Explore how six college students use the language of physical anthropology to study the human origins of language.

03 May 2011

Looking Past the Point of Origin: The Future of Language and Its Evolutionary Implications

“Language is the most accessible part of the mind. People want to know about language because they hope this knowledge will lead to insight about human nature” - Steven Pinker, The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language 

From USA Today: “Analysis: English won’t be sole language of the future”
Have you ever wondered what the future of language holds? Coming from the U.S., I’ve always thought that English would be the leading language for years to come. However, this is not the case. According to Yale linguist Stephen Anderson, English will become a second or even third language to many. Studies show that by 2050, “Chinese will continue its predominance, with Hindi-Urdu of India and Arabic climbing past English, and Spanish nearly equal to it.” The U.S., unlike many countries around the world, might not be ready for this. These other countries are already accustomed to multilingualism, while the U.S. is slowly catching up. In the future, people will be expected to be multilingual, and if they aren’t, they will have a hard time functioning in society. Whether it originated from “ding dong,” “pooh-pooh,” “bow-wow” or “ta-ta,” language has proven to be a major utility that humans need in order to survive.

Evolutionary Biology and Multilingualism
From The Wall Street Journal: “Being Bilingual Linked to Longer Life”
Important Quotations:
  • “A person who speaks more languages is likely to be more clear-minded at an older age, [Gitit Kavé] says, in effect “exercising” his or her brain more than those who are monolingual. Languages may create new links in the brain, contributing to this strengthening effect.
  • “Analyzing the results, the researchers found that the more languages a person spoke, the better his or her cognitive state was. A person’s level of education was also strongly associated with cognitive state, but the number of languages contributed to the prediction of cognitive fitness beyond the effect of education alone.”
  • “A future question for research, according to Kavé, is whether languages reflect an initial potential for prolonged mental fitness, or that learning and speaking more languages actually do something to the brain over time.”
What does this say about future language evolution? Hypothetically speaking, perhaps a neuronal mutation will arise and be subsequently selected for in one or more human populations, giving those individuals with multilingual prowess an evolutionary advantage. You never know.

From Science: “The Future of Language”
“The world's language system is undergoing rapid change because of demographic trends, new technology, and international communication. These changes will affect both written and spoken communication. English may not be the dominant language of the future, and the need to be multilingual will be enhanced. Although many languages are going extinct, new ones are emerging in cities and extended social group." - David Graddoll, "The Future of Language"

“The Demographic Future”:
One cause of this could be that the world’s population grew greatly throughout the 20th century, especially in underdeveloped countries. It has since been evaluated that the number of native speakers of the most popular languages at the end of the 20th century will be very different in 2050. For example, the article states that the number of native English speakers will drop from 372 million to 65 million. This could be due to the fact that the percentage of people who are raised with English as their first language is steadily decreasing. As the article states, “nearly 9% of the global population grew up speaking English as their first language, but that proportion is declining—toward nearer 5% by 2050” (Graddol). The four highest ranked languages, under Chinese of course, will likely have a relatively close total number of speakers in 2050 as there are now. However, the small-scale languages are the ones that are growing the most quickly.

“The Future of Diversity”:
Although it can be argued that around 6000 languages exist today, this article explains that around 90% of those are in danger of becoming extinct: “We may now be losing a language every day” (Graddol). So what does this mean for the future of language diversity? Losing a language can be seen as equivalent to losing an important part of culture, a small chapter of the story of the human race. But even as we lose these old languages, new forms of existing ones and possibly even new languages are forming around us every day. The article brings up the idea that “...the fast growing urban areas of the world are breeding grounds for new hybrid languages—just as hundreds of new forms of English have already been spawned around the world” (Graddol).

“The End of Modern Languages”:
This section explains that we may soon lose what we have come to term “modern languages,” which have been formed over centuries of grammatical and linguistic development: “...the whole modernity project may now be unraveling, taking us into new linguistic landscapes” (Graddol). Old ways of speaking, 16th century Shakespearean English for example, is becoming less and less functional in our everyday speech. Language, especially English, is becoming more “destandardized” due to an influx of international communication. “Written language now much more closely reflects the norms of speech. Dictionaries include the latest slang expressions because they appear in newspapers” (Graddol). As our priorities change, so does our language and what is considered “true and proper language.”

