If you’re looking at phonemes, that is. Fengxian’s Dondac dialect has 20 vowel qualities, and according to researchers at Fudan University who studied a total of 579 languages from 95 linguistic families, that takes the phonemic cake.
The most tonally diverse language, on the other hand, is the Kam language used by China’s Dong minority. They have 15 tones, and apparently when they talk it sounds more like singing.
The study ultimately focused on locating the origin of modern language:
They found that phonemic diversity declined with the distance from the Caspian Sea in central Asia. The research finding echoes the legend of the Tower of Babel, where different languages appeared.
“The world phonemic diversities may echo the human expansion from the center of Asia about 20,000 to 4,000 years ago,” said Li Hui, the lead researcher of Fudan’s School of Life Sciences.
Their study was published in Science magazine. Or it will be – we can’t seem to find it in the current issue. But browsing Science magazine reveals that this study closely follows another put forward by Quentin D. Atkinson supporting an African origin:
Human genetic and phenotypic diversity declines with distance from Africa, as predicted by a serial founder effect in which successive population bottlenecks during range expansion progressively reduce diversity, underpinning support for an African origin of modern humans.