Languages are vital connections to our past
There are almost 7,000 spoken languages in the world today. By some estimates, more than 80% of these languages will become extinct in the next 100 years because of reasons such as human migration, globalization, and consequential homogenization. To most people this would not seem as alarming a statistical possibility as that of species extinction, but when you take a moment to think about it, the prospect of loss of language diversity is rather discouraging. On a day that is typically dedicated to the IRS, thanks to Professor Claire Bowern Tilde Cafe attendees were able to dedicate it to getting a bird’s eye view of how languages can give us clues to our past.
The map on the left shows language distribution across the world. The map in the middle shows the number of languages considered indigenous to each country, that are still spoken there. Papua New Guinea has nearly 10% (820) of the world’s indigenous living languages (and 0.11% of the world’s population), so that there are only an average of 7000 speakers per language living there. Indonesia (737), Nigeria (510), and India (415) also have a large number of native languages. At the other end of the scale, Belarus, Maldives, DPR Korea and Holy See each have only one indigenous living language. Territory size shows the proportion of the world’s Indigenous living languages that are spoken there. The map on the right shows the linguistic diversity index – darker regions are more diverse.
The geographical distribution of languages across the world largely mirrors human migration. When areas were colonized, there was often a mingling of languages and borrowing of words. Colonization sometimes led to complete extinction of languages as observed in the case of a number of Native American languages. Extinction of languages can also occur as a result of isolation – while the purity of a language is retained when there is no mingling, if population growth falls below zero (deaths exceed births), the language will gradually become extinct.
Colonization can also result in the emergence of new languages such as various types of creole. There are more than 40 catalogued creole languages! In linguistics, a creole language is a stable natural language developed from a mixture of different languages. Creole languages differ from pidgin – the former are fully developed languages with native speakers; the latter evolves when native speakers of distinct languages need to communicate with each other. Thus, like DNA analysis to trace one’s genetic ancestry, language can also help determine one’s place on the phylogenetic tree of human languages.
Languages, like archaeology, serve as guideposts for future generations, informing us of human history not only in the literal sense, but also the extent to which migrations and assimilations might have occurred. It is believed that there was one proto-language that evolved into the current diversity of languages.This is not entirely surprising, when considering what was discussed in past cafes on genetic ancestry, and globalization of coffee, where we learnt about human migration out of Africa some 50,000 years ago.
Change in languages occurs both because of vertical and horizontal modifications – vertical changes are generational; horizontal changes include environmental influences. Horizontal changes influence word order, resulting in altered sentence structure. According to some research, the subject-verb-object order that we see in present day English, is a modification of the original subject-object-verb order seen in many other languages. The next time you find yourself in a group of people who know different languages, have everyone translate a simple declarative sentence like “the girl threw the ball”, and observe the variations in the order of subject (the girl), verb (threw), and object (the ball) in those languages. When communicating in a non-native language, word order of the native language sometimes comes through in non-native language communication. But in the end, these are words that we use to communicate ideas and emotions, and although Lewis Carroll wrote:
“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean- neither more nor less.”
the way we string the words together can tell us an enormous amount about our past, and also convey different meanings.
Thank you, Claire, for illustrating the importance of preserving languages, and a brief but spectacular view of a field that is often taken for granted – until of course the human race relies on a linguist to communicate with an alien life form!
Amy Adams as the linguist Louise Banks, attempting to communicate with aliens in the film “Arrival”
This summary does little justice to the afternoon, so please check the video on the Tilde Cafe YouTube channel – https://www.youtube.com/user/tildecafe.
PS: Here are a few interesting links that you might want to check out after watching the video:
What’s physics got to do with it?
We still have a few more days until spring, but March 11 seemed as good a day as any to learn about the physics underlying bird nests, from Professor Corey O’Hern. With real life examples of bird nests from the Yale Peabody Museum, we learnt about some of the features that determine the resilience of a nest. The work that Corey described, supported significantly by the National Science Foundation, included collaborations with Richard Prum and Kristof Zyskowski.
Bird nests are primarily a place for laying and incubating eggs, for raising the hatchlings, and protecting them from predators. Nests come in a variety of shapes and sizes, and can be built from diverse materials such as twigs, leaves, mud, grass, feathers, and sometimes even man-made materials, very often all held together with the bird’s saliva. The location of nests is also diverse and can range from trees and bushes to ledges.
An overview of the diversity in bird nest shape, size and location, courtesy L. Shyamal & Mahesh Iyer
Considering the extreme weather patterns that a bird nest is exposed to, the structural properties that confer the necessary resilience are worth exploring. These properties can be replicated to engineer materials for human-occupied structures like buildings and aircraft. The ability of a nest to withstand pressure is one factor being studied in Corey O’Hern’s laboratory, first by studying features in abandoned bird nests, and then developing computer models to refine our understanding of those features.
One measure of resilience or sturdiness of a material is its yield stress, or the (vertical) force at which it will be crushed. Accordingly, ceramics and metals have a high yield stress. Using footage from a recent PBS special featuring his work on bird nests, Corey showed us how he measures the yield stress of nests. What is remarkable is that the yield stress to break a cup nest, can be almost as high as that required to break ceramics; but the density of a nest is 10 times less than that of ceramics. So, while cup nests may sometimes appear to be breakable and haphazardly put together, they are exceptionally sturdy and the mass of the nest is roughly proportional to the mass of the parent.
Deconstructing the nest of a crissal thrasher by taking x-rays and CT scans; and then physically removing and measuring each piece that went into making the nest, computer models were developed to replicate the nest. The models are continually refined to improve their resilience to pressure. Factors such as the ratio of the length of a twig to its width (aspect ratio) are key to having a cohesive structure, and are included in the computer models, as well as the ability to withstand vibrations. Such studies can provide a quantitative understanding of the nest construction process, and the components that go into nest building. Refinements of these models can help in the development of strong lightweight materials for a variety of uses, as was described in a cafe on materials science led by Professor Sharvan Kumar.
Thank you, Corey, for showing us how strong a bird nest is, even if it appears terribly fragile. The video for the cafe will be available on Friday, March 17 at https://www.youtube.com/user/tildecafe
Here’s a hilarious take by Gary Larson, on the materials birds use to make their nests – this one would likely not be as resilient as the ones studied by Corey O’Hern and his colleagues!
To watch humming birds in their nests, visit http://cams.allaboutbirds.org/channel/52/Green-and-white_Hummingbird/. This video shows a robin reinforcing her nest with mud – https://youtu.be/1s2vpHka3PQ. For a weaver bird making its nest, check https://youtu.be/qbWM1QAVGzs