Tea Leaves and Lingua Francas: Why the future is not easy to predict

We all take comfort in our ability to project into the future. Be it through arbitrary patterns in Spring Pouchong tea leaves, or making statistical inferences about the likelihood that it will rain tomorrow, our accumulation of knowledge about the future is based on continued attempts of attaining certainty: that is, we wish to know what tomorrow will bring. Yet the difference between benignly staring at tea leaves and using computer models to predict tomorrow’s weather is fairly apparent: the former relies on a completely spurious relationship between tea leaves and events in the future, whereas the latter utilises our knowledge of weather patterns and then applies this to abstract from currently available data into the future. Put simply: if there are dense grey clouds in the sky, then it is likely we’ll get rain. Conversely, if tea-leaves arrange themselves into the shape of a middle finger, it doesn’t mean you are going to be continually dicked over for the rest of your life. Although, as I’ll attempt to make clear below, these are differences in degrees, rather than absolutes.

So, how are we going to get from tea-leaves to Lingua Francas? Well, the other evening I found myself watching Dr Nicholas Ostler give a talk on his new book, The Last Lingua Franca: English until the Return to Babel. For those of you who aren’t familiar with Ostler, he’s a relatively well-known linguist, having written several successful books popularising socio-historical linguistics, and first came to my attention through Razib Kahn’s detailed review of Empires of the Word. Indeed, on the basis of Razib’s post, I was not surprised by the depth of knowledge expounded during the talk. On this note alone I’m probably going to buy the book, as the work certainly filters into my own interests of historical contact between languages and the subsequent consequences. However, as you can probably infer from the previous paragraph, there were some elements I was slightly-less impressed with — and it is here where we get into the murky realms between tea-leaves and knowledge-based inferences. But first, here is a quick summary of what I took away from the talk:

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Neanderthal-human Hybrids

Paul Mason and Robert Short have an article out called Neanderthal-human hybrids (I wonder what that’s about?). Here is the abstract:

Evidence from studies of nuclear and mitochondrial DNA extracted from Neanderthal fossils and humans points to fascinating hypotheses concerning the types of interbreeding that occurred between these two species. Humans and Neanderthals share a small percentage of nuclear DNA. However, humans and Neanderthals do not possess the same mito­chondrial DNA. In mammals, mitochondrial DNA is exclusively maternally inherited. Taking into account an understanding of interspecific hybridity, the available data leads to the hypothesis that only male Neanderthals were able to mate with female humans. If Haldane’s Law applied to the progeny of Neanderthals and humans, then female hybrids would survive, but male hybrids would be absent, rare, or sterile. Interbreeding between male Neanderthals and female humans, as the only possible scenario, accounts for the presence of Neanderthal nuclear DNA, the scarcity of Neanderthal Y-linked genes, and the lack of mitochondrial DNA in modern human populations.

Paul Mason previously wrote about the topic over at Neuroanthroplogy, so I really don’t have much more to say on the topic, other than that I’ll get around to reading it over the next couple of days. I’m curious to see if the usual suspects in the genetics (Razib Khan), anthropological (Dienekes) and evolutionary (John Hawks) communities offer some food for thought on the topic.

For me, I’m actually more interested in Mason’s recent work on degeneracyBut that’s for a later post 😉

Colour terms and national flags

I’m currently writing an article on the relationship between language and social features of the speakers who use it. As studies such as Lupyan & Dale (2010) have discovered, language structure is partially determined by social structure.  However, it’s also probable that many social features of a community are determined by its language.

Today, I wondered whether the number of basic colour terms a language has is reflected in the number of colours on its country’s flag. The idea being that a country’s flag contains colours that are important to its society, and therefore a country with more social tools for discussing colour (colour words) will be more likely to put more colours on its flag. It was a long shot, but here’s what I found:

The World Atlas of Language Structures has data on the number of basic colours in many languages (Kay & Maffi, 2008). Wikipedia has a list of country flags by the number of colours in them.  Languages with large populations (like English, Spanish etc.) were excluded.  It’s known that the number of basic colour terms correlates with latitude, so a partial correlation was carried out.  There was a small but significant relationship between the number of colour terms in a langauge and the number of colours on the flag where that language is spoken (r = 0.15, τ = 254, p=0.01, partial correlation, 2-tailed using Kendall’s tau).

Here’s the flag of Belize, where Garífuna is spoken (9-10 colours in the language, 12 colours on the flag):

Here is the flag of Nigeria where Ejagham is spoken (3-4 colours in the langauge, 2 colours on the flag):

Interestingly, the languages with the highest number of colours in their language and flag come from Central America while the majority of the languages with the lowest number of colours in their language and flag come from Africa.  Maybe there’s some cultural influence on neighbouring flags.


Here’s a boxplot, which makes more sense:

Also, I re-ran the analysis taking into account distance from the equator, speaker population and some properties of the nearest neighbour of each language (number of colours on flag and number of basic colours in langauge).  A multiple regression showed that the number of basic colours in a language is still a significant predictor of the number of colours in its national flag (r = 0.12, F(106,16)=1.8577, p= 0.03).  This analysis was done by removing languages with populations more than 2 standard deviations from the mean (9 languages out of 140).  The relationship is still significant with the whole dataset.

