Phoneme Changes for Dating Evolution of Languages

@Christy and @beaglelady, you two have both spent some time discussing the evolution of languages, yes?

Well here’s an article that I thought was fun … if it has already been posted here, I’ll delete the thread… or maybe find some New Article!

PLoS One. 2012; 7(4): e35289.

Published online 2012 Apr 27. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0035289

Dating the Origin of Language Using Phonemic Diversity

By Charles Perreault# 1 and Sarah Mathew# 2 , *
Michael D. Petraglia, Editor

Language is a key adaptation of our species, yet we do not know when it evolved. Here, we use data on language phonemic diversity to estimate a minimum date for the origin of language. We take advantage of the fact that phonemic diversity evolves slowly and use it as a clock to calculate how long the oldest African languages would have to have been around in order to accumulate the number of phonemes they possess today. We use a natural experiment, the colonization of Southeast Asia and Andaman Islands, to estimate the rate at which phonemic diversity increases through time.

Using this rate, we estimate that present-day languages date back to the Middle Stone Age in Africa. Our analysis is consistent with the archaeological evidence suggesting that complex human behavior evolved during the Middle Stone Age in Africa, and does not support the view that language is a recent adaptation that has sparked the dispersal of humans out of Africa. While some of our assumptions require testing and our results rely at present on a single case-study, our analysis constitutes the first estimate of when language evolved that is directly based on linguistic data.

A capacity for language is a hallmark of our species [1], [2], yet we know little about the timing of its appearance. Language appears in the archaeological record only recently, with the advent of lexicographic writing around 5,400 years ago [3]. Therefore, investigators have addressed the origin of language by studying the evolutionary history of anatomical features [4]–[7] and genes [8]–[15] that are associated with speech production. This research suggests that other Homo species had the ability to produce speech sounds that overlap with the range of speech sounds of modern humans, and that species such as Neanderthals possessed genes that, in humans, play a role in language. But we do not know whether these archaic hominins actually produced speech, and if so, to which extent it was similar to our capacity for language. As of now, the anatomical and genetic data lack the resolution necessary to differentiate proto-language from modern human language. Until this resolution is improved, we need alternative lines of evidence in order to better understand the timing of language origin.

Here, we use phonemic diversity data to date the origin of language. Phonemic diversity denotes the number of perceptually distinct units of sound–consonants, vowels and tones–in a language. The worldwide pattern of phonemic diversity potentially contains the statistical signal of the expansion of modern humans on the planet [16]. As human populations left Africa, 60–70 kya, and expanded into the rest of the world [1], [17], they underwent a series of bottlenecks. This serial founder effect has led to a clinal loss of genetic [18]–[20], phenotypic [21]–[23] and phonemic diversity [16] that can be observed in present-day human populations. African languages today have some of the largest phonemic inventories in the world, while the smallest inventories are found in South America and Oceania, some of the last regions of the globe to be colonized.

The loss of phonemes through serial founder effect is consistent with other lines of evidence that indicate that phonemic diversity is determined by cultural transmission forces, rather than cognitive or functional constraints. First, phonemic diversity varies considerably among languages, and several languages function with a restricted number of phonemes. Rotokas, a language of New Guinea, and Pirahã, spoken in South-America, both have 11 phonemes [24], [25], while !Xun, a language spoken in Southern Africa has 141 phonemes. Second, as predicted by theoretical models linking cultural transmission and demography [26]–[28], phonemic diversity correlates positively with speaker population size [16], [29].

And finally, phonemic diversity also correlates positively with the number of surrounding languages [16], suggesting that phonemes, like other cultural traits, can be borrowed. Phonemic diversity not only evolves culturally, but it also evolves slowly [16]. That the languages outside of Africa might have not recovered their original phonemic diversity, despite thousands of years of history in their respective continent, and despite all the historical, linguistic and social factors that lead to linguistic change [30]–[36], suggests that phonemic diversity changes over long time scales. Here, we take advantage of the fact that phonemic diversity evolves culturally and slowly, and use it as a slow-clock to date the origin of language.

