Farther from Africa = fewer phonetic sounds in a language

Friday, April 15, 2011

That's the result that a most interesting study on the origin of language has produced, that you can read about on the New York Times here. It seems that languages in general have fewer and fewer phonetic sounds the farther one migrates from south and western Africa, which leads to the conclusion that perhaps there was originally but a single seed language, which then spread out and began to lose phonemes and altered in a great many other ways as populations became more and more distant from each other. The study doesn't claim this to be a rock solid conclusion, but it is the most obvious one to be drawn. You can see a graph of the results here.

What would be exceptionally interesting would be if language was invented by but a single person, who decided to invent it in order to increase his power by giving more precise orders than could be given with grunts and motions. Now, if you were this person who came up with the idea to invent a more precise type of sound, and writing clearly hadn't been invented yet, it's very likely that one would come up with as many sounds as possible to try to encompass all the things and actions and thoughts and whatever else there is in the world to communicate with others. This animal is a certain type of click, that one is another, the third one is a kind of muffled hoot, and so on and so forth with increasing length and complexity until you've come up with a corpus that you would then teach to others. After they are taught this, they can then be controlled at a distance, and over long periods of time. You would give an order to someone, specify how it is to be done and what time, and that person would remember it, carry it out, and even pass it on to others. Language invented in that way would be a kind of magic, a tool where the things you say don't fade out of memory after a few moments, but carry on and on as it is passed back and forth.

The first speakers of the language, of course, would get a few phonemes wrong and right away your original phonemic inventory would start to get pruned, and that would be the beginning of this theoretical spread of language as it casts off phoneme after phoneme as people move farther and farther away from this original creator (or group of creators...) that came up with it in the first place.

A single person coming up with something as impressive as this is not so far-fetched, and indeed there are many examples of it to be found in other languages. The Cherokee syllabary was invented by a completely untrained but very motivated man, Armenian's alphabet was invented by a single person, the 3,959 rules of Sanskrit grammar were codified by a single individual, and so on. Language itself being invented by a single person is not only possible, but very easy to imagine.


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