Mother of All Mother Tongues

by Translation Guy on May 9, 2011

70,000 years ago (give or take a few tens of thousands of years), something happened to human beings. We started wearing clothing (to judge from the emergence of body lice) and started doing art and making much more sophisticated tools (to judge from the stuff we tossed to the floor of our cozy cave homes). And we started talking to each other. Many experts argue that this creative growth spurt was enabled by the emergence of complex language, which made abstract thought possible. But while the effect of language seems evident, evidence of the spoken word leaves no bones for bone diggers to dig up.

No one speaks this first language anymore, since over the last 2000 generations thousands of different languages have emerged from this hypothetical ancestral tongue.  Evolutionary pressures have morphed into a mosaic of thousands of divergent languages, the situation of the present world, argues Nicholas Wade in Before the Dawn (highly recommended).

“Most linguists use changes in words or grammatical structures to try to track language evolution. The English word ‘brother,’ for example, translates as bhrater in Sanskrit, brathir in Old Irish, frater in Latin, and phrater in Greek. These differences can be used to reconstruct the ancient words that gave rise to these modern ones. But unlike genes, these cultural units cannot be traced back far enough to distinguish patterns of language change much earlier than about 6500 years ago.” So no proof.

Now Quentin Atkinson, an evolutionary psychologist at the University of Auckland, may have found the smoking gun in the different sounds we humans use to speak in different tongues.

As recently reported by Gautam Naik in the WSJ, Atkinson’s “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.

“In an analysis of 504 world languages, Dr. Atkinson found that, on average, dialects with the most phonemes are spoken in Africa, while those with the fewest phonemes are spoken in South America and on tropical islands in the Pacific.

“The study also found that the pattern of phoneme usage globally mirrors the pattern of human genetic diversity, which also declined as modern humans set up colonies elsewhere. Today, areas such as sub-Saharan Africa that have hosted human life for millennia still use far more phonemes in their languages than more recently colonized regions do.”

Atkinson believes that the first migrants out of Africa took their single language with them, which then multiplied linguistically as these African outcasts multiplied on their own.

Language “was the catalyst that spurred the human expansion that we all are a product of,” says Atkinson.


  1. Gary Cohen says:

    I am wondering how the study of meme may give more insight into the growth, shifting and sorting of languages? Thoughts? Gary

  2. Jules says:

    Wade’s human timeline has us becoming “anatomically modern” 100,000 years ago, acquiring language sometime thereafter, with a pioneer group of 150 or so individuals emigrating out of Africa to displace Neanderthals and other archaic humans around 50,000 years ago. These timelines are later than other writers have posited. It raises the question, what is language? Wade sees it as the essential tool for communicating culture: the acquired knowledge, toolmaking skills, religion and social skills that made it possible for humankind to transcend the hunter-gatherer style of life.

  3. Gogie says:

    Given the complexity of the human language apparatus, I am confident there was a lot going on with language earlier than Wade would have us believe.

    • Ken says:

      And language is only the latest channel in our communications tool kit. I’ve got a post on that coming up.

  4. Fraser says:

    Hi Ken, I am also fascinated by discussions regarding the evolution of languages, and most especially by the idea that early humans were not necessarily peaceful, dumb, and happy and that only in the past few thousand years have we learned the fine arts of warfare.

  5. Freddie says:

    You liked this novel? Ken, you NEED to check out Pinker’s “The Language Instinct” and “The Blank Slate.”

  6. James says:

    Wow, this post is heavy Ken.

  7. Jules says:

    Scientists have traced back remnants of the original language men spoke to two African tribes, Hadza and !Kung speakers, two of the most ancient populations in the world. How cool.

LiveZilla Live Chat Software