WHERE do languages come from? That is a question as old as human beings’ ability to pose it. But it has two sorts of answer. The first is evolutionary: when and where human banter was first heard. The second is ontological: how an individual human acquires the power of speech and understanding. This week, by a neat coincidence, has seen the publication of papers addressing both of these conundrums.
Quentin Atkinson, of the University of Auckland, in New Zealand, has been looking at the evolutionary issue, trying to locate the birthplace of the first language. Michael Dunn, of the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics in the Netherlands, has been examining ontology. Fittingly, they have published their results in the two greatest rivals of scientific journalism. Dr Atkinson’s paper appears in Science, Dr Dunn’s in Nature.
The obvious place to look for the evolutionary origin of language is the cradle of humanity, Africa. And, to cut a long story short, it is to Africa that Dr Atkinson does trace things. In doing so, he knocks on the head any lingering suggestion that language originated more than once.