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.”
On this site, we’ve covered endangered languages before, and in doing so we discussed the challenges faced in trying to preserve these priceless forms of cultural heritage and expression. It is a daunting task. I am happy to announce that Google has decided to help out the cause by funding and launching the Endangered Languages Project.
The Endangered Languages Project will act as a hub for interested groups and people to collaborate on research with the aim at documenting & preserving over 3,000 languages that are under threat of being lost to time. Google writes that the site will host resources to help keep some of those alive, such as high-quality recordings of people speaking the languages, copies of historical manuscripts, e-learning options, and even niche-language social networking opportunities, in addition to research and other documentation. They also write about long-term goals,
“…for true experts in the field of language preservation to take the lead. As such, in a few months we’ll officially be handing over the reins to the First Peoples’ Cultural Council (FPCC) and The Institute for Language Information and Technology(The LINGUIST List) at Eastern Michigan University. FPCC will take on the role of Advisory Committee Chair, leading outreach and strategy for the project. The LINGUIST List will become the Technical Lead. Both organizations will work in coordination with the Advisory Committee.”
Again, I am happy to see this initiative deployed. But I will hold with bated breath if this will truly benefit collaboration between linguistic academics or this is just a bit of nice PR like last year, when Google added Cherokee to its list of languages supported in search, though that option doesn’t seem to exist anymore. You can learn more about the project by watching this promotional video:
For many of us, the concept of time is linear. Whether French or Iraqi, the past is referred as behind oneself; the future as the far out expanse ahead. The metaphor seemed to stay constant and the embodied cognition of time was once thought to be universal. We now understand it to be strictly cultural.
This shift in paradigm was brought about in 2006, when researchers studying the Aymara of the Andes, reported of their unique concept of time in the journal Cognitive Science. The past is known and has been seen, and thus lies in front. The future remains unknown and unseen, and is relinquished to be behind the ego. This remains one opposing understanding of time to what we thought as the de facto standard.
To supplement the above, a 2010 paper in the journal Cognition aimed at understanding time among Mandarin speakers. The results were fascinating. Mandarin speakers set the context time differently from people speaking Western languages. In fact, the past is referred as above the speaker. And the future referred to as below the speaker.
A similar paper was published also in 2010, in the journal Psychological Science. An aboriginal group, the Pormpuraawans of Australia also refer to time differently. These people leave references of oneself out of the context of time. Regardless of the directionality of the speaker, time always flows from east or the past to west or the future.
These three recent examples nix the assumption that time is envisioned the same way by all people, a form of cultural relativism in itself. Another unique example was recently published in the journal Cognition by the same authors who studied the Aymara. Rafael Núñez of UCSD and two other colleagues documented the concept of time for the Yupno peoples of Papua New Guinea. The Yupno have had limited contact to outsiders.
The Yupno refer to time not based upon cardinal directions or relative locations. Rather, time is a topographical concept, time winds its way up and downhill. Analyzing films captured of 27 interviewed speakers of the villagers of Gua, the team observed that gestures liked pointing downhill referred to the past, towards the mouth of the local river. The future, meanwhile, was described as pointing upwards towards the river’s source, which lies uphill from Gua.
Núñez and team believe that this understanding is based upon their collective history as a group. The Yupno’s ancestors arrived by sea to their corner of eastern Papua New Guinea and climbed up the 2500m mountain valley. So to them, the lowlands may represent the past, and time flows like how they climbed uphill to their high valley homes.
Within their homes, the Yupno point towards the doorway when talking about the past, and away from the door to represent the future, regardless of the orientation of the home. Núñez says that entrances are always raised, one has to have to climb down – towards the past – to leave the house, so each home has its own timeline. The most remarkable aspect of the Yupno timeline metaphor is its shape. The river that supplies the context to the villagers of Gua does not rest a straight line, but instead the timeline is kinked.
You can read more about their study at this press release.
