Linguistic Source Code

Linguistic Source Code

By Conor Godgrey on April 29, 2011
An article recently published in the journal Science on linguistic diversity echoes an earlier article about the decline of native languages in South Africa.

Linguists had long since decided that searching for a root ancestral language, the mother of all languages if you will, was either ridiculous or moot.

Until now.

Renowned linguist Dr. Quentin D. Atkinson applied techniques usually reserved for studying genetics to the study of language.

Migration from Africa
His theory goes something like this: it is well documented that genetic diversity decreased as human beings moved further from the African continent.

This occurred because small (genetically more similar) sub groups would break off of the main thrust of the various migrations and settle a specific area.

Dr. Quentin posited that language might have experienced a similar homogenization as languages traveled further and further from Africa.

He did not measure this using words, but phonemes, the basic building blocks of language.

A phoneme is the “smallest segmental unit of sound employed to form meaningful contrasts between utterances.”

In other words, the basic sounds that make up more complicated utterances like syllables and words.

It turns out that linguistic diversity, as determined by the number of phonemes, does indeed decline in relation to how far a language developed from Africa.

The New York Times cited several examples from the full study: “Some of the click-using languages of Africa have more than 100 phonemes, whereas Hawaiian, toward the far end of the human migration route out of Africa, has only 13. English has about 45 phonemes.”

Fascinating stuff.

Now 50,000 years later, the genetic offspring of those migrating ancestors have released the phoneme-inferior but immensely powerful English language to homogenize the source language(s)!

As noted in the Economist article, native (an incredibly relative term) South African languages are jeopardized by the ubiquity and power of English (mother tongue for 8% of South Africans).

Zulu Lesson
Khosian and Bantu languages alike are unlikely to survive as the mother tongue of most South Africans in six or seven generations unless the government acts on its rhetoric and takes steps to enforce their use in schools.

I am unsure this is even a good idea.

It would only work in incredibly homogenous parts of South Africa, and there is no denying that English offers more economic advantages than Zulu or Khosa—who is the government to tell people that they cannot educate their children in the most economically favorable conditions possible?

For me, thinking about Africa as a “source” is incredibly inspiring; but modern adults should not be saddled with the burden of protecting the source code while missing out on real-life opportunities.