief, claiming there is not enough data to support the 'out of Africa' hypothesis. The research is backed by the QUANTHISTLING ('Quantitative modelling of historical-comparative linguistics') project, which is funded by a European Research Council (ERC) Starting Grant worth EUR 1.93 million as part of the EU's Seventh Framework Programme (FP7). The findings of the study, presented in the journal Science, indicate that the search for the site of the origin of language is still on.

Out of Africa? © Shutterstock
Out of Africa?
©  Shutterstock

In 2011, Quentin Atkinson of Auckland University in New Zealand suggested that language originated in the south-west of Africa. Dr Atkinson based his theory on a comparative analysis of the numbers of phonemes found in about 500 present-day languages. Phonemes are the most basic sound units - i.e. consonants, vowels and tones - that establish semantic differentiation in all languages. Phonemes are used in natural languages, and they are many in number. The Auckland researcher had discovered that the highest levels of phoneme diversity occurred in languages spoken in south-western Africa. He also found that the size of the phoneme inventory in a language usually shrinks the further it is found from this area of Africa.

Dr Atkinson used a parallel from population genetics to shed light on what he found. Scientists have found an analogous effect with respect to human genetic diversity, and how the latter progressively decreases the further it is from Africa. Experts call this the 'founder effect'. The more people left Africa, the more the total genetic diversity present in the African population as a whole started to shrink.

But LMU's Dr Cysouw and his colleagues demonstrate that ascertaining the site of language origin is contingent on the features that are taken into account. So, according to them, while the cradle of language may well be traced to Africa, it could just as likely be found anywhere else across the globe.


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