[see link for rest of discussion]


Language Log is like Snopes for linguistics pop journalism.

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Yes, that theory didn’t hold up. Phonemic and genetic diversity have some similarities, but the correspondence is not nearly exact. It’s like comparing DNA to language. There are some similarities, but the usefulness of the comparison is limited.

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Hm. I don’t know that I entirely buy the original, but I am not convinced by the refutation, either.

The biggest assumption seems to be that the origin of language should have had a low or average number of phonemes; if it had a high number, their ‘clock’ would be invalid. I am not sure that this should be true, although it is possible since the phonemes had to come from somewhere.

But the refutation does not address this at all, it seems to think that cross-cultural transmission of existing phonemes renders the analysis invalid. This would only damage the original study’s conclusions, however, if it established that novel phonemes were invented and discarded relatively easily. Transference of phonemes between neighboring cultures is insufficient to disprove anything unless it happened so rapidly that the number of phonemes around the world has been effectively randomized, which does not appear to be the case.

I tried to click on the link in the comments to other criticisms in Scientific American, but it didn’t work.

Am I missing anything here?

Here, the author of the paper defends against some initial objections:

Two articles that dispute or call into question that phonemic diversity, unlike genetic diversity, can be attributed to the Serial Founder Effect (SFE).

Worldwide patterns of genetic variation are driven by human demographic history. Here, we test whether this demographic history has left similar signatures on phonemes—sound units that distinguish meaning between words in languages—to those it has left on genes. We analyze, jointly and in parallel, phoneme inventories from 2,082 worldwide languages and microsatellite polymorphisms from 246 worldwide populations. On a global scale, both genetic distance and phonemic distance between populations are significantly correlated with geographic distance. Geographically close language pairs share significantly more phonemes than distant language pairs, whether or not the languages are closely related. The regional geographic axes of greatest phonemic differentiation correspond to axes of genetic differentiation, suggesting that there is a relationship between human dispersal and linguistic variation. However, the geographic distribution of phoneme inventory sizes does not follow the predictions of a serial founder effect during human expansion out of Africa. Furthermore, although geographically isolated populations lose genetic diversity via genetic drift, phonemes are not subject to drift in the same way: within a given geographic radius, languages that are relatively isolated exhibit more variance in number of phonemes than languages with many neighbors. This finding suggests that relatively isolated languages are more susceptible to phonemic change than languages with many neighbors. Within a language family, phoneme evolution along genetic, geographic, or cognate-based linguistic trees predicts similar ancestral phoneme states to those predicted from ancient sources. More genetic sampling could further elucidate the relative roles of vertical and horizontal transmission in phoneme evolution.

Recent genetic studies attribute the negative correlation between population genetic diversity and distance from Africa to a serial founder effects (SFE) evolutionary process. A recent linguistic study concluded that a similar decay in phoneme inventories in human languages was also the product of the SFE process. However, the SFE process makes additional predictions for patterns of neutral genetic diversity, both within and between groups, that have not yet been tested on phonemic data. In this study, we describe these predictions and test them on linguistic and genetic samples. The linguistic sample consists of 725 widespread languages, which together contain 908 distinct phonemes. The genetic sample consists of 614 autosomal microsatellite loci in 100 widespread populations. All aspects of the genetic pattern are consistent with the predictions of SFE. In contrast, most of the predictions of SFE are violated for the phonemic data. We show that phoneme inventories provide information about recent contacts between languages. However, because phonemes change rapidly, they cannot provide information about more ancient evolutionary processes.



The problem with focusing on the auditory aspect of language, like phonemes, is human intelligence is a visual phenomena, because how we learn is how we communicate socially. We don’t listen when learning. Listening only directs our attention. We look with intensity when studying anything. And if we look too long at someone, we’re going to get an unfriendly response like, “Excuse me, is my slip showing?”

