Between 50,000 and 70,000 years ago, every human on Earth spoke the same language, claims a study published on Thursday in the journal Science by a New Zealand evolutionary psychologist. Based on his studies, Quentin Atkinson believes that as groups of humans migrated further from the original mother tongue the amount of phonemes–distinct units of sound–became reduced, much like genetic traits. The Wall Street Journal has the full story along with some support and dissent, but the verbage of the article a little hard going.

The scientists affirming this theory admit their minority status, but living in Spain, this makes perfect sense to me. While everyone “speaks Spanish,” the accents, dialects, and regional languages are so distinct from one another that an American who learned Spanish in Madrid will have a hard time understanding the spoken word when traveling to Andalucia, where “s” sounds and whole syllables are routinely dropped. If all the Andaluzes moved to Alaska, the language would continue to evolve, but without the phonemes of the “true” mother tongue of Castillian Spanish.

An obvious problem in the scientists theory is that they have no actual language to produce. However, it seems to me that one truth that the theory does land upon is that if language is based on phonemes, on units of sound, it’s clearly different down to the individual.