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

A new language is here, and almost everyone in the world knows it

What is common between Indian WhatsApp uncles and Kim Kardashian? It’s the use of emojis. From namaste to poop.

US reality star Kim Kardashian threw her daughter North West a poop emoji-themed birthday party recently. And this doesn’t sound nearly as weird as it should. This is because at this point, everyone has a relationship (love or hate) with the annoyingly adorable poop emoji.

This is the inherent polysemy of emojis, which are fast becoming an indispensable part of human communication. A smiley face emoji can relay a simple smile, a passive aggressive message, be patronising, ironic, convey anger or even refer to a serial killer. The sheer range is truly astounding.

Today, emojis start a conversation, can politely end one, offer a reprieve, help lazy people converse, make emoting a lot easier and most importantly, convey entire thoughts through one or more icons. 

Confused how your message will sound to someone who can’t see your face or hear your tone? Send an emoji. Even on Facebook, the ‘like’ button was never going to be enough, so now you can click the emoji you are feeling after seeing a post — sad, ‘care’, heart or ‘haha’.

In effect, emojis have a similar function to what vocal fry (speaking in a grating and deliberately lower register) has in speaking, or perhaps the additional communication that gesticulating with your hands conveys. It has a distinctive character and is also admittedly considered annoying by a lot of people. But also, it’s indispensable now and is going nowhere . Even though a Bangladeshi cleric has called ‘haha’ emoji haram when used to mock people and declared a fatwa against it this week. There’s also a debate about whether emojis should be admitted as court evidence (a man in France who was convicted for threatening his girlfriend had sent the gun emoji).

Read more: The Print

Sequoyah and the Almost-Forgotten History of Cherokee Numerals

By 1828, Sequoyah was at the peak of his renown. His syllabary had been accepted by the Cherokee National Council at its national capital in New Echota, Georgia, in 1825. The laws of the Cherokee nation were printed using the syllabary in 1826, while the bilingual, biscriptal newspaper the Cherokee Phoenix began printing in 1828 in New Echota using a newly designed typeface. In that same year, Sequoyah traveled to Washington as part of a delegation to advocate against the removal of those Cherokee still living east of the Mississippi to the Indian Territory (now eastern Oklahoma), an effort that would ultimately prove unsuccessful in light of President Andrew Jackson’s policies against Native Americans.

By this time, Sequoyah was becoming widely recognized by the American intelligentsia for his invention of the Cherokee script, the first and at the time only indigenously invented script for any people north of Mexico, but also as a public, American intellectual whose accomplishments demonstrated that Europe had no monopoly on inventive genius. This counternarrative to the myth of the indigenous primitive was never predominant, but at times, when Euro-Americans saw their interests in terms of distinguishing themselves from Europe, some might coopt Native American accomplishments by claiming them as generically American.

Shortly after his return from Washington, Sequoyah presented this next invention to the Cherokee National Council: a set of numeral signs. Unlike the Hindu-Arabic, or Western numerals 0123456789, Sequoyah’s numerals had principally a ciphered-additive structure. That is, instead of place value and a zero, there are separate signs for each decade and unit, which combine together, so that 67 would be the sign for 60 followed by 7, rather than 6 followed by 7 as in Western numerals. Beyond 100, the system became multiplicative-additive — instead of developing nine new signs for 100 through 900, Sequoyah invented only one, which combined with the signs for 1 through 19.

Read More: The MIT Press Reader

What makes someone bilingual? There’s no easy answer

It’s estimated that half the world’s population is bilingual, and two-thirds of the world’s children grow up in an environment where several languages intersect. But while bilingualism is common, its definitions are varied. They are often based on people’s experiences or feelings about language—what they convey and what they represent.

The question also divides linguists. While some emphasize cultural integration as the most important factor, others say that only an individual with equivalent mastery of both languages can truly be considered bilingual.

In 1930, linguist Leonard Bloomfield defined bilingualism as the complete control of two languages, as if each were a mother tongue. This is an idealized vision of a perfect, balanced bilingualism, assuming equivalent written and oral skills in both languages. According to this definition, a bilingual speaker is the sum of two monolinguals. However, this type of bilingualism is extremely rare, and in reality, bilingual people have varied language profiles. Each is unique in their relationship to language.

Lire cet article en français: À partir de quand devient-on bilingue?

There are other theories of bilingualism. The Canadian linguist William F Mackey defines it as the alternating use of two or more languages, while Swiss scholar François Grosjean argues that people who are bilingual use two or more languages in their everyday activities. Vivian Cook, from the UK, defines a bilingual person as a multi-skilled individual who develops language skills consistent with the context of acquisition and use of the second language. Thus, an individual may be considered bilingual even if he or she has only a partial command of the second language.

Where does that leave us? Today, a working definition of bilingualism would correspond to the regular and alternating use of at least two languages by an individual—a category that applies to several million speakers.

Read more: Phys.org

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.

Read more: Science Alert