I mean, when in a completely different culture and a strange tongue, we don’t babel noises to be understood, well some may, but they do so to draw other’s attention to their misunderstood plight and maybe a bit of sympathy. At which point, only drawing illustrations can they be understood, that, and jump about in a pantomime like silly manner. That’s just common evolutionary sense. Our intelligence, that is our imagination, and thus our language is rooted in vision.

Thus, the infinite spoken aspect of language merely imbue emotional context into our visual thinking. Thus, studying one of the thousands of dialects spoken, at any give moment in history, is not the way to approach language on a fundamental level. It has to be approached visually. That is the reason the metaphorical meaning of the ancient caves escapes us. We are looking for joy in all of the wrong places …

For example, the Ancient cave of Altamira is a unified theory of the galactic cycle; what we call a Great Age. Take a look-see at the image below to understand what I am saying. The ancient were amazingly intelligent. They just spoke on the root language, a level we are now oblivious to --the First-Language of the sub-mind.

Edmund Dalpe, MFA
Author of, Dream Duet


What are you basing this contention on? Do you have any citations to research? In all my special education courses it was noted that Deaf children (unless they are taught ASL or another highly developed signed language from infancy) often have significant language and other educational delays, whereas blind children acquire their mother tongue at a more or less normal rate. (

Says what linguist ever, I wonder? Not any one I have ever heard of.

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By asking for academic confirmation about the visual nature of human language, you have touched on an important aspect about the evolution of language. Not to mention the relationship between the arts and academia. But first, we need to talk about where language germinated.

In a word –Dreams!

Dreams are imagined monologues based on lived experiences, and the metaphorical similarities we all imagine are the basis of social dialogues --archetypes! That is what an archetype is, a shared metaphor. This is where language finds it visual roots.

However, after untold millenniums of metaphorical knowledge building, our language and knowledge became unwieldy and complex. Thus, metaphorical understanding yielded to a belief system, as the basic building blocks to the next level of cognitive complexity. It was simply expedient. Yes, it’s also dangerous, and explains why the earth was flat for so long.

Nevertheless, in today’s linguistic training, we are taught to accept that a symbol represent meaning without question; we cite white papers and peer reviews as fact without any metaphorical understanding whatsoever, which gets back to your initial question.

The religiously trained mind is like a higher level language built upon its metaphorical machine code, thus in no way can the academic mind speak it, because the academic mind is the highest form of cultivation of the religious learner. Likewise, they always asks for confirmation from someone in authority, because they are incapable of independent creative thought.

The good news is, you need no citation or confirmation to know if what I am saying holds any metaphorical water, because language is in our nature. My latest work, Dream Duet helps in facilitating that awareness; a way to access untold knowledge inherent in being.

Edmund Dalpe, MFA.
Author of Dream Duet

I see you are one of those “the academy has totally missed the boat; see my book for the meaning of everything” types. This is usually where I try to exit the conversation. Nice meeting you. :slight_smile:



Thus, when we speak of language, in its most amazing sense, let’s make the distinction between emotional outbursts, which we share with most mammals and our creative intellect.

I know the reason why the trained mind is incapable of seeing language for what it is – visual. Because our intelligence is a visual phenomena. What I don’t understand is why they remain blind after showing them its nature.

I mean, there is no conceivable way that a sound can communicate an abstract idea, because there is nothing abstract about a sound. Like the visual image of a bird, which speak about knowledge of the future. Or the hind which expresses knowledge of the ages. Or a fish which speaks about changes in the mind.

Sure, a melodic melody can stimulate visual ideas in our minds eye, but that is what sense perception does when being probative, it is reaching forward the the visual centers of our mind. It does not work the other way around, at least not in a meaningful way.

