Language evolution resembles biological evolution, providing an example of how biology can generate insights about innovation in non-biochemical systems.
I am pre-publishing this sequence of essays here and in social media to elicit comments and other feedback. They will form the framework for my next book, Darwin, Dada, Dalí, Duke, & Devadevàya.
Languages change. They compete with one another, with some going extinct, and others spawning many descendants. Historically, they have expanded in number of representatives — linguistic speciation, as it were — although today that number is shrinking; in fact, it is possible that rapid technological innovation, international communication, & popular media are creating a period of cataclysmic mass extinctions in the linguistic environment. Just as with other living things, however, the survivors constantly become more complex, more efficient, and more useful. (NB: This last statement met with some criticism from linguists, and they suggested the names of researchers I might wish to pursue. My thanks. I can say without hesitation, however, that in technical fields vocabularies increase, which reflects expanding knowledge and refined ideas. I will update this passage as I read more.)
This is because languages ‘adapt’ in patterns that often parallel organic evolution. Darwin noted this similarity. But even before he published his pivotal On the Origin of Species, August Schleicher and others had been working on the idea of language evolution for years.1)Despite a common misconception, the idea of evolution by gradual descent preceded Darwin by about a century. Darwin just explained organic evolution. The modern focus of language evolution targets the emergence of the first language, that is, How did humans develop the capacity for language? For this discussion, however, I will return to the older, simpler observations.
Look at the image of the language tree at the top. This is a colorful representation — I needed something interesting for the blog — but the biologist will immediately see how it resembles our ‘phylogenetic’ trees, i.e., the ‘family trees’ that biologists use to show relatedness among animals, plants, and all organisms. At right, I have included a typical phylogenetic tree for mammals. It is not so colorful nor organic in shape, but it is easier to follow, and therefore, more functional.
One of the goals of this book is to show that the resemblance of these ‘trees’ goes beyond the superficial, and that the principles and processes of evolution can help us understand non-organic evolution, particularly innovation, progress, and even machine intelligence.
And language. Just as animals and other organisms evolve via the small units of DNA and genes, so language evolves through the smaller units of letters/characters, words, and phrases. One example of this similarity is that just as all of the genes in the organism tend to evolve together, so all of the words and phrases in a language tend to evolve together. One simple pattern is that most English words ending in –ty, will end in –té in French, –tà in Italian, and –dad in Spanish: unity, unité, unità, and unidad. All of these are descendants of the Latin unitas. That example represents a small pattern, while other patterns can be quite complex.
There is even a fascinating ‘missing link’ in linguistics, that of the postulated laryngeals. Scholars are quite variable in their interpretation of how these might have been pronounced, but they may have represented various ‘h’ sounds from the back of the throat, some perhaps like a cat hissing: the ‘h’ in the Arabic ‘Muhammed’ and the ‘ch’ in the German ‘Bach’. The controversy is, in a way, the product of its tantalizing absence: many linguistic patterns strongly suggest that it existed in several forms, but since there is no solid documentation, there is no consensus about its pronunciation.
In addition, just as we postulate some unknown ancestor for different groups of living things, comparative linguists and etymologists — the scholars who study the ancestry of languages and words — propose reasonable guesses about the origins of different family trees. They even refer to these trees as having ‘genetic’ or ‘genealogical’ relationships. For most of the words and languages of western Europe, including those in the preceding paragraph, the earliest origin is postulated to be Proto-Indo-European, or PIE for short. The larger tree in the colorful diagram represents the languages descended from PIE.
But we cannot identify ancestors, nor relatives, for all languages. There are a number of these ‘linguistic isolates’, for which there are no documented kin. Among these isolates are Basque, Sumerian, and Korean.2)Some linguists classify Korean as part of a small family of Koreanic languages; it appears to depend on whether Jeju is classified as a language, or a dialect. There are also small families of languages, such as Japonic and Uralic (the smaller tree above) which contain several dialects or languages, but do not appear to be related to any of the larger language groups.
It is possible that these isolates emerged de novo, when some ancient group of humans with language potential, but perhaps only a few words/sounds, interacted with other tribes using language. The first group recognized the implications, and created their own language from the bottom up. In the Pulitzer Prize-winning Guns, Germs, and Steel, Jared Diamond discusses a parallel process with written language. Someone from one culture encounters another culture with writing. The observer doesn’t understand the marks, but grasps the process either through insight or explanation, and invents his/her own orthography.
This sudden arrival of unrelated languages and alphabets would appear to be a situation in which language evolution and biological evolution are not so close, in that the new representatives are not evolved from older representatives. ‘Would appear’ is the operative phrase there: in future posts I will explain a possible evolutionary connection between these, and their connection to other innovations.
