Farming may have helped introduce ‘f’ and ‘v’ sounds to language 12,000 years ago

The Atlantic reports:

Thousands of years ago, small groups of humans across the globe began to transition from hunting and gathering their food to raising and planting it instead. They milked cattle, milled grains to make soft bread, and used new inventions like pottery to preserve meat and vegetables. And once they did that, they could start spicing up their speech by throwing some f and v sounds into the mix.

At least, that’s according to a new study published in the journal Science. The authors argue that sounds like f and v weren’t part of human language until farming appeared during the Neolithic age. Agriculture, they say, allowed humans to eat soft foods, which changed the way their jaws developed throughout life, which shaped the kinds of sounds their mouths were capable of making.

This shift would be an exception to a core rule of linguistics, called the uniformitarian principle, which posits that humans’ ability to use language has not significantly changed since language itself first appeared. “Basically, the uniformitarian principle is necessary to do historical linguistics,” Anthony Yates, a linguist at UCLA, told me. It’s hard to say when exactly humans started speaking, but most estimates place the date at least 50,000 years ago. Agriculture, meanwhile, sprung up during the Neolithic, some 12,000 years ago. The idea that humans weren’t using f’s and v’s for the first 38,000 years of our linguistic history is a striking rebuke to uniformitarianism. [Continue reading…]

We taught bees a simple number language – and they got it

Maybe the differences between human and non-human animals are not as great as we might previously have thought.
from www.shutterstock.com

By Scarlett Howard, Université de Toulouse III – Paul Sabatier; Adrian Dyer, RMIT University, and Andrew Greentree, RMIT University

Most children learn that written numbers represent quantities in pre-school or junior primary school.

Now our new study shows that honeybees too can learn to match symbols and numerosities, much like we humans do with Arabic and Roman numerals.

[Read more…]

Green monkeys borrow vervet monkeys’ eagle warning call when threatened by drones

Smithsonian.com reports:

Some 40 years ago, scientists discovered that East African vervet monkeys (Chlorocebus pygerythrus) produce distinct alarm calls when they encounter their three main predators: leopards, snakes and eagles. Their cousins in West Africa, green monkeys (Chlorocebus sabaeus), are also known to cry out at the sight of leopard and snakes, but for some unknown reason, they don’t seem to emit a unique call for birds of prey. A team of researchers recently discovered, however, that the sight of a drone prompts green monkeys to emit an alarm call that is strikingly similar to their vervet cousins’ eagle warning—a finding that suggests such vocalizations are evolutionarily “hard-wired,” the researchers write in Nature Ecology & Evolution.

For the new study, the researchers first tried to get green monkeys in Senegal’s Niokolo-Koba National Park to respond to papermaché models of eagles, without any success.

“Perhaps our artwork was unconvincing,” writes study co-author Julia Fischer, a primatologist at the University of Goettingen in Germany. So the team decided to expose the monkeys to drones, an aerial threat that the animals had not encountered before.

Over the course of several months in 2016 and 2017, the researchers conducted drone flights over three different green monkey groups, using audio equipment to record the sounds they made. Each group was exposed to a drone between one and three times.

When they saw the strange flying object, the monkeys emitted a warning call and ran to hide. Upon conducting acoustic analyses of the drone response call, the researchers found that it was distinct from the monkeys’ leopard and snake warning signal. What’s more, the green monkeys’ drone call was remarkably similar to the vervet monkeys’ eagle alarm—a fascinating discovery, given that green monkeys and vervet monkeys diverged from a common ancestor around 3.5 million years ago. Producing the warning call, perhaps, is not a learned response, but a genetically innate one that has been conserved over a lengthy evolutionary history. [Continue reading…]

The English word that hasn’t changed in sound or meaning in 8,000 years

Sevindj Nurkiyazova writes:

“One of my favorite words is lox,” says Gregory Guy, a professor of linguistics at New York University. There is hardly a more quintessential New York food than a lox bagel—a century-old popular appetizing store, Russ & Daughters, calls it “The Classic.” But Guy, who has lived in the city for the past 17 years, is passionate about lox for a different reason. “The pronunciation in the Proto-Indo-European was probably ‘lox,’ and that’s exactly how it is pronounced in modern English,” he says. “Then, it meant salmon, and now it specifically means ‘smoked salmon.’ It’s really cool that that word hasn’t changed its pronunciation at all in 8,000 years and still refers to a particular fish.”

