Archive for Evolution of language

Annals of Spectacularly Misleading Media

If you were scanning science-related stories in the mass media over the past 10 days or so, you saw some extraordinary news. A few examples:

"Scientists discover a ‘universal human language’".
"The hidden sound patterns that could overturn years of linguistic theory" ("In a surprising new study, researchers have uncovered powerful associations between sounds and meanings across thousands of unrelated languages").
"Global human language? Scientists find links between sound and meaning" ("A new linguistic study suggests that biology could play a role in the invention of human languages").
"In world's languages, scientists discover shared links between sound and meaning" ("Sifting through two-thirds of the world’s languages, scientists have discovered a strange pattern: Words with the same meanings in different languages often seem to share the same sounds").
"Words with same meanings in different languages often seem to share same sounds" ("After analyzing two-thirds of the languages worldwide, scientists have noticed an odd pattern. They have found that the words with same meaning in different languages often apparently have the same sounds").
"Unrelated Languages Often Use Same Sounds for Common Objects and Ideas, Research Finds".
"Researchers Find the Sounds We Build Words From Have Built-In Meanings".

The trouble is, many of these reports are complete nonsense: no one "discovered a universal human language" or "overturned years of linguistic theory" or showed that "world languages have a common ancestor" or demonstrated that "the sounds we build words from have built-in meanings". And other stories simply trumpet as news something that has been known, argued, or assumed for millennia: "biology could play a role in the invention of human language", "words with the same meaning in different languages often have the same sounds", etc.) There may be a story out there that soberly presents the actual content and significance of the research — but if so, I haven't found it.

How did this happen? It seems to be the same old sad tale. Science writers, in search of sensational headlines and lacking adequate background to read and evaluate actual scientific papers, re-wrote wildly irresponsible press releases.  And as usual, it's not clear how complicit the scientists were, but there's little evidence that they tried very hard to tone down the hoopla.

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Common language

Provocative research results reported in Sci-News (9/13/16), "Unrelated Languages Often Use Same Sounds for Common Objects and Ideas, Research Finds":

A careful statistical examination of words from 6,000+ languages shows that humans tend to use the same sounds for common objects and ideas, no matter what language they’re speaking.

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Tom Wolfe takes on linguistics

Or maybe I should say, Tom Wolfe's take on linguistics.

I've been an avid reader of Tom Wolfe's works since the 60s:  The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, Radical Chic & Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers, The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby, The Right Stuff, The Painted Word, Bonfire of the Vanities).  What I like most about his non-fiction is that, as a leader and exponent of the New Journalism, he writes with a flair that captures the reader's attention without sacrificing accuracy and objectivity.  What attracts me to his novels is that they convey the impression of having been based on a huge amount of research, without in the least being turgid or dull.

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"This infant Babel"

From Doctor Science, posted in a LLOG comment due to email difficulties:

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Commentary on "The Mystery of Language Evolution"

This is a guest post by Herbert Terrace and Michael Studdert-Kennedy, in the form of a response to Marc Hauser, Charles Yang, Robert Berwick, Ian Tattersall, Michael Ryan, Jeffrey Watumull, Noam Chomsky, and Richard C. Lewontin, "The Mystery of Language Evolution", Frontiers of Psychology 2014.

Herb Terrace explains:

At Charles Yang's suggestion, Michael Studdert-Kennedy and I would like to offer a commentary to Language Log in response to an article that appeared in 2014 in Frontiers of Psychology […]. That commentary was peremptorily rejected by Frontiers without explanation.

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Where the language diversity is

In the articles-noted-but-not-yet-studied pile: an article on language diversity in a journal that (as reader Ted McClure points out to me) linguists might easily have missed (though at least some linguistics blogs covered it): in Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences (281, 20133029), earlier this year, Jacob Bock Axelsen and Susanna Manrubia published a paper entitled "River density and landscape roughness are universal determinants of linguistic diversity." The abstract says:

Global linguistic diversity (LD) displays highly heterogeneous distribution patterns. Though the origin of the latter is not yet fully understood, remarkable parallelisms with biodiversity distribution suggest that environmental variables should play an essential role in their emergence. In an effort to construct a broad framework to explain world LD and to systematize the available data, we have investigated the significance of 14 variables: landscape roughness, altitude, river density, distance to lakes, seasonal maximum, average and minimum temperature, precipitation and vegetation, and population density. Landscape roughness and river density are the only two variables that universally affect LD. Overall, the considered set accounts for up to 80% of African LD, a figure that decreases for the joint Asia, Australia and the Pacific (69%), Europe (56%) and the Americas (53%). Differences among those regions can be traced down to a few variables that permit an interpretation of their current states of LD. Our processed datasets can be applied to the analysis of correlations in other similar heterogeneous patterns with a broad spatial distribution, the clearest example being biological diversity. The statistical method we have used can be understood as a tool for cross-comparison among geographical regions, including the prediction of spatial diversity in alternative scenarios or in changing environments.

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No dawn for ape-language theory

As you know, I serve Language Log as occasional film reviewer. I reported on Rise of the Planet of the Apes when it came out (see "Caesar and the power of No", August 14, 2011). So I naturally went to see the sequel, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, to report on the way the franchise was developing its view of how apes evolve language. Well, forgive me if this seems pedantic, but the film is supposed to be science fiction, and I have to say that the linguistic science is crap.

