Featured Research

from universities, journals, and other organizations

Natural Selection As We Speak

Date:
March 4, 2005
Source:
Max Planck Society
Summary:
The forces of variation and selection which shape human language have become issues of extensive research. Documentation of sounds and sound patterns, and their evolution over the past 7000-8000 years allows linguists to quantify the important role of human perception, articulation and imperfect learning as language is passed from one generation to the next.

Final devoicing has evolved many times in the history of the world’s languages. Sounds, like biological organisms, show convergent evolution.
Credit: Image : Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology

The forces of variation and selection which shape human language have become issues of extensive research. Documentation of sounds and sound patterns, and their evolution over the past 7000-8000 years allows linguists to quantify the important role of human perception, articulation and imperfect learning as language is passed from one generation to the next. At this year's AAAS conference in Washington, DC, Juliette Blevins, senior scientist at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, presents a new approach to the problem of how genetically unrelated languages across the world often show similar sound patterns, without invoking innate mechanisms specific to grammar. Languages as far apart as Native American, Australian Aboriginal, Austronesian and Indo-European show similar patterns of vowel and consonant inventory and distribution, but exceptions to sound patterns regarded as universal show that these similarities are best viewed as the result of convergent evolution.

Related Articles


A new model of sound change shows that evolutionary principles can account for striking phonetic similarities across unrelated languages, as well as the rarity of certain sounds. German and Russian are not the only languages in the world where sounds like b, d, and g lose their characteristic vocal fold 'buzz' at the end of the word. Dozens of unrelated languages, from Afar on the sands of Ethiopia, to Ingush in the northern Caucasus have similar sound patterns.

Why are these patterns found in unrelated languages? Why do languages favour silent p t k sounds over noisy b d g sounds at the end of the word? And why are these sounds common, while clicks have arisen only once in human history? Dr. Juliette Blevins, Senior Scientist at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, Leipzig, provides answers to these and many other phonological puzzles in a symposium on Evolutionary Phonology at the 2005 AAAS Annual Meeting, in Washington, DC.

Building on the work of a 16th century Chinese scholar, the famous 19th century Junggrammatiker of Leipzig, and Darwin, of course, Blevins shows that parallel evolution is the primary source of shared sound patterns. As language is naturally transmitted from one generation to the next, human perception and articulation makes certain kinds of sound change (like the shift of final b d g to p t k) more frequent than others. At the same time, people are very unlikely to mispronounce or mishear a simple consonant as a click-sound, providing few opportunities for clicks to evolve naturally.

The implications of this work go far beyond our understanding of vowels, consonants, buzzes and clicks. By showing how universal tendencies in sound structure emerge from phonetically motivated sound change, Evolutionary Phonology undermines a central tenet of modern Chomskyan linguistics: that Universal Grammar, an innate human cognitive capacity, plays a dominant role in shaping grammars. Blevins argues that humans learn sound patterns on the basis of their exposure to hundreds of thousands of examples of them in the first years of life. Where universal tendencies exist, they are emergent properties of language as a self-organizing system.

Other participants in the AAAS symposium on Evolutionary Phonology are Prof. Terrence Deacon (University of California, Berkeley), Prof. Janet Pierrehumbert (Northwestern University), and Prof Andrew Wedel (University of Arizona, Tucson).


Story Source:

The above story is based on materials provided by Max Planck Society. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.


Cite This Page:

Max Planck Society. "Natural Selection As We Speak." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 4 March 2005. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2005/02/050223150159.htm>.
Max Planck Society. (2005, March 4). Natural Selection As We Speak. ScienceDaily. Retrieved October 25, 2014 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2005/02/050223150159.htm
Max Planck Society. "Natural Selection As We Speak." ScienceDaily. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2005/02/050223150159.htm (accessed October 25, 2014).

Share This



More Fossils & Ruins News

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Featured Research

from universities, journals, and other organizations


Featured Videos

from AP, Reuters, AFP, and other news services

Deep Sea 'mushroom' Could Be Early Branch on Tree of Life

Deep Sea 'mushroom' Could Be Early Branch on Tree of Life

Reuters - Innovations Video Online (Oct. 24, 2014) Miniature deep sea animals discovered off the Australian coast almost three decades ago are puzzling scientists, who say the organisms have proved impossible to categorise. Academics at the Natural History of Denmark have appealed to the world scientific community for help, saying that further information on Dendrogramma enigmatica and Dendrogramma discoides could answer key evolutionary questions. Jim Drury has more. Video provided by Reuters
Powered by NewsLook.com
Fossil Treasures at Risk in Morocco Desert Town

Fossil Treasures at Risk in Morocco Desert Town

AFP (Oct. 23, 2014) Hundreds of archeological jewels in and around the town of 30,000 people prompt geologists and archeologists to call the Erfoud area "the largest open air fossil museum in the world". Duration: 02:17 Video provided by AFP
Powered by NewsLook.com
Oldest Bone Ever Sequenced Shows Human/Neanderthal Mating

Oldest Bone Ever Sequenced Shows Human/Neanderthal Mating

Newsy (Oct. 23, 2014) A 45,000-year-old thighbone is showing when humans and neanderthals may have first interbred and revealing details about our origins. Video provided by Newsy
Powered by NewsLook.com
Weird-Looking Dinosaur Solves 50-Year-Old Mystery

Weird-Looking Dinosaur Solves 50-Year-Old Mystery

Newsy (Oct. 23, 2014) You've probably seen some weird-looking dinosaurs, but have you ever seen one this weird? It's worth a look. Video provided by Newsy
Powered by NewsLook.com

Search ScienceDaily

Number of stories in archives: 140,361

Find with keyword(s):
Enter a keyword or phrase to search ScienceDaily for related topics and research stories.

Save/Print:
Share:

Breaking News:

Strange & Offbeat Stories


Plants & Animals

Earth & Climate

Fossils & Ruins

In Other News

... from NewsDaily.com

Science News

Health News

Environment News

Technology News



Save/Print:
Share:

Free Subscriptions


Get the latest science news with ScienceDaily's free email newsletters, updated daily and weekly. Or view hourly updated newsfeeds in your RSS reader:

Get Social & Mobile


Keep up to date with the latest news from ScienceDaily via social networks and mobile apps:

Have Feedback?


Tell us what you think of ScienceDaily -- we welcome both positive and negative comments. Have any problems using the site? Questions?
Mobile: iPhone Android Web
Follow: Facebook Twitter Google+
Subscribe: RSS Feeds Email Newsletters
Latest Headlines Health & Medicine Mind & Brain Space & Time Matter & Energy Computers & Math Plants & Animals Earth & Climate Fossils & Ruins