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Author Topic:   How are biological evolution and linguistic evolution similar?
akhenaten
Junior Member (Idle past 3980 days)
Posts: 26
Joined: 11-06-2007


Message 1 of 15 (452375)
01-30-2008 8:04 AM


Whereas in my last question I was looking for feedback from creationists, this time I'm soliciting feedback from evolutionists and linguists.

I want to be able to state the abract similarity between biological and language evolution. Note that when I say language evolution I mean the linguistic evolution of languages (eg. the Romance languages from Latin, English from PreGermanic, etc.) not the evolutionary development of the ability to communicate in language in Homo sapiens. I want to be precise and accurate in my terms and concepts.

Fortunately, it seems that there a lot of folks here with solid expertise in linguistics. And again, I would much prefer feedback from evolutionists (sorry, but I think I already gave the creationists a chance last time, and I'm not interested in a debate this time around).

So, can I correctly state this?:
Biological evolution is driven by selection pressures of the environment on random non-directed changes in the variation present in genes in a species.
Language evolution happens through the gradual accumulation of random non-directed changes in the variation present in the vocabulary, syntax, and grammar of a language.

I wanted to say "selection pressures on languages" but I don't know if that's true. To be sure, a language has to be passed to the next generation or it dies out (cf. most aboriginal languages worldwide), but it doesn't seem to be as significant as it is in biological evolution.

So please, if I'm wrong or way off base, feel free to correct me.


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Message 2 of 15 (452411)
01-30-2008 9:50 AM


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Modulous
Member (Idle past 183 days)
Posts: 7789
From: Manchester, UK
Joined: 05-01-2005


Message 3 of 15 (452445)
01-30-2008 11:59 AM
Reply to: Message 1 by akhenaten
01-30-2008 8:04 AM


Biological evolution is driven by selection pressures of the environment on random non-directed changes in the variation present in genes in a species.

I'm sure that some objection could be raised in a technical manner. But as a single sentence it sums it up well enough.

Language evolution happens through the gradual accumulation of random non-directed changes in the variation present in the vocabulary, syntax, and grammar of a language. I wanted to say "selection pressures on languages" but I don't know if that's true.

There are some selection pressures. If a new word tried to gain fixation it would have to appeal to the intended speakers as a good word. I might introduce the word 'Shoeburyness' to the vocabulary and get people to use it to refer to that uncomfortable feeling of sitting in a seat that has been warmed by someone else's bottom. If it doesn't appeal to other human English-speaking minds, it will be selected against. Some minds might find it an appealing word and adopt it, so that it becomes part of some local dialect but gains no more fixation.

Likewise, extremely long words are selected against in most populations of minds. Other populations might positively select for them (for instance in technical contexts). Most people prefer their words to keep a low syllable count so there is a selection pressure against words becoming very long. This isn't so much the case in the German population, who don't mind creating comparitively long words. Still, there are constraints. It's unlikely that a 400 letter long word will get a lot of use.

Disclaimer: I am not a linguist. I am an evolutionist though, I guess.


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New Cat's Eye
Inactive Member


Message 4 of 15 (452455)
01-30-2008 12:17 PM
Reply to: Message 1 by akhenaten
01-30-2008 8:04 AM


Language evolution happens through the gradual accumulation of random non-directed changes in the variation present in the vocabulary, syntax, and grammar of a language.

I don't think the changes in vocabulary, syntax, and grammer are random...

Language, unlike biological evolution, has a purpose.


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Replies to this message:
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teen4christ
Member (Idle past 3878 days)
Posts: 238
Joined: 01-15-2008


Message 5 of 15 (452458)
01-30-2008 12:27 PM
Reply to: Message 3 by Modulous
01-30-2008 11:59 AM


quote:
Likewise, extremely long words are selected against in most populations of minds.

A Vietnamese friend of mine explained to me that Vietnamese is purely a 1 syllable word language, meaning there is no word in Vietnamese that has more than 1 syllable. I wonder if this particular trait of the language came about because people were selecting for 1 syllable words while selecting against any word that has more than 1 syllable.

Here is a wiki link on monosyllabic language.

And a google search turned up this wonderful page on Vietnamese.

Edited by teen4christ, : No reason given.

Edited by teen4christ, : No reason given.

Edited by teen4christ, : No reason given.


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akhenaten
Junior Member (Idle past 3980 days)
Posts: 26
Joined: 11-06-2007


Message 6 of 15 (452666)
01-30-2008 11:53 PM
Reply to: Message 4 by New Cat's Eye
01-30-2008 12:17 PM


Catholic Scientist writes:

I don't think the changes in vocabulary, syntax, and grammer are random...

