Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Striking Similarities Between Language and Evolutionary Biology

Approaching language from a biological perspective, one can't help but recognize the similarities in the evolution of both languages and biological organisms. At times, it appears as though they follow similar mechanisms. As such, determining when two languages within a language family diverged through morphological changes is not much different than determining when two species of organisms within the same family diverged. Yet, even in this similarity, a key difference between language and biology remain. We know that every single biological organism on this planet has a common ancestor. Basically, the tree of life, if taken through time in a reverse manner will eventually coalesce into just one root. All existing species have arisen from an ancestral species. To contrast, since linguistic abilities are present in our species cerebral wiring, all languages do not need to have arisen from the same source. Put two human children together in an isolated environment with no linguistic influence, and they will develop their own patterns of linguistic communication, with syntax, vocabulary, and a structure that we will identify as language. It has often been observed that identical twins, at very young ages, share certain words which we would identify as gibberish. Yet, they communicate knowing that the sounds they use are mutually identifiable for a given topic. Thus, not all languages in the world have a universal common ancestor, as do biological organisms. Instead, related languages can be placed together in groups and families, with a shared common ancestor. It's as though 15 different alien species are introduced into a planet's ecology and in time, all thrive and compete with each other, whilst also evolving. If someone then returned, they could easily group the difference species together into their last common ancestors and determine that they evolved independently. With languages though, there is greater flexibility in absorbing content from another language, even one completely unrelated. If biological organisms evolve with independent origins, then it would be much harder, perhaps even impossible, for any admixture.

Determining how languages are related to each other, either through common descent, known unsurprisingly as genetic links, or through shared contact, known as phonetic similarities, is instrumental in understanding human migrational patterns, cultural activity, and oft unrecorded history. The analysis of the contents and structure of language, known as morphology, has its analog in biology, which again unsurprisingly is called morphology (in this case, it's the formative structure, or physical appearance, of the given organism.) To provide an example that I shall endeavor to elaborate on in the next post, is the morphology of the Armenian language. Phonetically, the Armenian language is most similar to those of the Caucases (such as Georgian). In other words, the Armenian language sounds very similar to the South Caucasian languages. Superficially, this seems obvious, considering the proximity between the two. Yet, despite the phonetic similarity, genetically, Armenian is actually an Indo-European language with murky origins that date back over 5000 years. Digging further, one discovers that many Armenian words are actually Iranian in origin. To be more specific, they are loan words that were absorbed into the Armenian language during the Parthian conquest of Armenia in the 6th century BCE. This middle Iranian language of Parthian, has long since become extinct, but its influence in modern Armenian, Farsi, and other regionally effected languages is prevalent. It must be noted that although the Iranian languages also have an Indo-European genetic link, they branched long after Armenian was already an independent language. Attempting to determine which language group within the Indo-European family Armenian is most related to is even harder, because the time for changes has been so extensive, and there are sparse records that attest to early Armenian. It's only when Armenian was recorded, once an alphabet was established in the 5th century CE, that we can understand the modern changes that have been effected by subsequent migrations by Arabs, Turks, modern Persians, and Russians. As mentioned, the details of this will be further elaborated in the next post. To determine the changes that Armenian has undergone, one must look at the mutations that have resulted in pronunciation, which eventually changes the written form as well. Before the creation of a written system, languages were able to more readily change, but as literacy increased, a more conservative echo remained in linguistic features. Due to inherent migrations and proximal influences by other languages, the morphology of spoken language shifted as those of the written remained. It took a considerable amount of effort to change the literary language, and as can be attested by early languages still used in churches (such as Grabar Armenian, or in the case of Roman Catholics, Latin), some institutions were able to retain the most conservative elements. Although the early phonetics of Armenian, as it was retained by the creation of the Armenian alphabet, is used by Eastern Armenians, those in the West, mostly through proximal contact, have become phonetically aligned much more closely with Turkish. It's interesting to note then that Armenian is phonetically influenced by both Georgian and Turkish, neither of which are Indo-European languages. Morphologically, Turkish has more influence in modern Armenian, when compared to early Armenian, because of the near millennium of contact between the two. Any morphological changes to Armenian outside of phonetics due to the Caucasian languages has long since disappeared. Through this, it appears that perhaps phonetic changes are more conserved when compared to other morphological features.

