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1 February 2008

Historical Linguistics Makes the Headlines Again

AKA The evolutionary biologists try their hand at modelling this 'ere thing called language.

"Languages evolve in sudden leaps, not creeps," sez New Scientist today. Oh does it? Well, apparently, that's what some (non social-) scientists in Reading found. I'd love to read this paper as the abstract of the paper by Mark Pagel published in Science doesn't help much:

Linguists speculate that human languages often evolve in rapid or punctuational bursts, sometimes associated with their emergence from other languages, but this phenomenon has never been demonstrated. We used vocabulary data from three of the world's major language groups—Bantu, Indo-European, and Austronesian—to show that 10 to 33% of the overall vocabulary differences among these languages arose from rapid bursts of change associated with language-splitting events. Our findings identify a general tendency for increased rates of linguistic evolution in fledgling languages, perhaps arising from a linguistic founder effect or a desire to establish a distinct social identity.

I did a fair amount of historical linguistics during my degree - in fact, before I discovered the joys of evolutionary psychology, describing (and trying to explain) language change was one of my favourite parts of the course. Semantic change (the change of a word's meaning over time) or lexical change (additions, deletions and modifications to the overall vocabulary of a language) tend to be the hardest to explain away of all the types of language change, simply because the meaning of words and their use are so dependent on context and culture (to some extent, one's accent is too, in some countries, although Italy, for example, has no equivalent of RP). But, if you want to study the history of a language, you have to use the written language and lexical items are the easiest units to study, simply because certain basic concepts seem to be universal and comparison is, thus, easier.

The other thing about studying lexical change is that unlike some types of sound change, the use of a new word to stand for an old concept or of a new concept to be represented by an old word is pretty binary: I either possess the word "internet" or I don't and am forced to paraphrase. According to one model of language change, individual language changes (e.g. the use of the word muptard instead of idiot) spreads from speaker to speaker at a rate that produces an S-curve, with the first 20% and the last 20% being the slowest rate of change. The abstract of Pagel's paper seems to suggest that their results go against the so-called lexical diffusion model, with the most rapid change taking place soon after the language has formed its own branch on the family tree perhaps as part of some in-group bonding type activity. Hay, look at us; we have our own speech patterns that you can't replicate because you're not part of our gang.

Creating phylogenetic-style family trees to represent the "speciation" (or the division of one language into more than one distinct language or dialect) is hardly new in linguistics - it's been going on for over 100 years, in fact. The problem of defining what a language is still remains, though. If we pursue the evolutionary biology model, speakers of the same language are able to communicate to produce fertile conversation (as members of the same species reproduce to produce fertile offspring). But then, the concept of language is often a politically-motivated one: Danes, Swedes and Norwegians are all mutually intelligible to some degree, although Norwegians are better at understanding Swedish and Danish than Swedes and Danes are at understanding each other, and Swedes and Danes understand Norwegian better than they understand each other. It is often convenient, when political boundaries exist to say "Norwegian stops here; long live Swedish" even if there tends to be more of a continuum of intelligibility rather than an abrupt cut-off.

The term "dialect" doesn't help much either, particularly as in some countries, it bears negative connotations of backwardness and peasantry. Until recently (30-40 years ago), no one spoke standard Italian as everyone spoke their own regional variety of Italian, each of which was strongly influenced by the vocabulary and pronunciation of the dialect of the area. Again, it's a fine line between regional variations of a language and dialects.

Presumably, the authors were using some method of linguistic reconstruction, in which you take basic vocabulary items that crop up in all/most languages and trace them back, using cognates in related languages to put together a hypothetical proto-language - the Eve of linguistics. Proto-languages - like Proto-Indo-European - are a bit tricksy because they are based on potentially flawed assumptions and it is easy to think two languages are linguistically related when they are simply geographically close as a lot of lexical borrowing between the two is likely to have taken place, even if the underlying structures of the language are very different. Nor was it likely that this Proto-Indo-European was a homogenous tongue spoken across Eurasia, transcending mountains, lakes and rivers...

One of my main objections, which may well be answered in the article, is that these scientists, who get so defensive when laymen "misuse" words like electricity, don't necessarily exercise the same caution when it comes to other disciplines. I would definitely need to read Pagel's explanation of how he is delimiting a language and when he is beginning to measure its start point before I can really comment any further on this paper. Shame.

In the absence of being able to read the paper itself, the media will have to do. The Economist gets confused by filing its article under the "linguistic evolution" section, whereas I would tend to use linguistic evolution to describe how it was that humans came to have this special communication device known as language, rather than "oh look, words change hands and meaning a lot, particularly when a language is the NKOTB, like" but fair enough. In The Telegraph, a co-author on the paper, Quentin Atkinson, sez:

[Although English seems to be changing rapidly today,] "this is unlikely to be due to the processes we describe in our paper, since English is not currently 'splitting up' into new languages - if anything it seems to be increasingly homogenised under the influence of globalisation and electronic communication."

Perhaps news of the Northern Cities Vowel Shift and the Southern Vowel Shift haven't yet reached the M4 corridor, but one of the most surprising facts about contemporary US English is that although many of the smaller, local language particulars are being eroded over time, these two major vowel shifts are causing the speech of Americans in the north to diverge sharply from that spoken by Americans in the south. This hasn't yet reached the point of mutual intelligibility (although I've never been to Miss-Hippy or elsewhere in the Deep South so I probably can't judge this) but the two varieties are certainly not becoming homogenised. In Rochester, Buffalo and other urban centres along the northeast border with Canada, words like Rochester are pronounced [rahh-chester]; this same [ahh] sound also appears in the south, but in pronunciations of words like time as [tahhm] with a flattened diphthong. NPR has a good interview about this with sociolinguist extraordinaire, Bill Labov, here.

Whether the Yankees are just trying to distinguish themselves from Dixie, and vice-versa, as a means of exerting their own social identity and independence, is something only time will tell. Maybe we are still a long way from fully understanding the motivations for and the mechanisms by which languages change and indeed what causes some changes to spread through a linguistic community. Roger Lass was definitely on to something when he proposed that when it came to explanations of language change, "Even second best is not the same as universal darkness and there may well be areas in which second best is best because first best is simply not possible in principle."

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