May 28, 2007


Rather a remarkable thing happened here at the offices (ahem) of plethoric pundigrions last week: I was contacted by an academic promising me a scoop on an explosive new piece of genetic research. And by "an academic" I mean my father, and by "explosive" I mean "linguistics-related and therefore limited in how explosive it can really be", but still: my first exclusive!

Also, by "exclusive" I mean a press briefing that all media outlets got, and that in any case was embargoed until the actual research was officially released by the very august journal publishing it.

And, okay, by "very august journal" I mean the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, which may sound august at first, but it more commonly goes by the acronym PNAS which, come on, is basically a word for male genitalia.

What I do have in the way of an exclusive, however, is an in-depth interview with my father in which he discusses the research.
ME: So, could you boil down your research into a punchy tagline for my instant-gratification-accustomed blog readers?

DAD: Um … Well, I guess our main conclusion is that certain alleles on two genes involved in brain development might actually have a causal effect on—

ME: Punchier.

DAD: Okay. It looks like some genes might predispose certain populations to develop tonal languages over non-tonal languages. Could you pass the salt, please?

ME: [Passes salt] Look, I know you're a traditional media kind of guy, but the thing is, taglines really need to be five words or less.

DAD: I can't compress a complex piece of genetic research into five words.

ME: I bet Steven Pinker could.

DAD: Go to your room.
I did, perhaps, fictionalise some of that. The real discussion after the jump.

The gist of the research is that Ladd the elder and his collaborator (Dan Dediu) have discovered a pretty neat statistical correlation between two brain-related genes and incidence of tonal languages. To wit: in populations with a high frequency of a certain set of alleles, tonal languages are significantly less likely to appear. (English is a non-tonal language, because it differentiates words only though vowel and consonant sounds; Chinese is a tonal language, because it also distinguishes between words based on the pitch of those sounds.)

The reason we (or, at any rate, linguists) should care about this is that it threatens to turn on its head the traditional wisdom about how languages have historically evolved, which is, roughly speaking, that it's all down to historical and geographical coincidence rather than meaningful biological patterns.

What this research suggests instead is that certain people are genetically predisposed to find the acquisition of tonal languages easier. While this doesn't mean that any particular person will fail to learn a tonal language if they are lacking the right set of alleles, it does mean that in a population where the right set of alleles is less common, tonal languages are less likely to be transmitted intact over a number of generations.

And since I'm always complaining about people discussing genetic research without being absolutely clear on its implications, I must also add the caveat: this absolutely does not mean that any given ethnic group is superior to any other in the intelligence department. It doesn't make you "smarter" or "better" to be able to speak (or not speak) a tonal language. It just means you (and, more importantly, your ancestors) had a language-learning apparatus that was set up a little differently.

It's analogous, if I may, to the difference between a Standard tuned guitar and a Dropped-D tuned guitar; you can play the same songs on both, but one requires a different bit of fiddling before you start.

Anyway, it's an interesting piece of research and the scatterplot of the results is really, at the risk of sounding geeky, breathtakingly conclusive. If you want to find out more and are Gil or Mariana, check out the paper itself (scatterplot included); alternatively, head on over to the official Spark notes at my dad's website.

Thus ends my first (and hopefully only) foray into linguistics.


Anonymous said...

Congratulations on the most succinct and lucid piece of print or online press coverage that Dan-and-Bob's article is likely to get! And as for the table-talk: priceless. [This comment not sponsored by MasterCard.]

Ex-Editor, aka Ancient Ex-Linguist

Unknown said...

That is a beautiful scatterplot. I'm so glad that someone else has done the statistics and I can just sit back and ponder the implications :)

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