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Science

All Languages Linked To Common Source 318

Posted by Soulskill
from the mitochondrial-chomsky dept.
Old Wolf writes "A New Zealand evolutionary psychologist, Quentin Atkinson, has created a scientific sensation by claiming to have discovered the mother of all mother tongues. 'Dr Atkinson took 504 languages and plotted the number of phonemes in each (corrected for recent population growth, when significant) against the distance between the place where the language is spoken and 2,500 putative points of origin, scattered across the world (abstract). The relationship that emerges suggests the actual point of origin is in central or southern Africa, and that all modern languages do, indeed, have a common root." Reader NotSanguine points out another study which challenges the idea that the brain is more important to the structure of language than cultural evolution.
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All Languages Linked To Common Source

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  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday April 15, 2011 @10:53AM (#35828680)

    Humans!

    • No, Chimps! Eventually we'll confirm all technology has been fueled by "monkey see, monkey do" all along, and the human ego will deflate sufficiently to enable us to take our rightful place as just another species of great ape, albeit one that gets rather big for its britches periodically.
      • by gnick (1211984)

        A very wise man once pronounced:

        "For millions of years, mankind lived just like the animals. Then something happened that unleashed the power of the imagination. We learned to talk."

        Must have been Ghandi or Jesus or someone.

        • by Dunbal (464142) *
          It's also completely wrong. The ability to talk is innate in humans. Whatever our non-talking evolutionary ancestor was, it was NOT human and unable to talk like we do today. It's not that "man" suddenly got smart and wised up one day, but rather a new, wiser species was born and was immediately able to communicate better than its precursor, even if this early language was not as efficient and full of concepts as language is today.
          • by Raffaello (230287) on Friday April 15, 2011 @12:33PM (#35829994)

            The whole point of TFA is that this may well not be the case. It may well be the case that language is not the product of hard wired wetware, sometimes known as "the Language Instinct," but is rather the product of:

            1. general symbolic intelligence, i.e., thought, coupled with:

            2. the ability to make more complex sounds, due to a vocal tract modified from anthropoid ape ancestors by the shift of the relative positions of neck and head brought on by bipedalism, and:

            3. cultural transmission, i.e., the ability to pass language on to the next generation due to the long childhood dependency of humans which, in turn, came about because our large heads won't fit through the birth canal at full size, so we are all effectively born premature - unable to walk, or even effectively grasp our mother's hair and cling to her.

            Therefore, it is quite possible that once our ancestors developed sufficiently large and complex brains to think with more logical sophistication than, for example chimpanzees, we slowly over time dveloped more and more complex languages until we reached a plateau, specifically, the limit of children under the age of 6 or 7 to understand and learn the basic grammar and vocabulary of the language.

            Any increased grammatical complexity beyond this point would immediately die out since the next generation could not learn it during childhood. Once this plateau was reached, presumably in southern Africa ca. 200,000 years ago, our ancestors had the cognitive "killer app," i.e., modern human language, that allowed them to successfully radiate across the planet.

          • by MBGMorden (803437) on Friday April 15, 2011 @12:48PM (#35830180)

            Communication isn't "talking" though. Lots of animals can communicate - a pre-defined verbal code however is something else entirely. Also, there are plenty of documented cases where an infant was separated from human contact and never learned to talk. Here's the kicker: research of these individuals has shown that for the most part, if you don't learn to to speak before aged 5 or 6, it's a skill that simply cannot be developed. The most that these people could ever master was a few broken words.

      • by morgauxo (974071)
        Sure! All species equally have sent members of their own and others into space, built great telescopes to discover there are other worlds out there and to observe the CMBR and discover the origin of the universe. They have all cured many diseases and altered their environment to the point of allowing them to live pretty much anywhere on or in the Earth.

        Humans aren't special at all!
        • by Eunuchswear (210685) on Friday April 15, 2011 @11:53AM (#35829420) Journal

          altered their environment to the point of allowing them to live pretty much anywhere on or in the Earth.

          That'd be the green plants, you know, the ones that released huge quantities of a poisonous gas, destroying 98% of life on earth.

          Humans are pathetic by comparison.

