Razib Khan One-stop-shopping for all of my content

April 16, 2011

African ur-language reconsidered

Filed under: Culture,Language,Linguistics — Razib Khan @ 2:22 pm

Mark Liberman at Language Log has looked through the Science paper Phonemic Diversity Supports a Serial Founder Effect Model of Language Expansion from Africa. Overall he seems to think it is an interesting paper, but he has some pointed criticisms. Here’s the utility of the post: Liberman uses analogies to domains (e.g., genomics) which are comprehensible to me. My main issue with linguistic evolution is that I’m so ignorant that I barely understand the features being discussed. I may know their dictionary.com definition, but I have pretty much no deep comprehension with which to test the inferences against. By analogy, imagine trying to evaluate a morphological cladistic model with no understanding of anatomy. Here’s the part which may be of particular interest to readers of this weblog:

However, this combination of coarse binning into ranges, for functionally-defined subsets of elements with radically different numbers of members, seems to me to be much more problematic for Atkinson’s purposes. It’s as if a human genomic survey made geographically localized counts of the number of alleles involved in color vision and in blood physiology, divided each set of counts into a few bins (“a little variation”, “a ...

February 11, 2011

Brown globish, what is new is old

Filed under: Culture,Language — Razib Khan @ 12:29 pm

This Accent neutralisation and a crisis of identity in India’s call centres, is interesting:

“Are you calling from India?”
“No, I’m calling from Modesto, California.”
“Well, you sound Indian.”
“I’ve only been here for two months and haven’t got the accent right.”

The stuff about stripping people of their “culture” by removing their accent seems laughable. In any case, this isn’t particular to India. There has been a marked decline in the strength and scope of the Southern regional dialect, especially among Southern elites.

February 4, 2011

Empires of the Word: A Language History of the World

Link to review: Empires of the Word & anti-Babel

July 20, 2010

Knowledge is not value-free

Filed under: Anthroplogy,anthropology,Culture,Language,Linguistic Diversity — Razib Khan @ 2:52 pm

This isn’t The New Yorker, and I’m not writing twenty page essays which flesh out all the nooks and crannies of my thought. When I posted “Linguistic diversity = poverty” I did mean to provoke, make people challenge their presuppositions, and think about what they’re saying when they say something.

I think knowledge of many languages is awesome. I am weak at language acquisition myself, but, as someone with an interest in Bronze Age Near Eastern history I’m obviously invested in people having some comprehension of Sumerian and Akkadian (not to mention Hittite or ancient Egyptian). And I’m not someone who has no interest in the details of ethnographic diversity. On the contrary I’m fascinated by ethnic diversity. Like many people I enjoy reading monographs and articles on obscure groups such as Yazidis (well before our national interest in Iraq) and the Saivite Chams of Vietnam. Oh, wait, I misspoke. I actually don’t know many people who have my level of interest in obscure peoples and tribes and the breadth of human diversity. If you’re the type of person who reads monographs on Yazidis not because it pertains to your scholarly specialty, but because you’re interested in a wide range of facts and topics, and would like to have discussions with someone of similar disposition (me), contact me with your location and if I swing through town we can have coffee or something. I’m interested in meeting like minds who I can explore topics with (and here I’m not talking about someone who is a Hakka and so knows a lot about the history of the Hakka; I’m not Hakka and I know something about the Hakka and I’m not an Oirat I know something about the Oirat, and so forth). All things equal the preservation of linguistic diversity is all for the good, and not only does it enrich the lives of humanity as a whole, it enriches my life in particular because of my intellectual proclivities. But all things are not equal.

Destruction_of_Buddhas_March_21_2001First, let me digress and admit that I do not adhere to a plain utilitarianism which does not value the cultural accretions and symbolic residues of history. For a concrete example, consider the destruction of the Buddhas of Bamyan in 2001 by the Taliban. On a concrete material level this was simply the rearrangement of molecular aggregations. We even have the visual sensory representation of the Buddhas before their destruction in the form of photographs. Why the outrage? Naturally Buddhists were outraged because the images of the Buddha had a sacred valence for them. But the world in general was outraged, Buddhist and non-Buddhist. The local Shia Muslims who live in the region, the Hazaras, were aghast at the cultural destruction, as they considered the Buddhas to be part of their heritage. At the time the Hazaras were being subjected to genocidal persecution from the Taliban, who considered them racially alien due to their Mongolian heritage and also heretics because of their Shia faith, so they were in no position to interpose themselves between the Taliban and the Buddhas.

