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Language May Have Helped Early Humans Spread Out of Africa

The story of humanity's prehistoric expansion across the planet is recorded in our genes. And, apparently, the story of the spread of language is hidden in the sounds of our words. That's the finding of a new study, which concludes that both people and languages spread out from an African homeland by a similar process—and that language may have been the cultural innovation that fueled our ancestors' momentous migrations.

Tracing the spread of languages has been difficult. Most linguists use changes in words or grammatical structures to try to track language evolution. The English word "brother," for example, translates as bhrater in Sanskrit, brathir in Old Irish, frater in Latin, and phrater in Greek. These differences can be used to reconstruct the ancient words that gave rise to these modern ones. But unlike genes, these cultural units cannot be traced back far enough to distinguish patterns of language change much earlier than about 6500 years ago.

So Quentin Atkinson, a psychologist at the University of Auckland in New Zealand who has long worked on language evolution, decided to look at language units whose pedigrees might be traceable further back: phonemes, the smallest units of sound that allow us to distinguish one word from another. For example, the English words "rip" and "lip" differ by a single phoneme, one corresponding to the letter "r" and the other to the letter "l."

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TAGGED: BEHAVIOR


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