The similarity between language and biology is probably related to the fact that both languages and organisms evolve through incremental changes, otherwise known as mutations. As is typical with human, large or even small populations may migrate so far, that their initial contact with their group of origin may be completely severed. In this instance, the isolated group is suddenly free to evolve their own features. The simplest example of this would be the Polynesian migrations. Each group eventually radiated across the habitable islands of Polynesia, and by analyzing the morphology of each language, whether it's Tahitian, Hawaiian, Tongan, or Maori, a common link can be determined. Further, by observing the archaeological record, as far as human inhabitation, one can correlate the changes in the language over the given time required. Similarly, in biology, by correlating the fossil record with that of the genetic differences, a greater precision is uncovered, and each discipline is further sharpened. When Charles Darwin observed the various finches in the Galapagos Islands, he noted how similar they were in appearance, only differing in the shape of their beaks. This appearance then is what's known as the phenotype of the finch. Darwin rightfully deduced that all these similar birds must have evolved from a common ancestor. Knowing that the nearest landmass was South America, he compared these finches to those of the mainland, and a key moment in biology was forged. Once molecular genetics developed, a new tool was found that was able to analyze the genetic differences between the finches and even determine how, and approximately when, they migrated between the islands. Looking at another species, it's possible that minimal differences in genotype (within the genes) can lead to significant differences in phenotype. In this example, the variable appearance of the domestic dog shows how large phenotypical differences can appear when genotype is minimally effected. Although all dogs evolved from the wolf, they vary in appearance from the teacup Chihuahua to the great Dane. These changes are a result of humans selectively breeding dogs for thousands of years, hoping to enhance their aesthetic appeal, productivity, obedience, task oriented goals, stamina, power, aggression, or any number of traits. In nature, it's the natural environment that acts as a sieve, allowing only those animals that are best suited to survive and reproduce. In human languages, a close genetic relationship can occasionally lead to significant changes in phonetic expression. In mountainous areas of the world, significant variation of dialects occur, rendering them nearly unintelligible. To continue using the Armenian language as an example, the local dialect of Armenians living in Artsakh (Nagorno-Karabakh) is so different from standard Eastern Armenian that it's mostly unintelligible. Looking at Europe, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, and French all have their common origins in Vulgar Latin. Initially dialects of common, or Vulgar Latin within the Roman Empire, they became increasingly divergent upon the Empire's collapse. The seemingly profound phonetic differences are muted by the orthographic similarities in the written languages. Thus, once again, one can see that phonetic changes are less conserved than those that occur in the orthographic, or written language.

In biology, convergent evolution occurs when two species, from completely different origins (distantly they're all related, but once their ancestral species radiated to form new species, they are now distinct) resemble each other superficially. Bats and birds both evolved wings to help them defy gravity and achieve powered flight. How they actually developed wings occurred in completely different ways, dependent on their inherent genetic structure. Whereas birds evolved from fast moving dinosaurs, with proto-wings that perhaps assisted them in short bursts of flight, bats evolved from small mammals that were probably able to glide from tree to tree by membranes that extended across their arms and legs. Over time, these separate species were able to reach the skies. This convergent evolution then has almost no analog with language. It is possible that two completely unrelated languages may merge, but organisms that are unrelated cannot merge together. They may exchange a few genes through retro viral elements, but for the most part, they do not have the flexibility of language. Yet, before languages come in such proximal contact that they become absorbed, some qualities of an unrelated language may become adapted. Perhaps through extended linguistic contact, the cadence of the two unrelated languages may come to resemble each other. Although phonetically, Armenian and Farsi have distinct sounds, their rhythm and cadence can be quite similar. Especially with Eastern-Armenians, the extended contact with the Persian languages has come to probably effect some qualities in the flow of pronunciation. It's similar to the cadence of Dutch and English, with a resemblance that can be uncanny at times.

Ultimately, the link between biological and linguistic evolution has an all together deeper level of prominence. If it wasn't for the evolution of our species, we wouldn't have the language ability to explain these concepts to each other. Ultimately, all language is best understood with an underlying acceptance of the importance of evolutionary biology. No respectful philologist will ever come to believe that language and evolution are two unrelated fields. Beyond this deep level of semblance, as demonstrated, languages and biological evolution share traits that can lead to mutual understanding and useful analogies for comprehending each system.


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