Sometimes coincidences occur, and last spring, I happened to find two books on language in the same evening: Walking English by David Crystal (2007) and The Tree of Meaning by Robert Bringhurst (2008). In some ways, they are similar. Both authors are experts on linguistics with several books each, and both are passionate about their work. But, as you'll see, the languages they deal with are very different in their histories and futures. In any case, they got me interested in the topic, and so I've been collecting articles on language, particularly biological aspects of the subject. Since this month's theme is behavior, it seems appropriate to delve into one of the behaviors that is most intrinsic to being human, though as will become clear, it's difficult to focus on one behavior without also discussing others.

As his title implies, Crystal devotes himself to the English language, to how it has developed, and the odd differences found in the ways English is spoken not only in different parts of the world, but in different areas of England. He illustrates how closely language is tied to geography by walking from place to place through the English countryside. The rambles he recounts are sporadic and take place over an extended period, but there's a map to help you keep track of his perambulations. He tells of language oddities peculiar to certain counties and even to certain towns. Toward the end of the book, he travels much more broadly, commenting on what happens to English in other parts of Europe, and also in the United States. If a distance of 10 or 20 miles can make a difference in how the language is spoken, it's no surprise that an ocean has led to much greater variation. The analogy to speciation is obvious here, with closely related language "species" perhaps defined as dialects.

Crystal begins his book oddly – and memorably – with the issue of sheep dialects. He tells of meeting a farmer at a town market in England. The man tells Crystal that the sheep blocking the road are from Scotland. When Crystal asks him how he knows, since no shepherd is in sight, the man says that they sound Scottish. Now it quickly becomes obvious that Crystal has a good ear for subtle differences in human accents. He quizzes that man as to where he himself is from since he doesn't seem to speak like a local, and it turns out that the man, though having lived locally for 45 years, is in fact from up north, near Scotland, which explains why he recognizes the sheep's vocalizations. This leads Crystal on a textual stroll around the idea that vocal patterns are set in childhood and then vary little even when much time is spent surrounded by people with different accents. He also gets into the history of the word "crook" as in a shepherd's crook, but at the end he has to confess that he really can't differentiate between English and Scottish sheep – vocally or otherwise.

Vocal Learning

Though I can't say sheep are considered important animal models in language studies, animal vocalization is a major area of study among behavioral biologists and neurobiologists. As with other human traits once thought to be exclusively our own, such as tool making, language is now seen as a trait we share with a number of other species. The ability to reproduce sounds heard in one's environment is called "vocal learning." Obviously, humans are very good at this, and so are songbirds and parrots. In addition, there are some whales and seals that exhibit vocal learning, and a number of researchers would add dolphins and elephants to this group. So the list is obviously growing longer, which might just mean that as humans spend more time trying to understand how animals communicate, we are seeing language as less a uniquely human characteristic. Another mammal now joining the language ranks is the bat, specifically the Costa Rican sac-winged bat, Saccopteryx bilineata. German researchers found that the male's elaborate courtship display is accompanied by complex songs and that as young males (pups) vocalize, their songs become more like those of the local dominant male (Fitch, 2010). This is so even in cases where the pups aren't genetically related to the adult male and suggests that the pups are indeed capable of vocal learning. The work with S. bilineata also indicates that, while echolocation may be involved, so is social communication. This is a significant result because it's the first case of mammalian vocal learning in a species that could be bred and studied in the lab (whales just don't work). Also, genetic analyses had already shown that the FOXP2 gene, which is tied to vocal learning in birds and humans, is also strongly selected in bats.

In 2001, the link between FOXP2 and human language was first reported (Pinker, 2001); researchers were investigating a familial form of language defect that turned out to be tied to this gene. I can remember reading about it at the time. It was the kind of startling result that tends to stick in the mind. Language controlled by a gene, a single gene? That seemed a very simple explanation for a very complex behavior, but the correlation was nonetheless intriguing. It has also turned out to be convincing. Not surprisingly, the gene was then studied in chimpanzees, who despite being closely related to humans aren't great at vocal learning, though they are very adept at various forms of sign language. The chimp form of the FOXP2 protein is quite different from that of humans, and sequence analyses indicate that the protein's evolution speeded up after the separation of the human and chimp lineages. In particular, there were two new amino acid substitutions (Dominguez & Rakic, 2009).

