Linguist Carmel O’Shannessy wrote to the journal Language of a newly discovered language, Light Warlpiri. Her correspondence, “The role of multiple sources in the formation of an innovative auxiliary category in Light Warlpiri, a new Australian mixed language,” documents 300 people in a remote desert community about 644 kilometres from Katherine, a town in Australia’s Northern Territory, speaking in a striking auxillary system. She believes it emerged in the 1970’s and 80’s.
The language draws on traditional Warlpiri, which is spoken by about 6,000 people in indigenous communities scattered throughout the Tanami Desert along with Kriol, an English-based Creole language spoken in various regions of Australia; and English. In the Warlpiri language, words can be placed in any order, and grammatical interpretations are based on suffixes that are attached to the nouns. And the imported words have changed meanings so that the structure of the auxiliary model is not the same as they were in the source languages. O’Shannessy explains,
“In Light Warlpiri, you have one part of the language that mostly comes from English and Kriol, but the other grammatical part, the suffixing, comes from Warlpiri.”
Another distinction of the newfound language is a word form that refers to both the present and past time, but not the future. For example, in English, “I’m: refers to “I” in the present tense, but Light Warlpiri speakers created a new form, such as “yu-m,” which means “you” in the present and past time, but not the future.
“That structure doesn’t exist in any of the languages that this new code came from, which is one of the reasons we see this as a separate linguistic system, even though it comes from other languages that already exist,
Here’s an interesting example. Blue words in this color are from Warlpiri, and those in that are red are from English or Kriol. Green colored words are for the creative auxiliary system and verbal structure.
De-m run back rarralykaji-kirra jarntu an yapa-wat ngapa-kujaku.
“The dog and the people run back to the car to get out of the rain.”
Today’s issue of Nature has a brief essay on the role of language in cultural evolution. The authors touch up on a lot basics, such as anatomical localization of brain activity related to language and tool making, FOXP2, and how language has helped humans pass on cultural information more effectively than any other form of communication. Overall, it is a well written review that I want to pass on.
Related, Erin from the Spitton, shared news of the identification of a new language related SNP on the gene CNTNAP2. The paper which reports this is titled, “A Functional Genetic Link between Distinct Developmental Language Disorders,” and was published in the New England Journal of Medicine. I believe it is open access, I got to the full text with no problem. The authors hypothesized that neural pathways downstream of FOXP2 can also affect language impairment.
To identify possible downstream candidates that might be involved in typical SLI, the authors transfected a human brain cancer cell line (SH-SY5Y) to continually express FOXP2. FOXP2 is a transcription factor, meaning it is a controller of the expression of other genes. If it is mutated, it can’t regulate its targets properly and leads to different, sometimes mutant, phenotype. The used a type of test called the chromatin immunoprecipitation (ChIP) assay which identifies how and often where proteins, like the FOXP2 transcription factor, bind to specific regions of the genome. This is done by using specific antibodies that recognize a specific protein or a specific modification of a protein, in this situation anti-FOXP2 antibodies.
The ChIP assay showed that the FOXP2 transcription factor binds to a particular, novel region of interest, the first intron of gene CNTNAP2. When transcribed and translated, CNTNAP2 normally encodes for the protein CASPR2 — a protein that is localized and understood to function in the nodes of Ranvier on myelinated neurons. Of further interest, CNTNAP2 is expressed in the human cerebral cortex, specifically the orbital gyrus and superior frontal anlage, spanning the inferior and middle frontal gyri — all regions know to related to language cognition.
To make sure that FOXP2 was for sure targeting this region, and wasn’t mislead due to any conformational changes that came from the antibody it was complexed with, the authors did some PCR and sequencing and saw that this region of interest, intron 1, does have matching known consensus, binding sequence for FOXP2. They did some other tests that shows that this sequence is highly specific to FOXP2… all of which suggests that this site on CNTNAP2 is definitively a binding site for FOXP2 (CAAATT).
