Rare African Script Hints At How Writing Evolved

January 20th, 2022 by In the early 19th Century a small group of Liberians invented a way to write the Vai language down. Instead of copying Roman or Arabic letters, as occurred with most languages first written down in recent times, they invented their own script. This created a rare example where linguists can trace the entire history of a written script. The evolution might settle a debate between theories about how Egyptian hieroglyphics turned into the letters we use today. The ancestry of our modern letters can be traced back to the walls of ancient Egypt. Most famously, our letter A is thought to be descended from the ox's head drawn by Egyptians via a Phoenician symbol and the Greek alpha. However, there are at least two theories on how this happens. “There’s a famous hypothesis that letters evolve from pictures to abstract signs. But there are also plenty of abstract letter-shapes in early writing,” said Dr Piers Kelly of the University of New England (Australia) in a statement. Kelly thought it would be useful to compare the evolution of a script whose entire history is documented. In Current Anthropology, Kelly and co-authors trace the development of the script for the Vai language from the 1830s to today. The Vai language is spoken by around 100,000 people in Liberia, along with a smaller number in neighboring Sierra Leone, and emigrant communities around the world. Until at least 1800 it appears to have been entirely oral, with no written script. Read more: IFLScience

Aranese: Spain’s little-known language

January 18th, 2022 by Borders are supposed to be simple in the Pyrenees. On the southern side of the mountain range, you're in Spain. On the northern side, you're in France. Visit Val d'Aran, though, and geopolitics takes a more complicated turn. Val d'Aran is on the wrong side of the mountains. Geographically, this small mountain valley with its population of 10,000 people should be in France. But Val d'Aran is the only community within Spain's contiguous borders that's located on the northern slopes of the Pyrenees. Officially, Val d'Aran is within the administrative boundaries of Catalonia, but despite being caught between larger kingdoms and nation-states for centuries, Val d'Aran has never surrendered its local identity. Key to that local identity is the Aranese language, which alongside Catalan and Spanish, is officially recognised as the third language of Catalonia. "We are Aranese because we speak Aranese," said Jusèp Loís Sans Socasau passionately, when I stepped into his office in Vielha, Val d'Aran's capital. It was early December and there was an ever-thickening layer of snow as the valley prepared for ski season. "Aranese is the language of our valley," Sans Socasau added. "And it's the language of our culture." Sans Socasau is the president of the Institut d'Estudis Aranese (Institute of Aranese Studies) and his office was stacked with historical manuscripts and Aranese dictionaries and novels. "Aranese is a Romance-based language," he explained, as I warmed up with a fresh coffee. "It's very close to Latin, but it's evolved very differently to Spanish and French." Aranese is a distinct dialect of the Occitan language, which, in its medieval heyday, was spoken from the Pyrenees to Piedmont, located in what is now northern Italy. "This was the territory of the Occitan language," Sans Socasau said proudly, pointing at a historical map. "And it was the territory of the Troubadours." In the 11th and 12th Centuries, there was an explosion of Occitan poetry across Europe. The language was spread far and wide by Troubadours, Occitan-speaking poets and writers who composed and performed medieval romances. Even Richard I of England – better known as Richard the Lionheart, and who held lands in France – spoke Occitan as a first language (his mother, Eleanor of Aquitaine, came from an Occitan speaking region). In later centuries, though, Occitan would be replaced by other languages, and in southern France, where there are still tens of thousands of Occitan speakers, the language has never been made official or afforded government protections. Read more: BBC

