Scientists solve the mystery of the Etruscans’ origins

A new genetic analysis may have finally revealed the origin of the Etruscans — a mysterious people whose civilization thrived in Italy centuries before the founding of Rome.

It turns out the enigmatic Etruscans were local to the area, with nearly identical genetics to their Latin-speaking neighbors.

This finding contradicts earlier theories that the Etruscans — who for centuries spoke a now extinct, non-Indo-European language that was remarkably different from others in the region — came from somewhere different from their Latin-speaking neighbors. 

Instead, both groups appear to be migrants from the Pontic-Caspian steppe — a long, thin swath of land stretching from the north Black Sea around Ukraine to the north Caspian Sea in Russia. After arriving in Italy during the Bronze age, the early speakers of Etruscan put down roots, assimilating speakers of other languages to their own culture as they flourished into a great civilization.

The finding “challenges simple assumptions that genes equal languages and suggests a more complex scenario that may have involved the assimilation of early Italic speakers by the Etruscan speech community,” David Caramelli, an anthropology professor at the University of Florence, said in a statement.  

With cities as sophisticated as those of the ancient Greeks; trade networks as lucrative as the Phoenicians’; and a vast wealth to rival ancient Egypt’s, the Etruscan civilization, the first known superpower of the Western Mediterranean, had a brilliance matched only by the mystery surrounding its language and its origins. Rising to the height of its power in central Italy in the 7th century B.C., Etruria dominated the region for centuries until the advent of the Roman republic, which had all but conquered the Etruscans before the middle of the 3rd century B.C., fully assimilating them by 90 B.C. 

Read more: Live Science

How We Extract Meaning From Language

Much has been said about the remarkable ability humans have to extract meaning from language. That ability is remarkable indeed. In a split second, we perceive a spoken or written word and immediately assign meaning to it while concatenating (stringing together) the various words in a sentence. At the end of the comprehension process, the whole sentence is greater than the sum of its parts.

It is an ability that almost comes naturally, at least for spoken words. Some 353,000 babies born today will understand some basic words about nine months from now. Around their first birthday, they will learn their first words, often words like “mummy” or “daddy.” Around their second birthday, they will be putting words together in their first sentences.

And if those first sentences don’t end up occurring around the second birthday, there is likely no reason for concern. Odds are that they will get there sooner or later and become the talkative creatures that we are. Almost any child, anywhere in the world, can learn how to understand and speak a language—one of the 6,500 languages in the world.

How Do We Acquire Language?

The big question cognitive scientists have been struggling with—linguists, psychologists, educators, anthropologists, philosophers, and AI researchers alike—is how language is acquired so naturally. A century of research has not provided a definitive answer. However, parts of an answer have been proposed.

Some researchers in the early part of the 20th century argued that language acquisition is not much more than verbal behavior training. Just like a pigeon learning to make a pirouette—step by step, when provided with some reward—children learn how to speak. Rather than an edible reward, the attention and praise from parents could be considered the perfect reinforcers for acquiring our remarkable language processing skills.

Other researchers in the 1950s vigorously rejected the idea that language is acquired through training. Language-learning children, they argued, are not pirouette-making pigeons. Instead, the language-learning child already has a “language mind” on its own. It does not start out with a blank slate, but instead has a built-in instinct for understanding and speaking. It is because of this preconditioned language acquisition device that children can acquire language so rapidly and effortlessly. Language acquisition is not nurture, they argue; it is nature.

The nature argument can also be found in a prominent explanation three decades after. The enthusiasm about the emergence of computers convinced some researchers that the human brain must also be like a computer. If computers and the human brain can both understand language, the brain must use the same computational architecture. Language acquisition was thus seen as a combination of nature and nurture. Nature provided the neural network architecture that could be trained on the nurturing linguistic input.

Over the last two decades, however, concerns have been raised about the analogy of the human mind as a computer, crunching linguistic symbols into other linguistic symbols. Instead, the argument went, meaning can only come from linking linguistic symbols to perceptual information. That is, language must be grounded to be meaningful.

The meaning for the word “dog” does not come from the fact that it may occur in the same sentence with “cat,” as a computer may compute. Instead, the meaning of the word comes from the fact that in the mind’s eye (and ear, nose, and hand), we can see the four-legged animal, mentally hear its barking, imagine its particular dog smell, and picture what it feels like to pet it. That is how language attains meaning.

Read more: Psychology Today

Why Are So Many Languages Dying Out?

Endangered vernaculars have been dying out at unprecedented rates since the 1960s. Invariably, they give way to one of the world’s more dominant languages such as Arabic, English, Mandarin or Spanish. Now, more than 40 percent of the world’s 7,000 or so languages are thought to be at risk of extinction, some with just a handful of elderly native speakers left.