The authors next varied the amount of FOXP2 expression and tried to see if it affects the ultimate expression of CNTNAP2. They were able to show there is a correlation — CNTNAP2 transcript levels were lowest where there are higher levels of FOXP2, suggesting that FOXP2 down regulates CNTNAP2. We haven’t know about FOXP2-CNTNAP2 interactions before, because FOXP2-bound fragment of CNTNAP2 is outside of the classically defined regulatory regions that promoter based microarrays identify… So identifying this pathway is very commendable.
With this downstream candidate gene isolated the authors moved to see how polymorphisms in CNTNAP2 manifest language phenotypes. Their population sample was made up from children from 184 different families where at least one child had a specific language impairment (SLI). The children had wildtype FOXP2, but children who carried the guanine nucleotide at rs17236239 SNP on CNTNAP2 had worse scores on a test that measures their ability to reproduce nonsense words like “brufid” and “contramponist.”
Now don’t get me wrong, this SNP, rs17236239, ain’t on intron 1 — where FOXP2 binds. FOXP2 was used as bait to fish out what gene bites to it. When CNTNAP2 was figured out to be a new novel target of FOXP2, the authors tried to see if CNTNAP2 variations also affect language. And they do. What’s also of interest is that other SNPs in the same regaion that rs17236239 is found also have CNTNAP2 as been linked to delayed speech in children with autism.
I’m really impressed with this paper. It’s a gem. Well written and straight forward. I don’t regularly read papers of such caliber, to be honest… So I really appreciate when I do. The new language related gene is also very important as we begin to piece together the complex network of genes and proteins, anatomy and behaviors that have allowed us to have language and use it.
- Eörs Szathmáry, Szabolcs Számadó (2008). Being Human: Language: a social history of words Nature, 456 (7218), 40-41 DOI: 10.1038/456040a
- S. C. Vernes, D. F. Newbury, B. S. Abrahams, L. Winchester, J. Nicod, M. Groszer, M. Alarcon, P. L. Oliver, K. E. Davies, D. H. Geschwind, A. P. Monaco, S. E. Fisher (2008). A Functional Genetic Link between Distinct Developmental Language Disorders New England Journal of Medicine DOI: 10.1056/NEJMoa0802828
A new paper in the open access journal PLoS Genetics reports on a comparison of genetic, geographic, and linguistic patterns of the diverse populations found on the major islands of the Bismarck Archipelago and Bougainville, Melanesia. The paper is titled, “Genetic and Linguistic Coevolution in Northern Island Melanesia.” I think that Simon Greenhill of HENRY may know a bit more about these populations, languages and region than I, but I’m gonna still try and summarize the paper and briefly discuss the results.
The earliest inhabitants of the area arrived around 40,000 years ago, but there was an additional migration into the region about 3,300 years ago. We know that primarily because of the linguistic diversity. The two major languages are Oceanic and Papuan. Oceanic, being a major branch of the widespread Austronesian language family, and the Paupuan languages, likely descendants of languages spoken by people who began arriving in the region more than 40,000 years ago. The rugged geography of the region has been a cause for a lot of the diversification. Despite their regional affinities, the two languages do not form a very coherent language family.
The study sampled 776 individuals from 33 linguistically based populations, which averages to about 23 individuals per population. Each individual was typed on 751 different autosomal microsatellites. The languages were compared on 108 different structural linguistic features. The authors applied two different tests to figure out if genetic and linguistic similarities were formed following early population splits and isolations or if the genetic and linguistic similarities were formed through continuing genetic and linguistic exchange between neighboring populations.
The authors were able to figure out that genes moved freely than languages between nearby populations, regardless of the language family (compare Figures B to D). Language exchanges, on the other hand, have been particularly limited between neighboring Oceanic and Papuan languages (check out Figure D & F). In certain regions, like the rugged interior of the largest island, New Britain, the authors found strong correlations between genetic, linguistic, and geographic distances when compared to their less restricted coastal neighboring populations. They are almost always distinctly different. While extremely restricted to several islands, this study shows us a scenario where language barriers do not particularly hinder genetic exchange, but geography still does.
