From evolutionary biologist Mark Pagel’s “Forked tongues: the evolution of human languages” (Planet Earth Online, 23 March 2012), we learn,
There are about 7000 distinct human languages spoken on Earth – that’s more languages for our single mammal species than there are mammal species. … This diversity means we are perhaps the only species whose members cannot all communicate with each other. Indeed, it is as if the different human-language groups have come to act almost like different biological species. But why would humans have evolved a system of communication that effectively cuts them off from other members of their own species? Over the past few years my research group and I have been studying human languages using ideas drawn from the theory of evolution by natural selection, ecology and biogeography, and those studies are providing some intriguing answers to this question.
The author’s account of language is largely ruined by trying to map it on to some version of Darwinian evolution, when the two are mutually irrelevant. Languages don’t just “change”; people change them, according to need.
Pagel went to a great deal of trouble to discover that
We found more languages per unit area in lower latitudes with only a handful at extreme northern latitudes.
Because there are hardly any people up there, that’s why.
If we tried doing different languages for very long, we would end up talking to ourselves, which is one way you can get classed as insane. Howling at the moon is another …
There is a northern Canadian word for that: “bushed.” It means the person has been without human company for too long and has started acting weird, sometimes acting like an animal or believing that some animal out there is a “friend” in the human sense. He needs to be flown back to civilization, pronto. Such people almost always recover quickly, as they relearn human ways.
And the large numbers of different species in the tropics might just reflect the variety and richness of resources in that environment. But, unlike other animals, humans are all the same species, so why are there so many different language groups in this region instead of one large and cooperative society?
Uh, for that see Genesis 11:9. It’s called sin. It explains a lot of things.
A group of Selepet speakers in New Guinea met one day and collectively decided to change their word for ‘no’ from bia to bune, to be distinct from other Selepet speakers in a neighbouring village. The change was made immediately. One can only sympathise with anyone who was away hunting at the time.
Teenagers in in Toronto do this all the time. Often, they are up to no good.
Maybe they have evolved differently from other teenagers … are becoming, over time, a separate species? Lots of adults here think so but not all the evidence is in. 😉
Pagel tell us, re extinction of tiny minority languages,
There is no reason to believe that this loss of linguistic diversity means the world is losing unique styles of thought; contrary to a widely held belief, our languages do not determine how we think. But the loss of languages often does coincide with the loss of cultural diversity, so the world is steadily becoming a more culturally uniform place.
But whoever thought that language determines how we think? If that were true, why have the four gospels of the New Testament been translated into thousands of languages, making converts to Christianity worldwide?
The fact that some adjustments must be made, for regional differences, is ancient history. The Jesuit Fathers had to do it in Canada 400 years ago: Here’s their version of the nativity, for aboriginal North Americans who had never heard of a sheep or a camel:
When it comes to understanding language, evolutionary biology is apparently a waste of time.
Hat tip: Pos-Darwinista