Núñez, R., & Sweetser, E. (2006). With the Future Behind Them: Convergent Evidence From Aymara Language and Gesture in the Crosslinguistic Comparison of Spatial Construals of Time Cognitive Science, 30 (3), 401-450 DOI: 10.1207/s15516709cog0000_62
Boroditsky, L., Fuhrman, O., & McCormick, K. (2011). Do English and Mandarin speakers think about time differently? Cognition, 118 (1), 123-129 DOI: 10.1016/j.cognition.2010.09.010
Boroditsky, L., & Gaby, A. (2010). Remembrances of Times East: Absolute Spatial Representations of Time in an Australian Aboriginal Community Psychological Science, 21 (11), 1635-1639 DOI: 10.1177/0956797610386621
Núñez, R., Cooperrider, K., Doan, D., & Wassmann, J. (2012). Contours of time: Topographic construals of past, present, and future in the Yupno valley of Papua New Guinea Cognition, 124 (1), 25-35 DOI: 10.1016/j.cognition.2012.03.007
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
Both Razib and Dienekes have put a posts about this new Current Biology paper, “Correlation between Genetic and Geographic Structure in Europe.” The authors of the paper compare the genetic make up of 2,514 individuals from Europe using the Affymetrix GeneChip Human Mapping 500K Array Set.
Always the over achiever of science blogging, Razib has dutifully labeled the populations on the graph. His modifications help better visualize the genetic similarities and differences among and between the European populations tested. And there are some interesting patterns. There’s a similarity among northern European populations as well as a similarity among southern European populations.
Fins tested are the least similar group to other European populations. Swedes and Spanish people are clearly different, while the Irish and British share a lot of admixture among the 500,000 SNPs tested. So what does that all mean? This result indicates that there is a genetic component to European ethnic groups.
Not entirely surprising, because in 2006, we saw the open access journal PLoS Genetics publish a typing of 5,000 SNPs among about 1,000 Europeans and European Americans. In that paper, the researchers were able to resolve the genetic differences between northern and southern European groups. Image below. Also, in January of this year I read and reviewed two papers that did similar tests, comparing 300,000 SNPs between approximately 4,198 European Americans. After some principal component analyses (PCA), there was a clear distinction between individuals with northern from southern European ancestry, as well as separation of Italian, Spanish, and Greek individuals from those of Ashkenazi Jewish ancestry.
PLoS Genetics has also recently published a similar paper, “Tracing Sub-Structure in the European American Population with PCA-Informative Marker,” which announces a purely computational method of identifying ancestry — one that doesn’t require a poll of the individuals’ identified ethnic background. The researchers analyzed 1,521 individuals for more than 300,000 SNPs across the entire genome.
While not as robust of a data set as the Current Biology paper, the authors were able to pluck out 200 ancestry informative SNPs that accurately predict fine structures in European American datasets, as identified by PCA. They did so by removing any redundant SNPs uncovered during the modeling process. Moreover, much of the genetic variation identified were between the northern and southern European ancestry groups.
Going back to the ‘is this surprising?’ point, in 1990, Barbujani et al. noted the delineation of northern and southern Europeans between the distribution of 63 allele frequences, in “Zones of sharp genetic change in Europe are also linguistic boundaries,” and attributed the language affiliation of European populations playing a major role in maintaining and probably causing genetic differences. Makes sense.
- LAO, O., LU, T., NOTHNAGEL, M., JUNGE, O., FREITAGWOLF, S., CALIEBE, A., BALASCAKOVA, M., BERTRANPETIT, J., BINDOFF, L., COMAS, D. (2008). Correlation between Genetic and Geographic Structure in Europe. Current Biology DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2008.07.049
- Paschou, P., Drineas, P., Lewis, J., Nievergelt, C.M., Nickerson, D.A., Smith, J.D., Ridker, P.M., Chasman, D.I., Krauss, R.M., Ziv, E., Pritchard, J.K. (2008). Tracing Sub-Structure in the European American Population with PCA-Informative Markers. PLoS Genetics, 4(7), e1000114. DOI: 10.1371/journal.pgen.1000114
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