- Keith Hunley, Michael Dunn, Eva Lindström, Ger Reesink, Angela Terrill, Meghan E. Healy, George Koki, Françoise R. Friedlaender, Jonathan S. Friedlaender (2008). Genetic and Linguistic Coevolution in Northern Island Melanesia PLoS Genetics, 4 (10) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pgen.1000239
Ivan Nasidze and Mark Stoneking, along with a half dozen or so other colleagues, have studied the mitochondrial and Y-chromosome diversity of the Talysh. They’ve published their analysis in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology. The paper can be found under this title, “mtDNA and Y-chromosome variation in the Talysh of Iran and Azerbaijan.”
The Talysh are an ethnic Iranian group who speak a language that most Talysh identify as Tolish. Not surprisingly, Tolish is an Iranian language, which its origins can be traced back to Medean empire. Currently, the Talysh people can be found in northern Iran — in and around Gilan and Ardabil as well as southern Azerbaijan, i.e. the Lenkoran, Astaran, Lerik, and Massalin districts. Between these two physically separated populations, there exists a big linguistic rift. There’s some loose evidence that both the northern and southern dialects are a hodge-podge of other regional languages. Some, like Donald Stilo, have suggested the two dialects should be considered their own respective languages because they are so different.
Since linguistic differences often manifest along with genetic differences (check out the Spitton’s ‘Genes and Languages: Not So Strange Bedfellows?‘ post), Nasidze et al. investigated the mtDNA and Y-chromosome of the Talish and compared their results to other groups in Iran and the Caucasus. 377 bp of the hypervariable 1 region of the mitochondrial genome was a target, as well as 10 SNPs on the Y-Chromosome from 50 Talysh from Iran and 78 Talysh from Azerbaijan, for sequencing. The sequences have been submitted to Genbank.
Compared to Gilaki, Mazandarani, Turkmen and people from the rest of the Iran and southern Caucasus regions, the mtDNA of both northern and southern Talysh are closely related to each other and neighboring groups. In other words, there’s high amounts of variation with these groups than between these groups for the mitochondrial analysis… which doesn’t support genetic differentiation of the two groups.
But, the variations in the Y-Chromosome of northern Talysh differ from neighboring groups. Southern Talysh Y-Chromosome are very similar to other Iranian groups. The northern Talysh group most closely with Turkmen. Could there have been men from Turkmenistan migrating and influencing the genetic and linguistic composition of the northern Talysh? Sure, about 1,000 years ago, Turkic-speakers, like the Oguz hauled over to the souther Caucasus bringing over Turkic language — now seen in Azeri and Turkish.
But since the Talysh retained an Iranian language, this is scenario may not have been reality. Remember, people, more often than not, reproduce within their linguistic groups… especially in the past. Furthermore, the haplotypes associated with the Y-Chromosome SNPs M172 and M173 do not support a relationship between northern Talysh and Turkmen. Rather, the shared resemblances M172 and M173, are considered to be a by product of genetic drift, either from a founder effect with the initial migrations into Azerbaijan or because of reduced population sizes.
Since Nasidze et al. could not find any genetic evidence supporting the linguistic divergence between northern and sothern Talysh, they suggest that the differences between the two dialects are due to internal linguistic changes, such as contact with other languages. They recommend an in depth analysis/comparison of dialects to figure exactly why the two are so different. Aside from this conclusion, they do add to the history of the Talysh, one where there was most likely a male-limited bottleneck in the founding of the northern Talysh.
I’ve been trying to do some historical research to see if there’s any documented genocide or war in which Talysh populations have plumeted, something that would affect their genetic diversity. According to census from the Soviety Union, between 1926 and 1989, the population of Talysh speaking peoples in Azerbaijan dropped from 77,039 to 21,914. Could this be the drop that affected the genetic diversity of the Talysh? Anyone know the history of the Talysh a bit more?
- Nasidze, I., Quinque, D., Rahmani, M., Alemohamad, S.A., Asadova, P., Zhukova, O., Stoneking, M. (2008). mtDNA and Y-chromosome variation in the Talysh of Iran and Azerbaijan. American Journal of Physical Anthropology DOI: 10.1002/ajpa.20903
About a week ago, I read and posted on a summary piece on cultural evolution research in PLoS Biology. The reviewer introduced me to Simon Kirby‘s work, which I found remarkable. Kirby and colleagues setup an experiment, one that observed the evolution of an artificial language from a set of random terms to an ordered, naturally adapting system in ways that assured its reproduction.
