Language and cranial features linked, developed at same time?
|November 17, 2016||Posted by News under language, News|
The formation of different languages and language groupings appears to have happened in the same broad period and geographical locations as the development of facial features in various human populations, according to linguistics professor, Gerhard Jäger, and paleoanthropologists, Professor Katerina Harvati and Dr. Hugo Reyes-Centeno. In their study, the researchers examined 265 skulls from Africa, Asia, and Oceania and the vocabularies of more than 800 languages and dialects from those regions.
If these findings are confirmed in further investigations, it would give researchers a characteristic which would help them to follow the development of various language families as far back as the early development of humankind. The linguists developed a method to measure the degree of similarity between two languages in a completely automatic way by comparing the words those languages use in their core vocabulary. Likewise, the anthropologists found ways to quantify the similarity between the phenotypic characteristics of humans using the cranial measurements of skulls just a few centuries old. “We can assume that the language does not change significantly in such a relatively short time,” says Jäger. They reasoned that on average, the similarity between populations should decrease with geographical distance, both with respect to their linguistic and their biological characteristics. They also postulated that, on average, populations that are linguistically similar should also be biologically similar and vice versa. If these correlations also hold between populations that split up more than 10,000 years ago, this would provide evidence that language preserves a deeper historical signal than commonly thought.
In their study, the authors demonstrate that both expectations are met, and that they also hold across the boundaries of language families.
According to the prevailing wisdom in historical linguistics, it is only possible to demonstrate languages to be related if their latest common ancestor was spoken up to 10,000 years ago. Individual researchers have tried to push this boundary further back in time, but their efforts have generally been met with skepticism by the experts. Jäger, Harvati and Reyes-Centeno may now have succeeded in opening a door on our distant past by tackling this issue with statistical techniques relying on linguistic and anthropological data. Paper. (public access) – Hugo Reyes-Centeno, Katerina Harvati, Gerhard Jäger. Tracking modern human population history from linguistic and cranial phenotype. Scientific Reports, 2016; 6: 36645 DOI: 10.1038/srep36645More.
The skepticism is probably still well-advised. Languages are not life forms and need not follow the same rules of descent. We really have no idea of languages spoken during the “early development of humankind”; we do know that in the absence of the written word or a large number of speakers, languages can change pretty quickly.
For example, consider creoles:
Creole languages, vernacular languages that developed in colonial European plantation settlements in the 17th and 18th centuries as a result of contact between groups that spoke mutually unintelligible languages. …
Most commonly, creoles have resulted from the interactions between speakers of nonstandard varieties of European languages and speakers of non-European languages.
However, creoles are in fact normal, full-fledged languages that may hold the key to better understanding the evolution of language.
Very few linguistic facts have been correlated with the conclusions suggested by the specific sociohistorical backgrounds of individual creoles, and little is understood about how creoles differ evolutionarily from other vernaculars apart from the special circumstances of their development. Britannica
In short, when we know a fair bit about a language that has living speakers, we find very much less certainty than is claimed above for languages over ten thousand years old, of which we have only rough comparative conjecture. That’s a classic in: the less the knowledge, the greater the certainty. Remember when Neanderthals didn’t do art or jewellery? We knew that because we didn’t know enough about them.
See also: Researchers: Speech and sign language deeply similar: The real story here is that minds use symbols, whether words or signs, to create information. But we are not permitted to talk about it quite that way. We need to pretend that it is a big surprise that sign language is a language.
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