Archive for the ‘Language’ Category

Language ‘evolution’ may shed light on human migration out-of-Beringia: Relationship between Siberian, North American languages

March 14, 2014

March 12, 2014
Evolutionary analysis applied to the relationship between North American and Central Siberian languages may indicate that people moved out from the Bering Land Bridge, with some migrating back to central Asia and others into North America.

This polar projection map of Asia and North America shows the approximate terminal Pleistocene shoreline. The center of geographic distribution of Yeniseian and Na-Dene language is in Beringia. From this center burgundy arrows extend toward the North American coast and into Siberia. A blue arrow indicates Interior dispersals of Na-Dene.
Credit: Mark A. Sicoli; doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0091722.g004; CC-BY

Evolutionary analysis applied to the relationship between North American and Central Siberian languages may indicate that people moved out from the Bering Land Bridge, with some migrating back to central Asia and others into North America, according to a paper published in the open-access journal PLOS ONE on March 12, 2014 by Mark Sicoli, from Georgetown University and Gary Holton from University of Alaska Fairbanks.

Languages evolve slowly overtime and may even follow human migratory patterns. A proposed language family known as the Dené-Yeniseian suggests that there are common language elements between the North American Na-Dene languages and the Yeniseian languages of Central Siberia. To investigate this further, scientists employed a technique originally developed to investigate evolutionary relationships between biological species called phylogenetic analysis, where a tree is constructed to represent relationships of common ancestry based on shared traits. Scientists used linguistic phylogeny to work out how approximately 40 languages from the area diffused across North America and Asia. The authors first coded a linguistic dataset from the languages, modeled the relationship between the data, and then modeled it against migration patterns from Asia to North America, or out-of-Beringia.

Results show an early dispersal of Na-Dene along the North American coast with a Yeniseian back migration through Siberia and a later dispersal of North American interior Na-Dene languages. Sicoli explained, “we used computational phylogenetic methods to impose constraints on possible family tree relationships modeling both an Out-of-Beringia hypothesis and an Out-of-Asia hypothesis and tested these against the linguistic data. We found substantial support for the out-of-Beringia dispersal adding to a growing body of evidence for an ancestral population in Beringia before the land bridge was inundated by rising sea levels at the end of the last ice age.”

Although the authors cannot conclusively determine the migration pattern just from these results, and state that this study does not necessarily contradict the popular tale of hunters entering the New World through Beringia, it at the very least indicates that migration may not have been a one-way trip. This work also helps demonstrate the usefulness of evolutionary modeling with linguistic trees for investigating these types of questions.

These finding suggest that phylogenetics may be used to explore the implications of deep linguistic relationships.

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The above story is based on materials provided by PLOSNote: Materials may be edited for content and length.

Journal Reference:

  1. Mark A. Sicoli, Gary Holton. Linguistic Phylogenies Support Back-Migration from Beringia to AsiaPLoS ONE, 2014; 9 (3): e91722 DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0091722

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PLOS. “Language ‘evolution’ may shed light on human migration out-of-Beringia: Relationship between Siberian, North American languages.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 12 March 2014. <>.

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Neandertals Shared Speech and Language With Modern Humans, Study Suggests

July 10, 2013

July 9, 2013 — Fast-accumulating data seem to indicate that our close cousins, the Neandertals, were much more similar to us than imagined even a decade ago. But did they have anything like modern speech and language? And if so, what are the implications for understanding present-day linguistic diversity? The MPI for Psycholinguistics researchers Dan Dediu and Stephen C. Levinson argue in their paper in Frontiers in Language Sciences that modern language and speech can be traced back to the last common ancestor we shared with the Neandertals roughly half a million years ago.

The Neandertals have fascinated both the academic world and the general public ever since their discovery almost 200 years ago. Initially thought to be subhuman brutes incapable of anything but the most primitive of grunts, they were a successful form of humanity inhabiting vast swathes of western Eurasia for several hundreds of thousands of years, during harsh ages and milder interglacial periods. We knew that they were our closest cousins, sharing a common ancestor with us around half a million years ago (probably Homo heidelbergensis), but it was unclear what their cognitive capacities were like, or why modern humans succeeded in replacing them after thousands of years of cohabitation. Recently, due to new palaeoanthropological and archaeological discoveries and the reassessment of older data, but especially to the availability of ancient DNA, we have started to realize that their fate was much more intertwined with ours and that, far from being slow brutes, their cognitive capacities and culture were comparable to ours.

