Mother Tongues

a journey through language


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Distant Shores: Did Polynesians Reach the Americas?

There’s all kind of weird stories floating around about Vikings and Celts and Phoenicians sailing around the globe, reaching various distant lands. They’re mostly crackpot conspiracy theories with little supporting evidence.

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Vikings meet Polynesians in the South Pacific? I don’t think so.

But recently I’ve stumbled across one tale of a voyage across vast seas that is defs mainstream-science, thanks to a comment left by the author of Librepost on my Endangered Tongues article:

“…if you really want to hear about an unknown language, try searching for MAPUNDUNGUN, which discoveries are showing may have a Polynesian connection (in South America).”

How intriguing! I had to know more about this linguistic mystery. So I had a chat with Prof. Lisa Matisoo-Smith, a professor of Biological Anthropology at the University of Otago, who studies the settlement, history and prehistory of the Pacific.

A Mapuche Connection?

The Mapuche are Indigenous people who live in Southern/Central Chile and Argentina. Their native tongue, Mapudungün, is a language isolate – that is, a language that doesn’t appear to be related to other languages. (See here for a post on language isolates).

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Image via Wikipedia (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Mapudungün is considered endangered by the UNESCO Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger. It’s thought that while there are more than 1 million people with Mapuche heritage, there are only around 200,000 speakers. And politics isn’t helping the Mapudungün survival-sitch either – it’s not an official language of either Chile or Argentina, plus there’s an ongoing debate about which alphabet to use for written Mapudungün. Let’s hope everyone sorts their shit out for the sake of this mother tongue.

But anyway, what do the Mapuche and their language have to do with Polynesia, 10,000km away? Well, there’s evidence that Mapudungün has been influenced by a few other lingos: Quechua (another Indigenous South American language), Spanish and also Polynesian languages. Ooooohh! Did the Polynesians, who were master sailors and navigators, reach the distant shores of South America?

Linguistic Links

Toki

The word toki is found in both Mapuche and Polynesian languages – it is a potential loanword. Prof Matisoo-Smith explains:

“There’s similarities linguistically related to the toki, which means adze. In Mapuche, the chiefs will often wear a stone adze necklace called a toki kura. And toki in Polynesian languages also means adze. Māori chiefs or high ranking individuals would also wear a greenstone adze or a stone adze.”

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A toki is a stone adze worn by chiefs in both Mapuche and Māori cultures

Pre-European toki have been found at archaeological sites in both Chile and Polynesia, and this combination of linguistic and ethnographic evidence suggests some sort of cultural exchange.

Canoe technology

It’s not just toki either – the Mapuche also have distinctly Polynesian boat technology: the sewn plank canoe.

“Most North American – like Northwest Coast – use dugout canoes and then in South America you’ve got things like rafts and reed boats. But the actual process of creating a canoe by sewing planks onto a hull is a Polynesian design and it’s found in two places in the Americas – one right around the Channel Islands, and one down in Southern Chile in the Chiloé and Mapuche area.”

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The Chiloé Islands are depicted at the top of this image. Via Wikipedia (CC BY-SA 3.0)

The presence of this canoe technology in South America is a pretty credible clue hinting that Polynesians reached the western coast of South America. A UC Berkeley linguist, Kathryn Klar, has investigated this even further, by taking a good look at the words used in Chiloé Island languages associated with canoes.

Looking at the languages in this historically linguistically diverse region is pretty tricky. Many have since gone extinct, and the data that remains is from aaages ago.

In a language from this area, recorded in 1839 as “Patagonian,” we have

tă lĭnă and tă lĭnă cărrŏ

meaning ship and boat respectively. Klar reckons tă lĭnă comes from the Central East Polynesian word for “worked wood” (tumu rakau), while cărrŏ is the native Patagonian word for boat. So, this language borrowed a Polynesian word to differentiate sewn plank canoes from other watercrafts.

In “West Patagonian,” another Indigenous language recorded in Chiloé in 1917,

kiā.lu

means West Patagonian canoe. Klar suggests this originates from a combination of Polynesian bases: tia meaning sew and loa meaning long.

