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Africa: New Findings Challenge Long-Held Beliefs on the Origins of Language

Language was originated only once; and while many studies of its origins focus on words, a study conducted by Quentin D. Atkinson, a biologist in New Zealand focused on phonemes (the units of sounds by which words are represented) and traced its origin to Southwest Africa. Applying mathematical methods to linguistics, Atkinson discovered that the further humans traveled away from Africa, the fewer number of phonemes survived. 

To put this into perspective, African click languages have more than 100 phonemes, while New Zealand – the furthest migration route out of Africa – has only 13. The modern English language has 45. 

Atkinson’s findings challenge a long-held belief by linguists on the origins of language.

Writing and Language Systems in Africa


Click languages are a group of languages found in Africa in which clicks function as normal consonants. Clicks are used in the vocabulary of approximately 70 percent of the Khoisan language and they are also a part of the first fully articulated human language.


Centralized in present day Nigeria, Nsibidi is logographic and consists of symbols that were used for decorative and communicative purposes. Nsibidi was used in sculptures and clothing and was limited to the powerful and wealthy Nigerians. The Ekpe Leopard Secret Society used it on clothing called Ukara Epe to express their status and wealth. 


The earliest form of writing is traced back to Egypt and the hieroglyphics that were carved on tombs and temple walls. The direction in which figures faced determined if they were to be read left to right or right to left. Egyptians believed their symbols contained magical powers and they valued carving on tombs because they believed their gods would receive their message and protect the deceased.


Centralized in Ethiopia, the Amharic language, like other semitic languages, uses the Ge’ez script. The Ge’ez script is a language from Ancient Ethiopia and is read from left to right. Every language in Ethiopia is derived from this script with their own minor differences. The Amharic alphabet has some letters that aren’t included in the script and consists of 7 vowels and 31 consonants. 


Along the coast of Somalia and Mozambique, Swahili is spoken and centralized in East Africa. It is the official language of Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania, but is also spoken as a second language in other parts of Africa as well. Due to the exchange Swahili people had with South Asian and Arabian traders, they adopted some words into their language. In the 18th century, Swahili used to be written in Arabic script due to the influx of Arabian trading within East Africa. The intensification of trading and commerce in the 19th and 20th centuries from colonial rule also increased the spread of Swahili. 


Maghreb countries are those that are north of the Sahara desert and west of the Nile river — Morocco, Tunisia, and Algeria. These countries, like all Arabic-speaking countries, uniformly speak Modern Standard Arabic. It is taught in school and spoken in the media and in formal writing.

Lagos, Africa – Forecasted to Be The World’s Largest City by 2100

Africa is the world’s second largest and second most populous continent, after Asia. It accounts for almost 20% of the world’s population, with the youngest population in the world. Despite its natural resources and large cities, it is also considered to be the world’s least wealthiest continent (financially).

This gives incentives for domestic and foreign investors due to their own reduction of international competitiveness because of their aging populations. Population influences many policies around the world and a rapidly aging population means less productivity.

People play a key role in cultivating a shared vision and it’s important to understand the language of the continent that has shaped this world as it is today and will play a more significant role in shaping a large part of our future.

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