Dediu and Levinson review all these strands of literature and argue that essentially modern language and speech are an ancient feature of our lineage dating back at least to the most recent ancestor we shared with the Neandertals and the Denisovans (another form of humanity known mostly from their genome). Their interpretation of the intrinsically ambiguous and scant evidence goes against the scenario usually assumed by most language scientists, namely that of a sudden and recent emergence of modernity, presumably due to a single — or very few — genetic mutations. This pushes back the origins of modern language by a factor of 10 from the often-cited 50 or so thousand years, to around a million years ago — somewhere between the origins of our genus, Homo, some 1.8 million years ago, and the emergence of Homo heidelbergensis. This reassessment of the evidence goes against a saltationist scenario where a single catastrophic mutation in a single individual would suddenly give rise to language, and suggests that a gradual accumulation of biological and cultural innovations is much more plausible.

Interestingly, given that we know from the archaeological record and recent genetic data that the modern humans spreading out of Africa interacted both genetically and culturally with the Neandertals and Denisovans, then just as our bodies carry around some of their genes, maybe our languages preserve traces of their languages too. This would mean that at least some of the observed linguistic diversity is due to these ancient encounters, an idea testable by comparing the structural properties of the African and non-African languages, and by detailed computer simulations of language spread.

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The above story is reprinted from materialsprovided by Max-Planck-Gesellschaft.

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Journal Reference:

  1. Dan Dediu, Stephen C. Levinson. On the antiquity of language: the reinterpretation of Neandertal linguistic capacities and its consequencesFrontiers in Psychology, 2013; 4 DOI: 10.3389/fpsyg.2013.00397
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Max-Planck-Gesellschaft (2013, July 9). Neandertals shared speech and language with modern humans, study suggests. ScienceDaily. Retrieved July 10, 2013, from­/releases/2013/07/130709115252.htm

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Ice Age Ancestors Might Have Used Words in Common With Us

May 9, 2013

May 7, 2013 — New research from the University of Reading shows that Ice Age people living in Europe 15,000 years ago might have used forms of some common words including I, you, we, man and bark, that in some cases could still be recognized today.

Using statistical models, Professor of Evolutionary Biology Mark Pagel and his team predicted that certain words would have changed so slowly over long periods of time as to retain traces of their ancestry for up to ten thousand or more years. These words point to the existence of a linguistic super-family tree that unites seven major language families of Eurasia (seven language families:  Indo-European, Uralic, Altaic, Kartvelian, Dravidian, Chuckchee-Kamchatkan and Eskimo-Aleut).

Previously linguists have relied solely on studying shared sounds among words to identify those that are likely to be derived from common ancestral words, such as the Latin pater and the English father. A difficulty with this approach is that two words might have similar sounds just by accident, such as the words team and cream.

To combat this problem, Professor Pagel’s team showed that a subset of words used frequently in everyday speech, are more likely to be retained over long periods of time. The team used this method to predict words likely to have shared sounds, giving greater confidence that when such sound similarities are discovered they do not merely reflect the workings of chance.

Professor Pagel, from the University of Reading’s School of Biological Sciences, said: “The way in which we use a certain set of words in everyday speech is something common to all human languages. We discovered numerals, pronouns and special adverbs are replaced far more slowly, with linguistic half-lives of once every 10,000 or even more years. As a rule of thumb, words used more than about once per thousand in everyday speech were seven to ten times more likely to show deep ancestry in the Eurasian super-family.”

Professor Pagel’s previous research on the evolution of human languages has built up a picture of how our 7,000 living human languages have evolved. Professor Pagel and his research team have documented the shared patterns in the way we use language and researched why some words succeed and others have become obsolete over time. This is done by using statistical estimates of rates of lexical replacement for a range of vocabulary items in the Indo-European languages. The variation in replacement rates makes the most common vocabulary items in these languages promising candidates for estimating the divergence between pairs of languages.

“Ultra-conserved words point to deep language ancestry across Eurasia” is published in theProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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The above story is reprinted from materialsprovided by University of Reading.

