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All Languages Linked To Common Source

Soulskill posted more than 3 years ago | from the mitochondrial-chomsky dept.

Science 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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318 comments

All Languages Linked To Common Source (4, Funny)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#35828680)

Humans!

Re:All Languages Linked To Common Source (1)

clang_jangle (975789) | more than 3 years ago | (#35828718)

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.

Re:All Languages Linked To Common Source (1)

gnick (1211984) | more than 3 years ago | (#35828804)

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.

Re:All Languages Linked To Common Source (1)

Lord Juan (1280214) | more than 3 years ago | (#35828898)

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.

Jesus wouldn't say "For millions of years" because he believes his father only made us 4,000 years ago.
Wise man wouldn't say "For millions of years" because he believes we only came into existence about 200,000 years ago.

Re:All Languages Linked To Common Source (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#35828994)

It was Hawking contributing to a Pink Floyd song. I think GP was joking.

Re:All Languages Linked To Common Source (2)

hobo sapiens (893427) | more than 3 years ago | (#35829268)

that wasn't Hawking contributing to a Pink Floyd song. It was an old British Telecom commercial, which was sampled by Pink Floyd. The voice, of course, was Hawking.

Re:All Languages Linked To Common Source (1)

hufter (542690) | more than 3 years ago | (#35829654)

Wise man wouldn't say "For millions of years" because he believes we only came into existence about 200,000 years ago.

Depends on what you count as mankind. The first defined as Homo walked about 2.5 million years ago, and it wasn't the first ape that walked upright.

Re:All Languages Linked To Common Source (1)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#35828942)

Stephen Hawking [wikiquote.org]

This is one of those cases where Google is your friend.

Re:All Languages Linked To Common Source (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#35829130)

this is one of those cases where the person wasn't being serious but you had to be a know-it-all

Re:All Languages Linked To Common Source (1)

Dunbal (464142) | more than 3 years ago | (#35829558)

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.

Re:All Languages Linked To Common Source (1)

morgauxo (974071) | more than 3 years ago | (#35829276)

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!

Re:All Languages Linked To Common Source (3, Insightful)

Eunuchswear (210685) | more than 3 years ago | (#35829420)

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.

Re:All Languages Linked To Common Source (1)

Jawnn (445279) | more than 3 years ago | (#35829494)

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.

Speciest (1)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#35828856)

Whales and Dolphins are people, too!

Re:Speciest (1)

The Grim Reefer2 (1195989) | more than 3 years ago | (#35829110)

Flipper commented on this story just a few hours ago. He is on record as saying, well there is no good text to document dolphin statements. But it roughly translated to, "What mother of all mother fucking languages can you trace this statement to bitches!".

Patent nonsense. (5, Funny)

Eunuchswear (210685) | more than 3 years ago | (#35828694)

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

Re:Patent nonsense. (1)

clang_jangle (975789) | more than 3 years ago | (#35828744)

"If the King James Bible is good enough for Jee-sus, it's good enough for me!"

Re:Patent nonsense. (3, Funny)

Zeek40 (1017978) | more than 3 years ago | (#35828786)

All the Jesuses I know read around Spanish language versions of the bible, not English.

Re:Patent nonsense. (-1)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#35828852)

You might want to check your sources.

Re:Patent nonsense. (-1, Offtopic)

Eunuchswear (210685) | more than 3 years ago | (#35828976)

Somebody modded this "flamebait".

Slashdot has reached a new low point, we have to pander to the feelings of the know-nothings.

Re:Patent nonsense. (3, Insightful)

englishknnigits (1568303) | more than 3 years ago | (#35829284)

Based on this post I think they were probably right in modding it flamebait. If someone doesn't like your "joke" then you shouldn't get mad, just shrug it off. If you get this worked up about it then there is something more going on and you probably are a troll.

Re:Patent nonsense. (1)

morgauxo (974071) | more than 3 years ago | (#35829316)

So the first moderator to reach it had a fringe opinion about it. Relax, that happens, it was fixed soon enough. Go outside and enjoy some fresh air and sunlight, it will be good for you, trust me!

