Evolutionary Babel

According to the New Scientist (and other publications too, I’m sure), Quentin Atkinson of the University of Auckland in New Zealand has come up with the rather interesting theory that all modern languages have their roots in a single language spoken in sub-Saharan Africa. Atkin’s method parsed 504 modern languages for phonemic diversity, and found that Africa, collectively, had the greatest variety of phonemes, including the unique click consonant.This phonemic distribution reflects the degree of genetic diversity in humans, given that an average African has far greater diversity than a person of Asian, European or American origin. (For more on this, see the “serial founder effect” of human genetic analysis.) Atkins and his team have concluded from this that, much like the single African ancestor to all humans, there was very possibly a single language from which all modern languages have evolved – and that that language was African.

It’s interesting, over centuries, how power shifts its geographical centres. To accept Africa as the home of human languages – and indeed our very human selves – goes directly against the ideology of several sociopolitical groups currently active worldwide, groups that for convenience’s sake we shall term “ignorant racist bastards”. It might certainly gall the very racist Indian Hindutva brigade to be told that Sanskrit might trace its root back to the Land of Dark-skinned Pipples. But we can have that discussion some other time.

His peers, however, are divided in their response. The NS quotes Meritt Ruhlen of Standford University, who says “Most linguists do not think it’s possible to trace linguistic history past 10,000 years”, warning “There is a lot of anger and tension surrounding that kind of analysis.” Shohini Ramchandran of Brown, on the other hand, appears to concur with Atkins, calling his theory “a compelling idea”. She also thinks that if the “process that shaped genetic variation of humans” can be reflected on the evolution of human language, perhaps it can also shed light on the evolution and diversity of human culture.

Given the basal heteronormativity and patriarchy in cultures worldwide – to take just one variable – and the resistance to suggestions that they are anything other than “eternal” and even “god-given”, such a project would be very interesting… and a very incendiary. So naturally, I’d love to see it happen.


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