The mother of all languages? It comes from Africa.

Anyone who follows us will surely remember that we’ve already tackled the birth of languages by talking about the mythical tower of Babel, undoubtedly a truly fascinating subject. However, this time, we’ll talk about it from a slightly different point of view, using a more scientific approach.

According to a study conducted by Professor Quentin Atkinson, a lecturer in evolutionary psychology at the University of Auckland (NZ), the origin of human language can be attributed to the birth of a “proto-language” spoken in Africa over 50,000 years ago. In 1871, Charles Darwin postulated that all languages originated from the same place and then underwent various changes until they reached their current forms, just like the evolution of biological species. This very idea gave rise to Professor Atkinson’s study: together with his research team, he discovered that our ancient African ancestors experienced a sudden cultural and behavioural development about 50,000 years ago that gave life to the first forms of artistic expression and to the creation of hunting tools. This increased creativity led to the emergence of a complex language, which was needed to express abstract concepts and thoughts.

Professor Atkinson borrowed a key concept of genetics to formulate his thesis: the “founder effect”, which states that when a small group of individuals breaks off from a larger community, they will create a new population with less genetic complexity. Professor Atkinson believes that the same mechanism could also occur with linguistics. Through comparative analysis of the number of phonemes – the basic units of sound – of 504 languages spoken today, it emerged that the “richer” languages are found in south-west Africa, while as you gradually move away from this area, the list of phonemes shrinks dramatically. Languages might have therefore experienced a parallel evolution to the colonisation process of our planet.

However, even though the results obtained are in line with genetic studies on the evolution of the human species, most linguists remain highly sceptical, particularly given the presumed “limited data used”. We therefore await further studies to see how scientific understanding of the birth of languages will evolve.

But for now at least, we’ll have to be “happy” with the myth of Babel.


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