Thursday, April 14 (HealthDay News) -- Just as the genetic heritage of humans can be traced to Africa, the world's languages also originated there and spread across the globe, a new study suggests.
New Zealand researcher Quentin Atkinson analyzed the phonemes -- distinct units of sound that differentiate words -- used in modern speech and found that their pattern mirrors that of human genetic diversity.
As humans migrated out of Africa and began colonizing other regions, genetic diversity decreased. According to the study, phoneme diversity tended to decrease, too.
In a study appearing in the April 15 issue of Science, Atkinson suggests that today's phoneme usage fits a "serial founder effect" model of expansion from Africa, where dialects using the most phonemes are spoken. Those with the fewest phonemes are spoken in South America and on tropical islands in the Pacific Ocean, he said.
"If our languages can be traced to Africa, and language is a marker of cultural ancestry, then . . . we are a family in a cultural as well as a genetic sense," said Atkinson, a post-doctoral researcher in the department of psychology at University of Auckland. "I think that is pretty cool."
Atkinson said he undertook the research because he knew that languages used fewer sounds in small populations and thought it would be interesting to determine if a "linguistic founder effect" existed that would explain how language evolved.
In general, he said, areas of the world that were more recently colonized incorporate fewer phonemes into local languages, while long-populated regions such as sub-Saharan Africa still use the most phonemes.
"I found a clear decrease in diversity with distance from Africa," Atkinson said.
Jeffrey Laitman, professor and director of the Center for Anatomy and Functional Morphology at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City
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