As for the Taliban their concept of the Buddhas of Bamyan is that they were plain stone. Additionally, the Taliban perceived that the Buddhas were blasphemous because they were idolatry, drawing upon a long line of iconoclasm which goes back to the legendary Abraham. Unlike the atheist the Taliban may have perceived in the stone something more than material, rather, the stone may have been an expression of demonic or devilish forces in the world. Even if it lacked malevolent spirit forces, if they were objects of worship by human beings then that naturally violated their conception of the proper order of things.

But there’s a more nuanced context to the destruction of the Buddhas: Afghanistan was suffering through a famine during that period. Though the proximate cause for their destruction seems to have been the influence of the Arabs who were a power in Afghanistan at the time, Arabs who had no cultural affinity for Afghanistan’s pre-Islamic heritage, I have read that one aggravating issue may have been that the leadership of the Taliban was offended that the world seemed more focused on the potential destruction of statues than on the suffering of flesh & blood people. You can extrapolate this sort of objection pretty easily; at the same time that the Buddhas of Bamyan were under threat, tens of thousands were dying weekly in the Congo.

Here is where I must admit that my actions suggest that I am no simple utilitarian, who prioritizes the suffering of flesh and blood above stone and symbol. At the time in 2001 I specifically remember being very concerned about the destruction of the Buddhas, though I did not imbue them with spiritual value. I do not imbue the pyramids of Giza with spiritual value in a deep metaphysical sense, but I would be concerned about their destruction. I am not the only one. How many Egyptians would have to die in local violence to obtain the same world-wide media coverage as a terrorist detonation of a series of devices which destroyed the pyramids? I estimate on the order of millions (and even here, I am not so sure, as the genocide of millions in Africa receives far less coverage than I believe that a destruction of the pyramids would entail).

250px-The_Earth_seen_from_Apollo_17Human life and suffering are balanced against the aesthetic of life itself, which is more than bread and water. How many millions could have been fed with the funds which went to the Apollo mission? And yet what dollar value could we put on the photo of the pale blue dot? What dollar value on the reality that a human being has stepped foot on another planet? These are difficult questions in some ways because assessments of value and worth need to get the root of one’s implicit calculations. I know many people from the biological sciences who have little use for space exploration. And yet I know many people of marginal academic inclination who perceive much of biological research to be esoteric and without direct utility.

And it is here that biologists can respond that the domain of knowledge leads directly to discoveries in medicine and technology which will enable greater human happiness and well being, no matter what one thinks of the millionth beetle cataloged. On the margin some of these justifications for research based on plausible utility are as ludicrous as the justifications for a manned space mission. But the attempt must be made. Whether the quest for knowledge is worthy or not is not evaluated by some objective abstract criteria; even if researchers sit on granting committees the funds must ultimately come from elsewhere.

Which brings me back to the extinction of languages. The Lousy Linguist is skeptical of my contention that very high linguistic diversity is not conducive to economic growth or social amity. I outlined the theoretical reasons previously. If you have a casual knowledge of history or geography you know that languages are fault-lines around which intergroup conflict emerges. But more concretely I’ll dig into the literature or do a statistical analysis. I’ll have to correct for the fact that Africa and South Asia are among the most linguistically diverse regions in the world, and they kind of really suck on Human Development Indices. And I do have to add that the arrow of causality here is complex; not only do I believe linguistic homogeneity fosters integration and economies of scale, but I believe political and economic development foster linguistic homogeneity. So it might be what economists might term a “virtuous circle.”

A more on point response came from John Hawks:

I’m sympathetic to recognizing the real loss that accompanies the disappearance of a language from the world of speakers. The “unique oral history” and “lost in translation” ideas are true as far as they go — the value of folk art and oral history is that they enable social relationships.

But most communities of a few hundred speakers don’t have a Beowulf. Unique perspectives and unique history, to be sure — just as every Rembrandt is unique. But every Rembrandt is not the Night Watch. Most unique perspectives are about the speaker’s life. At some point we can’t learn the stories of all our ancestors anyway, because there are simply too many of them. Obviously I think we should enable people to learn about their history, yet we can’t keep communities pinned like butterflies in a cabinet of curiosities.

Human language communities in prehistory had a few hundred to a few thousand speakers. Those communities shared the same basic social lives and needs. Ninety-five percent or more of all those languages were lost — and those remaining have mostly come from a handful of languages less than 10,000 years ago.

I read in the Rijksmuseum that art historians figure more than 95% of the work of artists from the Dutch golden age had been lost or destroyed over the last 300 years.

John says it with more sensitivity and sympathy for the issue than I did, but I agree 99% with what he is saying here. The only point I might quibble over is that perhaps all groups do have their Beowulf. And yet it doesn’t matter. If the speakers of the language decided to shift to another language, then they are making the choice which increases their own flourishing. Speakers of a few hundred languages are not always in the circumstances of Native or Aboriginal peoples in North America, where they can gain sympathetic hearing for preservation of their folkways from the government and majority population. They need to make the best decision for themselves at the time, and often assimilation is the best of all choices, because the sample space of choices is limited. It is correct that bilingualism, or resistance to linguistic assimilation can persist. Hasidic Jews in New York City have communities where English is a second language and adults, of the third generation born and raised in the United States, have strong accents. But this community’s insulation comes at a cost, their relative poverty.

450px-IPad-02But for most communities the level of poverty of Hasidic Jews, or the material deprivation of the Amish, is wealth indeed. Many groups in Africa, South Asia and Australasia have not moved far up on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Many of these groups live in grotesque poverty, experience radical marginalization, and some of them fear for their individual survival, not just tribal or ethnic coherency. If those in the developed world do value the preservation of these groups and the richness which they add to the world by their very existence, then a concrete program has to be offered. Perhaps a massive direct wealth transfer to targeted ethnic groups which are being assimilated (in India and Southeast Asia conversion to Christianity has been the most efficacious manner in which to preserve ethnic and linguistic identity, so perhaps one should donate to evangelical missionary groups). Or, the selective sponsored immigration of whole tribes and ethnic groups to the West, with an agreement that these groups have a sort of spatial sovereignty similar to Native Americans. In this way they wouldn’t be subject to the same dynamics as they were in their nation of origination.

I don’t care about linguistic diversity enough to support either of these programs. But that’s an expression of my values. And, I think it’s an expression of the values of most humans (granted, most humans do not value knowledge, but they do pay taxes which fund social engineering projects so their opinion counts). For those who do value linguistic diversity, to be taken seriously you need to present more than what it offers you and your own interests when you bear none of the costs of marginalization. Aggregate intangible utility may be maximized by this diversity, but it is simply unjust for that aggregate utility to be gained at the expense of the ones adding the diversity at the cost of their exclusion from the nation-states in which they’ve found themselves.

Addendum: Spencer Wells has noted that there is somewhat the same issue with genotypic diversity, as small groups are absorbed into larger groups. By analogy, one might offer up a program whereby tribal members are encouraged to marry only their own ingroup so as to preserve genetic lineages which may be of intellectual interest, and add diversity to the world. This is naturally the sort of argument many racialists present, though with a slightly different spin.

Image Credits: Wikimedia, CNN, Glenn Fleishman

July 15, 2010

Linguistic diversity = poverty

Filed under: Culture,Diversity,Economic Growth,Economics,Language,Norms,Values — Razib Khan @ 3:05 pm

In yesterday’s link dump I expressed some dismissive attitudes toward the idea that loss of linguistic diversity, or more precisely the extinction of rare languages, was a major tragedy. Concretely, many languages are going extinct today as the older generation of last native speakers is dying. This is an issue that is embedded in a set of norms, values which you hold to be ends, so I thought I could be a little clearer as to what I’m getting at. I think there are real reasons outside of short-term hedonic utility why people would want to preserve their own linguistic tradition, and that is because I am no longer a total individualist when it comes to human identity. I have much more sympathy for the French who wish to preserve French against the loss of their linguistic identity against the expansion of English than I had a few years ago.