          • by ArcherB (796902) on Friday April 15, 2011 @12:15PM (#35829758) Journal

            altered their environment to the point of allowing them to live pretty much anywhere on or in the Earth.

            That'd be the green plants, you know, the ones that released huge quantities of a poisonous gas, destroying 98% of life on earth.

            Humans are pathetic by comparison.

            Awesome post! Please allow me to elaborate for those that didn't get it.

            Oxygen IS pollution produced by photosynthesizing organisms. Before plants, the earths atmosphere was radically different than it is today. There was almost no free oxygen in our atmosphere. Once life began to photosynthesize for energy, oxygen was released as a byproduct of that process, just as CO2 is a byproduct of our respiration. Oxygen is actually plant pollution. That pollution killed off nearly all of the early life on earth, radically changed the climate, and gave rise to what we have today.

            So it appears that releasing gas that fundamentally changes the atmosphere is a completely natural, 100% organic function. If anything, by driving SUV's we are actually restoring our planet to it's natural, original condition before photosynthesis came along and screwed it all up!

            Eat that, GW hippies!

            • by cobrausn (1915176)
              Heh... When I read your sig all I hear in my head is 'Don't mod me down, bro!'.
        • by Jawnn (445279)

          Sure! All species equally have sent members of their own and others into space, built great telescopes to discover there are other worlds out there and to observe the CMBR and discover the origin of the universe. They have all cured many diseases and altered their environment to the point of allowing them to live pretty much anywhere on or in the Earth.

          You say that like it's a good thing.

  • by Eunuchswear (210685) on Friday April 15, 2011 @10:54AM (#35828694) Journal

    Everybody knows the original language is English, as used by God to write the Bible.

    • "If the King James Bible is good enough for Jee-sus, it's good enough for me!"
  • What about that other research that was done a while ago, that confirmed that not all languages follow the same mental rules ? Or maybe that came later ? My memory on this is a bit sketchy, but it is interesting to see if these 2 findings can influence the result of the other.
  • by Compaqt (1758360) on Friday April 15, 2011 @10:56AM (#35828710) Homepage

    OK, this'll sound corny, but here goes:

    People are divided up into all sorts of races/subraces/cultures/subcultures. As humanity has developed people have "specialized" into straight hair/curly hair/kinky hair, big/small noses, different colors, etc. But all evidence available so far seems to indicate a common genetic (and now linguistic) origin of man.

    Hopefully, we'll be able to get our act together and stop blowing each other up (and also unite against a common enemy - government/power elites).

    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by Anonymous Coward

      I wouldn't read too much into it.

      We also share a common genetic origin with mushrooms.

    • by gnick (1211984) on Friday April 15, 2011 @11:12AM (#35828850) Homepage

      Hopefully, we'll be able to get our act together and stop blowing each other up (and also unite against a common enemy - government/power elites).

      Just because two people share some distant, obscure ancestor doesn't mean they won't try to kill each other. Heck, even if they share the same parents it doesn't always stop them. If we want people to stop blowing each other up, unfortunately we need something better than family ties.

      • by dkleinsc (563838)

        Just because two people share some distant, obscure ancestor doesn't mean they won't try to kill each other. Heck, even if they share the same parents it doesn't always stop them.

        I'm just imagining how much trouble could have been prevented if Abraham had just said to Ishmael and Isaac "If you don't stop bickering I'm going to pull this camel over right now!"

        As far as how to stop people from blowing each other up, the only way I can think of is to run out of explosives, although you can also limit things by convincing the top leadership of any group considering blowing something up that it is their solemn duty to go serve in the front lines. This would especially take care of groups

    • by Kjella (173770)

      I'm not sure what the logic you're trying to apply here is. That we have a common origin doesn't mean that we at any point have been united, since the first sibling rivalry we've fought man against man - and monkey against monkey before that, tribe against tribe, city against city, nation against nation, empire against empire. The strong have survived, the weak have been eradicated. When we've stood together it is usually because outside forces have threatened us all, an alliance of need not unity.

      Hopefully, we'll be able to get our act together and stop blowing each other up (and also unite against a common enemy - government/power elites).

