New languages evolve in rapid bursts

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed ResearchThe birth of new languages is accompanied by a burst of rapid evolution consisting of large changes in vocabulary that are followed by long periods of relatively slower change.

latin_dictionary.jpgLanguages are often compared to living species because of the way in which they diverge into new tongues over time in an ever-growing linguistic tree. Some critics have claimed that this comparison is a superficial one, a nice metaphor but nothing more.

But the new study by Quentin Atkinson, now at the University of Oxford, suggests that languages evolve at a similar stop-and-start pace, which uncannily echoes a long-standing theory in biology, known as ‘punctuated equilibrium’. The theory’s followers claim that life on Earth also evolved at an uneven pace, full of rapid bursts and slow periods.

Famously championed by the late Stephen Jay Gould, the punctuated equilibrium theory suggests that most species change very little over time and big evolutionary changes are concentrated at rare moments where new species branch off from existing lineages. Together with colleagues from the US and New Zealand, Atkinson found similar patterns in three of the worlds’ largest families of languages.

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Songbirds need so-called “human language gene” to learn new tunes

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed ResearchThe nasal screech of Chris Tucker sound worlds apart from the song of a nightingale but both human speech and birdsong actually have a lot in common. Both infants and chicks learn their respective tongues by imitating others. They pick up new material most easily during specific periods of time as they grow up, they need practice to improve and they pick up local dialects. And as infants unite words to form sentences, so do songbirds learn to combine separate riffs into a full song. Songbirds need so-called “human language gene” to learn new tunes

Because of these similarities, songbirds make a good model for inquisitive neuroscientists looking to understand the intricacies of human speech. Zebra finches are a particularly enlightening species and they have just shown Sebastian Haesler that the so-called human ‘language gene’ FOXP2 also controls an songbird’s ability to pick up new material.

FOXP2 has a long and sordid history of fascinating science and shoddy science writing. It has been consistently mislabelled as “the language gene” and after the discovery that the human and chimp versions differed by just two small changes, it was also held responsible for the evolution of human language. Even though these claims are far-fetched (for reasons I’ll delve into later), there is no doubt that faults in FOXP2 can spell disaster for a person’s ability to speak.

Mutated versions cause a speech impairment called developmental verbal dyspraxia (DVD), where people are unable to coordinate the positions of their jaws, lips, tongues and faces, even though their minds and relevant muscles are in reasonable working order. They’re like an orchestra that plays a cacophony despite having a decent conductor and tuned instruments.

Brain scans of people with DVD have revealed abnormalities in the basal ganglia, an group of neurons at the heart of the brain with several connections to other areas. Normal people show strong activation of FOXP2 here and fascinatingly, so do songbirds. Haesler reasoned that studying the role of this gene in birds could tell him more about its human counterpart.

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The evolution of the past tense – how verbs change over time

In Chaucer’s time, English had many more irregular verbs than now.For decades, scientists have realised that languages evolve in strikingly similar ways to genes and living things. Their words and grammars change and mutate over time, and new versions slowly rise to dominance while other face extinction.

In this evolutionary analogy, old texts like the Canterbury Tales are the English language’s version of the fossil record. They preserve the existence of words that used to be commonplace before they lost a linguistic Darwinian conflict with other, more popular forms.

Now, Erez Lieberman, Martin Nowak and colleagues from Harvard University are looking at this record to mathematically model how our verbs evolved and how they will change in the future.

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