Language is history and memory. When the last speaker of English dies, or, when English is transmuted to such an extent that it is no longer English as we today understand it, our perception of the past and historical memory, our understanding of ourselves, will change. There is a qualitative difference when Shakespeare becomes as unintelligible as Beowulf. Though I tend to lean toward the proposition that all languages are a means toward the same ends, communication, I agree that there are subtleties of nuance and meaning which are lost in translation when it comes to works of literature and other aspects of collective memory. Those shadings are the sort of diversity which gives intangible aesthetic coloring to the world. A world where everyone spoke the same language would lose a great deal of color, and I acknowledge that.

But we need to look at the other side of the ledger. First, we’re not talking about the extinction of English, French, or Cantonese. We’re talking about the extinction of languages with a few thousand to a dozen or so speakers.  The distribution of languages and the number of speakers they have follows a power law trend, the vast majority of languages have very few speakers, and these are the ones which are going extinct. We are then losing communal identity, a thousand oral Shakespeare’s are turning into Beowulf’s and Epic of Gilgamesh’s, specific stories which have to be reduced to their universal human elements because a living native speaking community is gone. Let me acknowledge that there is some tragedy here. But this ignores the costs to those who do not speak world languages with a high level of fluency. The cost of collective color and diversity may be their individual poverty (i.e., we who speak world languages gain, but incur no costs).

Over the arc of human history individuals and communities have shifted toward languages with more numerous following. Sometimes, as in the case of the marginalization of the dialects of France for standard French in the 19th century, there was a top-down push. In other cases there needed to be no top-down push, because people want to integrate themselves into networks of trade, communication and participate in the family of nations on equal footing. Losing the languages of your ancestors means that your ancestors are made to disappear, their memory fades, and is replaced by other fictive ancestors. Modern Arabs outside of Arabia will often acknowledge that they are the products of Arabization (this is most obvious in the case of regions like Egypt or Mesopotamia which have long and glorious historical traditions pre-dating Islam). But they also in particular circumstances conceive of themselves as descendants of Ishmael, because they are Arab. A similar sort of substitution occurs when peoples change religions. The early medieval European monarchies, such as the Merovingians and the House of Wessex, traced their ancestry to German pagan gods. Later European dynasties tended to establish fictive ties to the House of David.

But letting one’s ancestors die also means that one can live with other human beings, and participate clearly and with a high level of fluency. You may object that this does not entail monolingualism. And certainly it does not, but over the generations there will be a shift toward a dominant language if there is economic, social and cultural integration. The way we can preserve local traditions and languages in the face of the homogenizing power of languages and cultures of greater scope is to put up extremely high barriers to interaction. The Amish have preserved their German dialect and religious traditions, but only through opting out of the mainstream to an extreme extent (and the Amish are bilingual too).

On a deeper cognitive level some readers point out that there are hints that the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis may be correct. This is still not a strong enough reason for the perpetuation of linguistic traditions which are not widely subscribed. Humans have a finite amount of time in their lives, and the choices they make may not be perfectly rational, but quite often in the aggregate they are. When it comes to some aspects of cultural diversity, such as dress and religion, the importance we place on these traits is imbued by aspects of human psychology. Not so with language. Communication is of direct utilitarian importance.

Now that I’ve addressed, at least minimally, the tensions on the macro and micro level when it comes to linguistic preference, I want to address the aggregate gains to linguistic uniformity. My family is from Bangladesh, which had a “language movement”, which served as the seeds for the creation of that nation from a united Pakistan. Though there was a racial and religious component to the conflict I don’t think it would have matured and ripened to outright civil war without the linguistic difference. Language binds us to our ancestors, and to our peers, but also can separate us from others. A common language may not only be useful in a macroeconomic context, reducing transaction costs and allowing for more frictionless flow of information, but it also removes one major dimension of intergroup conflict.

So if only everyone spoke the same language there would be peace and prosperity? Perhaps not. Recently I have been convinced that it is best to have an oligopoly of languages so that “group-think” doesn’t impact the whole world in the same way. I’m basically repeating Jared Diamond’s argument in Guns, Germs, and Steel, as to why Europe was more cultural creative in the early modern period than China. Institutional barriers can allow for more experimentation, and prevent “irrational herds” from taking the whole system into dead-ends. Another way to think of it is portfolio diversity. Though linguistic diversity will introduce frictions to communication, on the margins some friction is useful to prevent memetic contagion which might occur due to positive feedback loops.