Research on FOXP2 over the past 10 years revealed that this protein is involved in muscle coordination in vocalization, and it also plays a broader role in other motor controls. This latter function occurs in all the vertebrates examined so far. The connection of motor control to vocalization helps to explain why some children with speech problems also have broader coordination issues as well; it's interesting when a gene is discovered that assists in making sense of intriguing observations that clinicians made years before. But how is FOXP2 exerting its influence? It is a regulatory protein which is expressed in particular parts of the brain, including cortical regions in the human brain involved in language. Recently, researchers have discovered that the FOXP2 protein has different regulatory patterns in humans than in chimps, which isn't surprising considering the species difference in vocal learning, but it is nice to see a correlation at the molecular and neuronal levels. In addition, a variant of one FOXP2 target gene has been associated with an inherited language impairment in children. With such a complex behavior, these little bits of information are frustrating because they provide such small parts of the overall picture. On the other hand, they also provide information that may lead to further discoveries.

Gestures

The tie-in between language and motor skills has spurred another line of research: the role of gesture in the development of language. As Michael Balter (2010) writes in an article on the subject: "Unlike many other human behaviors, such as art and tool-making, language leaves no traces in the archaeological record" (p. 969). One way around this problem is the classic strategy of evolutionary biology: study similar phenomena in other species. The problem here is that, as I mentioned earlier, we don't see many species that have sophisticated language skills. But broad-minded researchers are taking another look and finding intriguing clues. The ability of apes to learn sign language is hardly news and supports the idea that human language began as gestures rather than vocalizations. And while primate vocalizations seem less sophisticated and intentional than their signing, careful observation of a number of primate species reveals that the call sequences are quite complex and are constantly being changed. It is the combination of calls that researchers are homing in on as significant, and some are labeling it "proto-language." It might very well be that language rose from a combination of gesturing and vocalization.

Studies on young children are also revealing the link between gesture and language. Pointing with the right hand begins at about a year of age, around the time that early spoken language usually appears. Neurobiologists find it significant that language and control of movements on the right side of the body are both left-brain functions. Interesting, they also find that "primate gestures appear more localized to brain areas homologous to Broca's area – implicated in speech production – whereas primate vocalizations have been more closely linked to brain areas homologous to Wernicke's area, which is involved in the understanding and perception of speech" (Balter, 2010: p. 971).

>Language & Biodiversity

An entirely different way to explore language as a behavior is to look at it in relation to biodiversity – intraspecies biodiversity. It's estimated that there are over 6000 languages spoken on earth today, with over half of them likely to be extinct within a couple of generations (Pires, 2010). This makes the sixth extinction of species seem rather mild in comparison (Kolbert, 2009). In Australia, there were about 270 languages spoken when the first British arrived, and now less than 20 are spoken by children. Robert Bringhurst recounts similar lingual decimation all over North America. Though he focuses on Canada, it's obvious from the history of native populations in the United States that the same kind of destruction of culture through loss of languages has occurred. In many cases, it happened so long ago that it's almost invisible except to those who have suffered the loss or who have delved into linguistic history.

Mark Abley (2010) argues that there are many layers of loss involved with the disappearance of a language. First there are the poetry, the literature, the oral traditions, the stories that are such an integral part of every culture. Then there is the ecological knowledge embedded in its words: the names of species, of habitats, of land formations. Finally, there is the way of thought that is woven into the meaning of words and how they are used, a language's syntax. This last aspect is the most subtle, the most difficult to pin down, and probably the most important aspect of a language. Acrisio Pires (2010) contends that in the threats that endanger indigenous populations, "linguistic diversity itself may be the worst loss at stake, because it may be the most promising and precise source of evidence for the range of variation allowed in the organization of the human cognitive system" (p. 431).

