"Biomarkers": Language as a substance?

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For the past few years, I've been involved in some research on clinical applications of linguistic analysis. And as a result, I've done a lot of reading in the associated inter-, trans-, or meta-disciplinary literature (see e.g. the reading list for a seminar I taught last spring).  This involves assimilating some inter-, trans-, or meta-disciplinary terminology, of which one interesting example is the word biomarker.

The OED glosses biomarker as

A substance used as an indicator of the presence of material of biological origin, of a specific organism, or a physiological condition or process; spec. a diagnostic indicator of (predisposition to) a medical condition.

The citations go back to the early 1970s, starting apparently in the area of geochemistry:

1973 Space Life Sci. 4 69 (title) A search for porphyrin biomarkers in Nonesuch Shale and extraterrestrial samples.
1987 A. Nickon & E. F. Silversmith Org. Chem.: Name Game vi. 94 Steranes, diasteranes, and other skeletal types found in petroleum serve as informative ‘biomarkers’ that give clues about the age and geologic history of crude oils.
1995 Colonial Waterbirds 18 243/2 Finding a reliable physiological biomarker may provide a useful environmental indicator of toxic chemical poisoning.
2003 Washington Post 28 Jan. a2/2 This is the first time since cholesterol that a novel biomarker has been agreed upon to be an independent biomarker for heart disease.

In cases like those,  biomarkers are chemical substances that provide evidence about some  (biologically-related) property or condition of interest, whether in rocks or in waterbirds or in human patients.

But for 20 years or so, biomarker has been generalized in some subfields to refer to behaviors rather than substances:

Bayley, Mark, Jacob R. Nielsen, and Erik Baatrup. "Guppy sexual behavior as an effect biomarker of estrogen mimics." Ecotoxicology and environmental safety 43, no. 1 (1999): 68-73.

Weis, Judith S., Jennifer Samson, Tong Zhou, Joan Skurnick, and Peddrick Weis. "Prey capture ability of mummichogs (Fundulus heteroclitus) as a behavioral biomarker for contaminants in estuarine systems." Canadian Journal of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences 58, no. 7 (2001): 1442-1452.

Here the thing marked is a (biologically-relevant) chemical substance such as a contaminant, but the marker is a (quantitative?) measure of (some aspects of) behavior.

More recently, in the literature I've been reading (and contributing to), a different generalization occurs:

Harel, Brian T., Michael S. Cannizzaro, Henrí Cohen, Nicole Reilly, and Peter J. Snyder. "Acoustic characteristics of Parkinsonian speech: a potential biomarker of early disease progression and treatment." Journal of Neurolinguistics 17, no. 6 (2004): 439-453.

Rapcan, Viliam, Shona D’Arcy, Sherlyn Yeap, Natasha Afzal, Jogin Thakore, and Richard B. Reilly. "Acoustic and temporal analysis of speech: A potential biomarker for schizophrenia." Medical engineering & physics 32, no. 9 (2010): 1074-1079.

Rosenstein, Mark, Peter W. Foltz, Lynn E. DeLisi, and Brita Elvevåg. "Language as a biomarker in those at high-risk for psychosis." Schizophrenia research 165, no. 2 (2015): 249-250.

Now the thing marked is a clinical condition, and the marker is a measure of linguistic behavior.

The hypothesized clinical testing context seems to be crucial — in ordinary life we wouldn't talk about r-lessness as a biomarker for Boston-area dialect, or a sigh as a biomarker for boredom, or even slurred speech and stumbling gait as biomarkers for drunkenness.

In fact the bio- prefix here seems to mean something like "this is serious health science laboratory stuff". Not that there's anything wrong with that.




  1. David L said,

    December 14, 2018 @ 11:31 am

    Just you wait — "Pronoun drop as a biomarker for susceptibility to totalitarianism"

  2. David Marjanović said,

    December 14, 2018 @ 4:12 pm

    In fact the bio- prefix here seems to mean something like "this is serious health science laboratory stuff". Not that there's anything wrong with that.

    That's how our culture is as scientists. Someone finds that including a magic word in grant proposals gets them accepted 5% more often, and promptly everyone does it. And then the magic words go into paper titles, abstracts & keywords, too, to show the funding agencies that they got what they invested in. Bioterrorism was all the rage 15 years ago.

    (Yes, we really are that desperate.)

  3. AntC said,

    December 14, 2018 @ 9:43 pm

    "Inventing Anglo-centric theoretical terminology as a biomarker for Anarchist critique of American Hegemony."

  4. Rose Eneri said,

    December 17, 2018 @ 12:29 pm

    I agree with David Marjanović's comment that "biomarker" is used by folks looking to either get grant money or get published. This reminds me of an article I read about "diversity," a term sure to get loads of grant money and publisher attention.

    The article included "diversity" in its title and used the term profusely in describing a research project that showed black children prefer to be taught by black teachers. The article concluded that the findings prove diversity is beneficial in schools. I wrote to the author pointing out that her research showed exactly the opposite of her conclusion in showing that children prefer to be taught by those who are the same as them, not different. But, of course that sentiment won't get you grants and might actually get you fired!

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