Searching for the Tree of Babel: Linguistic Evolution May Shed Light on History

Article excerpt

A picture is generally valued at 1,000 words. What might be the worth of an image of the 7,000 or so languages now spoken in the world? Scientists searching for patterns within this cacophony of lingoes are convinced that languages hold pivotal clues to questions about human history that other areas of study have been unable to answer. In their quest to demonstrate this new idea, these scientists are finding themselves in stiff debate with others who argue that the approach amounts to barking up the wrong tree.

The controversial approach treats languages as though they were biological species and applies analytical methods developed by evolutionary biologists. Although linguists previously have created trees of languages, they haven't used computational methods to rapidly reconstruct relationships between large groups of languages.

Anthropologists and other investigators are using their new, more extensive language trees to trace the historical relationships of different cultural groups, from people conversing in Gujarati and Hindi to those speaking Navajo and Quecha. These researchers claim that, with that information in hand, questions about migration patterns, agriculture, and other society-changing practices become answerable in new ways.

Language trees are useful for depicting relationships of communities in the past 5,000 to 10,000 years or so, a period too short to be resolved by genetics--and exactly the time for which anthropologists and archeologists are seeking new streams of data.

LINGUISTIC SPECIES When biologists build family trees among species, they look for shared characters--such as the vertebrate spine--or specific genetic sequences. Species with the greatest similarities are grouped to create a tree branch with several extensions. Then, those branches that share the most characters are put together into a bough. This tree of hierarchical relationships, known as a phylogeny, traces a path from ancestral species at the trunk to the most recently evolved species out on the twigs.

Charles Darwin alluded to the notion that languages evolve and diverge as species do. Like genetic systems, which are made up of nucleotides, genes, and individuals, says Mark Pagel, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Reading in England, languages have discrete units: letters, syllables, and words. Language, like a set of genes, is generally transmitted from parents to offspring. And just as mutations in DNA provide the basic biological variations on which natural selection thrives, changes also occur in languages. Variations in pronunciation or meaning are either rejected or preserved in the transfer of language from parents to their children.

Though natural selection per se doesn't act on new word variants, a form of cultural selection certainly does, says Pagel. For example, a catchier version of a word, such as aeroplane rather than flying machine, is more likely to persist.

For many decades, linguists used a tree approach, says Pagel. Comparisons, however, had generally been limited to a small number of languages, and the language analysts didn't take advantage of computer-based quantitative methods.

Russell Gray, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Auckland in New Zealand, notes that for as few as 10 languages, there are an astonishing 34 million possible trees that can be drawn. "For over 100 languages, you're talking about more possible trees than there are atoms in the universe," he adds. Now, Gray says, it's becoming possible to churn out trees for very large data sets.

"These methods are entirely appropriate," concurs Colin Renfrew, an archaeologist at the University of Cambridge in England. "Given that historical linguistics uses many discrete pieces of information, quantitative and technical methods of this sort are long overdue."

To test the mettle of the language-tree approach, researchers have been building hierarchies for Pacific islanders, sub-Saharan Africans, and Eurasians from Iceland to Bangladesh. …