“I’ve talked with a Chilean researcher who was working on Mapuche water rights and looking at the archaeological evidence for the canoe technology. So they’re finding these sewn plank canoes and they all date to about the time we would expect Polynesian contact to occur.”

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A sewn plank canoe consists of planks of wood… you guessed it… sewn together

Controversial Kumara

The humble sweet potato that accompanies your Sunday roast may just seem like a tasty vegetable, but it’s also evidence of Polynesians reaching South America, picking up this humble root, and transporting it back and distributing it throughout the islands.

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Attempted kumara cartoon

“The sweet potato, the kumara, is a root crop and is a familiar looking starch for Pacific people. They’ve been growing yams and taro, so they would have an understanding  of how to plant it and how to cook it – it’s a familiar type of food. That to me suggests some kind of a selection, ‘Oh we’ll take this, and we know how to preserve it and take it back, get it back home.'”

There’s also a linguistic connection between the Pacific kumara (and its variants) and the Quechuan word cumar, which is also used by Indigenous peoples on the coast of Ecuador.

It’s not just words…

…it’s also chicken genes. A Chilean archaeologist, José Miguel Ramírez-Aliaga, uncovered some chicken bones at an archaeological site in the Mapuche area which he believed were pre-Columbian. South America didn’t have chickens until they were introduced, and if they were pre-European contact, then who did introduce them..?

Ramírez-Aliaga got in touch with Matisoo-Smith, who was working on the spread of animals like rats and chickens throughout the Pacific. She analysed these chicken bones and radio-carbon dating showed that they were introduced at the latest by 1424 – definitely pre-European! Genetic evidence suggested these weren’t just any chickens either – these were Pacific chickens. This is excellent evidence for the presence of a few Polynesian visitors (and their chooks).

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Polynesian chickens made it to the New World before Christopher Columbus

A few similar words and artefacts by themselves don’t mean much. It could simply be a case of coincidence. But the big picture of archaeological, ethnographic, linguistic and genetic evidence, with a dash of commonsense, makes a pretty compelling case for pre-Columbian contact.

“Most Pacific researchers would say that it is highly likely that Polynesians made contact with the Americas, just given the sailing trajectory that they were on. Consistently moving in that direction and you know why would they stop? They didn’t have maps or anything that said they’d gotten to the last island and they couldn’t go any further…”


 

Many thanks to Professor Lisa Matisoo-Smith.

Wanna get stuck into this topic? I found this book handy: Polynesians in America: Pre-Columbian Contacts with the New World, edited by Terry L. Jones.

 


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Lonely languages

Just like chimpanzees are related to humans, and lions are related to tigers, languages can also be related to each other.

Think of French and Spanish – they’re part of a language family called the Romance Languages.

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Just as lions and tigers are related to one another, languages are also related to one another – like French and Spanish.

 

But there are some mysterious languages that aren’t related to any other known languages. They’re linguistic islands, cut off from the language-mainland. We call them language isolates.

Orphan Languages?

Language isolates are like orphans and only children – linguists have been unable to identify their parent lingos, and they don’t appear to have any sister languages. Each language isolate forms its own special language family with population=1.

Considering each language isolate to be its own little family, then there are around 350 language families in total. Of these, 37% or 129 are language isolates – that’s quite a few!

It is still possible that most languages on Earth evolved from a single common ancestor. Maybe these isolates did have relatives that have since disappeared or died out.

It’s important to note that language isolates are different to unclassified languages. Isolates remain, well, isolated – despite linguists’ extensive efforts to connect them with other languages. On the other hand, unclassified languages haven’t been studied well enough, or there isn’t enough data, for linguists to classify them. Some unclassified languages may well be isolates – but we don’t know yet.

Unsurprisingly, lots of language isolates are endangered. But there are a few that have absolutely boomed.

Let’s explore a few of these fascinating languages. Here’s a selection from around the world.

Korean

Spoken by 80 million people worldwide, Korean is by far the most successful language isolate. Or at least, most historical linguists consider Korean to be a language isolate – but the writing on the wall isn’t fixed.

Just like Proto-Indo-European is the ancestor of the Indo-European languages, linguists can trace the ancestry of Modern Korean back through Middle Korean and Old Korean to Proto-Korean. Along this path back through history, there are some hypothetical related lingos – like the Buyeo languages. These ancient relatives are now extinct, so ya know, for all intents and purposes, today’s Korean is all on its lonesome.

