Print This Post Print This Post

The New York Times had a very interesting article on April 14 by Nicholas Wade titled “Phonetic Clues Hint Language is African-born.” There are striking similarities in 500 languages throughout the world. Click-using African languages have 100 phonemes. Hawaiian has only 13, English has 43, so the further from the source the fewer the phonemes, according to the new study Wade writes about. And what about music ? Is there a single source, or did it just arise spontaneously in many different cultural and acoustic environments ? The way the ear organizes sound, in octaves and the cycles of fifths, the physics of harmony, is universal, but as I contend the birthplace of the blues, flamenco, samba, son, and many other minor pentatonic types of New World and Western music (not Peruvian huaynos however), which has been traced to Mali, is actually Rajasthan, India. This sound, this version of what I call the Wail, the sound of our spiritual, romantic, and existential longing, of our aloneness, was brought out by the gypsies in their diaspora from India beginning 1000 years ago. Language is at lest 50,000 years old, maybe 100,000. Is music older ? Language and music seem to involved different parts of the brain. I need to talk to Quentin P. Atkinson at the University of Augland, New Zealand, about the origins of music and ask him if it they have any commonality with the origins of languages. Music, I suspect, could be earlier, a people’s  mimetic response to their acoustic environment, birdsong, insect din. The Inuit have 60 words for different types of snow which are imitations of the sound their feet make when they are walking on them. The bushmen of the Kalahari, who have as I recall five different click sounds,  belong to one of the earliest branches of the human genetic tree. Language retains a signal of its ancestry for 10,000 years. As soon as we got language we became a very dangerous species, Atkinson says. What about elephants, whales, dolphins, and great apes, which have language. How dangerous are they ? Not very, compared to us. So language alone isn’t what makes us so dangerous. Here the Times story :

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *