Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Genetics and tonal languages

It is likely that there are heritable differences of brain structure and function that affect language acquisition and usage...cognitive biases in a population of acquirers could influence the direction of language change across generations. These biasing effects could result in linguistic differences between populations, producing nonspurious (causal) correlations between genetic and linguistic diversities. Dediu and Ladd:
... propose that the linguistic typology of tone is affected by such a bias. Human languages differ typologically in the way they use voice fundamental frequency (pitch). All languages use consonants and vowels to distinguish one word or grammatical category from another, but, in addition, so-called "tone languages" (e.g., Chinese) use pitch for this purpose as well, whereas "non-tone languages" (e.g., English) use pitch only at sentence level (to convey emphasis, emotion, etc.). In tone languages, that is, pitch is organized into tone phonemes that are functionally comparable with consonant and vowel phonemes. Tone languages are the norm in sub-Saharan Africa and are very common in continental and insular southeast Asia. They are rare in the rest of Eurasia, North Africa, and Australia. They are relatively common in Central America, the Caribbean, and the Amazon basin, and occur sporadically elsewhere among the aboriginal languages of the Americas..
Here is their Abstract:
The correlations between interpopulation genetic and linguistic diversities are mostly noncausal (spurious), being due to historical processes and geographical factors that shape them in similar ways. Studies of such correlations usually consider allele frequencies and linguistic groupings (dialects, languages, linguistic families or phyla), sometimes controlling for geographic, topographic, or ecological factors. Here, we consider the relation between allele frequencies and linguistic typological features. Specifically, we focus on the derived haplogroups (note: these are sets of nucleotide polymorphisms) of the brain growth and development-related genes ASPM and Microcephalin, which show signs of natural selection and a marked geographic structure, and on linguistic tone, the use of voice pitch to convey lexical or grammatical distinctions. We hypothesize that there is a relationship between the population frequency of these two alleles and the presence of linguistic tone and test this hypothesis relative to a large database (983 alleles and 26 linguistic features in 49 populations), showing that it is not due to the usual explanatory factors represented by geography and history. The relationship between genetic and linguistic diversity in this case may be causal: certain alleles can bias language acquisition or processing and thereby influence the trajectory of language change through iterated cultural transmission.

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