Or is it? Off the coast of the Korean mainland is an island called Jeju. Here, the locals speak the Jeju dialect of Korean, which is almost unintelligible to mainlanders. Some peeps reckon it’s different enough to qualify as its own language. In this case, Jeju and Korean could team up to form a Koreanic Language Fam.

The distinctive Korean alphabet hasn’t always been fixed either. For over 1,000 years, Korean was written with modified Chinese characters called hanja. These were tricky to get yo head around, so only the wealthy elite were literate.

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Sejong the Great

Enter Sejong the Great: a Korean king in the 15th century, who wanted to establish a distinct Korean national identity. He oversaw the creation of the hangul alphabet, designed so that anyone could learn to read and write. It took several hundred years for hangul to take the throne, but by 1894 it was decreed ~the official~ alphabet.

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Hanja (red) and hangul (blue) via Wikipedia (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Basque

Tucked away in the western Pyrenees, in a region straddling Spain and France, the Basque culture and language blossoms. Unlike Spanish and French, Basque is not an Indo-European language. In fact,  it probably existed before the arrival of the Indo-Europeans – perhaps as far back as the Stone Age. Basque is one of the few surviving pre-Indo-European languages. So cool hey!

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The changing geographic distributions of languages in Southwestern Europe. Image via Wikipedia (CC BY-SA 3.0)

There are more than 700,000 Basque speakers today, but there are a tonne of different forms. There’s five dialects, and these are further broken up into 11 subdialects and 24 other minor varieties. In the 1960s, a standard Basque – called Euskara – was created too.

Some linguists have suggested that the Basque dialects are becoming sufficiently different to classify them as separate languages. So, maybe Basque won’t be a language isolate in the future, as it splits off into different tongues in a Basque mini-family. Just goes to show how language is ever-evolving – and the line between “language” and “dialect” is kinda blurry.

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The Basque country flag

Hadza

The Hadza don’t farm and they don’t grow crops. They are the last hunter-gatherers in Africa. The Hazda oral history doesn’t describe originating anywhere except where they currently live – so perhaps they have been inhabiting north-central Tanzania since the dawn of humankind. Their way of life offers anthropologists a fascinating insight into how all of us humans once lived.

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The Hadza are the last full-time hunter-gatherers in Africa.

The Hadza language features the click consonant that characterises many African languages. Despite this common element, Hazda is a language isolate. What’s more, this ancient language is positively thriving. Although it’s only spoken by around 1,000 people, it’s known by most Hadza children.

The Hadza live a timeless existence, and their language reflects this. They have words for “one” and “two,” but they have to borrow words from other languages (like Swahili) to count any higher.

The importance of hunting is also reflected in the Hadza language: there are different words for dead and living animals. When an animal is killed, it is referred to by a special “triumphal name.” For example, a lion is usually called “séseme” but if it has been successfully hunted, its triumphal name is “hubúhee.” (Wikipedia has a bunch more examples, if you’re interested.)

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A living lion has a different name to a hunted lion in Hadza

Leko

Also known as Leco, this unwritten language isolate was once widely spoken along the slopes of the Andes, east of Lake Titicaca, in Bolivia.

For many years, Leko was considered to be extinct. But one linguist searched all the nooks and crannies in Bolivia, and came across a handful of people who could speak Leko.

These people, the final bastions of Leko, are now all aged over 60. Sadly, the language has not been taught to younger generations and it’s likely it will die out as the last speakers pass away.

Linguists are doing their best to learn as much as they can about the Leko language and culture, but gathering data is a tricky task. The Leko-situation is made more difficult because many hadn’t spoken this tongue in more than 40 years, and did not feel comfortable entering into spontaneous conversation with one another.

Leko is not alone – many hundreds of endangered languages face this same sorrowful fate.