“A Multilingual Future”:
Contrary to a popular belief that began in the 19th century, English will not become the one language spoken by the entire world. It will, however, influence the way the new world of language will be formed in years to come. Instead of speaking only one language, future generations will likely be multilingual. This change is already beginning to take shape in Europe and America. Many European countries begin teaching their children to speak English in elementary school, and most adult students and professionals are expected to speak English in addition to their native tongue. In America, scores of immigrants from Mexico speak both Spanish and English in their day-to-day lives. In the future, English will not be the sole language spoken by the world, but it may be one of many.

“Future of Grammar”:
The future of grammar textbooks may be perilous, seeing as grammar as we know it may become obsolete in years to come. For hundreds of years, grammar, especially within the English language, has posed a huge problem to linguists. It is so complex and changes so often that no linguist has ever been able to create a comprehensive grammar of any language. Because grammar is so hard to understand, future generations may do away with it. Grammar’s function within language will instead be replaced by word patterns and the rhetorical structures they follow.

“Future of Texts”:
With the future will come a change in the way language is both written and read. New technology has made written information become shorter and less regulated, and has incorporated other forms of media as well (i.e., pictures, color, sound and kinetics). With these changes comes a change in availability of complete texts to which the average person has access. Full texts may become so scarce that most people will not even be able to understand them, having been instead used to reading a far more fragmentary, informal version of the written word.

“Will the Future Understand Us?”:
Because language is constantly evolving, there is no guarantee that future generations will be able to understand the messages we leave behind. In fact, according to a prominent American semiotics specialist, there is no way of transferring important information in a way that people in the future will definitely be able to understand. Instead, generation after generation will have to update any dated texts into the modern language so information can continue to be passed on from the past to the present.

That's all for now. We hope you have enjoyed reading our blog. Stay tuned for Spanish and Portuguese translations of all our posts! ;)

“Analysis: English won’t be sole language of the future” (USA Today)
“The Future of Language” (Science)
The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language: chapter 13: “Mind Design,” p. 419 (print source)

20 April 2011

From the Desk of MIT Linguistics Professor Noam Chomsky: Theories on the Origins of Language

From Steven Pinker’s The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language (print source)
Chapter 4: “How Language Works”
There are two facts related to the human ability of conveying and understanding sentences or messages. Pinker describes this ability as the “essence of language instinct: language conveys news." The first method to understanding is “the arbitrariness of the sign.” This means that we understand the sound of the word and the meaning together as one. For example, we pair the word “dog’ with its meaning even though the word itself does not bark or walk like a dog. The second method behind the language instinct was developed by Humboldt and Chomsky. Together they captured the idea that “language makes infinite use in finite media.” Because of this we can decode the order of the words to formulate thoughts. Chomsky called this idea generative grammar, which allows humans to communicate with meaningful understanding (Pinker 75).

The fact that we have grammatical rules and an order to our language does not necessarily mean the sentences always makes sense. Chomsky’s example can be recognized as grammatically correct in terms of syntax, but it is understood only as nonsense: “Colorless green ideas sleep furiously” (Pinker 79) -- SEE ABOVE DIAGRAM.

Chomsky’s theories became famous during the 1960s. Most notable was his “deep structure” idea that referred to hidden and meaningful concepts. Over time it developed into the deep structure of poems and myths. Although the abstract and deep structure ideas have become a major part of our language today, Chomsky and other linguists believe that humans do not need the complicated “deep structure” (Pinker 114). Overall, Chomsky and Pinker believe grammar has a logic of its own and cannot be tied down by psychologists’ ideas, which usually argue that grammar responds to speech muscles and the mental commands that interact with the mind and the muscles. They both believe that learning complicated syntax is not caused by learning itself.

Chomsky’s “principles and parameters” theory posits a guideline (i.e., “super-rule”) for the way a given phrase must look in order for a human to understand. This “principle” become usable only if the phrase exists in a language-specific setting dependent on order. Chomsky argues for the universality and innateness of these super-rules, whose learning consists only of developing an understanding for the culturally constructed syntactical order (Pinker 104). Pinker writes, “The details of syntax have figured prominently in the history of psychology, because they are a case where complexity in the mind is not caused by learning; learning is caused by complexity in the mind” (Pinker 118).