Dog brains can distinguish between languages

January 9th, 2022 by Dog brains can detect speech and show different activity patterns to familiar and unfamiliar languages, according to a new brain imaging study by researchers from the Department of Ethology, Eötvös Loránd University (Hungary). This is the first demonstration that a non-human brain can differentiate two languages. This work has been published in NeuroImage. "Some years ago, I moved from Mexico to Hungary to join the Neuroethology of Communication Lab at the Department of Ethology, Eötvös Loránd University for my postdoctoral research. My dog, Kun-kun, came with me. Before, I had only talked to him in Spanish. So I was wondering whether Kun-kun noticed that people in Budapest spoke a different language, Hungarian," says Laura V. Cuaya, first author of the study. "We know that people, even preverbal human infants, notice the difference. But maybe dogs do not bother. After all, we never draw our dogs' attention to how a specific language sounds. We designed a brain imaging study to find this out. "Kun-kun and 17 other dogs were trained to lay motionless in a brain scanner, where we played them speech excerpts of "The Little Prince' in Spanish and Hungarian. All dogs had heard only one of the two languages from their owners, so this way, we could compare a highly familiar language to a completely unfamiliar one. We also played dogs scrambled versions of these excerpts, which sound completely unnatural, to test whether they detect the difference between speech and non-speech at all." When comparing brain responses to speech and non-speech, researchers found distinct activity patterns in dogs' primary auditory cortex. This distinction was there independently from whether the stimuli originated from the familiar or the unfamiliar language. There was, however, no evidence that dog brains would have a neural preference for speech over non-speech. "Dog brains, like human brains, can distinguish between speech and non-speech. But the mechanism underlying this speech detection ability may be different from speech sensitivity in humans: whereas human brains are specially tuned to speech, dog brains may simply detect the naturalness of the sound," explains Raúl Hernández-Pérez, coauthor of the study. In addition to speech detection, dog brains could also distinguish between Spanish and Hungarian Read more: Phys.org

Ancient mass migration transformed Britons’ DNA

December 24th, 2021 by The mass-movement of people originated in continental Europe and occurred between 1,400 BC and 870 BC. The discovery helps to explain the genetic make-up of many present-day people in Britain. Around half the ancestry of later populations in England and Wales comes from these migrants. It's unclear what caused the influx of people during the Middle to Late Bronze Age, but the migrants introduced new ritual practices to Britain. The results, published in the peer-reviewed journal Nature, are based on DNA extracted from 793 ancient skeletons. The study reveals that a gene allowing some people to digest raw milk increased rapidly in Britain during the Iron Age - 1,000 years before the same thing happened elsewhere in Northern Europe. It's an extraordinary example of natural selection for a genetic trait, and the reasons for its spread remain a mystery. The researchers identified four skeletons at the archaeological sites of Cliffs End Farm and Margetts Pit in Kent that were either first-generation migrants from continental Europe, or their descendants. It's evidence for pioneer settlement of the region from the continent, starting as far back as 1,400BC. At first, said Dr Thomas Booth, from the Francis Crick Institute in London, people with the new, continental ancestry "appear almost exclusively in Kent... but we don't really see them anywhere else and we don't see a change in the overall ancestry of Britain. But the new DNA signature soon spreads: "From around 1,000BC, suddenly that ancestry seems to disperse all the way through southern Britain, particularly," he explained, adding: "There's no particular genetic change in Scotland, but everywhere in England and Wales, this ancestry has an effect." Read more: BBC

Linguists are using Star Trek to save endangered languages

December 19th, 2021 by Most languages develop through centuries of use among groups of people. But some have a different origin: They are invented, from scratch, from one individual’s mind. Familiar examples include the international language Esperanto, the Klingon language from Star Trek, and the Elvish tongues from The Lord of the Rings. The activity isn’t new — the earliest recorded invented language was by medieval nun Hildegard von Bingen — but the internet now allows much wider sharing of such languages among the small communities of people who speak and create them. Christine Schreyer, a linguistic anthropologist at the University of British Columbia’s Okanagan campus in Kelowna, Canada, has studied invented languages and the people who speak them, a topic she writes about in the 2021 Annual Review of Anthropology. But Schreyer brings another skill to the table: She’s a language creator herself and has invented several languages for the movie industry: the Kryptonian language for “Man of Steel,” Eltarian for “Power Rangers,” Beama (Cro-Magnon) for “Alpha” and Atlantean for “Zack Snyder’s Justice League.” Schreyer spoke with Knowable Magazine about her experience in this unusual world, and the practical lessons that it provides for people trying to revitalize endangered natural languages. This interview has been edited for length and clarity. Read more: Inverse

Languages could go extinct at a rate of one per month this century

December 17th, 2021 by Denser road networks, higher levels of education and even climate change are just a few of the factors that could lead to the loss of more than 20 per cent of the world’s 7000 languages by the end of the century – equivalent to one language vanishing per month. Based on a new model similar to those used for predicting species loss, a team of biologists, mathematicians and linguists led by Lindell Bromham at Australian National University in Canberra has determined that, without effective conservation, language loss will increase five-fold by 2100. “This is a frightening statistic,” says Bromham, adding that her team’s estimates are “conservative”. “Every time a language is lost, we lose so much,” she says. “We lose a rich source of cultural information; we lose a unique and beautiful expression of human creativity.” Current language loss estimates vary considerably, with some predicting that up to 90 per cent of languages might no longer be spoken at the start of the next century. Bromham, an evolutionary biologist, and her colleagues suspected that by borrowing modelling techniques from studies on biodiversity loss, they might be able to capture a more statistically sound view of language diversity loss. Read more: New Scientist