How scholars have traced the word’s pronunciation over thousands of years is also really cool. The story goes back to Thomas Young, also known as “The Last Person Who Knew Everything.” The 18th-century British polymath came up with the wave theory of light, first described astigmatism, and played a key role in deciphering the Rosetta Stone. Like some people before him, Young noticed eerie similarities between Indic and European languages. He went further, analyzing 400 languages spread across continents and millennia and proved that the overlap between some of them was too extensive to be an accident. A single coincidence meant nothing, but each additional one increased the chance of an underlying connection. In 1813, Young declared that all those languages belong to one family. He named it “Indo-European.”

Today, roughly half the world’s population speaks an Indo-European language. That family includes 440 languages spoken across the globe, including English. The word yoga, for example, which comes from Sanskrit, the language of ancient India, is a distant relative of the English word yoke. The nature of this relationship puzzled historical linguists for two centuries.

In modern English, well over half of all words are borrowed from other languages. To trace how language changes over time, linguists developed an ingenious toolkit. “Some parts of vocabulary are more stable and don’t change as much. The linguistic term [for these words] is ‘a core vocabulary.’ These are numbers, colors, family relations like ‘mother,’ ‘father,’ ‘sister,’ ‘brother,’ and basic verbs like ‘walk’ and ‘see,’ says Guy. “If you look at words of that sort in different languages, it becomes fairly clear which ones are related and which ones are not. For example, take the English word for number two, which is dva in Russian and deux in French, or the word night, which is nacht in German and noch in Russian.”

Analyzing the patterns of change that words undergo, moving from one language to another, showed how to unwind these changes and identify the possible originals. [Continue reading…]

Why speech is a human innovation

By Tom Siegfried

Except for various cartoon characters, the Geico Gecko and Mr. Ed, animals can’t speak. Yet they have a lot to say to scientists trying to figure out the origins of human language.

Speaking isn’t the only avenue for language. After all, linguistic messaging can be transmitted by hand signals. Or handwriting. Or texting. But speech is the original and most basic mode of human communication. So understanding its origins ought to generate deeper comprehension of language more generally. And a first step toward that understanding, cognitive scientist W. Tecumseh Fitch believes, is realizing that key aspects of vocal language are not, as traditionally contended, limited to humans.

He’s not talking about a TV-show horse, of course, or animated narrators of insurance advertisements. Fitch’s point is that many creatures from the real-world animal kingdom offer clues about how the capacity for speech came to be.

It’s true that humans, and humans alone, evolved the complex set of voice, hearing and brain-processing skills enabling full-scale sophisticated vocal communication. Yet animals can make complicated sounds; parrots can mimic human speech and cats can clearly convey that it’s time for a treat. Many animals possess an acute sense of hearing and are able to distinguish random noises from intentional communication. So even though only humans possess the complete linguistic package, the components of language ability “have very deep evolutionary roots,” says Fitch, of the University of Vienna. In fact, he suggests, just a handful of changes in the communication repertoire of humankind’s ancestors endowed people with the full faculty of language.

[Read more…]

Do you see what I see?

Nicola Jones writes:

In a Candoshi village in the heart of Peru, anthropologist Alexandre Surrallés puts a small colored chip on a table and asks, “Ini tamaara?” (“How is it?” or “What is it like?”). What Surrallés would like to ask is, “What color is this?” But the Candoshi, a tribe of some 3,000 people living on the upper banks of the Amazon River, don’t have a word for the concept of color. Nor are their answers to the question he does ask familiar to most Westerners. In this instance, a lively discussion erupts between two Candoshi about whether the chip, which Surrallés would call amber or yellow-orange, looks more like ginger or fish spawn.