      I don't s

  • by thomasdz (178114) on Friday April 15, 2011 @10:56AM (#35828712)

    I didn't RTFA since, after all, I am on Slashdot.... but I didn't realize that Fortran & C were both part of the Algol language family.

    • by TWX (665546)

      But they clearly are not derived from the mother tongue, they *must* have been written by aliens.

      Have you seen the syntax they expect? We're being sabotaged, I tell you!

      • by amper (33785)

        Of course all programming languages came from alien sources. All our computing technology came from outer space. Otherwise, how could Jeff Goldblum have written a virus and uploaded it to the alien mothership, thereby saving the entire human race?

    • by gnick (1211984)

      I didn't RTFA since, after all, I am on Slashdot.... but I didn't realize that Fortran & C were both part of the Algol language family.

      Nope, Algol is a descendent from FORTRAN loins. Here's a nifty graphic describing the family tree:
      http://www.levenez.com/lang/lang_letter.pdf [levenez.com]

      • Levenez is a Johnny come lately.

        Go back to the original scripture of Jean Sammet: "Computer Languages: History and Fundamentals" for the lowdown.

        Notice that Levenez doesn't have Autocode (1952) in a spurious attempt to bolster the FORTRAN heresy.

    • No, Fortran and Algol are clearly evidence of separate evolution (I mean, Algol, the name isn't a clue?).

      C is interesting, it's proof of the alien hybridisation conspiracy, after the catastrophe of PL/1 they finally came up with something thats almost viable.

    • by c0lo (1497653)

      I didn't RTFA since, after all, I am on Slashdot.... but I didn't realize that Fortran & C were both part of the Algol language family.

      Why, yes! Of course they are related. And Common Lisp is the mother of all [wikipedia.org].

  • language (Score:4, Funny)

    by circletimessquare (444983) <circletimessquare&gmail,com> on Friday April 15, 2011 @10:57AM (#35828722) Homepage Journal

    that great spark of power, that has propelled mankind from fetid caves, cruel and dark,

    to chariots, to sailing ships, to steam locomotives, to automobiles, to jet engines, to the moon...

    and eventually to fetid internet comment boards, cruel and dark

  • Phoneme counts (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Dan East (318230) on Friday April 15, 2011 @10:58AM (#35828726) Homepage Journal

    I read this earlier, and at first glance it's counter-intuitive. Why would older languages have more phonemes and not less? That's a lot more sounds to have to learn and be able to physically reproduce. I presume the extra physical difficulty was a substitute for the extra intelligence required to couple many phonemes together to make new meanings. So perhaps a single utterance was used to mean food, another sound for sleep, etc, so that each phoneme meant just one thing? Then it was small step to take the phoneme for food, add a hand gesture to it and that meant eat. Eventually that gesture was replaced with another phoneme, thus you had two phonemes combined like "food + action" meaning to eat. As humans became more intelligent they ditched the hard to produce sounds and used groups of easier to product phonemes instead? I'm not a linguist and the article doesn't talk about any of this sort of thing, but it makes sense to me.

    • Re:Phoneme counts (Score:5, Interesting)

      by welcher (850511) on Friday April 15, 2011 @11:16AM (#35828896)
      The number of phonemes in a language has nothing to do with intelligence. In theory, the more modern languages have fewer phonemes because of the "founder effect". If you think about this in terms of vocabulary, it is obvious -- no-one knows all the words in any language, so if a small group set off to start their own colony, the language of that colony won't have the words that none of the founders knew. New words may be invented to substitute for the missing words but they will be different. It is the same with sounds (and genetic diversity, where this was first observed). Since new sound formation is a very slow process, the signal remains for a long time.
      • Re:Phoneme counts (Score:5, Informative)

        by snowgirl (978879) on Friday April 15, 2011 @11:30AM (#35829104) Journal

        The number of phonemes in a language has nothing to do with intelligence. In theory, the more modern languages have fewer phonemes because of the "founder effect". If you think about this in terms of vocabulary, it is obvious -- no-one knows all the words in any language, so if a small group set off to start their own colony, the language of that colony won't have the words that none of the founders knew. New words may be invented to substitute for the missing words but they will be different. It is the same with sounds (and genetic diversity, where this was first observed). Since new sound formation is a very slow process, the signal remains for a long time.

