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Single 'ancestor' language theorized

disclaimer: image is for illustration purposes only
by Staff Writers
Auckland, New Zealand (UPI) Apr 14, 2011
Modern languages, all 6,000 or so, may have all descended from a single ancestral language spoken in Africa more than 50,000 years ago, a study says.

Study author Quentin Atkinson of the University of Auckland in New Zealand says the first migrating populations leaving Africa laid the groundwork for all the world's cultures by taking their single language with them, The Wall Street Journal reported Thursday.

"It was the catalyst that spurred the human expansion that we all are a product of," he said.

Atkinson based his research on phonemes, distinct kinds of sounds such as vowels, consonants and tones, combining that with a concept borrowed from population genetics known as "the founder effect."

That concept holds that when a very small number of individuals break off from a larger population, there is a gradual loss of variation and complexity in the breakaway group.

If a similar effect could be discerned in phonemes, Atkinson thought, it would lend credence to the theory that modern verbal communication originated in Africa and only then expanded elsewhere.

Atkinson analyzed 504 world languages and discovered that, on average, languages 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 findings are consistent with the prevailing "out of Africa" view of the origin of modern human, with recent genetic evidence suggesting modern humans emerged in Africa alone, about 200,000 years ago.

Then about 50,000 to 70,000 years ago, the evidence says, a small number of them migrated and colonized the rest of the world, becoming the ancestors of all non-African populations on the planet.

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