How Do Languages Evolve? This Game Is Finding The Answer!

A team of researchers led by Dr. Olivier Morin at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Jena, Germany have released a mobile app, the Color Game, designed to study how human languages evolve. Dr. Morin’s team identified a problem in how traditional language studies are conducted; participants are often given pre-designated, artificial tasks to be completed in a limited amount of time. Unfortunately, that isn’t how language works in the real world.

Language is a universal human experience and is an entirely unique mechanism for communication. From behavior and cognition to culture, it permeates every single aspect of human life. In the field, languages are less predictable than their laboratory counterparts. They take convoluted, varied evolutionary paths influenced by culture, neurology, cognition, and sociological intermingling. Even the eventual result of linguistic evolution is disputable: do languages evolve towards disorder or order? Irregularity or regularity? Where does language even come from?

Although it is a ubiquitous component of human life, the origin of language isn’t exactly clear. A study published in April and led by Dr. Mellissa DeMille at Yale University discovered a connection between the regulation of a specific gene and the number of phonemes, or linguistic units of sound, in a given language. DCDC2, a gene previously associated with dyslexia and phonological processing, has an element called READ1 that controls how DCDC2 is expressed. When Dr. DeMille and her collaborators investigated READ1’s distribution in 43 human populations across 5 continents, they uncovered an association between READ1 and the number of consonants in a given language. Incredibly, this relationship is entirely independent of language family, geography, and population genetics. The study suggests that READ1 laid the cognitive foundations, augmented by cultural transmission, that molded consonant usage in human language. Whereas it’s clear genetics play a role in language development, there are numerous studies that also reveal biological and sociological contributions. A study conducted in 2012 found that humans have evolved a biological adaptation that allows them to cope with rapid changes in language. In contrast, a book published last year by Princeton University Press argues language developed for purely social usage.

Read more: Forbes

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