Re:Patent nonsense. (1)

dingo_kinznerhook (1544443) | more than 3 years ago | (#35829342)

This would be flamebait if there were someone on Slashdot that took offense to it and responded in kind. Whoever edited the Wikipedia article last defines "flamebait" to be "hostile and insulting interaction between Internet users." GP and P would be insulting to folks that believe in the Bible; there are just none of them here to interact about language and Biblical manuscripts.

Re:Patent nonsense. (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#35829652)

Considering all the discussion going on about this, I'll respond. If I lose my mod points, so be it.

No insult was meant in the flamebait mod. I don't buy creationism, I think its a silly myth. You may notice that one of the first things to happen in any story tagged 'evolution' is a creationism v. evolution flamewar. These are nearly impossible to moderate, and really tiresome to read through, and seem to happen every single time I ever get mod points. Was merely trying to prevent it from happening here, as this article had a lot of potential for otherwise interesting discussion, as is currently happening in a few threads below this one.

In retrospect, I may have jumped the gun on this one, as at first read it looked more like a flamebait attempt than an attempt at a joke. Looking again, the choice of 'English' instead of 'Latin' or 'Hebrew' or 'Greek' gives a clearer indication of the tone of the post. I don't really find it funny, as I have seen every variation of this joke in every evolution thread ever, but it may not have been flamebait. This is backed up by the fact that nobody has yet to respond to it as such.

Hope that sheds some light on why the mod happened.

Re:Patent nonsense. (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#35829232)

Well, how ethnocentric of you. The English bible really lost a lot in translation. You should really read it in the original Klingon.

Re:Patent nonsense. (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#35829412)

I know you're just trying to troll but original manuscripts are written mostly in Hewbrew and Greek.

Re:Patent nonsense. (-1)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#35829564)

Several companies have tried to patent nonsense. A few of them have actually been granted ... Amazon comes to mind.

Actually there is a bible explanation (1)

leuk_he (194174) | more than 3 years ago | (#35829570)

All the professor did do is to locate the the tower of babel [wikipedia.org] the origin of the different languages.

Re:Patent nonsense. (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#35829590)

I realize that the above poster was probably saying that in jest. Most scholars tend to agree that the bible was originally written in greek, hebrew, and aramaic, the single language that any specific part was originally written in depending on the alleged author and time period associated with the part being examined. The original manuscripts themselves are unavailable, but there exists documents that are very old (some are over 2 thousand years old) and are believed to reflect the original languages that those sections were written in, which are available for study. Recently, high resolution photographs of them have been preserved in a digital form so that they can be studied by a wider group of people.

I make no claim about the veracity of the bible as a whole, but it's fairly unlikely that, if the assumptions about the original languages that it was written in are correct, the bible is wrought with errors in translation, as is quite commonly believed.

But (1)

zero.kalvin (1231372) | more than 3 years ago | (#35828698)

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.

Re:But (1)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#35828808)

Exactly, this finding smacks of defusionism. The same bent logic that ponders if the ancient Egyptians and Maya shared a "mother" society because they both built pyramidal structures.

Isn't it more interesting, more human, that language could develop as an evolutionary function and not a societal one.

Re:But (3, Interesting)

MightyMartian (840721) | more than 3 years ago | (#35829102)

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.

Re:But (1)

jedidiah (1196) | more than 3 years ago | (#35829176)

Considering that toddlers quickly lose the ability to perceive alien phonemes, this isn't such a bad idea really.

Re:But (1)

hrimhari (1241292) | more than 3 years ago | (#35829554)

My own universal knowledge of things tells me that what really set us apart is an over developed imagination. Not conscience of self, language or opposed thumbs.

Re:But (0)

MrHanky (141717) | more than 3 years ago | (#35829636)

How is one more "interesting" and "human" than the other?

Of course there can be an evolutionary explanation for the development of language as well as historical and linguistic explanations, but evolution clearly does not explain the variety of languages, as humans of all races seem to be able to learn completely different languages. Evolution tells you about the development of the human larynx. Sure, "interesting", but it really says fuck all about language as such. I find your statement smacking of hard science fanboyism, which is just another form of anti-intellectualism.

Not what the Bible says. (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#35828704)

God made people talk different. [biblegateway.com] Duh.

Re:Not what the Bible says. (3, Insightful)

MozeeToby (1163751) | more than 3 years ago | (#35828812)

So... you're saying that according to the bible there was a point when everyone on the planet spoke the same language and then something changed and different languages developed. Ignoring details like time, location, towers to heaven, and god's holy wrath; I'd say the bible got the broad strokes of the truth right, even if only by accident.