I didn’t know when Kirby was to publish his work, but lo and behold in this week’s issue of PNAS, I saw “Cumulative cultural evolution in the laboratory: An experimental approach to the origins of structure in human language,” by Simon Kirby, Hannah Cornish, and Kenny Smith. The experiment involved showing subjects illustrations that were associated with nonsense words.
The subjects were asked to play a game of Memory, by trying to recall the terms with the illustrations. Regardless of the accuracy of their recollections, the associated terms were used as a foundation of the group’s subsequent language training. This was done over and over, and low and behold, detectable patterns began emerging. Terms began to be used to describe whether an illustration pictured horizontal movement or a bouncing object. The following graphs document the transmission error and measure of structure over each generation:
Clearly there’s some pattern forming. But, Kirby and team understood that these emerging languages were simplistic and limited. So the team switched it up a bit, and discarded duplicate words. This represented a sort of selection, which gave structure and allowed the language to be remembered. Throughout 10 generations, the grammar of laboratory language went from meaningless, ad-hoc bunch of words into an expressive mode of communication. The speakers didn’t change, it was the change in the meanings behind the terms. The following graphs document the transmission error and measure of structure over each generation with selection:
So how did the subjects screen out their own linguistic predispositions? Most humans are exposed to at least one language, which would clearly bias them and affect their abilities to give structure to a set of gibberish. In other words, the ‘selection’ applied could have been favoring structures that matched existing languages.
Kirby said that’s not really a concern, because that languages that emerged in his experiments do not have much in common with the extant languages. And since the emerging languages resembled those from computer models, which did not have preexisting languages to muddle up the waters, then we’re not to worry. Kirby concludes that the,
“The best explanation for our results is the cultural system ‘discovering’ adaptations for all aspects of the transmission bottleneck rather than merely mirroring the native language of our participants.”
- Kirby, S., Cornish, H., Smith, K. (2008). Cumulative cultural evolution in the laboratory: An experimental approach to the origins of structure in human language. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0707835105
Language is a product of culture. Or is it? Which came first — language or culture? That’s like asking if the chicken or the egg came first. But cultural behavior has been documented in animals who do not have language systems, like gorillas who have intricate systems of processing plants. Richard Byrne summarized this behavior,
“Gorillas do not make tools in the wild… but several of their food-processing skills consist of highly structured, multi-stage sequences of bimanual action, hierarchically organized and flexibly adjusted to plants of highly specific local distribution and these abilities are near-ubiquitous among the local population. In terms of intricate complexity, gorilla plant-processing actually exceeds anything yet described in chimpanzees, unless tool-use per se is taken to be intrinsically more complex than non-tool-use. Gorilla, like Pan and Pongo, apparently sometimes relies for its survival on elaborate, deft and intricate feeding skills that are highly unlikely ever to be discovered by a solitary individual.”
This example is just one of many. It documents that culture can be created, persist and change without language. It does so through mimicking and augmentation. So it is generally assumed that culture came first, and language emerged as a system of formalized symbols, sounds, gestures used a means of communicating culture.
Why am I mentioning this at all? Well, we’ve seen, read and reviewed a couple of recent studies investigating cultural evolution and patterns in linguistic diversity. Most notably is the paper by Atkinson et al., where Simon and team showed that language evolves in bursts. Additionally, Deborah Rogers and Paul Ehrlich showed that cultural things have functional and symbolic elements, the former of which is under naturally selective pressures.
Despite these advances, there are some who still think that culture and everything related with culture is nothing but noise. I don’t know where they get this idea from. Even John Herschel and Charles Darwin understood that extant ‘languages descended from a common ancestor,’ and, ‘the formation of different languages and of distinct species, and the proofs that both have been developed through a gradual process, are curiously parallel.’ This observation was made before the publication of The Voyage of the Beagle and without a doubt helped lay the framework for the theory of evolution. The irony is that these vocal objections come from someone who specializes in studying material culture.
