Friday, February 05, 2010

Language goes extinct, human race to follow....   posted by Razib @ 2/05/2010 09:23:00 AM

Last speaker of ancient language of Bo dies in India:
Professor Anvita Abbi said that the death of Boa Sr was highly significant because one of the world's oldest languages - Bo - had come to an end.


"It is generally believed that all Andamanese languages might be the last representatives of those languages which go back to pre-Neolithic times," Professor Abbi said.

"The Andamanese are believed to be among our earliest ancestors."

I have a tendency to eye roll when people come out with these weepy stories about dying languages. When a language dies a people dies, more or less. No doubt there are particular stories, memories passed down which maintain continuity of identity, which disappear. But humans do not necessarily die. If members of obscure tribe X all learn English, or Chinese, tribe X as tribe X disappears, more or less. This is not trivial, I believe most humans would prefer that the cultural forms which pervade their own lives would pass down to future generations. Memory is to a great extent the only form of immortality we've had access to. But for members of obscure tribe X learning a widely spoken language is often a boon, and brings great benefit as they can engage in more fruitful exchanges with the broader human race. The implicit contract that peoples make with their own ancestors extracts too high a cost at some point, and when the present ceases to uphold its pact with the past, the past becomes obscured in the mists.

On a specific note about this article, the Andaman Islanders are actually a real concrete human population, they're not "among our earliest ancestors." Additionally, I thought that languages which were purely oral tended evolve faster than languages which were written down. Is it then plausible to make great claims for Bo's antiquity?

Related: The tragedy of dying languages. Larded with specious banalities or outright falsities, but good for a laugh.

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Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Monkeys & language   posted by Razib @ 12/09/2009 05:44:00 PM

The paper is out, Campbell's monkeys concatenate vocalizations into context-specific call sequences. Nicholas Wade and Ed Yong review the evidence. One of the issues is that chimps don't seem to have syntax, so how can a monkey? But since domesticated dogs have better human-comprehensible theory of mind than chimps I don't think genetic distance or general intelligence should weight that highly.


Wednesday, November 11, 2009

FOXP2 in Nature   posted by Razib @ 11/11/2009 02:08:00 PM

Human-specific transcriptional regulation of CNS development genes by FOXP2:
...It has been proposed that the amino acid composition in the human variant of FOXP2 has undergone accelerated evolution, and this two-amino-acid change occurred around the time of language emergence in humans...However, this remains controversial, and whether the acquisition of these amino acids in human FOXP2 has any functional consequence in human neurons remains untested. Here we demonstrate that these two human-specific amino acids alter FOXP2 function by conferring differential transcriptional regulation in vitro. We extend these observations in vivo to human and chimpanzee brain, and use network analysis to identify novel relationships among the differentially expressed genes. These data provide experimental support for the functional relevance of changes in FOXP2 that occur on the human lineage, highlighting specific pathways with direct consequences for human brain development and disease in the central nervous system (CNS). Because FOXP2 has an important role in speech and language in humans, the identified targets may have a critical function in the development and evolution of language circuitry in humans.

Ed Young has a long entry on this paper, along with context.

Update: Someone on Twitter is suggesting we create a transgenic. Which direction?

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Thursday, October 22, 2009

From Cantonese to Mandarin   posted by Razib @ 10/22/2009 07:00:00 PM

In Chinatown, Sound of the Future Is Mandarin:
He grew up playing in the narrow, crowded streets of Manhattan's Chinatown. He has lived and worked there for all his 61 years. But as Wee Wong walks the neighborhood these days, he cannot understand half the Chinese conversations he hears.

Cantonese, a dialect from southern China that has dominated the Chinatowns of North America for decades, is being rapidly swept aside by Mandarin, the national language of China and the lingua franca of most of the latest Chinese immigrants.

It's more complicated than that, as the article notes that Cantonese replaced the closely related dialect of Taishanese. Another interesting twist is that the new wave of migrants are themselves not necessarily native speakers of a Mandarin dialect as they are generally from Fujian. Rather, Standard Mandarin is a lingua franca among common people in the Chinese world now in a manner it may not have been when the earlier waves of South Chinese arrived in the United States. In Singapore and Taiwan the Chinese also derive from various regions of Fujian, but Mandarin is an official language, and the monolingualism in dialects is only common among the old.

This is just a specific case of a general dynamic; French, German and Italian all replaced numerous regional dialects, some of which still retain local vitality. Just as Taiwan's predominantly Fujianese population accepts Standard Mandarin, so Switzerland's dialect speaking population accepts Standard German as the official public face of the language (no matter that privately they may converse in Swiss German).

Though linguists and anthropologists bemoan the decline of diversity and local flavor, when it comes to communication this is probably a good thing for the individuals and the societies in which they live. Not only is language often a divisive fault line, but it serves as a barrier to the exchange of ideas and socialization. Whatever marginal cognitive benefits are accrued to individuals who learn multiple languages, on the balance uniformity of speech opens up many possibilities of coordinated action. Even the ancients knew that.

Note: Of course with the dying of a language with a large body of literature some aspect of immediate comprehension and memory of the past vanishes. When it comes to dialect traditions I obviously weight the loss of collective memory less because I tend to perceive oral cultures as encoding cross-cultural values by and large. There may be a thousand twists on the tale of the "Trickster god," but moral of the story is rather the same. In any case, when the last native speaker of Sumerian died no doubt there was a subtle shift in perceptions of the story of Gilgamesh, but I think such losses are a small cost to pay for mutual intelligibility.

Addendum: According to Peter Brown in The Rise of Western Christendom the shift from Syraic dialects to Arabic among the Christian populations of the Levant and Mesopotamia was the tipping point in terms of conversion to Islam. So from some perspectives unintelligibility and separation of language are beneficial. Consider Hasidic Jews and Amish who have long been resident in the United States but continue to speak dialects of German amongst themselves (in my experience the Amish speak English without any accent except for a somewhat quaint aspect, but I have read and heard Hasidic Jews who speak English with a very strong accent which indicates they learned the language in their later teens at the earliest).

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