        Your argument for the founder effect works for words, but not necessarily for phonemes. In order for a phoneme to be dropped by founder effect, the phoneme would have to occur in none of the words that the founders brought over. The idea of a phoneme rare enough in a vocabulary large enough for use by a small colony seems unlikely...

        Plus, the Scandanavian languages lost the interdental fricative, while the colony of Iceland kept the interdental fricative... poor standing for your "founder effect" notion...

        • by welcher (850511)
          It's not my theory, it is the theory they use in the paper. Whether this is the cause or not it is hard to say. But the trend is apparent and this seems a reasonable explanation. Also, it is just a trend -- the graph in the linked article shows there is huge variation around the trend so counter-examples of the type you point out are many.
        • by welcher (850511)

          Your argument for the founder effect works for words, but not necessarily for phonemes. In order for a phoneme to be dropped by founder effect, the phoneme would have to occur in none of the words that the founders brought over. The idea of a phoneme rare enough in a vocabulary large enough for use by a small colony seems unlikely...

          Plus, the Scandanavian languages lost the interdental fricative, while the colony of Iceland kept the interdental fricative... poor standing for your "founder effect" notion...

          Founder effects can occur with large groups, too. Think of two towns that speak the same language but have some noticeable variation between the two, for example, in one town they use the voiceless dental plosive, the other they use both the interdental fricative and the voiceless dental plosive. If these towns become isolated from each other evolving distinct languages, one will have fewer phonemes than the other. This is the founder effect.

      • by Dan East (318230)

        I realize that the number of phonemes doesn't have anything to do with intelligence, but what I'm talking about is the formation of a language from nothing. The simplest possible spoken language would be a single phoneme per meaning, correct? Thus the number of meanings, or words, you can produce are restricted to the number of phonemes sounds that can be physically produced. Thus you would be creating as many unique sounds as possible to be able to express the maximum number of meanings, which is why th

        • by geekoid (135745)

          Language didn't come from nothing, it evolve along with use.

        • by snowgirl (978879)

          The simplest possible spoken language would be a single phoneme per meaning, correct?

          Only if one limited it strictly to vowels, and syllabic consonants. Vowel distinction is incredibly hard, and typically in the range of 3 to maybe 10 pure vowels at most. The naive thoughts about what would be "simple" in a language is getting in the way here.

          Thus the number of meanings, or words, you can produce are restricted to the number of phonemes sounds that can be physically produced.

          Theoretically yes... but the vast array of phonemes in languages cannot exist all on their own, and require "carrier" signals upon which to be formed. The carrier signals are vowels, and the bumps and hisses around them are the consonants and typically

        • by welcher (850511)
          I'm not sure sure that your theory is even correct there. It is quite hard to make a lot of different sounds -- other great apes have far less vocal ability than we do -- whereas it is easy to convey lots of different meaning by rearranging just a few sounds.
    • Re:Phoneme counts (Score:5, Informative)

      by snowgirl (978879) on Friday April 15, 2011 @11:25AM (#35829016) Journal

      I read this earlier, and at first glance it's counter-intuitive. Why would older languages have more phonemes and not less?

      This is a good question and in fact it's right on the money as a way to argue against this study. Languages change, this is true, but they don't change in a monotonic way. Some languages gain phonemes, some languages lose phonemes. That's how linguistic change works. In the same way, some languages have a complex synthetic syntax, and some have a relatively simple creole-like isolating syntax. When languages become too simplified, children learning the language create novel complications to fill out niches.

      As an example Hungarian has only about 11 irregular verbs, but this is because their verb system is complex and unwieldy, meanwhile English with its incredibly simple verbal patterns has numerous (and in fact no single authoritative count) of irregular verbs.

      Chinese has a limited syllable construction pattern, and as a result has picked up tones to make distinctions between words, while Japanese with a similarly limited syllable construction pattern uses longer words, and Hawai'ian with even more strict syllable construction rules and phonemes has gone for yet longer words. (I was surprised to realize that "Meli Kalikimaka" is literally "Merry Christmas" pounded into the strict Hawai'ian phonemic rules.)