Re:Not what the Bible says. (0, Flamebait)

aepervius (535155) | more than 3 years ago | (#35828958)

"I'd say the bible got the broad strokes of the truth right, even if only by accident."

Yeah and my grand father clock (a monster about 1m50 high with a pendulum) is broken. It is giving the correct time twice a day. But to know the correct hour time any time during the day, I use the tool appropriated for this : a working clock.

To go back to your "bible" stuff : the problem is not that there is *some* element which were taken from the history or are accidentally true (the hour correct twice a day). The problem is that they are indistinguishable from the rest of the cruft (the rest of the hour in the day). Which is mostly why the bible as a whole , is a terrible morality , historical or archeological guide.

Here's to human unity (2)

Compaqt (1758360) | more than 3 years ago | (#35828710)

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:Here's to human unity (3, Funny)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#35828762)

I wouldn't read too much into it.

We also share a common genetic origin with mushrooms.

Re:Here's to human unity (3, Insightful)

gnick (1211984) | more than 3 years ago | (#35828850)

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.

Re:Here's to human unity (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#35828904)

Well if we kill them first, they won't be able to kill each other, or us for that matter.

Re:Here's to human unity (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#35829438)

Well if we kill them first, they won't be able to kill each other, or us for that matter.

That's a little extreme. We'll probably get the same result if we just check their IDs and X-ray their shoes.

Re:Here's to human unity (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#35829240)

if we want people to stop blowing each other up, we need unlimited everything.

the reason people kill each other is because there's not enough everything everywhere to go around. so when someone wants or needs something they can't get (territory, food, raw materials, luxuries), they have to take it.

that begins the cycle, to be repeated forever.

Re:Here's to human unity (1)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#35829442)

Blowing each other up is perfectly natural for us. It is how natural selection works with us. Animals fight for dominance and resources too. The only difference is that we have no predators, at least not of another species, yet. Therefore, 'blowing each other up' is the only way we make our species stronger and control our populations. If conquering aliens ever show up, you'll be glad we've had some practice. As for the 'common enemy' being 'government/power elites'...that won't happen until we are once again One Race/One Government.

With all of that said, 'Human Unity' makes little sense. Tribal, Cultural, or National Unity makes more sense.

Re:Here's to human unity (1)

Kjella (173770) | more than 3 years ago | (#35829468)

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 see how, because I feel less and less kinship with those around me. In my immediate proximity there's almost no one with the same ethnic, cultural or religious background as me and the immigrants are equally divided among themselves. There's no "we" of any sense beyond us all being human beings, which is of course in some sense a good thing but as a united force standing up to governments and corporations I don't think so. If there's no "we", there's very little solidarity - people willing to stand up for others, people willing to lead, people willing to sacrifice. Here in Norway we just had a big scandal with enlisted men running and hiding when they thought they were ordered to defend against an armed assault without anyone telling them it was a drill, they had no intention of dying for king and country. During war they'd be up for a court-martial for treason, that's for sure.

I think Europe is heading the same way as the US, everyone for themselves. Fuck unions, fuck social programs, fuck getting politically involved and trying to change society I want what's mine and the rest can fend for themselves. That's like an open playground for organized elites, a population easily divided and conquered. Even the good that does happen like universal healthcare is so corrupted by the time it gets through the system it ends up bad, a boon to the health insurance industry rather than savings for an extremely overpriced healthcare that is far more expensive per capita than comparable countries. It's easy to control three hundred million ants when everyone wants to do their own thing.

So BASIC, C, and Lisp are all related? (4, Funny)

thomasdz (178114) | more than 3 years ago | (#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.

Re:So BASIC, C, and Lisp are all related? (2)

TWX (665546) | more than 3 years ago | (#35828754)

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!

Re:So BASIC, C, and Lisp are all related? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#35828834)

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.

Yes, apparently linguists have compiled them all, and found that they are all just fancy, inefficient ways of expressing assembly. Which any first-year computer science student could have told them, but the social science people are apparently in awe of the discovery.

Re:So BASIC, C, and Lisp are all related? (2)

gnick (1211984) | more than 3 years ago | (#35828892)

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]

Re:So BASIC, C, and Lisp are all related? (1)

Eunuchswear (210685) | more than 3 years ago | (#35829370)

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.