Language, unlike biological evolution, has a purpose.


"Random" perhaps is not the precise word. What I want to describe is that it's not like the whole nation gathers together once a year to decide on changes to the language. Even dictionaries like the OED only confirm the shifts taking place at large.

According to this article language drift is unconscious, so to me that means that if the changes in language have a purpose, it's not planned for by the agents using the language.

Biological mutations are random. I'm not sure if the raw changes in a language are random.

Hmm, the same article says that the changes in language are directional. And although my preference is for Gould over Dawkins, I guess I have to think scientifically and accept that Dawkins' idea of a directional arms race is more pre-eminent in evolutionary thought.

So how about if I replace the word "non-directed" with "unconscious"

Biological evolution is driven by selection pressures of the environment on random unconscious changes in the variation present in genes in a species.
Language evolution happens through the gradual accumulation of random unconscious changes in the variation present in the vocabulary, syntax, and grammar of a language as selection pressures act on those raw changes.

What sayeth ye? Are the changes that emerge in language random? I say yes in that they are unforseen (maybe not completely).


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New Cat's Eye
Inactive Member


Message 7 of 15 (452789)
01-31-2008 10:43 AM
Reply to: Message 6 by akhenaten
01-30-2008 11:53 PM


I don't doubt that languages evolve.

What I want to describe is that it's not like the whole nation gathers together once a year to decide on changes to the language.

You seem to want to describe it in a way that can be used exactly the same and still describe biological evolution:

Biological evolution is driven by selection pressures of the environment on random unconscious changes in the variation present in genes in a species.

Language evolution happens through the gradual accumulation of random unconscious changes in the variation present in the vocabulary, syntax, and grammar of a language as selection pressures act on those raw changes.

Sure, they are very similiar but why do you want to describe them in the exact same way? What's the point?

And don't you think that sorta hides the differences that do exist?

What sayeth ye? Are the changes that emerge in language random? I say yes in that they are unforseen (maybe not completely).

They can be unconscous, but I don't think we should eliminate that they can also be conscious.


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LucyTheApe
Inactive Member


Message 8 of 15 (452800)
01-31-2008 10:58 AM
Reply to: Message 1 by akhenaten
01-30-2008 8:04 AM


It's definitely a conscious and deliberate act. We made up the word television because we needed a word to describe the device.

OP writes:

Language evolution happens through the gradual accumulation of random non-directed changes in the variation present in the vocabulary, syntax, and grammar of a language.

Yeah right.


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akhenaten
Junior Member (Idle past 3980 days)
Posts: 26
Joined: 11-06-2007


Message 9 of 15 (452843)
01-31-2008 1:42 PM
Reply to: Message 8 by LucyTheApe
01-31-2008 10:58 AM


LucyTheApe writes:

It's definitely a conscious and deliberate act. We made up the word television because we needed a word to describe the device.


A word like television is coined for an immediate need. You're right about that.

But what about the word "father"? Who consciously and deliberately created that word?


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New Cat's Eye
Inactive Member


Message 10 of 15 (452850)
01-31-2008 1:59 PM
Reply to: Message 9 by akhenaten
01-31-2008 1:42 PM


A word like television is coined for an immediate need. You're right about that.

But what about the word "father"? Who consciously and deliberately created that word?

Nobody. A better example would have been "mother". In almost every language, the word for mother begins with the "Mmmm" sound...

It can't be coincidence and it certainly wasn't planned that way.

But that doesn't mean that no words are (like television).

My point is that some are conscious and some are unconscious, it doesn't have to be all or none.


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akhenaten
Junior Member (Idle past 3980 days)
Posts: 26
Joined: 11-06-2007


Message 11 of 15 (452852)
01-31-2008 2:05 PM
Reply to: Message 7 by New Cat's Eye
01-31-2008 10:43 AM


It's a thought experiment, I guess. I agree that they are very different and I don't want to negate those differences, but I still think you can abstract out the similarities.

What's the point? Well, most opponents of evolution have a much easier time accepting language evolution (because they won't deny the evidence from historical writings). They would inadvertently have to concede principles in language evolution that they deny in biological evolution.


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New Cat's Eye
Inactive Member


Message 12 of 15 (452863)
01-31-2008 2:51 PM
Reply to: Message 11 by akhenaten
01-31-2008 2:05 PM


I agree that they are very different and I don't want to negate those differences, but I still think you can abstract out the similarities.

Absolutely. I just don't think the best way to do that is with two simple statements of the same form, but with one saying "biological" and the other saying "linguistic" evolution.

What's the point? Well, most opponents of evolution have a much easier time accepting language evolution (because they won't deny the evidence from historical writings). They would inadvertently have to concede principles in language evolution that they deny in biological evolution.