December 16th, 2021 by Language is one of the greatest art forms on Earth. There are thousands of spoken, written, and signed languages around the world with subcategories including regional and ethnic dialects and colloquialisms. Written words, signs, gestures, and speech constantly evolve through technology, world events, and pop culture, which is not surprising. Why? Because all systems of communication ultimately stem from something Earth’s earliest human inhabitants crafted many years ago. In other words, everything is totally made up! In fact, language is so mutable that we (the collective) have crafted fictional languages as storytelling supplements in entertainment. (In this context, a fictional language is one that’s not used in our general society to communicate. It is specifically tied to a TV/film/print story.) Popular TV and film languages like Klingon, Atlantean, and Dothraki don’t only exist to lend further credence and believability to their respective worlds and narratives. They are methods of communication among fans, a complex subject worthy of studying and learning to further immerse yourself into a universe. But what do we gain from learning and using them? And what really goes into crafting a fictional language, anyway? Let’s get to the bottom of this enduring love for constructed language. Read more: Nerdist

Scientists may have just uncovered the origin of an ancient language

December 14th, 2021 by Every boring email we type or moment of small talk we have at the grocery store is part of a historic and mysterious legacy: the creation of language. The kind of languages we speak — from Arabic to Mandarin and English — feel like immovable constants in our lives, but in reality, these languages are shifting and transforming at every moment. While the spread of slang through apps like TikTok or WeChat may seem like a modern phenomenon, new research published in the journal Nature on Wednesday uses genetic, archaeological, and linguistic data to demonstrate that this transformation can be traced back much further — all the way to 2000 B.C.E. The Transeurasian language family the researchers focused on has connections to modern-day Japanese, Korean, Tungusic, Mongolic, and Turkic. By tracking the transformation of ancient Transeurasian language, this research can help scientists not only better understand how language changes, but how its speakers change along with it. Martine Robbeets is a linguist from the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History and the first author of the new paper. She explains that the significance of this study is that it shows how powerful linguistics can be when used in collaboration with other disciplines including genetics and archaeology. “I think that the novelty of the research is not so much in applying one single method, but in bringing different methods and different disciplines together,” Robbeets tells Inverse. “[These questions] cannot be answered with linguistics alone.” Read more: Inverse

The Origins of Language

December 12th, 2021 by For more than 150 years ago, the assumption that language is a singular event has hampered progress in explaining its evolution. Another obstacle was the failure to recognize that certain social interactions, uniquely human interactions, are necessary for the evolution of language. These problems have been recently remedied by recognizing that words had to evolve before grammar and discovering non-verbal emotional and cognitive relations between an infant and caregiver. As I elaborate below, those relations are known as intersubjectivity and joint attention. Darwin argued that the theory of evolution could account for the transition from animal communication to language by the principle of natural selection. The idea was that “language differed in degree and not kind” from animal communication. What remained to be discovered was the degree–“innumerable gradations” that separated them. Some of those gradations have been discovered in recent years. But their nature suggests that language differs in kind from animal communication. With Darwin, Alfred Wallace, who published the first article on the theory of natural selection, wondered how natural selection, which assumes the survival value of a new ability, could account for man’s “superior intelligence.” Compared to apes, Wallace couldn’t understand why natural selection would produce anything more than a slight increment in mental ability. Language, not to mention numerical knowledge or music, is hardly necessary for survival. Because Wallace assumed that language was a singular event, he didn’t realize that words had to evolve before grammar. If he did, he might have recognized how a theory of the evolution of words would be consistent with the principle of natural selection. Before words could evolve, some of our ancestors had to become more cooperative than apes. That increment in cooperation was necessary for intersubjectivity and joint attention to evolve. To see how language's verbal and non-verbal components relate to one another, it is helpful to review why chimpanzees, our nearest living relative, can’t learn language. Read more: Psychology Today