Re:So BASIC, C, and Lisp are all related? (1)

Eunuchswear (210685) | more than 3 years ago | (#35829108)

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.

Re:So BASIC, C, and Lisp are all related? (1)

AHuxley (892839) | more than 3 years ago | (#35829408)

And back to http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Plankalk [wikipedia.org] ül

Re:So BASIC, C, and Lisp are all related? (2)

AHuxley (892839) | more than 3 years ago | (#35829436)

Sorry, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Konrad_Zuse [wikipedia.org] wrote a high-level programming language called "Plan Calculus"

language (3, Funny)

circletimessquare (444983) | more than 3 years ago | (#35828722)

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

Re:language (1)

game kid (805301) | more than 3 years ago | (#35829386)

In short, roughly, this picture [davidhamel.ca] .

Phoneme counts (3, Interesting)

Dan East (318230) | more than 3 years ago | (#35828726)

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 (5, Interesting)

welcher (850511) | more than 3 years ago | (#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 (4, Informative)

snowgirl (978879) | more than 3 years ago | (#35829104)

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...

Re:Phoneme counts (1)

Dan East (318230) | more than 3 years ago | (#35829196)

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 the earliest languages had a huge number of phonemes. It's about complexity. The complexity can either lie in the physical production of sounds, or in the combination of multiple sounds together. The former is a physical and more primitive process, while the latter is a more mental process (which also requires greater auditory discernment as well). So my point is simply that it makes sense that primitive humans would have sided with physical complexity over mental complexity when first applying meaning to sounds.

Re:Phoneme counts (1)

geekoid (135745) | more than 3 years ago | (#35829514)

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

Re:Phoneme counts (2)

snowgirl (978879) | more than 3 years ago | (#35829550)

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 carry the most amount of phonemic distinction.

Thus you would be creating as many unique sounds as possible to be able to express the maximum number of meanings, which is why the earliest languages had a huge number of phonemes.

This doesn't really hold... there are limits to the human ability to produce sounds, and even more so there are limitations on distinctive sounds that can be recognized. For instance, the likelihood that a language will distinguish from a dental "t" and a alveolar "t" is almost nonexistent, as they sound so incredibly similar.

It's about complexity. The complexity can either lie in the physical production of sounds, or in the combination of multiple sounds together. The former is a physical and more primitive process, while the latter is a more mental process (which also requires greater auditory discernment as well). So my point is simply that it makes sense that primitive humans would have sided with physical complexity over mental complexity when first applying meaning to sounds.

Actually, the former process requires the great auditory discernment than the later. The more sounds made the better we have to be able to distinguish the various parts apart from each other. The human mind however is incredibly good at generalizing everything, and as a result merges similar sounds incredibly quickly, and eventually a person develops a solid lock on the distinctive sounds that they can recognize.

Re:Phoneme counts (5, Informative)

snowgirl (978879) | more than 3 years ago | (#35829016)

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?

Re:Phoneme counts (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#35829062)

For the same reason that Mahjong is more complicated than dominoes or cards? Give bored housewives a millenia or two to think up new ways to entertain themselves, and they'll get quite creative indeed. (Alternatively, blame bored teenagers.)

Re:Phoneme counts (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#35829272)

Babies "babble" in the full range of sounds a human can make. As they observe their parents they mimic their paretn's sounds, and stop making some of the sounds they made before they began learning language. Over time children loose the ability to produce and hear certain phonemes. This is why it's hard for people over a certain age to learn languages not closely related to one they already speak (the often can't distinguish some of the phonemes used in that language).

The theory behind "more phonemes == more primitive language" is likely that the closer a language is to "baby-talk" the less it differs from "grunt and point" as it's using a less specialized set of phonemes.

Re:Phoneme counts (3, Informative)

snowgirl (978879) | more than 3 years ago | (#35829600)

Babies "babble" in the full range of sounds a human can make.

Actually, babies "babble" in the full range of phonemes that they have heard their parents use. Even baby babbling is language dependent. Babies don't begin babbling until they are well exposed to the sounds of their parents, and in fact, while developing in the womb fetuses already are honing in on the phonemes used by their mothers, and are born with an innate interest towards the phonemes that their mother used as opposed to any other phonemes.

