Tag Archives: language evolution

Evolution of the Lexicon

I recently posted about the work by Pagel and colleagues regarding ancient lexicons. That work, recently revived in the press for whatever reasons such things happen, is the same project reported a while back in Nature. And, as I recall, I read that paper and promised to blog about it but did not get to it. Yet.

So here we go.
Continue reading Evolution of the Lexicon

“Who you two? I five … “

And with this, a five year old catapulted back in time, say 10,000 years in West Asia or Southern Europe, encountering two people, would make perfectly intelligible sentence that wold be understood by all. Assuming all the people who were listening were at least reasonably savvy about language and a little patient. This is because a handful of words, including Who, You, Two, Five, Three and I exist across a range of languages as close cognates, and can be reconstructed as similar ancestral utterances in ancestral languages.

It’s like an elephant and a mammoth meeting up in the Twilight Zone. Close enough to know there is a similarity, yet different enough to be a bit freaky.

This is from the work of Mark Pagel, of Reading (England) and his team. And it isn’t quite as simple as I’ve characterized it above. As Pagel told me in a recent interview, “… when I say ‘I’ or ‘two’ are very old, I mean that they derive from cognate (homologous) sounds . Every speaker of every Indo European language uses a homologous form of ‘two’ such as ‘dos,’ ‘due,’ ‘dou,’ ‘do,’ etc. It is an amazing thought because there are billions of Indo European speakers and hundreds of thousands of ‘language-years’ of speaking across all the unique branches of the phylogeny of these languages. In all that time ‘two’ has remained cognate. Cognate does not mean identical … it is a bit like my hand being homologous but not identical to that of a gorilla.”

Pagel acknowledges that may linguists are ‘upset’ with the assertion that there are numerous cognates that share a common ancestor …. which is also a cognate … that must be over 10,000 years old. But he indicates that this dislike for the proposed reconstruction is more of a misunderstanding of this concept of homology than anything else.

Continue reading “Who you two? I five … “

Framing the Language Gene: FOXP2

You can now read the Krause et al (2007) paper from Current Biology regarding the FOXP2 variant found in Neanderthals in an open-access on-line form at Current Biology Online. Here is the summary of the article:

Although many animals communicate vocally, no extant creature rivals modern humans in language ability. Therefore, knowing when and under what evolutionary pressures our capacity for language evolved is of great interest. Here, we find that our closest extinct relatives, the Neandertals, share with modern humans two evolutionary changes in FOXP2, a gene that has been implicated in the development of speech and language. We furthermore find that in Neandertals, these changes lie on the common modern human haplotype, which previously was shown to have been subject to a selective sweep. These results suggest that these genetic changes and the selective sweep predate the common ancestor (which existed about 300,000-400,000 years ago) of modern human and Neandertal populations. This is in contrast to more recent age estimates of the selective sweep based on extant human diversity data. Thus, these results illustrate the usefulness of retrieving direct genetic information from ancient remains for understanding recent human evolution.

The authors actually get more specific regarding the role of FOXP2 in language:

Although language and speech are clearly genetically complex phenomena, the only gene currently known that has a specific role in the development of language and speech is FOXP2. The inactivation of one FOXP2 copy leads primarily to deficits in orofacial movements and linguistic processing similar to those in individuals with adult-onset Broca’s aphasia

While the paper by Krause et al is an important contribution because it involves allele-level comparison of nucleic genetic material between hominid groups and across living and extinct forms, the role of FOXP2 and the characterization of the genetics of language may be misleading, if not simply very very wrong. Continue reading Framing the Language Gene: FOXP2