Staying on Track


Linguistic Darwinism

Man invented language to satisfy his deep need to complain.

- Lily Tomlin

Language is a virus from outer space.

- William S Burroughs

A different language is a different vision of life.

- Federico Fellini

In the absence of a fossil record, or talking animals, it is difficult to put human language into its evolutionary context.  But not impossible.

Nowak et al have devised a mathematical framework for the population dynamics of language evolution and use it to demonstrate the evolutionary significance of what many linguists consider to be the most important trait of human language - syntax, the key to multiplying the number of ideas that language can deal with without the need to add words ad infinitum to cope with new concepts.

Source: Nature Vol 404 30 March 2000

Human Language Gene Pinpointed


by Rick Weiss

Scientists have for the first time identified a gene that plays a crucial role in human language and speech.  The finding sheds light on what scientists suspect is one of several inherited elements of language ability that, in combination with key social and environmental cues, have allowed the human species to talk, gossip and schmooze its way to global dominance.

The new work does not reveal the extent to which linguistic ability is "hard-wired" into the brain as opposed to learned; nor does it answer long-standing questions about other animals' potential to learn grammar and syntax.  Indeed, the study focuses entirely on a rare speech disorder known to affect only 16 people worldwide, 15 of them in one family.  But scientists said the new genetic information offers an exciting entree into an area of human behaviour that until now has been largely inaccessible to DNA probing.

"It's the first gene ever implicated in a speech and language disorder and it's an entry point for understanding the developmental process that culminates in speech and language," said Anthony Monaco, director of the Wellcome Trust Centre for Human Genetics at Oxford University and the lead researcher on the work, described in the latest issue of the journal Nature.  Mr Monaco and his colleagues studied a "specific linguistic impairment" that affects a large British family.  The disorder includes many different conditions, each characterised by its own speech deficits.  Fifteen out of 31 family members inherited the condition, which makes them unable to learn certain rules of grammar and tense, interferes with their ability to break words into sounds, and blocks them from enunciating certain verbal patterns.  (For example, they can make the sound of the letter "s" if it occurs at the beginning of a word, as in "Sam", but they can't make the "s" sound at the end of a word, as in "girls".)

The researchers found the condition was linked to a stretch of chromosome 7, one of 46 chromosomes found in human cells.  The new work identified the precise gene on chromosome 7 which, when disrupted, causes the problem.  Of the 2,500 molecular "letters" that "spell out" that single gene's code, the scientists found the one letter that is consistently written wrong in affected family members.  They also showed that the gene is "spelt" correctly in every healthy family member and in more than 150 unrelated normal volunteers.

Source: Friday 5 October 2001 from the Washington Post

Lone Gene Linked to Language Skills

by Tim Friend

New insight into one of the great mysteries of humanity - the evolution of language - may lie in the coding in a single gene.

The gene, FOXP2, is directly linked to developing fine motor skills needed to be a smooth talker, according to research reported in Nature Online journal.  The gene isn't a language gene per se, but it may have been just the ticket for nudging our species from clever, socially savvy but inarticulate cave dwellers to the silver-tongued conversationalists we are today.

"I think this gene is what made humans articulate better," says Svatne Paabo of the Max Planck Institute of Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany.  "There had to be a point where we already had a proto-language.  I imagine this is the last thing that makes modern human language the way it is today."

Proto-language is essentially baby talk.  It expresses mostly emotions and employs a simple vocabulary, such as "Me Tarzan, you Jane."  Human ancestors as far back as a million years or more may have possessed a proto-language, says William Calvin, a theoretical neurophysiologist at the University of Washington-Seattle.  But modern humans did not acquire language until about 50,000 years ago, when culture suddenly blossomed and humans became more creative, he says.

Linguists, a contrary lot, have argued for decades about how and when humans made the leap from proto-language to language, but it has mainly been one linguist's opinion against another's.  A break in the mystery came last year with the discovery of a family in England that suffers from a severe language disorder.  Affected family members are unable to articulate and have trouble understanding the basics of grammar and language.  A team of scientists from Oxford University and the Wellcome Trust discovered that abnormal versions of the FOXP2 gene are the culprit.

Paabo and his team are genetic sleuths skilled at sifting through DNA the way archaeologists excavate ancient ruins.  When Paabo read about the FOXP2 discovery, his team began searching for the gene in humans, chimpanzees, orangutans, gorillas, rhesus macaques and mice.  The gene is present in all of the species and dates back more than 100 million years in human, ape, monkey and mouse genomes (a genome is your entire package of genes).  Any gene that is employed in different species is one you can bet nature considers important for basic development.  Paabo says FOXP2 appears to be a type of gene that turns other genes on and off during embryonic development.

The next step for Paabo's team was to decode FOXP2 and compare the codes of humans, apes, monkeys and mice.  In Genetics 101, you learn that genes make amino acids, which in turn build proteins.  FOXP2 carries the code for 715 amino acids. Comparisons of FOXP2 reveal a difference of only three amino acids between humans and mice, and only one between chimps, gorillas, monkeys and mice. Interestingly, orangutans - which have finer control of their facial muscles than their primate cousins - have a difference of two amino acids from mice and only one from humans.

Furthermore, the changes in amino acids occurred on a timeline.  With the mouse FOXP2 as the oldest, the subtle changes in amino acids progressed in time to apes and then to humans.  The last change in the gene - the one linked to better articulation - coincides with the explosive invasion of modern humans out of Africa and across the planet between 50,000 and 120,000 years ago.  Paabo speculates the change arose in a few modern humans, then swept through the population because it was so advantageous.

Source: USA Today Thursday 15 August 2002

Surnames Track DNA from Medieval Times

by Robin McKie

London - What's in a name?  The question has puzzled writers and thinkers for centuries.  Now scientists have provided an answer: our names reveal the nature of our genes and our biological past.  Oxford researchers have discovered that names are more than labels.  They reveal critical information about our natures and our roots.  The discovery is being exploited by individuals who are using their DNA to reveal key information about their family trees.  One day it might even be possible to name a criminal simply from the DNA left behind at the scene of a crime.  "We have found that a person's genotype and surname are incredibly closely connected," said Professor Bryan Sykes, of the Institute of Molecular Medicine, Oxford.

The discovery is the result of a remarkable investigation into Sykes' own family tree, a lineage that he has traced back to around 1300AD.  Surnames were first introduced at this time, when laws were changed to allow farm tenancies to be inherited, forcing people to prove their identities.  Nicknames, local geographical terms and, most often, professions were adopted for surnames - hence the plethora of Smiths and Millers in Britain.

The name Sykes, however, was taken from a Yorkshire word for boundary ditch - which explains why distribution maps of Sykes produce a cluster in villages around Huddersfield.  Surnames are inherited through the male line - and so are Y-chromosomes, the packages of genes responsible for conferring maleness on a human.  The question Sykes asked was simple: Are the two linked in any way?

"I got the idea for researching the two when I agreed to give a Glaxo Wellcome lecture on genetics and genealogy," Sykes said.  "I knew its chief executive, Sir Richard Sykes, would be in the audience, and so I suggested that we should try to find out if we were related."  A DNA brush was used to get cells from their cheeks, so samples of their genes could be analysed, along with those from dozens of other Sykeses chosen from the electoral register.  Both men, and more than half the sample of other Sykeses tested, were found to have the same Y-chromosome.  "Bryan and I now know we have a common ancestor with all those other Sykeses," Sir Richard said.

In other words, for the past 700 years, a lineage of Sykes' genes has been spreading like a web through generations - and in the majority of cases has remained unbroken.  And what is true for the Sykes clan applies to the rest of humanity.  Research on other surnames has also shown more than half of their possessors share the same Y-chromosome.  Chromosomes are shuffled from one generation to another - except for the Y-chromosome, which is passed from father to son like a surname.

"What is remarkable is that both name and Y-chromosome have remained linked for more than 20 generations," said Sykes.  It would take only a single act of infidelity to break this link, after all.  Yet after 700 years, surname and Y-chromosome remained connected in more than 50% of the men.  That indicates an illegitimacy rate of less than 1% a generation."

Such a figure refutes studies which have claimed that, because of mothers' infidelities, between 5 and 10% of people are unrelated to the person they call dad. - Observer

Source: New Zealand Herald Wednesday 17 January 2001

Looking at Language

by John E McIntyre

If you want to get a perspective on the 20th century, forget the inane lists of the 100 most important people, and look at the language.  English is a remarkably plastic tongue, constantly generating new words, or new senses for old ones.  What has been added to the language is an index of what has happened and what has been important in the history and culture of the English-speaking peoples.

Fortunately, Oxford University Press, which publishes the mammoth Oxford English Dictionary, has a correspondingly huge database.  ("Database" entered English in 1962, hardly a generation back.)  And John Ayto has exploited those resources in writing Twentieth Century Words, a book that records the new things that have come into our speech and writing during the past 10 decades.  His choices tell us a great deal about ourselves.

Ours has been a century of great cruelty.  Note simply that "holocaust" - "burnt sacrifice" - has been in the language for centuries but took on its current terrible meaning in the 1950s.  The related word coined specifically by and for this century is "genocide."

It has been a century for science and technology.  "Fax" came into use first in 1948 as a noun.  By the 1970s, when the technology itself started becoming widespread and affordable, the noun came into general rather than technical use and metamorphosed into a verb as well.  The "greenhouse effect" was first identified in 1929 but did not often appear outside scientific literature until global warming was identified in the late 1980s.