Re:Phoneme counts (2)

LordNacho (1909280) | more than 3 years ago | (#35829472)

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 regions of Britain, and those accents have spread (and changed a bit) over a huge expanse of North America. Can you tell the difference between a person from Seattle and San Fran? They quite a lot further apart from the mentioned cities in England.

Same goes with human haplotypes. More varied in Africa. Less in Polynesia.

Re:Phoneme counts (1)

LordNacho (1909280) | more than 3 years ago | (#35829500)

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"

Great, another bad movie plot... (1)

TWX (665546) | more than 3 years ago | (#35828732)

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...

Re:Great, another bad movie plot... (1)

Tackhead (54550) | more than 3 years ago | (#35828894)

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?)

Re:Great, another bad movie plot... (1)

snowgirl (978879) | more than 3 years ago | (#35829150)

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

You listed four... oh.

Cradle of Life & Language (3, Insightful)

jimmerz28 (1928616) | more than 3 years ago | (#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 =(

Re:Cradle of Life & Language (1)

morgan_greywolf (835522) | more than 3 years ago | (#35828806)

Africa? Clearly the Bible places humanity's origins in the Garden of Eden, located somewhere in Mesopotamia, on the continent of Asia.

Obviously Africa was not involved in language.

Re:Cradle of Life & Language (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#35829220)

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

Well the enterprising and adventurous people migrated out of there, what did you expect would happen ?

Re:Cradle of Life & Language (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#35829346)

Africa invents crude language.
Africa outsources future development of crude language.
Africa fails to benefit.
Some things never change;(

Dear Language Users of The World... (2)

fuzzyfuzzyfungus (1223518) | more than 3 years ago | (#35828764)

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.

Re:Dear Language Users of The World... (1)

db10 (740174) | more than 3 years ago | (#35828988)

shampoo, is that you?

Re:Dear Language Users of The World... (1)

fuzzyfuzzyfungus (1223518) | more than 3 years ago | (#35829506)

shampoo was invented by the Ancestral Ur Language.

Don't quite understand the premise (2)

Sonny Yatsen (603655) | more than 3 years ago | (#35828768)

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.

Re:Don't quite understand the premise (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#35828986)

parent++;

The graph does not support the hypothesis as far as I can tell. Perhaps I'm reading it wrong? The dots are all over, with a line drawn in it as though it were linear. Doesn't look linear to me.

Archeology and Religion too (1)

Suki I (1546431) | more than 3 years ago | (#35828794)

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.

Re:Archeology and Religion too (1)

medv4380 (1604309) | more than 3 years ago | (#35828966)

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] .

Re:Archeology and Religion too (1)

MightyMartian (840721) | more than 3 years ago | (#35829132)

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

Re:Archeology and Religion too (1)

medv4380 (1604309) | more than 3 years ago | (#35829496)

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.

Re:Archeology and Religion too (2)

MightyMartian (840721) | more than 3 years ago | (#35829630)

Neandertals descended from H. erectus, which did come out Africa. Your analogy is crap.

Re:Archeology and Religion too (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#35829452)

Prety much.

I imagine the "shock" is more that someone has managed to find evidence that "proves" this rather than just saying: "if our species is native to Africa than our languages probably are too".

There's also probably some school of though that language developed several times independently after humans spread out from Africa. Prior to evidence to the contrary that hypothesis would have been just as valid as the hypothesis that language developed once, and evolved into the many language families we have today.

Babel (1)

fahlesr1 (1910982) | more than 3 years ago | (#35828800)

Not gonna lie, my first thought when I read the article was of the Biblical story of the Tower of Babel.

are languages complexifying or simplyfing? (1)

peter303 (12292) | more than 3 years ago | (#35828866)

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 :-)

Statistics and Psychologists (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#35828886)

The statistical analysis is shoddy to say the least. Fitting a linear regression line to a normally distributed stochastic data is not only wrong, it is embarrassing.

Just a warning (2)

Duradin (1261418) | more than 3 years ago | (#35828932)

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

Re:Just a warning (1)

CAIMLAS (41445) | more than 3 years ago | (#35829172)

Clearly that will not be a problem for most of the people on this site.