I left the cinema half stunned by the visual effects (which are absolutely terrific — worth the price of admission) and half deafened by the soundtrack and Michael Giacchino's bombastic score, but thoroughly disappointed at the inconsistent muddle of the way apes' linguistic powers were portrayed.

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Mark Dingemanse,  Francisco Torreira, and N.J. Enfield, “Is ‘Huh?’ a universal word? Conversational infrastructure and the convergent evolution of linguistic items", PLOS ONE 2013:

A word like Huh?–used as a repair initiator when, for example, one has not clearly heard what someone just said– is found in roughly the same form and function in spoken languages across the globe. We investigate it in naturally occurring conversations in ten languages and present evidence and arguments for two distinct claims: that Huh? is universal, and that it is a word. In support of the first, we show that the similarities in form and function of this interjection across languages are much greater than expected by chance. In support of the second claim we show that it is a lexical, conventionalised form that has to be learnt, unlike grunts or emotional cries. We discuss possible reasons for the cross-linguistic similarity and propose an account in terms of convergent evolution. Huh? is a universal word not because it is innate but because it is shaped by selective pressures in an interactional environment that all languages share: that of other-initiated repair. Our proposal enhances evolutionary models of language change by suggesting that conversational infrastructure can drive the convergent cultural evolution of linguistic items.

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Dolphins using personal names, again

As we have frequently noted here on Language Log, science stories on the BBC News website are (how to put this politely?) not always of prize-winning standard with respect to originality, timeliness, reliability, or attention to the relevant literature. In fact some of them show signs of being written by kids in junior high school. Way back in 2006 Mark Liberman commented on a BBC News story about the notion that dolphins have and use "names" for each other. He expressed skepticism, but the BBC forged ahead without paying any heed, and today, more than seven years later, we learn from the same BBC site once again that Dolphins 'call each other by name'. Yes, it's the same story, citing the same academic at the University of St Andrews, Dr Vincent Janik. (Mark's link in 2006 was unfortunately to a Google search on {Janik, dolphins}, which today brings up the current stories rather than the ones he was commenting on then.) And you don't need to leave the BBC page to see that the story contradicts itself.

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Gene/culture co-evolution

Recommended reading: Simon Fisher and Matt Ridley, "Culture, Genes, and the Human Revolution", Science 24 May 2013. (Another version is here.)

A common assumption is that the emergence of behaviorally modern humans after 200,000 years ago required—and followed—a specific biological change triggered by one or more genetic mutations. […]

This prevailing logic in the field may put the cart before the horse. The discovery of any genetic mutation that coincided with the “human revolution” (6) must take care to distinguish cause from effect. Supposedly momentous changes in our genome may sometimes be a consequence of cultural innovation.

In certain cases this is obvious. Lactase-persistence mutations did not trigger dairy farming; they spread as an evolutionary response to dairy consumption. The higher alcohol tolerance of Europeans relative to Asians did not prompt, but followed, greater alcohol consumption in Europe. […]

Under the culture-driven view, many critical genomic alterations that facilitated spoken language, for example, might have spread through our ancestors after this trait emerged. That is, prior behavioral changes of the species provide a permissive environment in which the functionally relevant genomic changes accumulate. The selective advantage of a genetic change that increased language proficiency would likely be greatest in a population that was already using language.

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Lexical loops

David Levary Jean-Pierre Eckmann, Elisha Moses, and Tsvi Tlusty, "Loops and Self-Reference in the Construction of Dictionaries", Phys. Rev. X 2, 031018 (2012):

ABSTRACT: Dictionaries link a given word to a set of alternative words (the definition) which in turn point to further descendants. Iterating through definitions in this way, one typically finds that definitions loop back upon themselves. We demonstrate that such definitional loops are created in order to introduce new concepts into a language. In contrast to the expectations for a random lexical network, in graphs of the dictionary, meaningful loops are quite short, although they are often linked to form larger, strongly connected components. These components are found to represent distinct semantic ideas. This observation can be quantified by a singular value decomposition, which uncovers a set of conceptual relationships arising in the global structure of the dictionary. Finally, we use etymological data to show that elements of loops tend to be added to the English lexicon simultaneously and incorporate our results into a simple model for language evolution that falls within the “rich-get-richer” class of network growth.

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Caesar and the power of No

I sometimes make my way to the multiplex to see and report to you on important films that bear on language-related matters. (Sometimes unsuccessfully. You may recall my glowing account of The Oxford Murders back in 2008. I do hope the director hasn't got out of hell yet.) Back in June I tried to report to you on a special advance showing of a documentary about a chimpanzee sign-language training experiment, Project Nim, but couldn't get in. I had forgotten to allow for the fact that it was part of the Edinburgh Film Festival and (typical of the intellectual enthusiasm of this city) the place was thronged. Not a ticket to be had for love or money. (I will try to catch Project Nim soon; it is on wider release in the UK as from today.) But last night I had a significant success in that I managed to actually get in through the doors (vital prerequisite for really informed movie review) for a screening of one of the most important recent films on primatology research.

Yes, I went to see Rise of the Planet of the Apes. A rare chance to see a depiction of the actual emergence of language in a new primate species in real time. I promise that very little of the plot will be spoiled if you read on.

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Demagouge (v.)

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