Can genes change the way languages evolve?

Languages are dynamic. After just a few hundred years, the English of Chaucer looks bizarre to today’s readers.

The factors that drive language changes are familiar. Interaction with other languages: Roman conquest spread the influence of Latin across Europe. Metaphor: The description of a circle as “round” came to refer to a “well-rounded” individual. New needs: Technological change requires the formation of words like “internet.”

A new study proposes another, surprising mechanism behind language change: genes. A group led by researchers at Yale University wondered whether the presence of a gene called DCDC2, which has previously been shown to influence how sounds are processed by the brain, might have played a role linguistic change over the millennia.

“Traditionally language change is not often attributed to genetics, full stop,” says Kevin Tang, a linguist who worked on the research.

The researchers aimed to do just that, by synthesizing a few working theories about the gene in question.

First, DCDC2, a gene found in nearly all vertebrates, has been connected to sound-processing in the brain. One particular variant of the gene has been associated, for example, with dyslexia (though that connection has been disputed). In one study, after scientists removed the gene in rats, they found that the timing of their neuron firings became less precise.

Read more: Quartz

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