Clearly thats when the Acent ... (1)

bobs666 (146801) | more than 3 years ago | (#35829018)

... Astronauts taught us to speak.

Can't resist.... incoming bad pun: (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#35829056)

All Languages Linked To Common Source: The human mouth.

Something about genetic and stuff.

Chimps (1)

GeorgeMonroy (784609) | more than 3 years ago | (#35829058)

do chimps have the vocal chords to speak a human language? If so then why hasn't anybody taken a newborn chimp and taught the chimp to talk English or Spanish for example? Maybe even an easier language would work.

Re:Chimps (4, Informative)

snowgirl (978879) | more than 3 years ago | (#35829336)

do chimps have the vocal chords to speak a human language? If so then why hasn't anybody taken a newborn chimp and taught the chimp to talk English or Spanish for example? Maybe even an easier language would work.

Chimps lack vocal chords, as well their mouths are not suited towards producing the variety of noises like we can. I recall an early attempt at raising a chimp in a house like any other human child and it never acquired speech.

Later the same experiment was tried with Washoe [wikipedia.org] , who was raised with ASL exposure like a deaf child would be. The results were not impressive. She learned some signs and was able to communicate immediate needs and concerns, but never progressed beyond the abilities of a 3 year old linguistically. The research was announced as a success, and that Washoe learned ASL incredibly well, but the researchers refused to release any of the actual data, or anything to substantiate their claims. Having had to raise the chimp as it were a child, they are quite obviously not the most unbiased or objective source on the quality of their research.

Later, a Nim Chimpsky [wikipedia.org] was raised with intent to reproduce the results purported by the Washoe experiment, and failed to replicate the results. He learned again, very limited communication only of immediate needs and concerns with no actual regularized syntax. In fact, the Deaf reviewer on the team consistently reported that he knew less signs than the hearing reviewers. Concerned he might be wrong, he looked into the reasons why, and discovered that people were giving Nim great leeway in signs; reporting some non-verbal behaviors as verbal communication.

Mother Tongue (1)

catchblue22 (1004569) | more than 3 years ago | (#35829060)

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.

half a model? (2)

bityz (2011656) | more than 3 years ago | (#35829216)

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 migration as well (as in the case of the apparent migration of phonemes from Borneo to Madagascar).

One word of caution: I am not an expert in the field... just a slashdot reader.

COBOL? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#35829292)

Is it COBOL?

Shouldn't we be the group not to fall for this? (1)

br00tus (528477) | more than 3 years ago | (#35829304)

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 linguistics. The fact is that all languages follow the same rules of generative grammar. Some languages favor certain rules over others, but there are no languages that people regularly use that fall outside of the accepted rules for generative grammar. As we began seeing cave paintings, Venus figurines, and more advanced tools starting 50,000 years ago with the onset of behavioral modernity among humans, we can assume that language existed then, and we know it has existed from the time we have written records. If there is not a biological basis for language, if there is no underlying sense of rules for all human languages, why have no languages evolved outside of the framework of rules of the basic generative grammar? You have thousands of languages all over the world, in fact depending on the strictness of the definition of language, everyone speaks a different language - if you know a word your friend does not know the meaning of, and vice versa, under a strict definition, you are speaking different languages when those words are used. Why does everyone follow the same underlying grammar rules, why has no other type of language evolved over the past thousands (probably tens of thousands) of years? Everything points to a biological basis for this, and our study of Broca's and Wernicke's area in the brain, and the brain in general, and every study in every field points to the universal rules of grammar for all languages and the biological basis for this.

While there are of course minor arguments over this or that, the universal grammar of all languages and the biological underpinnings of this are accepted throughout many fields - linguistics, study of the brain and so forth. Scientists and linguists make minor challenges to various rules over the years, and some of these challenges are accepted, and the theory is slightly changed. On the other hand, every few years some scientist or linguist, or even non-scientist or non-linguist, comes out and says he has disproved the mass of knowledge accumulated over the decades and says he has discovered language is completely cultural in our tabula rasa brains. Eventually, this is always disproven. As time goes on, the cultural people chip away at the edifice of proof, but it still stands. Obviously there is some cultural influence and exchange and lineage of languages, but the underlying basis of all of this is our brain's biology.

Neal Stephenson (1)

ThunderBird89 (1293256) | more than 3 years ago | (#35829516)

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

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