      So, while I think his ideas might have interest, and could be intriguing, there is also the fundamental problem that he's making a deep assumption of monotonic language "growth" that is not supported by reality. I imagine it's similar to measuring which animal has more evolutionary change by it having more teeth. But everyone wants to be the person to prove that all the world languages are related, right?

    • I read this earlier, and at first glance it's counter-intuitive. Why would older languages have more phonemes and not less? That's a lot more sounds to have to learn and be able to physically reproduce. I presume the extra physical difficulty was a substitute for the extra intelligence required to couple many phonemes together to make new meanings. So perhaps a single utterance was used to mean food, another sound for sleep, etc, so that each phoneme meant just one thing? Then it was small step to take the phoneme for food, add a hand gesture to it and that meant eat. Eventually that gesture was replaced with another phoneme, thus you had two phonemes combined like "food + action" meaning to eat. As humans became more intelligent they ditched the hard to produce sounds and used groups of easier to product phonemes instead? I'm not a linguist and the article doesn't talk about any of this sort of thing, but it makes sense to me.

      will have more variations where it came about, and it actually makes intuitive sense. That's because the rate of change of will be slower than the rate of movement of the carriers (in this case people.) Example: Where are the most variations of English found? That's right, England. Go around on a train and talk to the locals, each area has it's own distinct accent. Liverpool, Birmingham, Manchester. Very near each other, but different accents.

      Go to America, and talk to people. They mostly came from a few

      • Obviously, shouldn't have used the corner brackets. I should have written (Things that evolve) to start with. And "That's because the rate of change of (the thing) will"

    • As humans became more intelligent

      How did you come up with this startling theory.

    • by Rei (128717)

      I'd be much more convinced if they had explanations for not just the lack of vocabulary between major language families, but the entirely different conceptions on sentence structure, concepts of what the language can represent readily and what it can't, etc, rather than just a rather flimsy, weak "number of phonemes" correlation. You know, as a native English speaker, I find the pronunciation of Icelandic pretty difficult (ég á erfitt með tannbergsmælt sveifluhljóð!), but you

      • by snowgirl (978879)

        By contrast, I find the pronunciation of Japanese quite easy, but for the life of me, I can't find one obvious similarity between the vocabulary, structure, conceptualization, etc of the language.

        "I have a book."
        "Watashi wa hon ga arimsu." (Literally, Speaking of me, there is a book.)

        "I have seen Paris." (A possible literal translation: I am in possession of the act of having seen Paris.)
        "Watashi wa Parisu o mitte no ga arimasu." (Literal translation: Speaking of me, there is (the act of having seen Paris.))

        And similarity in vocabulary? They're borrowing our words left and right. "kompyutaa" "mausu" "kiboodo" etc.

        (I totally agree with your point though, just pointing out that you're likely not think

      • by snowgirl (978879)

        Which are different still from German, which is linguistically more intermediary between the two, but has sounds found in neither (such as uvular consonants)?

        Huh? German doesn't have any uvular consonants as phonemes...

  • So, the team comprised of the hero, his hot chick, and his sidekicks learn of a relic they have to retrieve or destroy before the bad people get to it first, and on the way they learn of the original "mother tongue" and have to figure out What This Means and How It Works to save all of us from the relic...

    • by Tackhead (54550)

      So, the team comprised of the hero, his hot chick, and his sidekicks learn of a relic they have to retrieve or destroy before the bad people get to it first, and on the way they learn of the original "mother tongue" and have to figure out What This Means and How It Works to save all of us from the relic...

      Been there, done that.

      Spoiler: It was a 1:4:9:16 black monolith. (What, you think it stops at three dimensions?)

      • by snowgirl (978879)

        Spoiler: It was a 1:4:9:16 black monolith. (What, you think it stops at three dimensions?)

        You listed four... oh.

    • by gatkinso (15975)

      You had me at "hot chick."

  • by jimmerz28 (1928616) on Friday April 15, 2011 @10:59AM (#35828736)

    The "cradle of life" was apparently the same place that language originated?!

    Astounding!

