Archive for Evolution of language

How rapidly and radically can a language evolve?

[This is a guest post by Alex Wang, a long-term resident of Shenzhen, China]

I was wondering if there have been any studies on how readily a language can absorb new elements and features.

Yesterday at the Pacific Coffee shop near where I live, by chance I struck up a conversation with a professor who teaches economics at the local Shenzhen University.  He heard me speaking with my younger son in English and, when I went to attend my older son, he struck up a conversation with my younger son.  I suppose he was curious about how my younger son's oral English skills were so “good”, since he has a daughter who is around the same age as my older boy.  It would seem many locals want an English speaking friend for their children so as to have an environment to practice.

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Putting the kibosh on bosh

In the "Cultural disappropriation" section of the current The Economist, there's an entertaining and informative article on the latest attempt to purify Turkish:

"Turkey’s president wants to purge Western words from its language:  A new step in Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s campaign against foreign influences"

The whole business is both humorous and hopeless:

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Because of course PRO BE|DO

Ordan Buckley asked:

I'm curious if you have any thoughts on the slangy headline trend "X because of course X". Some examples:

World's largest Lamborghini dealer is in Dubai, because of course it is
Rob Gronkowski crashes Sean Spicer's briefing because of course he did
Seattle just broke a 122-year-old record for rain — because of course it did
Google Daydream doesn’t work on the Galaxy S8 because of course it doesn’t

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Evolving dongles

As of the 1980s, a dongle was "A software protection device which must be plugged into a computer to enable the protected software to be used on it". As of five or ten years ago, dongle had evolved to mean something like "a self-contained device that plugs into a  port on a computer that is normally used for connections to a separate external device". (See "Dongle", 6/3/2009, for additional citations and comic strips.)

But now, dongle is being used to refer to the expanding universe of adapters required to use Apple's hardware products:

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Fitch (and von Humboldt) on monkey talk

Tecumseh Fitch et al., "Monkey vocal tracts are speech-ready", Science Advances 12/9/2016:

For four decades, the inability of nonhuman primates to produce human speech sounds has been claimed to stem from limitations in their vocal tract anatomy, a conclusion based on plaster casts made from the vocal tract of a monkey cadaver. We used x-ray videos to quantify vocal tract dynamics in living macaques during vocalization, facial displays, and feeding. We demonstrate that the macaque vocal tract could easily produce an adequate range of speech sounds to support spoken language, showing that previous techniques based on postmortem samples drastically underestimated primate vocal capabilities. Our findings imply that the evolution of human speech capabilities required neural changes rather than modifications of vocal anatomy. Macaques have a speech-ready vocal tract but lack a speech-ready brain to control it.

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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".
"WORLD LANGUAGES HAVE A COMMON ANCESTOR".

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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Huh?

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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