Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Darwin’s Tongues

Now a small contingent of researchers, many of them evolutionary biologists who typically have nothing to do with linguistics, are looking at language from in front of their computers, using mathematical techniques imported from the study of DNA to wring scenarios of language evolution out of huge amounts of comparative speech data. These data analyzers assume that words and other language units change systematically as they are passed from one generation to the next, much the way genes do. Charles Darwin similarly argued in 1871 that languages, like biological species, have evolved into a series of related forms. And in the same way that geneticists use computerized statistical approaches to put together humankind’s family tree from the DNA of living people and a few long-dead individuals, these newcomers can generate family trees, called phylogenies, for languages. From existing data on numbers of speech sounds and types of grammatical structure, these phylogenies can point to ancient root languages and trace a path to today’s tongues. more

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