Tiwi

The Tiwi Islands are found just off the Northern Coast of Australia, and are home to around 2.500 Tiwi Indigenous people. The Tiwi language is pretty different to mainland Aussie lingos, so much so it’s considered an isolate. Here’s a word (and its English translation) from the Traditional Tiwi language:

jinuatəməniŋilipaŋəmat̪at̪umaŋələpiaŋkin̪a

He came and stole my wild honey this morning while I was asleep

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No, your eyes are not deceiving you. That one single word translates into that entire sentence in English. To get our heads around this tongue-(and-brain)-twister, we’ve gotta tackle morphemes.

Morphemes ain’t that character from The Matrix, nor is it that addictive painkilling drug. A morpheme is a “word-part” that carries a distinct meaning. It may be able to standalone (in which case, it is also a word) but some need to be combined with another morpheme.

Here’s an example: walk is both a morpheme and a word. -ed is a morpheme but it cannot stand on its own. But we can combine these two morphemes to make walked.

Tiwi is a polysynthetic language which means that its words are made up of lots of morphemes lumped together – just like the example above.

Since European contact, Tiwi has undergone a marked transformation. Modern Tiwi is a lot more isolating compared to the Traditional form – this basically means its structure is becoming more like English and less like the polysynthetic example above.

Traditional Tiwi is now generally confined to the elders, but Modern Tiwi is surviving fairly well amongst the younger generations.

Japanese

Japanese used to be a language isolate. Buuuuut… now it’s not. I’ve included it here as an interesting example of the fluid nature of language classification.

The southernmost islands of the Japanese archipelago are called the Ryukyu Islands, and they’re home to ten distinct languages called the Ryukyuan languages. Historically, these have been considered dialects of Japanese, but in fact, they are mutually unintelligible with Standard Japanese and with each other. Together, the Ryukyuan languages and Japanese form the Japonic family.

I find it interesting to think about what “mutually unintelligible” means. For example, I can barely understand Scottish people, and yet they supposedly speak the same mother tongue (English) as me…

Video via Canal de JUSTVIRALVIDEOS4 on Youtube

Anyway, it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly how many speakers of the Ryukyuan languages remain – but they are generally confined to the older generation. Several are listed as endangered on UNESCO’s Atlas of Languages in Danger.

That concludes our tour…

…around the world through language isolates. Of course there are many more – do you know a particularly interesting one? Let me know in the comments.

Language isolates add a lil somethin’ special and spicy to the Earth’s language soup. But just like scientists are constantly refining the tree of life, so too, our interconnected web of languages is reworked and rebuilt as we uncover more about our mother tongues.

 

 

 


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Hotspots: Species Meet Languages in a Burst of Diversity

Scattered across the Earth, there are biodiversity hotspots – areas where Mother Nature flaunts her outrageous imagination like a peacock flaunts its magnificent tail. These places are hotbeds of evolution – not just for biological species, it turns out, but for languages too.

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We’ve had an inkling of this language-species affair for a while. But it’s only in the last decade or so that we’ve quantified this connection.

Researchers collated information on where species live, and then mapped this against where languages are spoken. Using statistics, they found that high biodiversity does indeed correlate with high linguistic diversity.

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(A) displays biodiversity hotspots around the world. (B) shows the geographic distribution of Indigenous languages. Reproduced from this paper.

They churned out some numbers for us to get a deeper sense of this link:

  • There are 35 biodiversity hotspots and five high biodiversity wilderness areas on Planet Earth – places like Amazonia, the island of New Guinea and the forests of Central Africa
  • These hotspots are home to 67% of all plants and 50% of all vertebrate animals (that’s A LOT)
  • They’re also home to 70% of the 6,900 languages spoken on Earth (whoa)
  • They used to cover around a quarter of all land on Earth – but this has dwindled down to just 8% (crap…)

Here are those numbers again, in visual form, if that’s more your thang:

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But why?

Why should language richness and species diversity mirror each other like this?

As we’ve explored in previous posts, language and ecosystems are both complex adaptive systems. So it makes some kind of intuitive sense that they should behave similarly.

But let’s dig a lil deeper. What’s going on here?

Generally, tropical regions are both more biodiverse and linguistically diverse than desert and tundra areas. Perhaps, both types of diversity depend on similar environmental factors – like temperature and rainfall.

One possibility is that the abundance of natural resources in tropical environments reduces the need for groups to share and communicate with one another. So they don’t need a common language and the local lingos diversify as a result.