Sound, is in no way abstract, it can only express emotions, and as our amazing language is able to express ideas like mathematic, we can dismiss all hypothesis that our linguistic intelligence germinated from our ability to be emotionally expressive.

Edmund Dalpe, MFA.
Author of Dream Duet

Animal-like outbursts of sound are not considered language.

bare assertion

Yes, there is: It is called language.

Irrelevant. All semiotic systems are formed by creating recognizable links between the abstract and the concrete.

Sorry, but this is word salad.

Have you considered how insensitive this sounds to a blind person? You are basically saying non-sighted people have no access to true intelligence or meaning because “intelligence is a visual pheomena.” That is wrong and irrationally dismissive of all the very intelligent seeing impaired people in the world, all of whom have no problem mastering language, by the way.

Bare assertion that is demonstrably false. Bats use sound to locate food. Birds use sound to defend territory. Humans use sound to emotionlessly relay information all the time, like in algebra class.

This conclusion doesn’t even relate to your premise, let alone follow from it.

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BTW, my continued conversation grows from my my curiosity of what it takes, if it’s at all possible to breach the systematically trained mind. Meaning, I am willing to continue this argument, but please don’t simply cite another work as fact, Please talk about why those hypothesis are true in context to our arguments.

For example, When I said, “because there is nothing abstract about a sound.” You said, “Irrelevant. All semiotic systems are formed by creating recognizable links between the abstract and the concrete.”

I don’t get what that has to do with the assertion of human intelligence and thus our language as being a visual phenomena. Nevertheless, you did not speak about semiotics, you simply cited the theory as fact.

Which, I don’t agree with, in terms of how meaning is built. My understanding of semiotics is that it’s a systematic attempt to bridge between the embodied knowledge of the metaphorically visual domain of the natural mind, which is where meaning resides and the trained systematic mind’s sense of logic. IOWs, it’s the trained mind attempt to find meaning in context to its evolved form of thinking, which is void of all meaning.

Anyway, I only have time to address one more of your concerns: You said: “Animal-like outbursts of sound are not considered language.”

Obviously, that is out of context. But, you are right, emotional outbursts do hold meaning, like a yap to convey a dog’s willingness to play or a growl to convey, I’m not in the mood. Or the commanding bark to communicate danger, from which the entire pack stops dead in its tracks. But that’s emotional meaning, it is not abstract meaning, like the bird archetype.

For example, when we dream in third person and see a bird, as opposed to being the bird, in first person, like flying about, our sub-mind is speaking figuratively about something in the immediate future. Because that’s what a bird archetype expresses metaphorically. Look at the image of the Shaft from the Lascaux cave in France to understand what I mean. Because the bird archetype was used in the Shaft in both modalities.

Again don’t simply cite another work as fact, give examples please. Because we do not all agree that every academic cannon is fact. That’s OK … that’s how we emerged from the Dark Ages.

Edmund Dalpe, MFA.
Author of Dream Duet.

That is how arguments work. So, I’m not interested in an argument where people just say stuff with no appeal to any consensus, and no research or evidence to support their contentions. Sitting around and talking about our intuitions and imaginations about how the brain and language works has no value to me. It has no value because cognitive psychology and linguistics are real scientific fields that have produced actual knowledge about these topics, and that is the knowledge that interests me.

Words have definitions. I basically cited the definition of a semiotic system, not a theory. If we can’t appeal to the idea that words have established, agreed on meanings, then we can’t communicate.

It’s hard to have a discussion when you invent novel definitions of terms.

Let me ask one more question, do you see the connection between language and dreams?

Edmund Dalpe, MFA.
Author of Dream Duet.

The connection? I see connections. We often dream in language, though not necessarily. We describe dreams with language. Both language and dreams originate in our brains and are constructed with reference to our experiences and interactions in the physical world.

OK, we will have to leave it at that. BTW, the sub-mind does not speak English or Russian for that matter. It speaks in archetypes.

Edmund Dalpe, MFA.
Author of Dream Duet.

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