Academic journal article The American Biology Teacher

Language & Biodiversity

Academic journal article The American Biology Teacher

Language & Biodiversity

Article excerpt

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 Mated 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). …

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