As noted, linguists speak of ‘genetic’ or ‘genealogical’ relationships among languages. Which presents an irony, and an erudite pun: both of those words are descended from *gene-, a reconstructed PIE root dealing with birth and reproduction. (The asterisk at the beginning denotes that the word does not come from any documented language, but is only a postulated root.)
There are almost 100 English words which derive from that early, lost word. Some are obvious, such as gender, congenital, and progeny. Others are not so obvious: benign; cognate; cosmogony; gendarme; genius; gentry; germ; germane (but not German); germinal; gingerly (but not ginger); gonad; homogenize; jaunty; king; Kris Kringle; malign; naïve; nation; Noël; pregnant; puny; Renaissance; and wunderkind.
There is another fascinating idea that parallels biology, that of a language ‘niche’. In biology, a niche is where an animal or other organism lives, how it derives its resources and raw materials, and its strategy for survival. For instance, we occasionally feed the pigeons near our apartment. Most of the visitors are the standard urban pigeon known as the rock dove, but there are also occasional white doves and wood doves, as well as seagulls, sparrows, and the imported monk parakeet. Even though they spend some time foraging in the same overlapping areas such as the park, and compete for some of the same food such as the bread and seeds we thow, each of them pursues a somewhat different overall diet, they forage in somewhat different locations, they nest in different places, and they pursue somewhat different strategies for escaping predators, for mating and for raising their young.
In a similar way, we use different language in different places, in different ‘niches’. Some of this is simple vocabulary. We use different words when speaking to our friends, to strangers, to our teachers and parents, and with various professionals (particularly the clergy). We use different vocabulary with our children, depending on their ages. We use different words when we are at work, in the kitchen, in the garden, or the local bar. I certainly use different words as a doctor, as a biologist, and in my occasional lame attempts at humor.
But it is more than different words: each linguistic niche appears to define a slightly different mindset. Or not so slight: I am aware that when I speak French, I behave differently. I am a little more formal, a little more serious. Other shifts take place when I am practicing medicine, and treating a child; treating an adult patient who is well educated; treating an adult patient who is poorly educated; or talking to the other medical staff about patients. When I am presenting a talk at a scientific conference, I speak and act in different ways as well.
I have also seen this pattern in my bilingual/polyglot friends. When they shift away from English, their behavior and even their attitudes seem to change, particularly when they stay immersed in the other language for days or more. In a way, they become different people.
To that point, there is the interesting example of Nobel laureate Samuel Beckett. English was his first language, but after WWII he wrote almost exclusively in French, and translated his work into English afterward. Was Beckett aware of this intellectual shift, that he did not think the same way in English as he did in French?
To jump ahead in a small plot-spoiler, it would appear that our different language niches are really different mental niches.
The major point of all of this is that words and language evolve. And they continue to evolve as the root *gene- also demonstrates. Originally, the root referred to birth. But in trying to explain how evolution might work, Darwin postulated invisible particles to explain characteristics we are born with, and named them pangenes. Thereafter, the Danish biologist Wilhelm Johannsen shortened the word to genes. Some years later, the discovery of Mendel’s work further advanced the concept, by documenting how genes ‘blend’ to form gradations of height and other characteristics. And then came the discovery of DNA, an important evolutionary shift (pun intended) to which we will return in a future essay.
But the result is that in modern science, the modern word gene no longer refers to a characteristic. Rather, gene now refers to a DNA sequence which codes for a single protein. This evolution has become quite rapid in the marketplace, with various biological firms incorporating the root gen- into the names of their companies and their products: Genentech, QIAGEN, Navigenics, Gentle Labs, Genosyl, Genvoya, and even the presciently named General Electric.3)A ribald joke: There is new a biotech startup in Milan named GenItalia. So the PIE root *gene- continues to evolve in the modern world.
Modern biologists have also considered this problem, as evidenced by the 2015 book, The Indo-European Controversy. The point is, words and languages seem to evolve in ways that parallel organic adaptation. In the next two posts we will continue these comparisons.
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Mammalian Phylogenetic Tree courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
|↑ 1.||Despite a common misconception, the idea of evolution by gradual descent preceded Darwin by about a century. Darwin just explained organic evolution.|
|↑ 2.||Some linguists classify Korean as part of a small family of Koreanic languages; it appears to depend on whether Jeju is classified as a language, or a dialect.|
|↑ 3.||A ribald joke: There is new a biotech startup in Milan named GenItalia.|