- Wall Street Journal: “The Mother of All Languages ”
Psychologist Quentin Atkinson counted distinct units of sound, called phonemes, in 504 of the world’s nearly 7,000 languages. He found that sub-Saharan African languages average the most phonemes, while language groups farther away have fewer phonemes. These findings, published in Science, are consistent with the principle that “when a very small number of individuals break off from a larger population, there is a gradual loss” of linguistic complexity.
Atkinson asserts that man’s ancestral tongue developed 50,000 to 70,000 years ago. It then took 50,000 to 70,000 years to “devolve” from its complex original form to the present state. He bases this calculation on assumptions about the rate at which languages lose their complexity, although he admits that “the diversity of phonemes amid a population group can change rapidly.”
In the evolutionary model, man evolved as a brute and eventually developed the capacity to use symbolic language. Atkinson accepts “recent genetic evidence . . . that modern humans emerged in Africa alone, about 200,000 years ago.” (This is the story of the “mitochondrial Eve” which is built on unverifiable assumptions about mutation rates; see “Mitochondrial Eve.”) But why did humans remained confined near sub-Saharan Africa until they had developed a complex language?
Controversy in the linguistic community is being stirred up by another recent study, this one from Nature. Researchers analyzed the grammatical rules of word order in several language groups and found that the patterns were too random to construct an evolutionary language tree. These findings challenge the single ancestral language model.
The findings of these studies are consistent with a biblical worldview, so long as evolutionary presuppositions are ignored. God gave Adam and Eve language when He made them about 6,000 years ago. When people rebelled at the Tower of Babel, God confused their language. Their new languages then lost complexity as small people groups spread out. The languages created then were the forerunners of today’s languages.
Though ancient man was extremely intelligent, and archaeology has revealed that the great ancient cultures possessed writing, many modern languages do not have writing systems.
The multitude of modern languages provides a challenge for Christian missionaries. More than 600 million people do not have access to God’s Word in their own language, and 4,400 languages lack a single verse of Scripture. Translators often must devise alphabets and teach literacy. Though ancient man was extremely intelligent, and archaeology has revealed that the great ancient cultures possessed writing, many modern languages do not have writing systems. While we seek to teach people to trust the Bible from the very first verse, let’s not forget to pray for and support those who labor to translate the Bible and to teach its truths to all mankind.
Statistics on Bible-less people groups are from the Joshua Project.
Read more about the intelligence of ancient man in Donald Chittick’s book The Puzzle of Ancient Man.
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