IT’S logical really. If the cradle of humankind is in Africa – right here in South Africa, in fact – then it follows that language also began on our continent.
And, guess what? A new study has discovered just that.
According to Dr Quentin Atkinson, from the University of Auckland in New Zealand, every single language in the world originated from a single prehistoric African mother tongue. Not only that, it seems it developed much earlier than previously thought – by a staggering 90 000 years, or so.
How exciting is that?
Nicholas Wade, writing in The New York Times, says the finding fits in well with the evidence from fossil skulls and DNA that modern humans originated in Africa.
“It also implies, though does not prove, that modern language originated only once, an issue of considerable controversy among linguists,” he writes.
Atkinson, who’s apparently an expert at applying mathematical methods to linguistics, didn’t look at actual words for his study, but at phonemes, “the consonants, vowels and tones that are the simplest elements of language”. He also found that the further humans travelled from Africa, the fewer phonemes were used.
So in England, for example, there are about 46 of them, whereas the San people use an amazing 200. Hawaii – “toward the far end of the human migration route out of Africa” – has only 13.
Someone else who’s interested in language – like me, he says – is reader John Carey. He wrote to tell me of some of his own recent discoveries.
His favourite, he says, found in “a delightful library book devoted to folk tales told in the appropriate medieval language” is the story of a runaway gingerbread man:
“A tinker called and the gingerbread man hid in a kettle … Later, he accosted the tinker from inside the kettle, who when he heard the kettle speak ‘did fart from very fear’.
‘What ho, Mr Tinker,’ said the gingerbread man, ‘ye do fart with a wanion’ and made his escape.”
“Naturally,” says John, “I went straight to my dictionaries and found: ‘Wanion – from waniand – the waning moon (regarded as unlucky). A word occurring in certain phrases used as a vague imprecation or for emphasis, esp in with a wanion – with a vengeance’.”
Another of the library book’s tales was a version of Goldilocks and the Three Bears which differs from the story he grew up with, says John.
“Goldilocks is middle-aged and the ending is not happy!”
I’m not surprised; folk tales or so-called fairytales were originally written for adults and were often cruel and sometimes downright violent, so I can just imagine what really happened to poor old Goldie. – Stevie Godson
(A version of this column first appeared in the Daily Dispatch)