Maybe landscape barriers prevent communities from interacting and so different languages develop. After all, if a rugged mountain range separates you and your neighbours, you’re unlikely to pop over to say hello that often. Similarly, it is well-understood in biology that topographic barriers enable the evolution of species richness (this is a discipline called insular biogeography).

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Topographic barriers may facilitate the diversification of both language and species.

It’s also possible that biodiversity sustains cultural diversity in a symbiotic relationship – the richness of one supports the other, and vice versa.

One kinda crazy-cool idea is that biodiversity provides a greater range of natural reservoirs for our imagination. We draw on our surrounding environment to construct metaphors that form the basis of our language. This enables different languages based on different metaphor-concepts to evolve. Language is infused with nature. Our culture is not purely a product of who we are – it’s also deeply rooted in our physical environment.

In turn, the metaphors used by many Indigenous cultures in biodiverse regions remind people that they cannot exploit their natural resources carelessly and endlessly. This allows high biodiversity to persist. What a beautiful cycle!

“For the forest people, nature is defended by culture. Many rules concerning hunting and the non-exploitative use of resources – blunt ecological truths – are encoded in myths and magic, tales and enchantments that make up a society’s culture.”

-Jay Griffiths, writer

It’s not simple…

It’s probably not just one of these explanations, but rather, some combination of them.

Take, for example, the rugged tropical jungles of New Guinea – home to a vast array of species, from birds of paradise to tree kangaroos. This island is also the habitat for nearly 1,000 distinct languages.

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The island of New Guinea is home to some crazy animals – like tree kangaroos and birds of paradise. It’s also home to nearly 1,000 languages: “wiyo” means “hello” in Melpa and “wa” means “hello” in Dani.

Researchers zoomed in on this mother-tongue-menagerie to examine the language-species connection on a finer scale. Like previous global studies, they found a link. But the strength of this relationship depended on the scale you chose – the closer you zoomed in, the weaker the correlation.

This suggests that the link is multi-faceted – a complex brew of sociocultural and biogeographical factors.

In the case of New Guinea, the authors noted that the isolated, rugged highlands supported high biodiversity but low linguistic diversity, while the coastal lowlands were the opposite.

They suggested that lower malaria incidence in the inland regions allowed larger societies to form and language to diffuse among them. Meanwhile, elevated biodiversity was a result of the harsh terrain.

Madagascar is another interesting example. Its geographic isolation means it has a large proportion of endemic species (like lemurs and frogs). However it was only settled by humans around 2,000 years ago, meaning languages haven’t had much time to diversify.

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Even though Madagascar is a biodiversity hotspot, it was only colonised by humans relatively recently, resulting in low linguistic diversity. The lemur says “how are you?” and the frog replies in Malagasy.

What this means for conservation

There are sad but thought-provoking parallels between species extinction and language loss. They are driven by similar phenomena: expanding human population, migration and globalisation. Some researchers have suggested that linguistic and biological conservationists should team up for even greater impact.

But the New Guinea study suggested that on a local level, threatened species and endangered languages do not necessarily overlap.

Nonetheless, conserving cultures is integral to saving nature. Indigenous people look after the land and so provide all of us with essential ecosystem services – clean air, pollination and fresh water. Their participation in conservation is vital – diversity ensures the future of humanity.

“When wild lands are lost, so is metaphor, allusion and the poetry that arises in the interplay of mind and nature.”

-Jay Griffiths, writer

 

If you’re interested in Indigenous cultures, nature and language, I highly recommend the book Wild: An Elemental Journey by Jay Griffiths.

 


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Endangered tongues

You’ve probably heard of the plight of the orang-utans and cries to “save the whales” but have you heard of Ixcatec or Tharkarri?

They’re not cute and cuddly animals you can touch, but they’re still capable of living.

They’re the vanishing mind-music of people: critically endangered languages.

Ixcatec and Tharkarri are just two of the 2,465 languages included on UNESCO’s Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger.  

Enveloped in silence

Languages can die out – just like plant and animal species can become extinct.

On an archipelago off the western coast of Canada, just 20 speakers of the Haida language remain – a mere fragment of the estimated 15,000 speakers at the time of European contact.

