The thousands of languages spoken in the world today can be traced back to a "mother tongue of mother tongues" that arose in Africa around 50,000 years ago, a new study suggests. The lead researcher, evolutionary psychologist Quentin Atkinson, borrowed a few ideas from genetic researchers, the Wall Street Journal notes. He found that, much like genetic diversity, the number of distinct sounds in a language decreases the further away from Africa populations had to travel in the early days of humanity.
Some languages in southern Africa have more than 100 phonemes while German has 41 and Hawaiian only 13. Atkinson believes that spoken language first arose amid early humans in Africa and was carried with the relatively small groups of migrants who left the continent and eventually spread around the world. But the Journal notes that while as much as 85% of the genetic diversity of populations can be tied to distance from Africa, only 19% of phonemic diversity can be, a percentage Atkinson calls statistically significant. (Read more human evolution stories.)