There are still problems with this analysis, of course.  For example, many of the languages in the data are minority languages which may have little impact on the national identity of a country.  Furthermore, the statistics may be compromised by multiple comparisons, since there may be a single flag for more than one language.  Also, a proper measure of the influence of surrounding languages would be better.  The nearest neighbour was supposed to be an approximation, but could be improved.

Lupyan G, & Dale R (2010). Language structure is partly determined by social structure. PloS one, 5 (1) PMID: 20098492

Kay, Paul & Maffi, Luisa. (2008). Number of Basic Colour Categories.In: Haspelmath, Martin & Dryer, Matthew S. & Gil, David & Comrie, Bernard (eds.) The World Atlas of Language Structures Online. Munich: Max Planck Digital Library, chapter 133.

A history of evolution pt. 2: The Wealth of Nations, Populations and On the Origin

Title page of the original edition of Malthus' 1798 work

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Searching Research Blogging for “bilingualism”, two blogs dominate the recent posts: mine and Language on the Move – a blog started by Ingrid Piller and Kimie Takahashi at Macquarie University, Sydney, Australia.  Since starting last year, they have been joined by a host of international collaborators.  It’s a really well organised blog – they even have separate facebook and twitter officers!

The blog discusses topics on language learning, multilingualism and multicultural sociolinguistics.  The writers are bilingual and certainly pro-bilingualism, but it’s good to see a genuine debate over the so-called ‘bilingual edge’ (see Piller 2010- a review of ‘the bilingual edge’ which argues that differences elicited in controlled conditions don’t necessarily translate to the real world where variables are correlated).

There’s been a recent spurt of posts and publications aimed at trying to get people out of a mono-mindset.  Alastair Pennycook writes about Metrolingualism (see also, Otsuji & Pennycook, 2010) – the common use of many languages to construct identity.  He reminds us that people are most cultural traits are not mutually exclusive.  Indeed, the majority of people can communicate in many mediums.  Despite this, there is a tendency both in research and general opinion to see monolingualism as the norm and bilingualism as exceptional.

As I have mentioned elsewhere, the monolingual mindset extends into computational modelling of language acquisition and evolution.  Often, there are implicit monolingual assumptions.  On the other hand, whole paradigms such as Steels & Belpeame’s ‘Naming Game’ focus on how populations of agents can arrive at the same, single mapping between words and meanings.

In fact, there is much evidence to suggest that children can acquire multiple languages easily.  My own research focusses on a simple question – why did we evolve to be able to learn multiple languages?  It would be more efficient to have a single human language – especially if it were innately specified.  Instead, we have a culturally transmitted system that exhibits a large amount of variation.

I’m looking at two possible answers:  Either there is no selective pressure on language and bilingualism is the product of historical accident (drift) or there is an inherent advantage to the flexibility that bilingualism affords, both for communication and for the evolvability of the system.  Along the way, I’m hoping to look at whether monolingualism is a legitimate abstraction, or whether bilingualism is a fundamental part of language (for a recent talk, see here).

However, Pennycook points out the paradox of a monolingual mindset in a pervasively bilingual world, suggesting that it may be a  political affliction rather than a scientific approach:
“If we take the current sociolinguistic literature on styles, registers, discourses, genres and practices seriously, then monolingualism is also a myth: a monolingual mindset does not emerge from a state of monolingualism, because no such state can exist. If languages are myths, so too is monolingualism!”

Piller, I. (2010). The bilingual edge: why, when, and how to teach your child a second language International Journal of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism, 13 (1), 115-118 DOI: 10.1080/13670050802645942

Otsuji, E., & Pennycook, A. (2010). Metrolingualism: fixity, fluidity and language in flux International Journal of Multilingualism, 7 (3), 240-254 DOI: 10.1080/14790710903414331

Some links #8: Are you WEIRD?

We agree it’s WEIRD, but is it WEIRD enough? Greg Downey at Neuroanthropology gives his take on Henrich et al.’s paper The weirdest people in the world? which looks at acronym WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic) and how we may be extrapolating too much from this particularly narrow data set. Yet, despite this, we continue to use WEIRD individuals in psychological experiments, even though it may not be representative of, say, the large body of Africans. I mean, come on, you wouldn’t take genetic data from Western Europe and then make sweeping generalisations about populations in Western Africa…

The Human Penis Bone. From WEIRD to just weird. Scicurious reviews a very old journal article from 1913, which tells of a guy who actually grew a penis bone. Now, many mammals do have penis bones, but human males generally lack this ossified aid. However, if you’re curious about how to get one, then all you have to do is simply wear a particular type of corset (see below) and, here’s a downside for those of you planning on ditching the Viagra, get syphilis. As Scicurious explains:

The syphilis, combined with the constant irritation of the corset, had apparently caused a build up of desposits, which eventually ossified and turned in to bone. REAL BONE, with marrow and holes in it and everything! […] So the moral of this story is: if you’re a guy, and you’re vain about your appearance, get a flat front corset. You don’t want to be sitting down in something pointy.

