What’s the News: Rarely has a humble little sound aroused such interest as in the last few days, as a paper about a phenomenon called vocal fry, a creak in someone’s voice as they speak, has been propelled to web prominence. Though many outlets got some basic facts wrong—the new study doesn’t actually show that fry has become more common among young women, just that it was common in the small group surveyed—all recognized the opportunity to launch into something we wish we knew more about: why we make funny sounds when we talk.
How the Heck:
Likely area of language origin, in white, based on:
A) phonemes found in individual languages and
B) phoneme diversity averaged across language families
What’s the News: Southern Africa may be the birthplace of human language, according a new study published yesterday in Science. The study further suggests that language may have arisen only once, with one ancestral language giving rise to all modern tongues, an idea linguists have long debated. This finding parallels the human migrations out of Africa supported by genetic and fossil evidence.
Researchers traced word rules across more than 3,000 languages.
What’s the News: Noam Chomsky, look out: If language has any universal grammar, it’s hiding really well, conclude the authors of a recent Nature study. The idea that all human languages share some underlying structure, regardless of where or when they evolved, an influential idea that nonetheless has drawn some controversy since Chomsky popularized it in the 1950s. One part of natural-grammar theory is the idea that certain word order rules (whether the verb or the noun goes first and whether a preposition goes before or after a noun, for example) will always associate together, regardless of which language they occur in.
But when cognitive scientists and a biologist teamed up to see whether there were shared patterns in word order across four large language families, they found almost none. A common cultural background, they found, was the best predictor for how a language orders words.