“This isn’t a normal or stable flux,” says Anna Belew, outreach coordinator at the Endangered Languages Project, which seeks to support efforts to sustain endangered languages. “What we’re looking at is a mass-extinction event.” Out of the roughly 700 languages that are known to have fallen silent in all of human history, more than 30 percent have gone extinct at some point during the last 60 years.

Read more: Discover Magazine

Struggling to Learn a New Language? Blame It on Your Stable Brain

A study in patients with epilepsy is helping researchers understand how the brain manages the task of learning a new language while retaining our mother tongue. The study, by neuroscientists at UC San Francisco, sheds light on the age-old question of why it’s so difficult to learn a second language as an adult.

The somewhat surprising results gave the team a window into how the brain navigates the tradeoff between neuroplasticity — the ability to grow new connections between neurons when learning new things — and stability, which allows us to maintain the integrated networks of things we’ve already learned. The findings appear in the Aug. 30 issue of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences

“When learning a new language, our brains are somehow accommodating both of these forces as they’re competing against each other,” said Matt Leonard, PhD, assistant professor of neurological surgery and a member of the UCSF Weill Institute for Neurosciences.  

By using electrodes on the surface of the brain to follow high-resolution neural signals, the team found that clusters of neurons scattered throughout the speech cortex appear to fine-tune themselves as a listener gains familiarity with foreign sounds.  

“These are our first insights into what’s changing in the brain between first hearing the sounds of a foreign language and being able to recognize them,” said Leonard, who is a principal investigator on the study.  

Read more: University of California San Francisco

Bat pups babble and bat moms use baby talk, hinting at the evolution of human language

“Mamama,” “dadada,” “bababa” – parents usually welcome with enthusiasm the sounds of a baby’s babble. Babbling is the first milestone when learning to speak. All typically developing infants babble, no matter which language they’re learning.

Speech, the oral output of language, requires precise control over the lips, tongue and jaw to produce one of the basic speech subunits: the syllable, like “ba,” “da,” “ma.” Babbling is characterized by universal features – for example, repetition of syllables and use of rhythm. It lets an infant practice and playfully learn how to control their vocal apparatus to correctly produce the desired syllables.

More than anything else, language defines human nature. But its evolutionary origins have puzzled scientists for decades. Investigating the biological foundations of language across species – as I do in bats – is a promising way to gain insights into key features of human language.

I’m a behavioral biologist who has spent many months of 10-hour days sitting in front of bat colonies in Panama and Costa Rica recording the animals’ vocalizations. My colleagues and I have found striking parallels between the babbling produced by these bat pups and that by human infants. Identifying a mammal that shares similar brain structure with human beings and is also capable of vocal imitation may help us understand the cognitive and neuromolecular foundations of vocal learning.

Vocal learning in other animals

Scientists learned a great deal about vocal imitation and vocal development by studying songbirds. They are among the best-known vocal learners, and the learning process of young male songbirds shows interesting parallels to human speech development. Young male songbirds also practice their notes in a practice phase reminiscent of human infant babbling.

However, songbirds and people possess different vocal apparatus – birds vocalize by using a syrinx, humans use a larynx – and their brain architecture differs. So drawing direct conclusions from songbird research for humans is limited.

Luckily, in Central America’s tropical jungle, there’s a mammal that engages in a very conspicuous vocal practice behavior that is strongly reminiscent of human infant babbling: the neotropical greater sac-winged bat, Saccopteryx bilineata. The pups of this small bat, dark-furred with two prominent white wavy stripes on the back, engage in daily babbling behavior during large parts of their development.

Read more: The Conversation

African languages to get more bespoke scientific terms

There’s no original isiZulu word for dinosaur. Germs are called amagciwane, but there are no separate words for viruses or bacteria. A quark is ikhwakhi (pronounced kwa-ki); there is no term for red shift. And researchers and science communicators using the language, which is spoken by more than 14 million people in southern Africa, struggle to agree on words for evolution.

IsiZulu is one of approximately 2,000 languages spoken in Africa. Modern science has ignored the overwhelming majority of these languages, but now a team of researchers from Africa wants to change that.

A research project called Decolonise Science plans to translate 180 scientific papers from the AfricArXiv preprint server into 6 African languages: isiZulu and Northern Sotho from southern Africa; Hausa and Yoruba from West Africa; and Luganda and Amharic from East Africa.

These languages are collectively spoken by around 98 million people. Earlier this month, AfricArXiv called for submissions from authors interested in having their papers considered for translation. The deadline is 20 August.