    Africa gave us life and language, and now look at her =(

    • You'd think that some of the phrases early African people were saying all of the time would still be kicking around and we'd be using them. Why don't more peoples have a common way of saying:
      - Look, a lion! Run.
      - Fuck, it's hot around here!
      - Damn, look at that ass!
      - Gross, why do elephants have to shit so big?
  • by fuzzyfuzzyfungus (1223518) on Friday April 15, 2011 @11:01AM (#35828764) Journal
    I'm afraid that I have some very bad news about your ongoing use of unlicenced derivatives of my legally protected intellectual property...

    XOXOXO,
    The Ancestral Ur Language.
  • by Sonny Yatsen (603655) * on Friday April 15, 2011 @11:02AM (#35828768) Journal

    I realize that the ones studying this are testing the hypothesis that distance from Africa would result in decreased phoneme complexity, but the graph that was provided doesn't seem to jive with that idea. That chart of languages (clearly, not all 504 languages are included) seems to imply that languages are all over the map as far as phoneme complexity and distance to Africa.

  • Don't the archeologists pin the origin of our species in Africa too? Don't Christians, Jews and Muslims (probably others) place it there too? Just seems logical and should not be a shock.

    • by medv4380 (1604309)
      Yea but the "Out of Africa" hypothesis is on shaky ground since Europeans have Neanderthal DNA mix in.

      Christians, Jews and Muslims place the origin to the Garden of Eden. Where that is or was isn't exactly placed, but is somewhere between Egypt and Assyria(Iraq). That's a great distance away from Southern Africa.

      If you actually believe this guy and think that the "root" language came from africa and isn't what NotSanguine pointed out then you might want to see this [youtube.com].

      • We still came from Africa. If we have Neandertal genes, it just means some part of our genome left Africa earlier than other parts.

        • by medv4380 (1604309)
          Actually Neanderthal have never been found in Africa. Now if you want to go back farther to other species then we might as well go back to the first living thing, and no know knows where that was formed.
  • The study correlates simpler phonetic structures with more isolated populations. However I wonder if languages begin as relatively phonetically simply and then become more phonetically complex as various linguistic populations mingle, like in south Africa? Or is the reverse, that in isolation they start shedding complexity, like in Polyneasia?

    Please dont cite computer languages as an example, because everyone knows that answer :-)
  • by Duradin (1261418) on Friday April 15, 2011 @11:19AM (#35828932)

    Just a warning: if a crudely rendered naked chick opens a scroll at you DO NOT LOOK AT THE SCROLL!

  • ... Astronauts taught us to speak.
  • Reader NotSanguine points out another study which challenges the idea that the brain is more important to the structure of language than cultural evolution.

    Perhaps we should not forget the evolution of the structure of our tongue, mouth, and vocal chords in the evolution of language.

  • Supporting materials for the article can be found here (pdf) [sciencemag.org]. The article itself [sciencemag.org] is available to members. From the supporting materials:

    A serial founder effect model of phonemic diversity was used to infer the most likely origin of modern languages, following an approach outlined in studies of human genetic and phenotypic diversity (S6). Under this model, during population expansion, small founder groups are expected to carry less phonemic diversity than their larger parent populations.

    This approach only models the decrease in phonemic diversity due to migration. It does not say anything about how phonemic diversity grows. In essence, it models only half of the system. To me it seems difficult to answer questions of the origin of language without also modeling the growth of phonemic diversity Phonemic variation can be introduced to the region by mig

  • There are two stories above, and the second is more silly than the first one.

    Any of us who have taken a theory of computation class know about generative grammar, the Chomsky hierarchy and the like. While for our field, we're more familiar with the part of this theory that deals with regular expressions, the Church-Turing thesis, the halting problem and the like, at least we are familiar with the rules of a generative grammar, and hopefully have had at least some exposure as to its application to linguist

  • I guess he was wrong when he posited Sumerian as the first language...

  • If you are not an expert but would like more understanding on this topic, then I'd recommend Steven Pinker's, The Language Instinct.

    http://www.amazon.com/Language-Instinct-How-Mind-Creates/dp/0060976519 [amazon.com]

    One of his books discusses a series of experiments where babies were shown to be able to understand all phonemes but by the age of six-months only the phonemes of the parent's language are available. They did experiments with both adults and babies.

    Also, Pinker talks about a group of people with no history th

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