econintersect .com

FREE NEWSLETTER: Econintersect sends a nightly newsletter highlighting news events of the day, and providing a summary of new articles posted on the website. Econintersect will not sell or pass your email address to others per our privacy policy. You can cancel this subscription at any time by selecting the unsubscribing link in the footer of each email.

posted on 11 October 2017

Evolutionary Biology Can Help Us Understand How Language Works

from The Conversation

-- this post authored by Michael Dunn, Uppsala University

As a linguist I dread the question, “what do you do?", because when I answer “I’m a linguist" the inevitable follow-up question is: “How many languages do you speak?" That, of course, is not the point. While learning languages is a wonderful thing to do, academic linguistics is the scientific study of language.

Please share this article - Go to very top of page, right hand side, for social media buttons.

What I do in my work is to try to understand how and why languages are the way they are. Why are there so many in some places and so few in others? How did languages develop so many different ways of fulfilling the same kinds of communicative tasks? What is uniquely human about language, and how do the human mind and language shape each other? This is something of a new direction in linguistics. The old-school study of language history was more concerned with language for its own sake: understanding the structure of languages and reconstructing their genealogical relationships.

One of the exciting things happening in linguistics today is that linguists are increasingly connecting with the field of evolutionary biology. Evolutionary biologists ask very similar questions about species to those me and my colleagues want to ask about languages: why they are distributed in a certain way, for example, or looking for explanations for differences and similarities between them.

These similarities in outlook allow us to apply all the modern tools of computational evolutionary biology to linguistic questions, giving us new insights into fundamental questions about the processes of language change, and through that into the nature of language in general.

Evolving language

I recently co-authored a new paper with a set of interdisciplinary colleagues. We use methods adapted from evolutionary biology to investigate how a large group of languages had changed over thousands of years.

We chose to concentrate on the Austronesian language family (a huge family of languages mostly distributed along a broad arc from Taiwan to Easter Island) because quite a lot is known about how it spread. With a decent model of the history of a language family it becomes possible to uncover the processes of change within these languages. This is the same basic logic as when Gregor Mendel inferred the principles of heredity by observing how the patterns of variation in the forms of plants were governed by their ancestry. When we understand how the building blocks of language work, we will be further along the path to understanding the human mind.

Map of the Austronesian language family. Vrata / Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA

Languages are a lot more than just a bundle of words. They also include all the principles for combining those words into meaningful utterances: grammar. And, like words, grammar also changes over time. We wanted to discover whether grammar evolves in the same way as words.

The lexicons of a languages (the set of words each language has) change in two ways over historical time: the sound systems of individual languages change - meaning that their words sound different - and words are replaced by other words through processes including meaning change and borrowing from other languages. Grammars change in similar ways. Gradually, as rules morph into new rules (for example, ways of expression become acceptable which in previous generations were unacceptable - think of the who/whom distinction, which has nearly disappeared from natural speech), and in big jumps, as languages acquire whole new structures through processes like reanalysis or borrowing.

Words and grammar

But how close are the parallels between the evolution of words and the evolution of grammar? Answering this question will move us along the road to answering the big questions about the nature of linguistic and human diversity. Using tools from evolutionary biology, we developed a computational model for estimating at what pace and in what manner the different languages of this family evolved. In particular, the model discerned whether words and elements of grammar were evolving at a fast, medium or slow pace.

The diagram below shows how the lexical and grammatical elements of the Austronesian languages evolved differently over the history of the family. The redder branches of the tree show where change happened more quickly and the bluer branches where it happened more slowly. The crosses mark big shifts in the rate of change.

Lexical and grammatical rates of change in Austronesian. Simon J. Greenhill, doi: 10.1073/pnas.1700388114, Author provided

What is clear from these results is that the way in which the words and the grammar of these languages evolved is very different. Interestingly, measurements show that splits on a branch - points in when new languages are formed - are accompanied by a much bigger burst of change in the lexicon than in the grammar.

An important question for further work, then, is to ask what drives the differences in rates of change of different grammatical features. There are hints in the data that grammatical features that speakers are consciously aware of tend to change more quickly, and features which are more abstract and less available to conscious reflection change more slowly.

What next?

As our estimates of the age of humans as a species get older and older, we are realising that human language is not just a recent add-on. Rather, it’s something with deep evolutionary roots in human (and non-human) consciousness. This is important for the science of human cognition in general, with particular significance in psychology and linguistics.

These large scale studies in linguistic diversity have only recently become possible thanks to to parallel improvements in the quality of data we have access to and the quality of the methods we have available to analyse them. Many linguists are embracing the movement towards open data and reproducible science. There are massive interdisciplinary efforts underway to publish open and interoperable data sets in many different domains, and computational tools for studying evolution are becoming richer and more flexible.

But as tools and methods improve, world linguistic diversity is decreasing. Nearly half the people in the world today speak at least one of Mandarin, Hindi, Spanish, English or Arabic, and thousands of smaller languages are facing extinction.

Comparative studies of language are therefore becoming more urgent as a window into the diversity of the human mind.

Michael Dunn, Professor in Linguistics and Philology, Uppsala University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

>>>>> Scroll down to view and make comments <<<<<<

Click here for Historical News Post Listing

Make a Comment

Econintersect wants your comments, data and opinion on the articles posted. You can also comment using Facebook directly using he comment block below.

Econintersect Contributors

Print this page or create a PDF file of this page
Print Friendly and PDF

The growing use of ad blocking software is creating a shortfall in covering our fixed expenses. Please consider a donation to Econintersect to allow continuing output of quality and balanced financial and economic news and analysis.

Keep up with economic news using our dynamic economic newspapers with the largest international coverage on the internet
Asia / Pacific
Middle East / Africa
USA Government

 navigate econintersect .com


Analysis Blog
News Blog
Investing Blog
Opinion Blog
Precious Metals Blog
Markets Blog
Video of the Day


Asia / Pacific
Middle East / Africa
USA Government

RSS Feeds / Social Media

Combined Econintersect Feed

Free Newsletter

Marketplace - Books & More

Economic Forecast

Content Contribution



  Top Economics Site Contributor TalkMarkets Contributor Finance Blogs Free PageRank Checker Active Search Results Google+

This Web Page by Steven Hansen ---- Copyright 2010 - 2018 Econintersect LLC - all rights reserved