Wild cat found mimicking monkey calls. Some clever vocal mimicry from a margay. ScienceDaily reports:

Researchers first recorded the incident in 2005 when a group of eight pied tamarins were feeding in a ficus tree. They then observed a margay emitting calls similar to those made by tamarin babies. This attracted the attention of a tamarin “sentinel,” which climbed down from the tree to investigate the sounds coming from a tangle of vines called lianas. While the sentinel monkey started vocalizing to warn the rest of the group of the strange calls, the monkeys were clearly confounded by these familiar vocalizations, choosing to investigate rather than flee. Four other tamarins climbed down to assess the nature of the calls. At that moment, a margay emerged from the foliage walking down the trunk of a tree in a squirrel-like fashion, jumping down and then moving towards the monkeys. Realizing the ruse, the sentinel screamed an alarm and sent the other tamarins fleeing.

Nongenetic selection and evolution: flies use bacteria to adapt to parasitic worms. Jerry Coyne has a fascinating post about nongenetic evolution occurring in a mushroom-eating fruit fly Drosophila neotestacea. But how is it nongenetic? Well, as Jerry explains:

A new paper by John Jaenike and his colleagues in Science, however, shows a form of biological evolution by natural selection that isn’t based on changes in genes. It’s based on changes in the presence of symbiotic bacteria that protect a species from parasites […] Some flies also carry another organism: the bacterial symbiont Spiroplasma, which is found in many insects.  In D. neotestacea, however, the presence of Spiroplasma protects the fly from the sterilizing effects of nematodes.  While flies with worms and no Spiroplasma are virtually sterile, the presence of the bacteria confers almost normal fertility on worm-ridden flies.  It’s not yet clear how this works, but worms in flies with Spiroplasma are much smaller than those without the bacteria. Presumably the bacteria does something to the worms (or to the flies) that makes the worms grow much more slowly.

Population size predicts technological complexity in Oceania

ResearchBlogging.orgHere is a far-reaching and crucially relevant question for those of us seeking to understand the evolution of culture: Is there any relationship between population size and tool kit diversity or complexity? This question is important because, if met with an affirmative answer, then the emergence of modern human culture may be explained by changes in population size,  rather than a species-wide cognitive explosion. Some attempts at an answer have led to models which make certain predictions about what we expect to see when populations vary. For instance, Shennan (2001) argues that in smaller populations, the number of people adopting a particular cultural variant is more likely to be affected by sampling variation. So in larger populations, learners potentially have access to a greater number of experts, which means adaptive variants are less likely to be lost by chance (Henrich, 2004).

Models aside, and existing empirical evidence is limited with the results being mixed. I previously mentioned the gradual loss of complexity in Tasmanian tool kits after the population was isolated from mainland Australia. Elsewhere, Golden (2006) highlighted the case of isolated Polar Inuit, who lost kayaks, the bow and arrow and other technologies when their knowledgeable experts were wiped out during a plague.Yet two systematic studies (Collard et al., 2005; Read, 2008) of the Inuit case found no evidence for population size being a predictor of technological complexity.

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Experiments in cultural transmission and human cultural evolution

ResearchBlogging.orgFor those of you familiar with the formal mathematical models of cultural evolution (Cavalli-Sforza & Feldman, 1981; Boyd & Richerson, 1985), you’ll know there is a substantive body of literature behind the process of cultural transmission. It comes as a surprise, then, that experiments in this area are generally lacking.

For instance, if we look at evolutionary biology, then there are many experiments into small-scale microevolutionary processes, such as natural selection, sexual selection, mutation and drift, which are then applied in showing how these processes generate population-level, macroevolutionary patterns. It follows then, that this sort of population-level thinking can be applied to cultural evolution: the forces and biases of cultural transmission can be studied experimentally to see if they fit with population-level patterns of cultural change documented by scientists. As the current paper by Mesoudi & Whiten (2008) notes, this potentially gives cultural transmission experiments added significance: “cultural transmission should not only be studied for its own sake (i.e. in order to better understand cultural transmission itself), but also in order to explain broader cultural patterns and trends, all as part of a unified science of cultural evolution”.

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Some Links #2

This week we all get to learn a new word, the potential origins of the written word and killing at a distance. Enjoy!

Cumulative Culture Evolved to Rapidly Coordinate Novel Behaviours

ResearchBlogging.orgIn the deliberations over humanity and its perceived uniqueness, a link is frequently made between our ability to support a rich, diverse culture and the origin of complex human behaviour. Yet what is often overlooked in our view of these two, clearly connected phenomena is the thread that weaves them together: the ability to coordinate behaviour. We need only look at the products of our culture, from language to religion, to see that any variant we may deem successful is contingent on coordinating the behaviour of two or more individuals. Still, what is truly illuminating about this ability is that, far from being a uniquely human feature, the ability to coordinate behaviour is ubiquitous throughout the many organismal kingdoms.

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