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View Diary: Let Them Eat Metaphors, Part 2: Darwin and Schleicher Sitting in a Tree (24 comments)

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  •  I think the number of phonemes in a language (5+ / 0-)

    tends to decrease as you follow the trail of our species from our origins in Africa to the 'ends of the earth'.  A phoneme seems to be "The smallest contrastive linguistic unit which may bring about a change of meaning."  I'd simpilfy that to "The smallest distinct sound that can convey a change in meaning," equivalent to a 'linguistic bit'.  Languages in Africa tend to use a lot of phonemes, including some that involve tongue clicks, that aren't used anywhere else.  The language of the !Kung people in Africa may use the most, 141 phonemes.  (The ! is pronounced as a tongue click, and the word !Kung is pronounced roughly as a tongue click, followed by a ch sound and a u vowel.)  
    One 'end of the migratory road' may well be Polynesia, and indeed, Hawaiian has only 16 phonemes -- and a lot of very long words.  As Wikipedia says, "The total phonemic inventory in languages varies from as few as 11 in Rotokas and Pirahã to as many as 141 in !Xũ."  That !Xu is another way to try to spell !Kung.  Rotokas is an East Papuan language spoken by some 4,000 people in Bougainville, an island to the east of New Guinea.  
    The Pirahã people (pronounced [piɾaˈhã]) are an indigenous hunter-gatherer tribe of Amazon natives. As of 2010, they number 420 individuals.  

    It makes sense to me that as small groups migrated far from the beaten path they could have lost diversity in both their gene pool and their store of phonemes.  
    That suggests to me that if linguists want to find the 'original mother tongue' even older than Proto-Indo-European, they need to look for a lot of its remnants in Africa.

    We're all pretty strange one way or another; some of us just hide it better. "Normal" is a dryer setting.

    by david78209 on Tue Apr 30, 2013 at 07:32:36 PM PDT

    [ Parent ]

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