Below I present my model in graphical form. One the X axis is a diversity index. Imagine it goes from 1 to 0. 1 is the state where everyone speaks a different language, and 0 is the one where everyone speaks the same language. A state of high linguistic diversity converges upon 1, and one of low diversity upon 0. I believe that as linguistic diversity decreases one gains economies of scale, but there are diminishing returns. And, beyond a certain point I suspect that there are decreases to utility because of the systematic problem of irrational herds. I didn’t put a scale on the X axis because I don’t have a really clear sense of when we’re hitting the point of negative returns on homogeneity, though I don’t think we’re there yet.


Note: My confidence in the hypothesis that there are negative returns at some point is modest at best, and I have a high level of uncertainty as to its validity. But, I have a high confidence about the shape of the left side of the chart below, that very high linguistic diversity is not conducive to economic growth, social cooperation, and amity more generally scaled beyond the tribe.

February 5, 2010

Language goes extinct, human race to follow….

Filed under: Culture,Language — Razib @ 9:23 am

Last speaker of ancient language of Bo dies in India:

Professor Anvita Abbi said that the death of Boa Sr was highly significant because one of the world’s oldest languages – Bo – had come to an end.

“It is generally believed that all Andamanese languages might be the last representatives of those languages which go back to pre-Neolithic times,” Professor Abbi said.

“The Andamanese are believed to be among our earliest ancestors.”

I have a tendency to eye roll when people come out with these weepy stories about dying languages. When a language dies a people dies, more or less. No doubt there are particular stories, memories passed down which maintain continuity of identity, which disappear. But humans do not necessarily die. If members of obscure tribe X all learn English, or Chinese, tribe X as tribe X disappears, more or less. This is not trivial, I believe most humans would prefer that the cultural forms which pervade their own lives would pass down to future generations. Memory is to a great extent the only form of immortality we’ve had access to. But for members of obscure tribe X learning a widely spoken language is often a boon, and brings great benefit as they can engage in more fruitful exchanges with the broader human race. The implicit contract that peoples make with their own ancestors extracts too high a cost at some point, and when the present ceases to uphold its pact with the past, the past becomes obscured in the mists.

On a specific note about this article, the Andaman Islanders are actually a real concrete human population, they’re not “among our earliest ancestors.” Additionally, I thought that languages which were purely oral tended evolve faster than languages which were written down. Is it then plausible to make great claims for Bo’s antiquity?

Related: The tragedy of dying languages. Larded with specious banalities or outright falsities, but good for a laugh.

December 9, 2009

Monkeys & language

Filed under: Language — Razib @ 5:44 pm

The paper is out, Campbell’s monkeys concatenate vocalizations into context-specific call sequences. Nicholas Wade and Ed Yong review the evidence. One of the issues is that chimps don’t seem to have syntax, so how can a monkey? But since domesticated dogs have better human-comprehensible theory of mind than chimps I don’t think genetic distance or general intelligence should weight that highly.

November 11, 2009

FOXP2 in Nature

Filed under: FOXP2,Human Evolution,Language — Razib @ 2:08 pm

Human-specific transcriptional regulation of CNS development genes by FOXP2:

…It has been proposed that the amino acid composition in the human variant of FOXP2 has undergone accelerated evolution, and this two-amino-acid change occurred around the time of language emergence in humans…However, this remains controversial, and whether the acquisition of these amino acids in human FOXP2 has any functional consequence in human neurons remains untested. Here we demonstrate that these two human-specific amino acids alter FOXP2 function by conferring differential transcriptional regulation in vitro. We extend these observations in vivo to human and chimpanzee brain, and use network analysis to identify novel relationships among the differentially expressed genes. These data provide experimental support for the functional relevance of changes in FOXP2 that occur on the human lineage, highlighting specific pathways with direct consequences for human brain development and disease in the central nervous system (CNS). Because FOXP2 has an important role in speech and language in humans, the identified targets may have a critical function in the development and evolution of language circuitry in humans.

Ed Young has a long entry on this paper, along with context.

Update: Someone on Twitter is suggesting we create a transgenic. Which direction?

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