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In the Haida language, guusuwàa means “someone who likes to gossip or talk a lot.”

In a tiny town called Tabasco in central Mexico, the Ayapaneco language persists in the minds of two elderly men – who, until recently, wouldn’t speak to each other due to a decades-old quarrel.

In 2008, Marie Smith Jones passed away and took the Native Alaskan Eyak language with her.

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Marie Smith Jones was the last speaker of Eyak – iishuh means hello.

“What could be more lonely than to be enveloped in silence, to be the last of your people to speak your language, to have no way to pass on the wisdom of the ancestors or anticipate the promise of the children?”

– Wade Davis, Anthropologist

What makes a language endangered?

A language is considered endangered if it is likely to die out in the near future – it’s estimated that 50-90% of all languages will have been lost by the end of this century. Even languages that may seem healthy, with thousands of speakers like Navajo, can be vulnerable – if the younger generations aren’t learning it, it won’t survive.

Language extinction can be a gradual process. Usually, a community will find itself under pressure to assimilate into a more socially, politically and economically dominant culture. Sometimes, a group of people may be forcibly  separated from their language – for example, Haida children were forbidden from speaking their language until well into the 20th century.

If you’ve ever learnt a language and then stopped speaking it, you’ll know how words begin to fade from memory. A language must be practiced – spoken or written – to live. Otherwise it becomes a tip-of-the-tongue figment, sounds lost in muffling brain-fog.

Sometimes, extinction can be sudden – like the Palawa languages that were decimated during the genocide of the Aboriginal people in Tasmania, Australia.

Why should we care?

Perhaps you may be wondering: who cares? What’s the point in saving a language that’s only spoken by a few old people anyway?

I care. Some say that language loss is simply inevitable cultural change – but I think this ignores the tragic history of oppression suffered by speakers of these minority languages. I’m a great believer in the beauty of diversity – just as we value biodiversity amongst our flora and fauna, so too we should value cultural and linguistic diversity.

Some people argue that languages carry distinct ways of thinking. Experiments have shown that speakers of different languages do in fact display tiny differences in thinking processes. But linguists question whether these slight variations constitute wholly unique world-views.

Language is about people

But at it’s heart, language is about people. Language by itself may not shape our life-perspective, but culture does. Language is a powerful symbol of culture and identity. It’s how people pass down their stories and traditions, and how they interpret the world around them. It’s how they connect and form communities. People feel the loss of their language very deeply. As one Ojibwe elder said,

“Without the language, we are warm bodies without a spirit.”

 

There’s also a scientific argument for saving languages. Not only are languages fascinating to study in and of themselves, they are also infused with the vast, accumulated knowledge of the people who speak them. There is a growing realisation that Indigenous knowledge has much to offer modern science: from plant-derived medicines to information about past sea levels.

A landscape of living languages

So I think it’s great that linguists continue to compile dictionaries and analyse grammar and record oral histories and traditions.

But I also hope that some languages will be more than preserved specimens in a forgotten linguistic museum. Humanity deserves a colourful landscape of living languages.

I’ll leave you with the inspiring words of Wade Davis, a National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence and anthropologist:

Video: “Dreams from Endangered Cultures” on Ted

 

 


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The Evolution of Language: Three Things We’ve Learnt

A coupla hundred years ago, our good ol’ mate Darwin thought up this totally radical idea called evolution. This had two noticeable results:

  • the church got their knickers in a twist,
  • and it revolutionised our understanding – of biology, humanity, pretty much EVERYTHING-y.
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Cheeky Darwin and his pesky evolution theory got the Church’s knickers in a twist.

Since then, all manner of disciplines have co-opted the evolution concept: stellar evolution! Directed evolution! Music evolution!

Linguistics is no different. In my last post, I briefly compared biological evolution to language evolution. We also touched on this topic in our foray into the origins of language.

This time round, we’re gonna get fully sucked into the mind-bending twister of language evolution. Here’s three wicked things we’ve learnt from investigating how our mother tongues have transformed.

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1. What Ancient People Were Like

By tracing the evolution of languages back in time, we’re essentially creating a knowledge-wormhole to ancient societies and their cultures.