The translated papers will span many disciplines of science, technology, engineering and mathematics. The project is being supported by the Lacuna Fund, a data-science funder for researchers in low- and middle-income countries. It was launched a year ago by philanthropic and government funders from Europe and North America, and Google.

Read more: Nature

Researchers use AI to unlock the secrets of ancient texts

The Abbey Library of St. Gall in Switzerland is home to approximately 160,000 volumes of literary and historical manuscripts dating back to the eighth century—all of which are written by hand, on parchment, in languages rarely spoken in modern times.

To preserve these historical accounts of humanity, such texts, numbering in the millions, have been kept safely stored away in libraries and monasteries all over the world. A significant portion of these collections are available to the general public through digital imagery, but experts say there is an extraordinary amount of material that has never been read—a treasure trove of insight into the world’s history hidden within.

Now, researchers at University of Notre Dame are developing an artificial neural network to read complex ancient handwriting based on human perception to improve capabilities of deep learning transcription.

“We’re dealing with historical documents written in styles that have long fallen out of fashion, going back many centuries, and in languages like Latin, which are rarely ever used anymore,” said Walter Scheirer, the Dennis O. Doughty Collegiate Associate Professor in the Department of Computer Science and Engineering at Notre Dame. “You can get beautiful photos of these materials, but what we’ve set out to do is automate transcription in a way that mimics the perception of the page through the eyes of the expert reader and provides a quick, searchable reading of the text.”

In research published in the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers journal Transactions on Pattern Analysis and Machine Intelligence, Scheirer outlines how his team combined traditional methods of machine learning with visual psychophysics—a method of measuring the connections between physical stimuli and mental phenomena, such as the amount of time it takes for an expert reader to recognize a specific character, gauge the quality of the handwriting or identify the use of certain abbreviations.

Scheirer’s team studied digitized Latin manuscripts that were written by scribes in the Cloister of St. Gall in the ninth century. Readers entered their manual transcriptions into a specially designed software interface. The team then measured reaction times during transcription for an understanding of which words, characters and passages were easy or difficult. Scheirer explained that including that kind of data created a network more consistent with human behavior, reduced errors and provided a more accurate, more realistic reading of the text.

Read more: Tech Xplore

The Swiss Language That Few Know

The Sarine River skirts the edge of Basse-Ville (lower town), dividing both the canton of Fribourg and the city of Fribourg into two sectors: German-speaking and French-speaking. The city of around 40,000 people is clearly one of duality: street signs are all in two languages; residents can choose whether their children will use French or German in primary school; and the university even offers a bilingual curriculum.

However, head to medieval Basse-Ville, caught between the German- and French-speaking divisions of Fribourg, and you’ll find yourself in a no-man’s land where the two languages have become one: le Bolze.

Speak to any Swiss national, and you’ll likely find them enthralled with the topic of communication, probably because languages are so incredibly diverse within this small country. The nation can be geographically divided into three major language groups. The south, which shares in the famous lakes of the Swiss-Italian lake region, is Italian-speaking. To the west near Geneva is French-speaking; while central and eastern parts of the country, such as Zurich and St Moritz, rely on German (and the south-eastern canton of Graubünden even includes Romansh speakers).

It gets even more confusing when you throw in the various dialects, such as Franc Comtois, a French dialect spoken in Switzerland’s Jura and Bern cantons; and Swiss German, which is learned at home and only used conversationally (as opposed to ‘proper’ German, which is both written and spoken, and taught at school).

Among all this linguistic complexity, the city of Fribourg/Freiburg (as it’s known in French/German) has the added challenge of lying on the language borders between French- and German-speaking cantons – Vaud and Bern – which is perhaps why it’s home to a people who decided to develop their own language.

Read more: Pocket

The Spanish island that communicates by whistle

On the rugged crags of Barranco de Ávalo, a ravine on the small Canary Island of La Gomera, two local 12-year-olds were practicing their Silbo Gomero, the local whistling language. For an entrancing few minutes, Irún Castillo Perdomo and Angel Manuel Garcia Herrera’s lilting warbles reverberated around the barren gorge and soared proudly into the air like eagles in flight.

They were accompanied by 70-year-old retired Silbo Gomero teacher Eugenio Darias, whose grandfather used to own and work on this very same land. He told me that the boys’ whistled conversation was similar to any they would have over text message or in the playground, but the focus was instead on the six differentiating sounds that make up La Gomera’s protected whistle language.

While it’s true that most children their age would sooner pick up their phone and tap away, this small Canary Island invites them to think differently. Thanks to Darias, their threatened tongue has been a compulsory school subject since 1999 – and almost all 22,000 residents can understand it alongside their mother tongue of Canarian Spanish.

