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.
A reader pointed me to this critique of Nick Wades’ telling in The New York Times Reports that the recent Reich et al. paper on Native Americans is a vindication of Joseph Greenberg’s ideas on the languages of the Americas. 90-Year-Old Consensus:
Nicholas Wade’s reported the Reich et al. research in the New York Times (July 11, 2012). Wade treats it as a vindication of a three-way genetic (historical linguistic) distinction among languages of the Americas proposed in Joseph Greenberg’s (1987) book of the same name, although Reich et al. do not cite it in their paper in Nature. (The only reference to Greenberg by Reich et al. is to a paper coauthored with Turner and Zegura and published in 1986 as one of the proponents of the three-way split.) The “vindication” here is entirely Wade’s. The bottom line is that this three-way distinction was known linguistically since the 1920s (for example, Sapir 1921). Basically, it’s a division among the Eskimo-Aleut languages, which straddle the Bering Straits even today, the Athabaskan languages (which were discovered to be related to a small Siberian language family only within the last few years, not by Greenberg as Wade suggested), and everything else. That’s essentially the three-way distinction that is constantly credited to Greenberg. We know of many major linguistic families among the “everything else”, worked out painstakingly through well-established methods, but don’t know how the “everything else” language families are connected to each other on a large-scale level.
Let me add that I am skeptical when someone says that a biological genetic grouping corroborates a historical linguistic grouping or vice versa for a simple reason: genetic material and language are transmitted by different mechanisms (I’ll skip my usual joke about this), so in principle a one-to-one correspondence should be surprising.
First, when I first heard about Greenberg’s system in the late 1990s I chatted up a few people who were involved in the linguistics of Native Americans on the issue. They thought he was full of it, but, they were also pretty much opposed to imposing any real coarse structure on Native American languages, including the model which is claimed to be pretty well known above. My sample could be very unrepresentative. I’ll let readers who know more weigh in (note that I’m skeptical of classifying all the “First American” languages into one group after 15,000 years, even assuming they derive from a common ancestor).
On the other hand, the author caricatures the paper which he discusses by suggesting a “one-to-one correspondence.” In fact, the two non-First American groups are genetic, but not linguistic, hybrids. Additionally, the argument that cultural and genetic transmission differ is specious. Certainly it is true, but the two are also correlated due to the effect of culture and language on marriage networks. This seems common sense, but many social scientists in my experience seem to recoil from any disciplinary integration with genetics, and so totally distinguish the character of cultural heritability and genetic heritability.
Mr. James Winters has finally offered his take on Phonemic diversity supports a serial founder effect model of language expansion from Africa. The Return of the Phoneme Inventories:
There are several assumptions made in the paper that I’ve already considered investigating in my own work. Most notable of these assumptions is that the serial founder effect model is the only explanation available. As in population genetics, where numerous papers have supposedly verified the out of Africa model, Atkinson doesn’t really test any other competing hypotheses. It therefore makes it hard for me to accept he’s really shown that geographic distance from Africa is concomitant with a series of population bottlenecks for phoneme inventories. Indeed, with bolstered support for Neanderthal admixture in some human populations, it is becoming increasingly likely that the serial founder effect model is unlikely to hold true in relation to genetic diversity…
… I’m not saying that Atkinson thinks that serial founder effects are solely responsible for the observed patterning (as noted in the quote above)… But I do think the model’s flawed on several theoretical grounds. Specifically, Atkinson hasn’t ruled out the possibility of selection as having shaped these languages according to different socio-cultural niches.
Again, I can’t speak to the linguistics. But overall I believe that cultural evolution has more freedom in terms of the dynamics of transmission, and so is less likely to be captured by an exceedingly general model. In other words I think the space of possibilities of plausible models for the patterns we see in population genetics is smaller than the space of possibilities of plausible models for the patterns we see in linguistic diversity, mostly because the transmission of culture is much more plastic, flexible, and rapid in action.
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.
Several people have emailed/tweeted at me about the new paper in Science, Phonemic Diversity Supports a Serial Founder Effect Model of Language Expansion from Africa:
Human genetic and phenotypic diversity declines with distance from Africa, as predicted by a serial founder effect in which successive population bottlenecks during range expansion progressively reduce diversity, underpinning support for an African origin of modern humans. Recent work suggests that a similar founder effect may operate on human culture and language. Here I show that the number of phonemes used in a global sample of 504 languages is also clinal and fits a serial founder–effect model of expansion from an inferred origin in Africa. This result, which is not explained by more recent demographic history, local language diversity, or statistical non-independence within language families, points to parallel mechanisms shaping genetic and linguistic diversity and supports an African origin of modern human languages.
Though there are major differences between biological evolution, constrained by relatively regular forms of inheritance, and cultural evolution, which is much more potentially protean, I think that there is great potential for unity of model and process. That is why I read A Replicated Typo (and presumably why several of the contributors to that weblog read the content here). But I generally have zero ability to evaluate the linguistic plausibility of these sorts of hypotheses about the origin and development of languages.
The New York Times has an interesting piece, As English Spreads, Indonesians Fear for Their Language. It is dense with the different strands of this story. Basically, upper and upper middle class Indonesians are switching from Bahasa Indonesian to English to give their children a leg up, and are sending their children to English-medium schools. Because these children have a weak command of Indonesian some authorities are fearing for the cohesion of the Indonesian nation. Though the piece alludes to other languages in Indonesia, such as Javanese, it does not emphasize the fact that the widespread knowledge of Bahasa Indonesian was the outcome of a top-down project of nation-building, and that that language is the native tongue of only a minority of the citizens of Indonesia!
Whilst Indonesian is spoken as a mother tongue (first language) by only a small proportion of Indonesia’s large population (i.e. mainly those who reside within the vicinity of Jakarta), over 200 million people regularly make use of the national language – some with varying degrees of proficiency. In a nation which boasts more than 300 native languages and a vast array of ethnic groups, the use of proper or ‘good and correct’ Indonesian (as opposed to Indonesian slang or regional dialects) is an essential means of communication across the archipelago. Use of the national language is abundant in the media, government bodies, schools, universities, workplaces, amongst members of the Indonesian upper-class or nobility and also in many other formal situations.