Take the Proto-Indo-Europeans, for example. We talked a lot about their zombie PIE language in the previous post – but what I didn’t mention is that we can learn a lot about PIE society based on this reconstructed vocabulary. The words used by people are a mirror to their culture – in the PIE case, a ~~time travel mirror~~.

We know that the PIEs lived in a location with snow because they (and all their daughter languages) used the word sneigwh-. Similarly, we reckon they lived inland, because they didn’t have a general word for sea. We even know they worshipped a sky god and had domesticated both horses and cattle. You can read more about PIE society here.

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Proto-Indo-European society didn’t have a specific word for “sea” so they probably lived inland.

2. How Humans Populated the Corners of the Earth

By examining how languages have evolved and diversified, we can also map out migration patterns across the globe.

For example, researchers built a phylogenetic tree of around 40 indigenous languages from North America and Central Siberia. This allowed them to construct a model of how the languages diffused across the two continents.

The results suggest that dispersal first occurred down the western coast of North America, followed by a “back-migration” into Siberia and then further diffusion throughout inland North America.

That is, there wasn’t a one-way migration from Asia to the New World via the Bering Land Bridge – human migration is more complex than we first thought. This lends support to the “Out of Beringia” theory.

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Map showing the dispersion of people and their languages from Beringia. Reproduced from this paper.

Another migration-mystery that has bewildered researchers for aaaages is the “Austronesian Expansion” – or how the heck the Polynesians made it to all those tiny Pacific islands.

There are two main theories: a gradual settlement over 30,000 years (the “slow boat”) and a more recent “pulse-pause” scenario with ancestors migrating from Taiwan some 5,000 years ago.

To test these hypotheses, linguists constructed an evolutionary tree of Pacific languages. But they weren’t the only ones investigating this conundrum: biologists constructed a classic phylogenetic tree of a species of gut bacteria. By combining the evidence from both approaches, the scientists were able to discern the probable migratory routes – and they matched pretty well with the Taiwan-origin hypothesis. The “pulse-pause” pattern of migration was also replicated in the linguistic tree – it suggested one migration pulse of 7,000km over just 1,000 years.

Pretty cool, hey.

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Linguistic evidence and genetic evidence from gut bacteria solved the Pacific migration mystery.

3. Language Evolution Really is like Biological Evolution

Evolution as a scientific theory has only been comprehensively analysed in its biological habitat. But it seems as though this concept may operate in a cultural domain too. This makes intuitive sense: cultures (and their languages) do change over time.

But the similarities go deeper than just a simple “shit changes” sense. Language is a complex adaptive system: it is an interconnected network of small, related parts (words) that work together to adapt to changes (cultural and environmental context) to ensure the survival of the collection as a whole (language).

Recently, some scientists have been explicitly adopting a Darwinian approach to culture.

In one study from 2008, linguists observed the evolution of an artificial language from random to highly structured, in a controlled laboratory setting.

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The artificial language becomes more precise and more ordered over time – it evolves! Figure reproduced from this paper

These experiments revealed that, “languages transmitted culturally evolve in such a way as to maximise their own transmissibility.”

In non-wanky-science-speak: the language itself evolves in order to increase the chance it will be passed on (and stay “alive”). It’s like language is a cultural parasite, using human hosts to reproduce.

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A language parasite and a human host? (Based on the real-life tongue-eating louse)

Evolutionary theorists have also used biology techniques to reconstruct language family trees using vocabulary “genes.” (Just like we talked about with the reconstruction of Proto-Indo-European.)

Using statistics, they were able to figure out that 10-30% of all words emerged during language splitting events – i.e. word “speciation” occurs in bursts of change, not gradually. This mirrors what we observe in biological evolution: about 22% of all genetic differences arise from bursts of sudden change.

Perhaps these “word explosion” events may reflect groups of people trying to establish a unique identity through their own distinct language. Kinda like those kids in primary school who thought they were so cool and different speaking Gibberish.

One Last Thing

If we take a step back and look at all these cool language evolution-y things, we can see how diverse this field is: from neuroscience to linguistics to evolutionary biology to archaeology (and more).

We’ll continue exploring this cross-disciplinary complexity in posts to come. Keep checkin’ in for more rad yarns! (And more shitty illustrations.)