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All Languages Linked To Common Source 318

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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  • Phoneme counts (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Dan East ( 318230 ) on Friday April 15, 2011 @10:58AM (#35828726) 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:But (Score:4, Interesting)

    by MightyMartian ( 840721 ) on Friday April 15, 2011 @11:30AM (#35829102) Journal

    Finding the mother tongue in this linguistic equivalent to cold fusion. Plenty of whackjobs and fraudsters claim to find it, but soon enough the cold heart light of reality shines in and reveals it's a load of nonsense.

    If there was a mother tongue, it's likely buried so deep in the past as to be impossible to find. We're talking over 100,000 years ago. That so much time for substantial changes, even one generation innovations, that the exercise is pointless. Even more "moderate" theories like Nostratic, which mainly just wants so desperately to unite the Eurasian families, quickly reveals itself to be as much wishful thinking as actual science.

  • by mdarksbane ( 587589 ) on Friday April 15, 2011 @12:16PM (#35829774)

    It's as useful as a historical/archeological guide as any set of mythologies. The advantage is that this particular one is incredibly well-preserved.

  • 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 Anonymous Coward on Friday April 15, 2011 @01:53PM (#35830972)

    Atheists, of course, run afoul of the most basic assumption of science, in almost exactly the same way as religious people do. Atheists have some theory, which is fundamentally untestable (you can't prove a negative with any -limited- number of observations), and so in the real world, there will never be any real scientific support for atheism.

    At least on the religious side the debate could be settled by God. But think about it, there is no action anyone could take, not now and not ever, that could validate the claims made by atheists. That doesn't mean they're necessarily wrong, of course, but theories have been abandoned in the sciences for exactly those reasons. In all known cases, that was the right decision.

    Agnosticism, not convinced of anything, and not out to push views on anyone, is much more scientific. However given the massive contributions of Christian clergy to science, you have to admit that Christians are much more on the side of science than any other faith ever was (again it would perhaps be more accurate to say most parts of Christianity, as it is not a universally positive history). In more recent scientific history, it is also rather hard to avoid the Jewish contributions.

What is algebra, exactly? Is it one of those three-cornered things? -- J.M. Barrie