Anyways, I digress. John Whitfield, a science writer and blogger behind El Gentraso, has published a feature in the latest issue of the open access journal PLoS Biology where he summarizes “… the Curious Parallel of Language and Species Evolution.” As anthropologists, we should appreciate the remarkable tangents between the dynamics of linguistic change and biological evolution. Because of these similarities, it is possible to use tools and frameworks used in studying biological evolution to study how language changes… even how cultures evolve. Furthermore, it is very possible that we may soon see a synthesis of theories, one that folds in both both biological and cultural evolution.
Whitfield summarizes research by Simon Kirby, which I didn’t know about but find fascinating.
“Kirby has asked subjects to learn a nonsense language and then teach it to new subjects, and so on. He found that the randomness quickly became regularized, as people unconsciously shaped words into something easier to remember and use, and devised rules to come up with words for things they hadn’t seen. Such a process may be at work in the spontaneous emergence over the past few decades of two sign languages—Nicaraguan Sign Language and Al-Sayyid Bedouin Sign Language. Each of these has moved rapidly from a system of gestures to a fully fledged language with conventions for grammar and sentence structure. Kirby plans to use them as a test bed for his ideas about how structure in language can rapidly emerge.”
In the piece, Whitfield also got to ask Mark Pagel‘s what his thoughts are with synthesizing ‘the two’. Pagel is an evolutionary biologist. He was one of the coauthors of the paper with Simon Greenhill and Atkinson. He’s also published an earlier paper with Atkinson titled, “Frequency of word-use predicts rates of lexical evolution throughout Indo-European history.” Pagel responded saying,
“Languages are extraordinarily like genomes. We think there could be very general laws of lexical evolution to rival those of genetic evolution.”
Alex Mesoudi agrees. He told Whitfield,
“If there’s a model system for cultural evolution, then probably the people working on language have got it, because there’s so much data… Cultural change and biological change share the same fundamental properties of variation, selection and inheritance.”
William Croft is a bit more cautious but also understands that,
“these are two different instantiations of a general theory of evolutionary change. These are early days, but such a theory will give us insights that you can’t get just by looking at one domain.”
So what do you think — is it possible to synthesize the two? Or do they exist as two inherently different entities that change under different conditions?
Oh, you may also be interested in this related video discussion between Paul Ehrlich and Carl Zimmer — where Ehrlich advocates that cultural evolution needs its own theoretical framework aside from evolutionary biology. Strange proposition, especially because he used a natural selection framework in his latest PNAS paper.
- Pagel, M., Atkinson, Q.D., Meade, A. (2007). Frequency of word-use predicts rates of lexical evolution throughout Indo-European history. Nature, 449(7163), 717-720. DOI: 10.1038/nature06176
- Byrne, R.W. (2007). Culture in great apes: using intricate complexity in feeding skills to trace the evolutionary origin of human technical prowess. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 362(1480), 577-585. DOI: 10.1098/rstb.2006.1996
- Whitfield, J. (2008). Across the Curious Parallel of Language and Species Evolution. PLoS Biology, 6(7), e186. DOI: 10.1371/journal.pbio.0060186
The linguistic diversity of the Caucasus is a unique phenomenon, similar to that of New Guinea. There are approximately 6,000 languages spoken throughout the world currently and about 820 (~14%) of them are spoken in New Guinea. In the Caucasus, you can expect to find representative languages from the Kartvelian, Abkhaz-Adyghe, Lesgian, Nakh, Indo-European, Avar-Andi-Dido, Andi, Dido/Tsez, Lak-Dargwa, Turkic language families. This image to the right documents the ethnic and linguistic diversity of the Cacasus region:
Curiously, neighboring regions, such as the Middle East and Europe, do not exhibit such a diverse array of languages. In a review piece, Bernard Comrie writes about the, “Linguistic Diversity in the Caucasus.” Linguistically diverse regions are important in understanding cultural evolution. Comrie describes these regions to be critical accretion zones — areas where population growth has added new layers in geneology, societal structure, etc. which has all effected the variation in the languages of the Caucasus.