This moment in July 2014 was just one among many similar experiences Surrallés had during a total of three years living among the Candoshi since 1991. His fieldwork led Surrallés to the startling conclusion that these people simply don’t have color words: reliable descriptors for the basic colors in the world around them. Candoshi children don’t learn the colors of the rainbow because their community doesn’t have words for them.

Though his finding might sound remarkable, Surrallés, who is with the National Center for Scientific Research in Paris, isn’t the first to propose that this cultural phenomenon exists. Anthropologists in various corners of the world have reported on other small tribes who also don’t seem to have a staple vocabulary for color. Yet these conclusions fly in the face of those found in the most influential book on the topic: The World Color Survey, published in 2009, which has at its very heart the hypothesis that every culture has basic color words for at least part of the rainbow.

The debate sits at the center of an ongoing war in the world of color research. On the one side stand “universalists,” including the authors of The World Color Survey and their colleagues, who believe in a conformity of human perceptual experience: that all people see and name colors in a somewhat consistent way. On the other side are “relativists,” who believe in a spectrum of experience and who are often offended by the very notion that a Westerner’s sense of color might be imposed on the interpretation of other cultures and languages. Many researchers, like Surrallés, say they stand in the middle: While there are some universals in human perception, Surrallés argues, color terms don’t seem to be among them. [Continue reading…]

The rise of farming altered our bite and changed how people talk

Science News reports:

Humankind’s gift of gab is not set in stone, and farming could help to explain why.

Over the last 6,000 years or so, farming societies increasingly have substituted processed dairy and grain products for tougher-to-chew game meat and wild plants common in hunter-gatherer diets. Switching to those diets of softer, processed foods altered people’s jaw structure over time, rendering certain sounds like “f” and “v” easier to utter, and changing languages worldwide, scientists contend.

People who regularly chew tough foods such as game meat experience a jaw shift that removes a slight overbite from childhood. But individuals who grow up eating softer foods retain that overbite into adulthood, say comparative linguist Damián Blasi of the University of Zurich and his colleagues. Computer simulations suggest that adults with an overbite are better able to produce certain sounds that require touching the lower lip to the upper teeth, the researchers report in the March 15 Science.

Linguists classify those speech sounds, found in about half of the world’s languages, as labiodentals. And when Blasi and his team reconstructed language change over time among Indo-European tongues (SN: 11/25/17, p. 16), currently spoken from Iceland to India, the researchers found that the likelihood of using labiodentals in those languages rose substantially over the past 6,000 to 7,000 years. That was especially true when foods such as milled grains and dairy products started appearing. [Continue reading…]

A Danish word the world needs to combat stress: Pyt

File 20190226 150705 km2i54.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
Instead of overreacting to minor slights, it’s healthier to just say, ‘pyt.’
Ezume Images/Shutterstock.com

By Marie Helweg-Larsen, Dickinson College

Danes are some of the happiest people in the world, and they also happen to have a lot of cool words for ways to be happy.

You may have heard about “hygge,” which has been the subject of countless books, articles and commercials. Often mistranslated to mean “cozy,” it really describes the process of creating intimacy.

But another word “pyt” – which sort of sounds like “pid” – was recently voted the most popular word by Danes, beating out “dvæle” (to linger) and “krænkelsesparat” (ready to take offense).

Pyt doesn’t have an exact English translation. It’s more a cultural concept about cultivating healthy thoughts to deal with stress. As a native Dane and a psychologist, I think the concepts that underpin the word are applicable to people everywhere.

[Read more…]

Could ‘ideophones’ unlock the secrets of humans’ first utterances?

David Robson writes:

If you don’t speak Japanese but would like, momentarily, to feel like a linguistic genius, take a look at the following words. Try to guess their meaning from the two available options:

1. nurunuru (a) dry or (b) slimy?
2. pikapika (a) bright or (b) dark?
3. wakuwaku (a) excited or (b) bored?
4. iraira (a) happy or (b) angry?
5. guzuguzu (a) moving quickly or (b) moving slowly?
6. kurukuru (a) spinning around or (b) moving up and down?
7. kosokoso (a) walking quietly or (b) walking loudly?
8. gochagocha (a) tidy or (b) messy?
9. garagara (a) crowded or (b) empty?
10. tsurutsuru (a) smooth or (b) rough?