With all the mental gymnastic they have to do to maintain their beliefs, what makes you think they won't get over this hurdle?


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Modulous
Member (Idle past 183 days)
Posts: 7789
From: Manchester, UK
Joined: 05-01-2005


Message 13 of 15 (452873)
01-31-2008 3:41 PM
Reply to: Message 8 by LucyTheApe
01-31-2008 10:58 AM



It's definitely a conscious and deliberate act. We made up the word television because we needed a word to describe the device.

I don't think it is fair to say that 'we' made up the word. There were various words - one of which was popular with people and gained popularity in use. There was competition for which word would get popular and one of them won with resounding success.


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teen4christ
Member (Idle past 3878 days)
Posts: 238
Joined: 01-15-2008


Message 14 of 15 (452877)
01-31-2008 4:16 PM
Reply to: Message 10 by New Cat's Eye
01-31-2008 1:59 PM


CS writes
quote:
Nobody. A better example would have been "mother". In almost every language, the word for mother begins with the "Mmmm" sound...

Because the "Mmmm" sound is one of the easiest sounds a baby can make. All they have to do is make a noise and open the lips.

In the same way, there are certain patterns in nature that we see get selected for from one organism to the next. A very obvious example is some kind of orifice that allows the consumption of matter to replenish the organism's chemical energy supply. Another is some kind of moving part or parts that allow mobility.

It's sort of like the golden ratio or pi. There's really little other choice, if any.


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Otto Tellick
Member (Idle past 410 days)
Posts: 288
From: PA, USA
Joined: 02-17-2008


Message 15 of 15 (457378)
02-23-2008 12:17 AM
Reply to: Message 1 by akhenaten
01-30-2008 8:04 AM


There are some aspects of human language that seem so similar to biological systems that its easy and fairly natural to see an analogy between linguistics and biology:


  • The arbitrary building blocks of language -- the consonants and vowels -- mutate and recombine across generations in a quasi-steady progression of change over time.
  • A set of "competing" mutations in the sound patterns and lexicon can be active at the same time in a given population.
  • Environmental factors can accelerate or slow the apparent rate at which certain mutations take hold in larger portions of the population.
  • The equivalent of "micro-evolution", observable within our own life-spans (yielding differences in speech patterns among younger vs. older speakers, for instance), is a microcosm and in fact a snap-shot of the more extended "macro-evolution" that causes language communities to become "incompatible" with one another (they diverge beyond a point of mutual intelligibility).
  • The full linguistic system of any given individual is highly complex, its development over the individual's life span involves critical growth periods that crucially depend on (and directly reflect) environmental influences, and it's end result is every bit as unique to the individual as the fingerprint and DNA patterns.
  • For the vast majority of individuals, the nature of language acquisition -- learning first from immediate family members, then from the community that contains the family -- results in patterns of language behavior that closely reflect the patterns of genetic relatedness across generations.

With all that, however, there are some factors that make language "evolution" profoundly different from biological evolution:


  • Facility with language is a "corollary" attribute in individuals, which depends on the genetic features that select (in a more general way) for larger brains, more flexible brain chemistry, etc, and these genetic features (I would expect) affect natural selection in general ways -- better response times, more flexible responses, a broader potential for innovative behaviors of all sorts (not just better communication via language).
  • There is no genetic or biological determination of the particular language(s) that an individual can speak; your genetics only dictate that you will learn and use a language, but it can be any human language -- and of course, it can be more than one. Therefore, the notion of "natural selection", if applied to languages, has virtually no biological factor involved.
  • The factors that affect/effect the survival and propagation of a language (or of particular features of a language, such as word selection for a particular meaning, or pronunciation for particular word classes sharing a common vowel or consonant) are so varied and poorly understood that the "activators" of language change are essentially beyond study; they constitute a seemingly irreducible randomness.

A lot of concern has been voiced recently about a general trend of language extinction: lots of languages spoken by relatively small communities are being abandoned or forced out by predominant social/political forces that coerce many groups into adopting one of a relatively small set of "controlling" languages. Many linguists view this as an unfortunate parallel to the equally disturbing increase in species extinctions now being observed. But again, I think the analogy breaks down: I think there is good evidence to support the notion that more diversity in biological species is "better" (in some general, global sense) than less diversity, but it's not at all clear to me whether this argument holds for languages.

In both domains, though, I think it's the case that periods of less diversity simply alternate with periods of greater diversity, and our tendency to label one "good" and the other "bad" can seem a bit silly.


autotelic adj. (of an entity or event) having within itself the purpose of its existence or happening.
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