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Language study PR namedrops Darwin; sure to get taken seriously now

Map of 57 Japonic languages/Wiley

Here’s a piece from ScienceDaily that unwittingly reveals the primitive state that “evolutionary” accounts of the human mind generally demonstrate.

This one is a study of the evolution of language:

A new Journal of Evolutionary Biology study provides evidence that physical barriers formed by oceans can influence language diversification.

Investigators argue that the same factor responsible for much of the biodiversity in the Galápagos Islands is also responsible for the linguistic diversity in the Japanese Islands: the natural oceanic barriers that impede interaction between speech communities. Therefore, spatially isolated languages gradually diverge from one another due to a reduction of linguistic contact.

“Charles Darwin would have been amused by a study like this, because it confirms his hypothesis that languages, like species, are the product of evolution,” said lead author Dr. Sean Lee.

The iconic mention “Charles Darwin” lulls the pop science writer, of course, into just “knowing” that the study proves something.

Here are some facts that any English major from my generation would know*, without having heard more than the term “Japonic languages”:

– Any geographic barrier that impedes communication for more than a few generations can make dialects mutually unintelligible. As can a number of other factors, such as political upheavals. The dialects may become different languages. Latin, for example, split up into French, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, and Romansch, among others. A long passage of time can have the same effect, as anyone today who tries to read Middle English (1150-1500 AD) will discover.

– Probably, due to the explosion in worldwide communications, most languages spoken by only a few thousand people will disappear. It’s a pity, but not preventable. What happens is, for example, if a person wishes to help the people at home by getting a medical, nursing, or dentistry degree, that person must learn a majority language, whose numbers of speakers can sustain schools in these professions. Eventually, more and more people use the majority language for more and more things and the minority language becomes a historical artifact.

– Human languages must meet basic communications functions for a human level intellect, but the means vary widely. There are primitive lifestyles, but there aren’t really primitive languages. English is a good example of this. Anglo-Saxon broke down completely after the Norman conquest of England in 1066:

– the surviving Middle English material is dominated by regional variation, and by (sometimes extreme) variation in how the same underlying linguistic units are represented in writing. This is not because people suddenly started using language in different ways in different places in the Middle English period, but because the fairly standardized late Old English literary variety broke down completely, and writing in English became fragmented, localized, and to a large extent improvised. [OED]

but the problem was resolved just by adopting words wholesale from other languages, and eventually, standardization began:

– in vocabulary, English became much more heterogeneous, showing many borrowings from French, Latin, and Scandinavian. Large-scale borrowing of new words often had serious consequences for the meanings and the stylistic register of those words which survived from Old English. Eventually, various new stylistic layers emerged in the lexicon, which could be employed for a variety of different purposes. [OED]

None of this needs or benefits from a Darwinian explanation. It would make no difference how biological evolution works, apart from chance useful analogies to language.

And the big question, of how human languages have become what they all are, goes unanswered still!

Here’s the abstract:

Good barriers make good languages. Scholars have long speculated that geographical barriers impede linguistic contact between speech communities and promote language diversification in a manner similar to the process of allopatric speciation. This hypothesis, however, has seldom been tested systematically and quantitatively. Here, we adopt methods from evolutionary biology and attempt to quantify the influence of oceanic barriers on the degree of lexical diversity in the Japanese Islands. Measuring the degree of beta diversity from basic vocabularies, we find that geographical proximity and, more importantly, isolation by surrounding ocean, independently explains a significant proportion of lexical variation across Japonic languages. Further analyses indicate that our results are neither a by-product of using a distance matrix derived from a Bayesian language phylogeny nor an epiphenomenon of accelerated evolutionary rates in languages spoken by small communities. Moreover, we find that the effect of oceanic barriers is reproducible with the Ainu languages, indicating that our analytic approach as well as the results can be generalized beyond Japonic language family. The findings we report here are the first quantitative evidence that physical barriers formed by ocean can influence language diversification and points to an intriguing common mechanism between linguistic and biological evolution. open access

It’s probably useful research, as far as info on the Japonic languages goes, but it just doesn’t tell us much that is generally applicable, that is not already known.

See also: Darwin’s “horrid doubt”: The mind

* predating the grievance studies and self-referential improv that reign rtoday


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