“It’s important to give students the idea that they can really use it if they need to, like other languages, but also that it’s not necessary for everyday use,” said Darias, who pioneered the Silbo Gomero learning programme. “Our aim is to give the whistle more importance so that the children can be confident using it together. Importantly, having the whistle protected within our compulsory curriculum prevents extinction altogether.”

Read more: BBC Travel

American linguist develops braille alphabet for traditional dialect of the Ts’msyen people

Harris Mowbray has never been to Prince Rupert, B.C., but he has left his touch there.

Mowbray, an amateur linguist and software programmer based in California, in collaboration with Prince Rupert resident and Gitga’at Nation member Brendan Eshom, has created a braille alphabet for Sm’algyax, the traditional dialect of the Ts’msyen people of the north coast.

According to the First Peoples’ Cultural Council, which works to preserve B.C. Indigenous languages, Sm’algyax is in serious decline and most speakers are over 70 years old. 

Eshom, in an effort to revitalize the language, has operated the Sm’algyax Word of the Day website and mobile app since 2019.

It was through Eshom’s website and app that Mowbray learned about the language in early 2021 and offered his services. 

Mowbray has previously created braille alphabets for the Chamorro and Carolinian languages of the Mariana Islands, the Kashubian and Silesian languages of Poland, and others and was looking for his next project.

“I think it’s really important that blind people, or people who are near-sighted or have some visual issues should be able to participate in languages as much as everyone else,” said Mowbray.

“The development of a braille alphabet for Sm’algyax increases the number of people who can experience the knowledge and heritage of B.C.’s North Coast — literally first-hand,” Eshom said in a statement.

“People with visual challenges who are fluent in braille will be able to learn the language as readily as those who have access to printed reference materials. I applaud Harris for his expertise and initiative, which have enabled an exciting cross-cultural collaboration.”

Read more: CBC/Radio-Canada

The Global Extinction of Languages Is Threatening a Vital Type of Human Knowledge

As human languages are driven to extinction around the world, a verbal encyclopedia of medical knowledge is on the brink of being forgotten.

Among 12,495 medicinal uses for plants in indigenous communities, new research has found over 75 percent of those plants are each tied to just one local language. If these unique words trickle out of use, so too may the knowledge they contain.

“Each indigenous language is therefore a unique reservoir of medicinal knowledge,” researchers write, “a Rosetta stone for unraveling and conserving nature’s contributions to people.” 

Language extinction is a tragic phenomenon that’s been occurring worldwide, as languages spoken by precious few people are replaced by larger ones. Roughly one language ceases to be spoken every four months, and 3,054 languages are currently endangered around the world.

New research on indigenous languages in North America, Papua New Guinea, and the northwest Amazon reveals just how much crucial information could be lost as this occurs. 

In fact, our collective knowledge of medicinal plants appears more threatened by the loss of indigenous voices than it is from environmental destruction.

Of all 3,597 medicinal plant species analyzed in the study, researchers found less than 5 percent are on the Red List of Threatened Species compiled by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

Some of these plants have not undergone a proper conservation assessment, so further research is needed to figure out how they are actually faring. That said, current data and machine learning suggest very few species we are keeping a close eye on are at risk of dying out.

Instead, it is the knowledge surrounding these plants, passed from generation to generation for hundreds if not thousands of years, that is at risk of vanishing. The vast majority of plant species in the study were found to have medical properties described in just one indigenous language, many of which are themselves endangered.

In North America, for instance, the authors found waning indigenous languages held 86 percent of all unique knowledge on plant medicine. In the northwest Amazon, on the other hand, 100 percent of medicinal plant knowledge is restricted to languages on the edge of extinction. 

Read more: Science Alert

What Language Did the Vikings Speak?

When the Vikings first began to spread out from their northern lands to raid and conquer large swaths of Europe at the end of the 8th century, they were aided by superior maritime skills and the development of sailing technology.

But how did they conceive their plans and communicate the intelligence over a vast swath of land stretching at one point from Newfoundland, Canada, to the eastern Baltic Sea? Surprisingly, a lot more easily perhaps than people living in those places today. After all, they spoke the same language back then.

“Old Norse emerges from around the 8th century and then is used throughout the Viking Age and then the medieval period,” says Kristel Zilmer, a runologist at the Museum of Cultural History in Oslo. “It was a shared common language in Scandinavia and in the islands in the north Atlantic settled by the Scandinavians.”

Old Norse is still with us in English. Words like eggknifetake and even husband were imported with Viking immigration and conquest over the years.

But where did this language come from and how was it used?

Read more: Discover Magazine