Comrie describes the languages and their affiliations along with their divergences and convergences. He’s also offered up some useful resources, such as this map of languages in the area. If you would like a copy of this paper for academic purposes, let me know and I’ll email you it.
- Comrie, B. (2008). Linguistic Diversity in the Caucasus. Annual Review of Anthropology, 37, 131-143. DOI: 10.1146/annurev.anthro.35.081705.123248
I’ve been extremely busy this last week. Busy with finals and organizing my graduation ceremonies to keep up with blogging. I finally got some time to catch up, take a deep breath and dive into the backlog of anthropology news. I’ve found some interesting things and will blog about it now that my life isn’t in overdrive.
For those interested in Mesoamerican linguistics, is this interactive exercise in learning how to read and speak in Mayan. I found it off of Digg and it comes from the “Cracking the Code” initiative which I mentioned in April. This exercise is based off of Stela 3, which is currently on found on a pyramid at the Maya site of Piedras Negras in northwestern Guatemala, more information about Stela 3 can be found here. In this excercise, you’ll see ancient Maya glyphs from Stela 3 on the left and to the right are the phonetic transcriptions of the glyph and sound bite (spoken by Barbara MacLeod). Accompanying notes help translate each glyph’s meaning. You’ll get a good taste of how the language sounds and flows, as well as some insight into hieroglyphic languages.
Here’s a screenshot of the interactive Flash application:
About 9 months ago, I shared some news of language extinction and the conservation efforts of K. David Harrison and David Anderson. My coverage was far from a thorough treatment of the subject, partially because I know little about the problem and the ways to remedy it. Fast forward to today, where I come across this video posted by Simon Greenhill on his blog HENRY.
The video is an interview of well spoken linguistic anthropologist K. David Harrison, by host Mark Molaro. In the video, David touches on many aspects, such as ownership of a language and what he considers ‘the greatest conservation challenge’ of humans. For anyone interested in the subject, I recommend you check out this 26 minute interview. Harrison integrates cultural issues as well as the importance of knowledge locked in unknown languages that can be useful to other disciplines such as botanists and zoologists.
Ownership of a language is a critical concept to understand. Speakers of widely spoken languages such as English, French, Chinese, Spanish, may not consider much ownership to their language. But to those who are one of the few speakers of a dying language, such as Chulym where only 30 or so speakers are alive, feel more attached to their language — it is something they identify with.
Harrison also outlines ‘the greatest conservation challenge’ of humans. See, every 2 weeks or so a language dies off. In contrast, species are going extinct at a much slower rate and yet a monumental conservation effort is put into saving this from happening. But studying, saving and/or curating languages aren’t given the same dedication as ecological or archaeological conservation. It is ironic that language, perhaps the most complex monument to human genius, has been ignored in our efforts to conserve the rest of the world.
Support is required from outside to conserve language, and with that a change in the ways we approach language is needed. Harrison suggests that while curating a language is critical to the conservation, understanding the folk taxonomy, a.k.a. the folksonomy, is also imperative. He brings up examples of different single word terms to refer to different reindeer in some Siberian languages. When translated, these single words unravel into elaborate, information packed phrases. He uses that to explain how often times there is a lot of local knowledge hidden lesser spoken language, that can span millennia. Harrison advocates that other researchers entertain the possibility that languages are an untapped resource for knowledge.
But to do that, a restructuring of how we consider discovery is needed. We, as academics, are largely stuck in this colonial paradigm of how discovery is approached. Many zoologists, botanists, even anthropologists and archaeologists discover new things without absorbing native knowledge. It is an awfully imperial way of looking about it, if Western culture doesn’t know about it the rest of the world never know about it! But who’s to say local peoples didn’t know about a certain plant or animal for ages prior to the “Western discovery”? We need people to acknowledge the vast body of knowledge out there, locked in indigenous, endangered languages.
Harrison wraps up his talk emphasizing how language is an infinite system, and I couldn’t agree with him more. He’s put particular consideration on local knowledge, but there is also a lot of knowledge that can be extracted from language — such as human migrations, which will have gaping holes if languages are allowed to erode at the rates they are now.