Lera Boroditsky (2010) reports on research about the link between thinking and speaking. She quotes Charlemagne as saying that having a second language was like having a second soul and goes on to cite examples of how words shape thought. For example, the Russian language has more words for light and dark blue, so Russians are better able to visually discriminate among shades of blue. It is not just that they have words for them, they can see them. Speakers of languages that lack number words have trouble keeping track of exact quantities.

While these are just tiny shreds of evidence, their number is growing, and I suspect that they are the tips of a very large iceberg that would be difficult to fully explore because of the constraints generated by language itself. It's ironic that as languages are disappearing at a frightening rate, we are just coming to appreciate their richness. This is analogous to the situation with species extinctions. Genomic analyses are revealing the wealth hidden in genes even as these genes are vanishing.

Intellectual Biomass

I have a lot of things to worry about, from the absence of songbirds in my neighborhood to the waste of paper at my job. I didn't think about the loss of languages as something to add to my list until recently. Then I read Bringhurst's book on Native American languages, in which he writes that "a language is a lifeform, like a species of plant or animal. Once extinct, it is gone forever. And as each one dies, the intellectual gene pool of the human species shrinks" (p. 30). He goes on to use another metaphor, to speak of language as comprising our intellectual biomass. He wonders whether the loss of individual languages leads to the loss of intellectual biomass – or do we have the same amount of language, but less diversity, akin to what is happening to our ecosystems? He decides to define "intellectual biomass" as the number of stories per year that are told. He supposes that the absolute number is increasing as the human population increases; however, he worries that the quality of this mass is deteriorating because each language contributes its own unique view of the world.

Bringhurst is a Canadian poet, so it's not surprising that he creates such rich metaphors to describe what is happening to language. He lives in British Columbia and has spent years studying the problem of the disappearance of First Nation languages in his country. He is especially interested in Haida culture and has translated a great deal of its literature, much of which was transcribed in the late 19th century when the language was still alive, meaning that there were people who spoke it as their native tongue. He is only one of a number of people, though not nearly enough, scrambling to preserve what's left of many languages before they disappear entirely. Some tongues aren't written down at all, so there is the whole issue of how to transcribe them, and of the nuances lost in such a process. Still, as with species that are now found only within the confines of zoos and botanical gardens, it is better to have some portion of their richness to pass on to future generations than to allow them to disappear entirely.

New York Languages

When I picture the native speakers of these endangered languages, I imagine remote areas and indigenous peoples living in small isolated groups, in rainforests, mountainous areas, or deserts. It turns out, however, that many of them are quite literally my neighbors, proving once again that New York City is an amazing place. Perhaps the most amazing of the city's boroughs is Queens, where I was born and work. As I have mentioned before in this column, Queens is the most ethnically diverse county in the United States. According to 2000 census figures, the residents speak 138 languages, compared with 176 for the city as a whole. However, some experts think the number may be as high as 800 (Roberts, 2010).

For example, Husni Husain is from West Sulawesi, an Indonesian province. There he learned Mamuju. He married an Indonesian woman from Java and she has no knowledge of Mamuju, nor do his children who were born in Jakarta. They all now live in Queens, and when asked what languages are spoken at home, Mamuju doesn't come up, because Husain has no one to speak it with at home. He uses Mamuju only when he goes back to his native village or when he talks to family on the phone. There are very small numbers of native speakers of such languages as Mamuju, and as they become assimilated into a larger culture that does not understand their words, the languages are eroded and eventually lost because, quite literally, they have no one to talk to.

Another instance is that of Garifuna, a language that came to New York by a very circuitous route. It's one of the Arawakan languages, indigenous to parts of South America and the Caribbean, and developed among descendents of African slaves. Garifuna can be traced back to slaves shipwrecked near the Caribbean island of St. Vincent and later exiled to Central America. It is spoken in Honduras and Belize, but the article notes that it is now almost as common in the Bronx and Brooklyn as it is in those countries. The same is true of other languages, such as Bukhari, a Jewish language in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, more common today in Queens.