Natural language processing is shaping intelligent automation

December 9th, 2021 by Natural language processing is the name usually given to computers’ ability to perform linguistic tasks — although in practice it includes more than just language processing (understanding text and speech) but also includes language generation (creating text and speech). Natural language processing (NLP) is one component of intelligent automation, a set of related technologies that enable computers to automate knowledge work and augment the productivity of people who work with their minds. The other components of intelligent automation are computer vision (interpreting images and videos, such as in self-driving cars or medical diagnostics), thinking & learning (for example, evolving strategies and making decisions based on data), and execution (interacting with the physical world or with existing software, and chaining the other capabilities together into automated pipelines). Below are just some applications of natural language processing that are being deployed today and how they can help your business. Read more: Venture Beat

The Scientific Reason Singers Have a Knack for Language

December 6th, 2021 by What’s the difference between Mozart and Pavarotti? Well, one was a child prodigy and composer who systematically learned the rules of music at an early age — the other, a pitch-perfect expert at mimicry.   Singers have a knack for foreign languages, most notably when it comes to pronunciation and accent because, like parrots, they mimic what they hear. It’s something that Pavarotti, who couldn’t read sheet music, did with his operatic singing.  “The singer is the best with the accent,” says Susanne Reiterer, a neurolinguistics researcher at the University of Vienna in Austria. “A foreign accent is a piece of cake for them.” Studies reveal that Heschl’s gyrus, a type of ridge on the brain’s surface that contains the primary auditory cortex, plays a significant role in musical aptitude and language aptitude, especially when there are a higher number of gyri. So some researchers believe that, based on the structure of the brain, some are simply born to be musicians. “Talking uses the same biological makeup as singing, so it must be related biologically and neurobiologically,” Reiterer says. “It’s almost like two sides of one coin.” C López Ramón Y Cajal, a descendant of Santiago Ramón y Cajal — the founder of modern neurobiology — found that the gyri are formed mid-pregnancy and continue to grow as the fetus develops, as reported in a 2019 Medical Hypotheses article. Rehearsing and training over time have an impact on the brain, but Reiterer says biology also plays a leading role. “You can change a lot by rehearsing, but something is pre-given as well,” Reiterer adds. “It’s 50/50 genes and environment, and if you have a strong pre-disposition [musically] then you have more power basically in your auditory areas. You can discriminate sounds better.”  In Reiterer’s 2015 Frontiers in Human Neuroscience study, 96 participants categorized as instrumentalists, vocalists and non-musicians were tested for their abilities to imitate a language unknown to them — in this case, Hindi. Her team found vocalists had an advantage over instrumentalists, as they outperformed them in foreign language imitation, but both vocalists and instrumentalists outperformed non-musicians. This research also suggested that vocal motor training may allow singers to learn a language faster.  And when children experience music early on in life, they’re able to achieve lifelong neuroplasticity, wrote Nina Kraus, a neuroscientist at Northwestern University, and co-author Travis White-Schwoch in American Scientist. At Northwestern’s Brainvolts lab, this team also found that the more musicians play, the more they benefit: Speech-sound processing ability builds up across one’s lifespan. Musicians exhibited better attention, sharper working memory, and better neural speech-sound processing as the number of practicing years increased.  Even in the early 2000s, research suggested that long-term training in music and pitch recognition allows a person to better process the pitch patterns of a foreign language, a concept that Reiterer also explored in an Annual Review of Applied Linguistics article published this March.  Reiterer has also investigated how a person’s initial aptitude develops due to factors such as biological maturing, socio-cultural factors and musical ability, to name a few, as reported in a May 2021 Neurobiology of Language article. “It’s the body that feels where I have to move my tongue,” Reiterer says. “And this feeling has a correlation in the brain, proprioception. That is the key to good pronunciation and the key to a good singer.”  So, for those tapping into both language and music — things just click.  Read more: Scientific American

How Brains Seamlessly Switch Between Languages

December 2nd, 2021 by Billions of people worldwide speak two or more languages. (Though the estimates vary, many sources assert that more than half of the planet is bilingual or multilingual.) One of the most common experiences for these individuals is a phenomenon that experts call “code switching,” or shifting from one language to another within a single conversation or even a sentence. This month Sarah Frances Phillips, a linguist and graduate student at New York University, and her adviser Liina Pylkkänen published findings from brain imaging that underscore the ease with which these switches happen and reveal how the neurological patterns that support this behavior are very similar in monolingual people. The new study reveals how code switching—which some multilingual speakers worry is “cheating,” in contrast to sticking to just one language—is normal and natural. Phillips spoke with Mind Matters editor Daisy Yuhas about these findings and why some scientists believe bilingual speakers may have certain cognitive advantages. Read more: Scientific American