Language dialect is something that we often pick up unconsciously, so I find it an interesting if narcissistic project to query my own dialect affinities. The above was generated using a 140 question test (warning: server often slow). In case you were curious, my most ‘similar’ city (to my dialect) is Sunnyvale, California. Though most of my life has been spent on the West coast of the United States, I did spend my elementary age years in upstate New York. You can see evidence of that in the heat-map. There are particular words I use and pronunciations that I have which I know are probably relics of my formative years, but it was a little surprising that this survey picked up on that, as I thought most of them had disappeared.
In 1866 the French Academy of Sciences banned discussion of the origin of language. The nature of language in an evolutionary context is a big question which just keeps giving. But obviously the French academy thought that it was giving a little too much without resolution. Despite being fascinated with the topic at one point, and reading books such as The Symbolic Species and The Language Instinct, I’ve come away with the opinion that there’s a lot to the evolution of language which is just unknown. A few years ago some researchers were strongly implying that fully fleshed out language is what led to the behavioral revolution of anatomically modern humans ~50,000 years ago (see The Dawn of Human Culture). But now many scholars are arguing that language may be an ancestral character of the descendants of H. erectus.
Of course to gain some clarity on the evolutionary origins of language we need to think deeply about what language is for. The simplest explanation is that language is to communicate. You tell your mother that you are hungry. You communicate with your peers about whatever cooperative task you are engaged in. But a new article in The New York Times highlighting the discovery in the first generation of a new language emphasizes one aspect that I think we often forget:
My daughter has four grandparents. Genetically she is a little over 25 percent her paternal grandfather and maternal grandmother, and a little under 25 percent her maternal grandfather and paternal grandmother.* Why? Because she is 50 percent genetically identical by descent with her mother and likewise with her father. This is all rather straightforward. But what about culturally?
With biological heredity we can speak of genes, the substrate by which inheritance occurs. With culture memes have been far less fruitful as anything more than an illustration, as opposed to the basis of a formal system of logic and analysis. Nevertheless, we can describe with relative clarity many aspects of culture as a trait or phenotype. And this is important. Recall that evolutionary process was characterized by Charles Darwin despite lacking a satisfying theory of inheritance.
At A Replicated Typo, Most important paper on cultural evolution that includes acacia trees published. The lessons here can be generalized obviously:
Last month saw the publication of a paper by James and I (our first paper!) on the so-called ‘nomothetic’ approach to links between language structure and social structure. In it we review the recent trend of using large-scale cross-cultural statistical analyses to find links between cultural traits and social structures (e.g. Lupyan & Dale, 2010). We show that statistical tests can be misleading because of the nature of cultural systems. We also argue that using statistics alone does not provide strong explanatory power. However, they can be a valuable part of a pluralistic approach to problems – especially generating hypotheses and as a catalyst for debate. Other approaches can help support the suggestions made by nomothetic studies, such as experiments and models.
The paper is open access, Social Structure and Language Structure: the New Nomothetic Approach.
I don’t know the answer to the question posted in title above, and I’m moderately skeptical that he has. But I wanted to give him full credit in the public record if researchers confirm his findings in the next few years. You can read the full post at his weblog, but basically he found that a West Asian modal element in a north British (Orkney) and Lithuanian individual seems to be negatively correlated with a Northwest European modal element and positively correlated with Near Eastern and South Asian components on a genomic level across different models in ADMIXTURE (e.g., does “South Asian” at K = 5 tend to match “West Asian” at K = 8).
Two major concerns:
The Xibo are one of populations in the Human Genome Diversity Project data set, so you’ve probably seen them here and there. They’re a Tungusic group affiliated with the Manchus, which explains why their script is a modified form of the nearly extinct Manchu script.
The Manchurian alphabet is itself a modification of the Mongolian alphabet. Though marginalized by Cyrillic, the old alphabet is making a comeback since the fall of Communism.
In its turn the Mongolian script derives from the old Uyghur alphabet. This has been extinct since the 18th century, having been replaced by and large by an Arabic derived script (there have been experiments with Cyrillic and Chinese, and now Latin, for Uyghur).
The point of this post was to show how cultural connections can stretch long and far, often in strange unexpected directions.
Mark Liberman at Language Log has looked through the Science paper Phonemic Diversity Supports a Serial Founder Effect Model of Language Expansion from Africa. Overall he seems to think it is an interesting paper, but he has some pointed criticisms. Here’s the utility of the post: Liberman uses analogies to domains (e.g., genomics) which are comprehensible to me. My main issue with linguistic evolution is that I’m so ignorant that I barely understand the features being discussed. I may know their dictionary.com definition, but I have pretty much no deep comprehension with which to test the inferences against. By analogy, imagine trying to evaluate a morphological cladistic model with no understanding of anatomy. Here’s the part which may be of particular interest to readers of this weblog:
However, this combination of coarse binning into ranges, for functionally-defined subsets of elements with radically different numbers of members, seems to me to be much more problematic for Atkinson’s purposes. It’s as if a human genomic survey made geographically localized counts of the number of alleles involved in color vision and in blood physiology, divided each set of counts into a few bins (“a little variation”, “a medium amount of variation”, “a lot of variation”), standardized the binned counts for each functional class separately, and averaged the results, thus giving as much weight to each color-vision variant as to several orders of magnitude more blood-physiology variants. This might be OK, but choosing to give this kind of boost to features that happen to be enriched in one region or another will obviously push the results around by a considerable amount
Even if you can’t evaluate the technique in its guts, it is easy to spot some possible issues in the way the data you input into the method is coded or categorized. I hope in the near future this will be less and less of an issue, but it’s a problem which I can understand pretty easily without being very aware of the linguistic details. Also, Liberman’s last paragraph is funny. Though in defense of this paper I think we need to evaluate its plausibility in terms of the overall conditional probability; we often have strong prior models of the origin and expansion of modern humanity, and so we give a particular specific significance to this result. That can of course lead us to greater error than would otherwise be the case if our priors aren’t quite as robust as we’d thought.