Gaelic

The article even mentions Gaelic, my own lost language. My parents were born in Ireland, and my mother learned it in school. But she did little more than throw a word of it around from time to time, including one that meant "female idiot" when my sister or I really provoked her. My father's education was much more spotty, but geographically, he grew up close to where there were clusters of native speakers early in the 20th century. He probably heard it spoken more often than my mother did, and she claimed that some of his grammatical mistakes were related to Gaelic syntax that he carried over into English.

Since Gaelic, or Irish as it is now called, is definitely not a romance language, it's a difficult one to learn, even with the anglicized alphabet that is now used. The Irish Republic has made heroic efforts to revive it, and has in part been successful. I have a cousin living in Ireland who listens to soap operas in Irish on the radio and bemoans the fact that he can't understand some Irish speakers because of their different dialects. So not only are people speaking Irish, but it is a lively enough language that it comes in different flavors. Other languages aren't as fortunate to have government backing, and in some cases, governments are attempting to eradicate languages because they are linked to insurgent political movements, as was the case with Irish itself a century ago.

Even if a language is transcribed before the last native speakers have died, what is left on paper – and even on tape – is just a shadow of what the spoken language had been when it was constantly enriched by interaction among native speakers. Latin is a prime example of this (Ostler, 2007). Acrisio Pires (2010) compares documentation of dead languages to the study of the fossil record, which is always partial and fragmented. And just as it is difficult to piece together the history of life on earth from fossils, it is becoming harder to piece together the evolution of language. There are very basic questions about the structure of language that will likely become tougher to explore with less variety available. Years ago Noam Chomsky proposed that humans have an innate universal grammar; this idea is still controversial, especially since linguists continue to argue over the elements to be found in such a structure. For example, we all have an idea of the difference between things and actions, but putting the two together in a sentence can mean different things in different languages (Jones, 2009).

Being Bilingual

What linguists are coming to agree on is that learning more than one language is a good thing because it spurs cognitive development. It's obvious that young children learn languages easily, and it's now well documented that this learning process changes fundamentally as they mature. What has been controversial is whether exposing a child to more than one language at an early age is a good thing. Some bilingual parents stick to one language around their children, so that the offspring learn the language of their adopted land. This is one reason for the loss of language richness in the world. But now there is evidence that the Mamuju speaker from Indonesia might have done his children a favor if he had taught them his native tongue (Diamond, 2010).

Studies show that children raised bilingually are better at what's called "selective attention," which involves a suite of processes controlled in the prefrontal lobe and developed by the age of five. In addition, bilingual children don't suffer the confusion in language processing that some had feared would occur in juggling two different vocabularies and sets of syntactical rules. In fact, it seems that it's this juggling that's good for the mind. When the bilinguals hear a word, they don't just have to identify the word as a monolingual child would, they also have to decide what language it's in. This extra mental work stimulates the development of what's called an "executive" or decision-making function in the brain.

What I find particularly interesting about so many of the studies on language that I've cited is how researchers are able to dissect the nuts and bolts of a behavior as complex and subtle as language. Obviously, it's in studies of any behavior that biology and psychology meet, and being on one side of this disciplinary fence makes peering over at the work of the other side particularly intriguing. In a sense, language divides the disciplines as well. We are at least speaking different dialects, and having to explore an aspect of behavior for this ABT issue, I've had to become at least slightly bilingual. Just as biology and psychology can't be separated from each other, even though the linguistic masters of each may try, so language can't be separated from many other human behaviors.

I've already touched on the link between gesture and vocalization, and it is probably more than a coincidence that tool making is part of what makes us human. With tools came a need to work more cooperatively – my husband and I always did a better job of hanging pictures when there were two of us doing it; it always helps if one person can tell the other person what to do, or what they did wrong. In fact, some observers argue that it was language that was key to the development of the traits that make us human (Szathmáry & Számadó, 2008). These would include not only tool making but an inclination to learn, to form ideas. Now this gets into philosophy as well as psychology, so I am fortunate that I have to end here before I get myself into even more linguistic trouble than I already have.

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She earned a B.S. in biology from Marymount Manhattan College; an M.S., also in biology, from Boston College; and a Ph.D. in science education from New York University. Her major interests are in communicating science to the nonscientist and in the relationship between biology and art.