The answers are: 1(b); 2(a); 3(a); 4(b); 5(b); 6(a); 7(a); 8(b); 9(b) 10(a).

If you think this exercise is futile, you’re in tune with traditional linguistic thinking. One of the founding axioms of linguistic theory, articulated by Ferdinand de Saussure in the early 19th century, is that any particular linguistic sign – a sound, a mark on the page, a gesture – is arbitrary, and dictated solely by social convention. Save those rare exceptions such as onomatopoeias, where a word mimics a noise – eg, ‘cuckoo’, ‘achoo’ or ‘cock-a-doodle-doo’ – there should be no inherent link between the way a word sounds and the concept it represents; unless we have been socialised to think so, nurunuru shouldn’t feel more ‘slimy’ any more than it feels ‘dry’.

Yet many world languages contain a separate set of words that defies this principle. Known as ideophones, they are considered to be especially vivid and evocative of sensual experiences. Crucially, you do not need to know the language to grasp a hint of their meaning. Studies show that participants lacking any prior knowledge of Japanese, for example, often guess the meanings of the above words better than chance alone would allow. For many people, nurunuru really does feel ‘slimy’; wakuwaku evokes excitement, and kurukuru conjures visions of circular rather than vertical motion. That should simply not be possible, if the sound-meaning relationship was indeed arbitrary. (The experiment is best performed using real audio clips of native speakers.)

How and why do ideophones do this? Despite their prevalence in many languages, ideophones were once considered linguistic oddities of marginal interest. As a consequence, linguists, psychologists and neuroscientists have only recently started to unlock their secrets.

Their results pose a profound challenge to the foundations of Saussurean linguistics. According to this research, language is embodied: a process that involves subtle feedback, for both listener and speaker, between the sound of a word, the vocal apparatus and our own experience of human physicality. Taken together, this dynamic helps to create a connection between certain sounds and their attendant meanings. These associations appear to be universal across all human societies.

This understanding of language as an embodied process can illuminate the marvel of language acquisition during infancy. It might even cast light on the evolutionary origins of language itself – potentially representing a kind of ‘proto-world’, a vestige of our ancestors’ first utterances. [Continue reading…]

The value of well-crafted language

Greg Laden writes:

Twenty five centuries ago, long before the start of the common era, the written record about the spoken language began. The ancient Greeks were not likely the first to study speech and communication, and they certainly were not the first to write stuff down, but among the early writers, they were probably the first to write about how we construct messages and stories with words.

Joe Rom’s Book How to go viral and reach millions. Greg Laden’s BlogToday we are engaged in a great battle between those who respect, even demand, the truth, and those who care more about partisan power than advancing or even using knowledge.

Perhaps this is why we tend to quote the dead more than ever. During the current election season, I’ve heard the late great Senator Paul Wellstone (1944-2002) quoted at nearly every meeting of loyal Democrats. “We all do better when we all do better.” “The future will not belong to those who sit on the sidelines. The future will not belong to the cynics. The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams.” “I represent the Democratic wing of the Democratic party.” “I’m short, I’m Jewish and I’m a liberal”

We remember the inspiring words of JFK. “As we express our gratitude, we must never forget that the highest appreciation is not to utter words, but to live by them.” “A child miseducated is a child lost.” “Those who dare to fail miserably can achieve greatly.” “Ask not what your country can do for you… ask what you can do for your country.”

To turn to the living for one moment, Gloria Steinem. “A woman without a man is like a fish without a bicycle.” “Some of us are becoming the men we wanted to marry.” “Childbirth is more admirable than conquest, more amazing than self-defense, and as courageous as either one.”

What do these memorable, moving, or emotive missives have in common? They all rely on rhetorical practices that have been part of language since, possibly, some ancient early stage of this unique human ability. Alliteration, Allusion, and Analogy are to language what a good set of planes and saws it to a carpenter. Parallelism, balance, and anaphora are used repeatedly. It is not hyberbole to suggest that metaphor underlies all of these statements. Human language, when used well, can shape minds, steer conversations, and cause more change than any military weapon. [Continue reading…]