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Journal Reference:

  1. M. Pagel, Q. D. Atkinson, A. S. Calude, A. Meade. Ultraconserved words point to deep language ancestry across Eurasia.Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 2013; DOI:10.1073/pnas.1218726110
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Language Protein Differs in Males, Females

February 21, 2013

Feb. 19, 2013 — Male rat pups have more of a specific brain protein associated with language development than females, according to a studypublished February 20 in The Journal of Neuroscience. The study also found sex differences in the brain protein in a small group of children. The findings may shed light on sex differences in communication in animals and language acquisition in people.

Sex differences in early language acquisition and development in children are well documented — on average, girls tend to speak earlier and with greater complexity than boys of the same age. However, scientists continue to debate the origin and significance of such differences. Previous studies showed the Foxp2 protein plays an important role in speech and language development in humans and vocal communication in birds and other mammals.

In the current study, J. Michael Bowers, PhD, Margaret McCarthy, PhD, and colleagues at theUniversity of Maryland School of Medicine examined whether sex differences in the expression of the Foxp2 protein in the developing brain might underlie communication differences between the sexes.

The researchers analyzed the levels of Foxp2 protein in the brains of four-day-old female and male rats and compared the ultrasonic distress calls made by the animals when separated from their mothers and siblings. Compared with females, males had more of the protein in brain areas associated with cognition, emotion, and vocalization. They also made more noise than females — producing nearly double the total vocalizations over the five-minute separation period — and were preferentially retrieved and returned to the nest first by the mother.

When the researchers reduced levels of the Foxp2 protein in the male pups and increased it in female pups, they reversed the sex difference in the distress calls, causing males to sound like females and the females like males. This change led the mother to reverse her behavior as well, preferentially retrieving the females over the males.

“This study is one of the first to report a sex difference in the expression of a language-associated protein in humans or animals,” McCarthy said. “The findings raise the possibility that sex differences in brain and behavior are more pervasive and established earlier than previously appreciated.”

The researchers extended their findings to humans in a preliminary study of Foxp2 protein in a small group of children. Unlike the rats, in which Foxp2 protein was elevated in males, they found that in humans, the girls had more of the Foxp2 protein in the cortex — a brain region associated with language — than age-matched boys.

“At first glance, one might conclude that the findings in rats don’t generalize to humans, but the higher levels of Foxp2 expression are found in the more communicative sex in each species,” noted Cheryl Sisk, who studies sex differences at Michigan State University and was not involved with the study.

This research was funded by the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke and the National Institute of Mental Health.

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Indo-European Languages Originated in Anatolia, Research Suggests

August 26, 2012

New research links the origins of Indo-European with the spread of farming from Anatolia 8000-9500 years ago. (Credit: Image courtesy of Radboud University Nijmegen)

ScienceDaily (Aug. 23, 2012) — The Indo-European languages belong to one of the widest spread language families of the world. For the last two millenia, many of these languages have been written, and their history is relatively clear. But controversy remains about the time and place of the origins of the family. A large international team, including MPI researcher Michael Dunn, reports the results of an innovative Bayesian phylogeographic analysis of Indo-European linguistic and spatial data.

Their paper appears this week inScience.

The majority view in historical linguistics is that the homeland of Indo-European is located in the Pontic steppes (present day Ukraine) around 6,000 years ago. The evidence for this comes from linguistic paleontology: in particular, certain words to do with the technology of wheeled vehicles are arguably present across all the branches of the Indo-European family; and archaeology tells us that wheeled vehicles arose no earlier than this date. The minority view links the origins of Indo-European with the spread of farming from Anatolia 8,000 to 9,500 years ago.

Lexicons combined with dispersal of speakers

The minority view is decisively supported by the present analysis in this week’s Science. This analysis combines a model of the evolution of the lexicons of individual languages with an explicit spatial model of the dispersal of the speakers of those languages. Known events in the past (the date of attestation dead languages, as well as events which can be fixed from archaeology or the historical record) are used to calibrate the inferred family tree against time.

Importance of phylogenetic trees

The lexical data used in this analysis come from the Indo-European Lexical Cognacy Database (IELex). This database has been developed in MPI’s Evolutionary Processes in Language and Culture group, and provides a large, high-quality collection of language data suitable for phylogenetic analysis. Beyond the intrinsic interest of uncovering the history of language families and their speakers, phylogenetic trees are crucially important for understanding evolution and diversity in many human sciences, from syntax and semantics to social structure.

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