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Analysis Indicates Human Speech Arose in Africa

An analysis of language from around the world suggests that human speech originated – just once – in central and southern Africa. Verbal communication then likely spread around the globe, evolving alongside migrating human populations, according to Dr. Quentin Atkinson, reporting in the April 15 issue of Science. The researcher from New Zealand studied the phonemes, or the perceptually distinct units of sound that differentiate words, used in 504 human languages today and found that the dialects containing 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 Ocean. The author notes that this pattern of phoneme usage around the world mirrors the pattern of human genetic diversity, which also declined as humans expanded their range from Africa to colonize other regions. In general, the areas of the globe that were most recently colonized incorporate fewer phonemes into the local languages whereas the areas that have hosted human life for millennia (particularly sub-Saharan Africa) still use the most phonemes. This decline in phoneme usage cannot be explained by demographic shifts or other local factors, and it provides strong evidence for an African origin of modern human languages – as well as parallel mechanisms that slowly shaped both genetic and linguistic diversity among humans. [Science abstract]