From MIT World: “The Biology of the Language Faculty: Its Perfection, Past and Future” 
Noam Chomsky Lecture (October 2007):

In this video lecture, Chomsky shares some of his thoughts on the biology behind human language. He explores two main components of a language system that has biological roots. The first is what is termed Universal Grammar, and from there comes the growth and learning approaches of an individual. Although a Universal Grammar has been considered controversial, Chomsky argues that the alternative would have to be something as silly as “magic.” There has to be a reason why his “granddaughter picked out part of her environment as language-related, and almost reflexively developed a language while her pet kitten, a chimp or songbird - exposed to exactly the same data - didn’t take the first step and couldn’t conceivably take the second.” Chomsky talks further about a third factor of linguistics involving research that has found that around 50 to 100 thousand years ago, humans had a large leap forward in their cognitive capabilities. This most likely was related to the emergence of language, which we know takes a highly functioning brain. Chomsky’s argument is that in an abrupt change such as this, the materialization as something as near perfect as a Universal Grammar would be possible. This has come to be termed the strong minimalist thesis (SMT). Chomsky links this to the idea of transformational grammar, saying, “A simple form of transformational grammar is just the optimal system, and if you don’t have it, you’d have to have an argument as to why you don’t.”

From YouTube: “Language and the Mind Revisited: The Biolinguistic Turn”
Noam Chomsky Lecture (July 2003):

In a lecture given at the University of California-Berkeley, Noam Chomsky discusses his innateness hypothesis and how it differentiates humans from animals. This hypothesis has been interpreted in various ways by different linguists and refuted by many as well. The basic argument of the hypothesis is that all humans already have some language faculty at birth. From the moment their life begins, every human already knows something about language and is capable of learning more about it. In this lecture, Chomsky notes that there is no one definition of the innateness hypothesis, but many. He explains that the first language a person learns (I languages) is learned in a different way from any language that may be acquired later on in life; animals do not have this ability, thereby distinguishing human language from any other form of communication used by animals.

05 April 2011

Ding-Dong, Pooh-Pooh, Bow-Wow and Ta-Ta: An Overview of Different Theories on Language Origins

Some believe that language is a divine gift given to humans by God, while others argue that language is simply the product of many years of natural selection. Either way, at some point in evolution, humans developed the ability to speak. But how did it all start? How did humans first discover their ability to speak and begin to formulate the first language? Conceived by linguists, a number of “invention hypotheses” explain the possible ways in which language first originated in humans. The following are explanations of a few examples of hypotheses:

From the desk of Western Washington University professor Edward Vadja: “Linguistics 201: The Origin of Language”:
Four Imitation Hypotheses:
1. DING-DONG: The “ding-dong” hypothesis bases the origins of language on onomatopoeia. This idea states that language began when humans started naming objects after a relevant sound that was already involved in their everyday life. Examples include words such as “boom,” “crash,” and “oink.”

These represent the sounds of certain objects, but it is unclear how to provide onomatopoeia for silent objects such as a rock. It also does not consider abstract ideas like love or justice, as there are no sounds for these words. Also, this hypothesis does not supply words for grammar or abstract items in the English language, so it is not hard to imagine that these types of words are unusual and rare in most languages. Onomatopoeia is such a small part of linguistics and varies greatly from language to language.  Because of these limitations it is considered a limited hypothesis.

2. POOH-POOH: The basis for the “pooh-pooh” hypothesis holds true to the involuntary nature of human speech. Through emotional response, language and speech would have developed in tandem with human interaction and primitive emotional reactions. Such sounds as “wa wa wa” or “ha ha ha,” commonly used to denoted crying or pain and happiness or laughter, respectively, would then develop into a more unique and case-specific series of sounds in association with other emotions and interactions (Vadja).

The problem with this hypothesis, however, is that exclamations, such as the emotional responses that one might associate with these “pooh-pooh” phrases, are in fact dependent on language instead of a basis through which language can be created. For instance, the essence of emotional response for pain is “ouch” in English, “oi” in Russian and “eee” in Cherokee (Vadja). If there was a generalized emotional response that all people made independently of each other, then perhaps there would be some legitimacy to the argument. But those noises that we all do make based on the stimuli of sneezes or hiccups cannot demonstrate a common linguistic nature between peoples.

3. BOW-WOW: The “bow wow” hypothesis is the most popular but perhaps the most far-fetched hypothesis of them all. Basically, it is the idea that human language and vocabulary originated as a form of imitation. It is said that language came from the imitation of animal sounds.

The problem that arises in this hypothesis is that a lot of words that describe animal sounds in different languages are similiar. For instance, in English a pig makes the sound “oink-oink.” In Russian the sound is translated as “hyru-hyru” and in Chinese the sound is translated as “oh-ee-oh-ee.” As one can see, these words represent the sound of a single animal in different languages. The sound and pronunciation of these words are not similar. The overall idea is that one’s language determines how one interprets a sound, and since we have may languages, one cannot prove that human vocabulary comes from them.

4. TA-TA: As commonly seen in primates, hand gestures and body movement are important aspects of interaction and cooperation within societies. Originally hypothesized by Charles Darwin, though not necessarily supported by him, the “ta-ta” hypothesis states that language and the development of sound was generated to support the hand gestures and movements of the individual. So as to better demonstrate the meaning behind the gestures, these sounds progressed into more and more distinct words or combinations of sounds inevitably leading to speech patterns.

Although plausible like many of the other hypothesis, the cultural roots of varying hand gestures suggests that this is most likely not the reason behind language. Where in some places nodding means “yes,” in others nodding means the opposite. Such distinct cultural differences implies that this is not a sound hypothesis.

From the desk of Princeton linguistics professor Maggie Browning: “What is generative grammar?”
First theorized by Noam Chomsky, generative grammar is a field of linguistics that involves the functioning of rules and laws of grammar. The four sub-fields that comprise generative grammar include: phonology (the study of how languages sound), morphology (the study of how words are formed and what they mean), syntax (the study of the structure of sentences), and semantics (the study of linguistic meaning). This theory holds that a “language faculty” has run throughout humankind, and that every human is born with the ability to learn or create a language, which therefore points to similarities in all human language forms.

This theory allows linguists to separate the inherited aspects of grammar from the ones influenced by culture, surroundings or other outside factors. By observing all of the commonalities within the various languages across the world, anthropologists gain a unique insight into the interplay of language and the way cultures evolve.

From YouTube: “Chomsky LAD”:
This video explains Chomsky’s idea of the Language Acquisition Device (LAD), which proposes that all humans are born with an innate ability to learn and understand the structures of language.

Relevant Links:
“The Origins of Language”: http://webspace.ship.edu/cgboer/langorigins.html 
     Dr. C. George Boeree’s list of 10 differing theories on the origins of language
“Overview of modern theories of language origins”:
     Includes “yakkety-yak,” “noddy” and “looky-look” theories

What is generative grammar?” (Maggie Browning)

01 March 2011

Language Genes: A Look at FOXP2, ASPM and Microcephalin

From National Geographic: “Neanderthals Had Same ‘Language Gene’ as Modern Humans”
From the point of this gene, there is no reason to think that Neanderthals did not have language as we do. - Johannes Krause, Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, Leipzig, Germany

Many believe that early beings did not have the ability to communicate verbally. While we don’t exactly know if this is true or not, European researchers have found that Neanderthals and humans share a common gene that has been coined as the “language gene,” or FOXP2, which stands for forkhead box protein P2. There are many language genes, but this gene has been speculated to be one of the only genes that are inclusive to humans and Neanderthals. It has also been said that chimpanzees and some apes share a modified version of this gene. While the original mutated form of the gene caused those who had it to have severe speech problems, it is believed that modern human beings have a mutated version of that last gene. Evolutionary geneticist Svante Pääbo states, “Sometime after the human and chimp lineages split off from each other about six million years ago, the gene may have accumulated two changes.” This justifies the reasoning of the different mutated forms of this gene and why the earlier carriers had speech problems, while modern humans are able to speak freely and, in our terms, normally. This finding reveals a possible evolutionary history of our ability to speak and provides further insight into discovering how we developed our language.

From The New York Times: "A Human Language Gene Changes the Sound of Mouse Squeaks"
Identified in 1998, the FOXP2 gene effectively switches on other genes in addition to its active role in "...constructing many tissues, including the lungs, stomach and brain" (Wade). However, the DNA sequence that makes up the human version of this gene is much different from those of mice and chimpanzees. In 2009, while at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, a large team of researchers studied 300 different features of mice "humanized" with the human version of the FOXP2 gene. This resulted in nerve cells developing a more complex structure within the mouse's basal ganglia, which may further explain why baby mice elicited ultrasonic whistles when removed from their mothers. In addition, the humanized mouse's whistles had a slightly lowered pitch. Consequentially, Dr. Wolfgang Enard of the Leipzig institute argues that "...putting significant human genes into mice is the only feasible way of exploring the essential differences between people and chimps, our closest living relatives" (Wade). While this may seem discouraging to some of us interested in discovering the origins of language, we like to see this particular study as an initial step in exploring the potentially vast capabilities of human-mouse gene transferral.


