Study Traces All Human Languages To A Root In Southern Africa


A researcher analyzing the sounds in languages spoken around the world has detected an ancient signal that points to southern Africa as the place where modern human language originated.

The finding fits well with the evidence from fossil skulls and DNA that modern humans originated in Africa. It also implies, though does not prove, that modern language originated only once, an issue of considerable controversy among linguists.

The detection of such an ancient signal in language is surprising.  Because words change so rapidly, many linguists think that languages cannot be traced very far back in time. The oldest language tree so far reconstructed, that of the Indo-European family, which includes English, goes back 9,000 years at most.

Quentin D. Atkinson, a biologist at the University of Auckland in New Zealand, has shattered this time barrier, if his claim is correct, by looking not at words but at phonemes — the consonants, vowels and tones that are the simplest elements of language.  He has found a simple but striking pattern in some 500 languages spoken throughout the world: a language area uses fewer phonemes the farther that early humans had to travel from Africa to reach it.

Some of the click-using languages of Africa have more than 100 phonemes, whereas Hawaiian, toward the far end of the human migration route out of Africa, has only 13. English has 45 phonemes.

This pattern of decreasing diversity with distance, similar to the well-established decrease in genetic diversity with distance from Africa, implies that the origin of modern human language is in the region of southwestern Africa, Dr. Atkinson says in an article published on Thursday in the journal Science.

Language is at least 50,000 years old, the date that modern humans dispersed from Africa, and some experts say it is at least 100,000 years old. Dr. Atkinson, if his work is correct, is picking up a distant echo from this far back in time.


FILED UNDER: Africa, Science & Technology,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. Dave Schuler says:

    I’ve posted on related subjects at my place from time to time. It boils down to a single question: was language invented once or multiple times?

    If it was invented once (as seems likely) all languages are related; if multiple times not necessarily.

    There have been efforts at linking the various language families into superfamilies. It’s controversial.

  2. There is another possibility: that humans are so animalistic, language gravitates toward similar sounds, especially in the areas of basic human needs. Consider that written language originated to control commerce. Women were part of that commerce (and consequently were sequestered), so men most likely created writing. Men have smaller genetic variation amongst them (consider that the Y chromosome is half the size of the X, therefore, less genetic material), and testosterone is a driver for sex and domination. Wouldn’t this desire be reflected in the emerging technology—cuneiform, Seal Script, hieroglyphs—because writing reflects what is important to a culture. The sexual characteristics of female mammals show up in all languages. Our letter “B” doesn’t come from house, it comes from breasts. This “B” swaps with “V” in many languages (Spanish, Latin, Greek, Arabic, Hebrew). In Russian, the alphabet goes “A, B, V.” This “B/V” swap signifies for breast/vagina, but don’t get attached to the words, just the concept and letterform. In Chinese nai3 乃 means “woman’s breasts, milk.” 乃 sure looks like our capital “B.” And what do you suppose our “V” symbolizes? Something victors get and victims give up. Why does this seem so obvious, but we don’t know it? For the same reason that Hooters is a restaurant about owls: denial. Linguistics is a pretend science that refuses to acknowledge that the alphabet, like Chinese, Sumerian, and Ancient Egyptian, includes human body parts. Finally scientists are looking at language. It’s important because if we don’t recognize where language comes from, we are destined to underestimate its subliminal effect on us all. For more info: