[Structure] A language area uses ... the farther that they had to travel ....

OED Loves Me Not

Senior Member
Japanese - Osaka
Hello, friends. Could anyone please read the highlighted sentence shown below
and tell me how it is structured?

Dr. Atkinson, an expert at applying mathematical methods to linguistics,
has found a simple but striking pattern in some 500 languages spoken
throughout the world: A language area uses fewer phonemes the farther
that early humans had to travel from Africa to reach it. Some of the click-using
languages of Africa have more than 100 phonemes, whereas Hawaiian,
toward the far end of the human migration route out of Africa, has only 13.
English has about 45 phonemes.
Source: Afrikan perspective: July 2013

How is the highlighted sentence grammatically structured? How would you paraphrase it?
Is the sentence written correctly and idiomatically?

(1) A language area uses fewer phonemes....
Yes, so far I understand it. But...

(2) the farther that early humans had to...
I think I understand the part "the farther" calls for the pattern "the fewer phonemes."
But the original says just "fewer phonemes" instead, without the article "the."
Why is that?

(3) the farther that early humans had to...
What is this "that" doing here? What is the function of this "that" here
in the sentence?

(4) And I just can't decipher the whole sentence at all.

Could anybody please enlighten me? Thank you very much for your time.
  • Bondstreet

    Senior Member
    English (UK)
    The sentence is not very well constructed, so I am not surprised it has confused you.

    It means that as early human populations spread out from Africa, the phonemes in their subsequently developed languages reduced (over a long period of time).

    (2) "the" is not required with "phonemes" in that sentence construction:

    A man uses up more energy the further he walks


    The further he walks, the more energy the man uses

    (3) "that" here emphasises "farther". It could be omitted without altering the sense of the sentence:

    A man uses up more energy the greater the distance (that) he walks...

    You might also be interested in farther/further:

    thefreedictionary.com farther (see 'Usage Note')

    thefreedictionary.com further
    Last edited:
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