From Scientific American: "A Genetic Basis for Language Tones?"
Exactly what makes people speak the way they do? Linguists Robert Ladd and Dan Dediu have recently conducted studies that may help answer this question. Their research involves why certain languages are tonal, meaning the pitch of words spoken affect their meaning, or non-tonal, meaning the pitch of the words does not matter. This difference in language can be attributed to two genes: ASPM and Microcephalin. The populations who speak non-tonally have a mutation in these genes, and those who speak tonally have no mutation. The mutation in the genes of the non-tonal speakers affects the cerebral cortex, which controls the way the brain processes language. Of course, geographic and historical differences are a factor in the way languages develop, but the researchers found that the genetic mutations were always a stronger factor. This research sheds light on the question of whether language is determined by experience or genetics. Apparently, genetics may be the strongest factor.

From YouTube: "FOXP2, the Mutation that Turbo-Charged Human Consciousness"
In this short video, psychologist Keith Witt discusses a case study in which a family with only a single copy of the FOXP2 gene was functionally retarded, lacking creativity as well as good organizational skills. He goes on to say that this particular gene “up-leveled human consciousness” (Witt), and that major technological advancements, such as jewelry, weapons and musical instruments, arose as a result. Throughout the video, Dr. Witt repeats three times: “I, you, we, it. Past, present, future” (Witt). In essence, the mutation has given humans self-aware consciousness, allowing us to “functionally identify with animals” (Witt) and to time travel through our minds, to the beginning and the end of the universe. Interesting is the fact that this new “capacity for conscious, focused intent” (Witt) has ensured that we, as humans, direct how our brains develop.

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Video Source:

15 February 2011

On the Origins of Language: A Brief Introduction to Past and Present Evolution

Language shapes the way we think, and determines what we can think about. 
                                                                                                                           - Benjamin Lee Whorf

As of this writing, there are 6,900,214,524 people in the world. Is it any wonder why there are anywhere from 3,000 to 8,000 different language and dialects spoken today? Language is the most significant form of communication we have, and yet when do we ever stop to think about where it came from? Out of the countless species of animals in the world, humans are the only ones with the ability to communicate through spoken language. The theories for why and how language came about are diverse and endless. This blog we will explore some of the possibilities and take a closer look at how language has grown and changed, evolutionarily speaking, what it has done for people and cultures across the globe and what the future of language holds for humankind.

The following information came from ideas presented in various articles and videos that we read and watched, respectively, to develop an initial grasp on the origins of language:

According to Judy Kegl, a linguistics professor at the University of Southern Maine, "Language needs company...a community....[and] some kind of trigger." The community aspect of language, she argues, has nothing to do with the number of people living in a place, but has everything to do with the opportunity for sharing important cultural information. As such, language depends on rules, and as far as human communication goes, our languages are driven by syntax. The fact that “...we all share the same human brain” (Kegl) places constraints on language. At the same time, it allows us to be our own “Shakespeares,” if you will, by using a novel blend of words to tell stories, make negotiations and solicit information.

Countless scientists view the evolution of language within separate, often abstract contexts. According to Michael Corballis, human language evolved from manual gestures and switched to vocal modes recently in hominid evolution. As previously stated, other animals have limited forms of communication, like manual symbols and gestures, but humans have evolved to encompass a form of communication that has few limits.  We can understand words and signals we have never seen before. One question often raised under this viewpoint is why calls and vocalizations of monkeys and apes did not evolve into language, but that humans have language that allows us to express a vast amount of reflective narratives.

According to anthropologist and evolutionary psychologist Richard Dunbar, the conventional view of language is as a “...transmission of technically complex information” (Dunbar). However, this professor's experience with eavesdropping on casual conversations has led him to discover that two-thirds of human communication is gossip. So in terms of language, the PBS video “Evolutionary Origins of Language” suggestions that for us, survival of the fittest has become survival of those with the most acute social skills. Dunbar uses monkeys as a contrast to this notion. He states, “The problem with monkeys is that if they don’t see it, they don’t know about it.” Therein lies much of the advantageous nature of human communication as compared to that of other species.

From Scientific American: “Running Dialog: New Languages Rapidly Spring from Old Ones”
This article emphasizes the fact that new language and vocabulary is just an offspring of old language. The 7+ languages used in this study show how the acquisition of new vocabulary has a direct root to older languages of many different countries. Basically, the old language form is a monumental pedestal for novel languages to which each country or native group adapts.

From Science: “Pushing the Time Barrier in the Quest for Language Roots”
This article supports the argument of the one preceding it. An important quote is as follows: “As Darwin noted, languages evolve in remarkably similar ways to biological species. They split into new languages, mutate, and sometimes go extinct” (Gray). Even though many languages have changed over the years as a result of distinct, emerging cultural groups, they still keep traces of their root language. Some languages evolve at a slower rate than others, but the evolution is still evident.

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