Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Saturday, December 14, 2019

The origin of Antarctican

Here's a bit of writing that should be familiar to most of you.
Fæder ure þu þe eart on heofonum; Si þin nama gehalgod to becume þin rice gewurþe ðin willa on eorðan swa swa on heofonum.  Urne gedæghwamlican hlaf syle us todæg, and forgyf us ure gyltas swa swa we forgyfað urum gyltendum; and ne gelæd þu us on costnunge ac alys us of yfele soþlice.
Recognize it?

It's the Lord's Prayer in English as it was spoken only a thousand years ago.  My guess is a lot of you had no idea what it was (although I have a number of regular readers who, like me, are aficionados of obscure languages; y'all don't count).  There are a few words that haven't changed in that time -- in this passage, only "us" and "and" -- but most have changed dramatically.  There are even a couple of letters that don't exist in Modern English, strikingly ð (pronounced like the first consonant in there) and þ (the first consonant in thin), both of which are written as "th" in Modern English.

Languages change, and they change at different rates.  Old Norse and Modern Icelandic are really more like different dialects of the same language than they are like different languages, even though just as much time has passed between Old Norse and Modern Icelandic as between Old English and Modern English.  There are sometimes sudden jumps -- the Norman Conquest in the 11th century and the Great Vowel Shift in the 15th are the two best-known examples from English, although the Viking Invasions of the 9th and 10th centuries had a significant effect, too, not only on vocabulary and pronunciation, but on place names.  (The subject of my master's thesis was how the Vikings affected Old English and Old Gaelic, which should win an award for research with no practical applications whatsoever.)

[Image licensed under the Creative Commons M. Adiputra, Globe of language, CC BY-SA 3.0]

These huge leaps are uncommon, however, and most language change progresses slowly and gradually.  The parallels to biological evolution are obvious, and the argument over whether language change is smooth or goes by fits-and-starts is just as silly as the corresponding argument over evolutionary gradualism vs. punctuated equilibrium.  It's not that one is the correct model and the other is not; both are correct, just in different circumstances.

The big jumps, of course, are easier to detect.  The effects of the Norman Invasions of England were profound, as words were adopted from French and then bent to conform to English phonological rules.  It's why we have so many pairs of words for food, one for its living farmyard state and the other for when it's on the table.  Cow/beef; sheep/mutton; pig/pork; chicken/poultry; calf/veal.  In each case, the first is from Old English (because the lower socioeconomic class Anglo-Saxons were the ones on the farm raising the animals) and the other from French (because their Norman overlords only saw the animal after being cooked).

But the similarity between language evolution and biological evolution runs a lot deeper than its pace.  Like evolutionary change in populations, language "speciation" not only needs small changes (corresponding to genetic mutations), selection (some forms succeeding and others disappearing), and some form of isolation.  Isolated populations take off on their own paths, often very different from the parent population, and because of the small number of individuals often do so more quickly than a large group would -- a sort of linguistic genetic drift.  (A good example is the Cornish language, which branched off from Welsh as a dialect in Roman times; by the 13th century, when the earliest extant examples of Cornish were written down, the two had evolved into two no longer mutually intelligible languages.)

This topic comes up because of some recent amazingly cool research by Jonathan Harrington, Michele Gubian, Mary Stevens, and Florian Schiel of the University of Munich, in which linguists have -- perhaps for the first time -- seen the beginnings of a dialect forming as it happens.  In "Phonetic Change in an Antarctic Winter," published last month in the Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, we find out about a study of the people who were isolated at the field station of the British Antarctic Survey during the long, frigid Antarctic winter, and about whom the researchers found something astonishing.

They started with a variety of accents, coming as they did from different English-speaking regions, but over the six months they were isolated, their accents began to converge into a distinct way of speaking unlike any of the "parent" accents.  Vowel sounds, especially, merged.  As an example, some of the speakers started out pronouncing the vowel sound in the word food as a front vowel (this is more common in British English), whereas others used a back vowel (more common in American English).  After only six months, the two sounds had converged, and everyone pronounced the sound as a middle vowel about halfway between the two extremes.

The authors write:
An acoustic analysis was made of the speech characteristics of individuals recorded before and during a prolonged stay in Antarctica.  A computational model was used to predict the expected changes due to close contact and isolation, which were then compared with the actual recorded productions.  The individuals were found to develop the first stages of a common accent in Antarctica whose phonetic characteristics were in some respects predicted by the computational model.  These findings suggest that the phonetic attributes of a spoken accent in its initial stages emerge through interactions between individuals causing speech production to be incrementally updated.
Of course, since the field station isn't permanently occupied by the same people, it's pretty likely that when the eleven test subjects went back to their homes (eight from various regions of England, one from the United States, and the other two -- who were not native speakers -- to Iceland and Germany) their accent reverted to the pronunciations typical for their milieu.

But it does give us a lens into how dialects form in other less contrived situations, and you can easily see how -- given enough time -- you might end up with modes of speaking so different that they would no longer be mutually intelligible.

Even, perhaps, to the point that "Fæder ure þu þe eart on heofonum" becomes "Our Father, who art in heaven."


This week's Skeptophilia book of the week is brand new; Brian Clegg's wonderful Dark Matter and Dark Energy: The Hidden 95% of the Universe.  In this book, Clegg outlines "the biggest puzzle science has ever faced" -- the evidence for the substances that provide the majority of the gravitational force holding the nearby universe together, while simultaneously making the universe as a whole fly apart -- and which has (thus far) completely resisted all attempts to ascertain its nature.

Clegg also gives us some of the cutting-edge explanations physicists are now proposing, and the experiments that are being done to test them.  The science is sure to change quickly -- every week we seem to hear about new data providing information on the dark 95% of what's around us -- but if you want the most recently-crafted lens on the subject, this is it.

[Note: if you purchase this book from the image/link below, part of the proceeds goes to support Skeptophilia!]

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