Physicists get linguist envy?

So I wrote a post a couple of weeks ago on my Hungarian friend's blog in which I wrote about, amongst other things, why some linguists have physics envy, but I just read a new scientist article in which it seems physicists can have linguistics envy too!

Murray Gell-Mann, a nobel prize winning physicist (who discovered quarks), has taken it upon himself to try to work out the origins of human language:

Another pet project is an attempt to trace the majority of human languages back to a common root. Since the 19th century, linguists have been comparing languages to infer their common ancestry, but in most cases, Gell-Mann says, this kind of analysis loses the trail 6000 or 7000 years back. He says most linguists insist it is impossible to follow the trail any further into the past and - this is what truly rankles with him - "absurdly, they don't even want to try".

Gell-Mann heads SFI's Evolution of Human Languages (EHL) programme. The EHL linguists say they can go even further back by classifying language families into superfamilies and even into a super-superfamily. "What we've found," Gell-Mann explains, "is tentative evidence for a situation in which a huge fraction of all human languages are descended from one spoken 20,000 years ago, towards the end of the last ice age." The team does not claim to account for all languages, though, and remains agnostic about whether they can eventually do so. "All of this just comes from following the data," he says.

I love that attempting to trace the majority of human languages back to a common root can be described as a 'pet project'.

If anyone's interested here's a paper he wrote on the subject:

Murray Gell-Mann, Ilia Peiros, George Starostin. Distant Language Relationship: The Current Perspective.

  • In a talk last week, Russell Gray reminded us that Biologists get Linguistics Envy too. This is from Atkinson & Gray (2005):

    Schleicher (1863) pointed out that a "family tree" approach had been part of linguistics since well before Darwin:"First, as regards Darwin's assertion that species change in course of time, a process repeated time and again which results in one form arising from another, this same process has long been generally assumed for linguistic organisms... .We set up family trees of languages known to us in precisely the same way as Darwin has attempted to do for plant and animal species." (p. 7)

    Swadesh (1952) also introduced glottochronology, based on the idea of a glottoclock, or constant rate of lexical replacement. He realized that, under the assumption of constant rates, one could also infer divergence times from the distance data. A decade later, Zuckerkandl and Pauling (1962) introduced the idea of the molecular clock to infer species divergence times in biology. This is, however, almost certainly an example of convergent evolution, not borrowing.

    Read more here:

  • Wintz

    Just downloaded the paper. It'll be interesting to see if Gell-Mann can do what Greenhill et al (2010) couldn't.

    However, the only thing I could think about during the NS article was how the photo of Murray Gell-Mann reminded me of Michael Winner.

  • Hello hello,
    Sean- was that the talk he gave at the multidisciplinary approaches to language evolution workshop? I was there...hiding in the corner.

    Wintz - on the topic of Michael Winner, Death Wish 3 was on the TV last night, what an absolute corker of a shit film.

  • And with regards to your point on the Greenhill paper, although I've only scanned both, it seems that the Gell-Mann paper doesn't rely on comparative typological data in the way the Greenhill et al. (2010) does. All of the numbers in the Gell-Mann paper are generally based on extralinguistic evidence*. I'm sure they've done all of the comparative analysis to make the claims they make. And in a paper such as this, acting as an overview of the work that they're doing, an in-deapth account of how they have done that comparison or what problems they encounted whilst doing it aren't called for. And so it's not clear if they've overcome anything brought up by Greenhill et al. (2010).

    *The claim about 20,000 years seem to be based on that being at the height of the ice age. That is that territories suitable for human habitation shrank rapidly and therefore "under those conditions linguistic diversity could have been greatly reduced and it may therefore be the case that all or most of the languages of subsequent times are descended from a single ancestor, the tongue of a particular refugium". The paper then goes on to talk of human's wondering and new language evolving after the climate conditions improved.

  • If figure these physicists are just bored. These days physics is all wrapped up and done or impossibly difficult. So why not take a look at language or social networks or the brain?

  • When you're someone like Murray-Gellman, you get to have pet projects. :-)IN the meantime, I'm just trying to get support for projects. Nevertheless -- this is actually consistent with his interest in complex systems, as language evolution is precisely this kind of thing: a compelx adaptive system, or spontaneous order.

  • A protolanguage is an artificial entity, and the act of comparing protolanguages is even more artificial. I use 'artificial' in the sense of 'far away from reality'. The last step, the establishment of a Paleolithic super-protolanguage, is basically science fiction, or simply a nice intellectual pursuit for bored physicists.

    It is true that the comparative method has provided a lot of useful information about ancient languages and language groups. The problem is that, when it is taken too far, as Starostin and other usually do, the results are of little value.

    The methodological problems involved in linguistic reconstruction are really serious, in some cases insurmountable, but the introduction of glottochronology makes the whole thing even worse. The assumption that languages evolve at a given pace is, in my humble opinion, a mistake. A serious mistake.

    In the article they talk about a 'bottleneck' in human population that would have happened as a consequence of the last ice age. It is true that the situation in the northern hemisphere, particularly in Europe, was like the one described by the authors, with populations circumscribed to a series of southern refugia. However, the effects of the glaciation were not the same in other continents. It makes no sense to suggest that there was a single refugium where a supposed global protolanguage would have emerged.

  • Wintz

    it seems that the Gell-Mann paper doesn’t rely on comparative typological data in the way the Greenhill et al. (2010) does.

    I still haven't read the paper, but my link (albeit a tenuous one) to Greenhill et al was just referring to one attempt to infer deep ancestral relationships. FYI: The Lousy Linguist has his own, brief take on the subject. It's in a similar vein to Jesús' above comment.

  • Biologists get Linguistics Envy- an interesting post on about ants responding in the same way to different chemicals.