It has been a century of remarkable cultural shifts.  Look at "Ms," which was generated in 1952.  The Simplified Letter advised that this compromise between Miss and Mrs "solves an age-old problem."  The title was widely ridiculed when feminists advocated its use in the 1970s.  "It stands for 'manuscript,'" people argued (though any dictionary shows many abbreviations with more than one meaning).  "It is unpronounceable," argued others (though people in the South and border states had been addressing ladies as "Miz" for decades).  Despite the resistance, it appears to have made a secure place for itself in common usage.

Yet, "Wimmin," the 1983 coinage designed to convert "women" into a word not containing the root "men," turns up in professedly feminist writing and not much anywhere else.

This century has been a good one for terms of abuse.  "Wonk," the 1954 term for someone obsessed with details of some specialised activity, accompanies 1951's "nerd" - someone "socially inept" and "annoyingly studious."  In Britain the cognate is "anorak," from the hooded jacket that nerds customarily wear there.  "Wonk" underwent further evolution in the 1980s, when American contempt for governance found its expression in "policy wonk," suggesting contempt for officials who make an effort to know what they are doing.

There may be something to that contempt: it was, after all, public officials who gave us "safe haven" during the Persian Gulf War.  Someone apparently grafted the "safe" from "safe harbour" (not all harbours are safe) onto "haven" (by definition, a safe place).  The creation of this obnoxious pleonasm (from the Greek "pleon" - "more" - meaning redundant) illustrates the bureaucrat's familiar combination of self-importance, pretension, and ignorance.

Many words travel through the language by circuitous routes.  The exclamation "Cowabunga!" appears to have originated with Chief Thunderthud on "The Howdy Doody Show" in 1954.  It passed into surfing slang as a exclamation of triumph in the 1960s, then became a rallying cry for the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles in the 1980s and more recently one of Bart's catchwords on The Simpsons.  Whatever other qualities the word has, it certainly possesses durability.

Other words never travel far from their origins.  The plangent "quango," for "quasi-nongovernmental organisation" or an administrative body not part of the government but funded with public money, originated in Britain in 1973.  Despite its fortuitous echoes of "quandary," "quagmire," and "tango," it has not successfully crossed the water.

Others simply drop out.  One consequence of the disintegration of the Soviet Union is that 1975's "refusenik," for a Jew refused permission to emigrate, now survives only as a historical reference.

We can wonder whether "break dancing" from 1982 and "lambada" from 1988 may already be headed in the same direction as the "Lambeth Walk," the hit dance of 1937.  Will the hip-hop "phat" for "excellent" from 1992 last any longer than "tubular" from 1982 (from surfing, a hollow, curved wave, and thus "wonderful")?

English is a fertile soil, but not all the shoots that spring up survive the heat of the day.  Each decade throws up its distinctive slang expressions and historical referents.  Some remain, but most go into the custody of lexicographers.  Keep your eyes and ears open.

John E McIntyre is chief of the copy desk at The Sun in Baltimore

Source: NandoTimes 1 January 2000 © Nando Media and Christian Science Monitor Service

Time Travel?

Source: The web

New Model "Permits Time Travel"

by Julianna Kettlewell

If you went back in time and met your teenage parents, you could not split them up and prevent your birth - even if you wanted to, a new quantum model has stated.  Researchers speculate that time travel can occur within a kind of feedback loop where backwards movement is possible, but only in a way that is "complementary" to the present.  In other words, you can pop back in time and have a look around, but you cannot do anything that will alter the present you left behind.  The new model, which uses the laws of quantum mechanics, gets rid of the famous paradox surrounding time travel.

Although the laws of physics seem to permit temporal gymnastics, the concept is laden with uncomfortable contradictions.  The main headache stems from the idea that if you went back in time you could, theoretically, do something to change the present; and that possibility messes up the whole theory of time travel.  Clearly, the present never is changed by mischievous time-travellers: people don't suddenly fade into the ether because a rerun of events has prevented their births - that much is obvious.  So either time travel is not possible, or something is actually acting to prevent any backward movement from changing the present.

For most of us, the former option might seem most likely, but Einstein's general theory of relativity leads some physicists to suspect the latter.  According to Einstein, space-time can curve back on itself, theoretically allowing travellers to double back and meet younger versions of themselves.  And now a team of physicists from the US and Austria says this situation can only be the case if there are physical constraints acting to protect the present from changes in the past.  The researchers say these constraints exist because of the weird laws of quantum mechanics even though, traditionally, they don't account for a backwards movement in time.

Quantum behaviour is governed by probabilities.  Before something has actually been observed, there are a number of possibilities regarding its state.  But once its state has been measured those possibilities shrink to one - uncertainty is eliminated.  So, if you know the present, you cannot change it.  If, for example, you know your father is alive today, the laws of the quantum universe state that there is no possibility of him being killed in the past.  It is as if, in some strange way, the present takes account of all the possible routes back into the past and, because your father is certainly alive, none of the routes back can possibly lead to his death.

"Quantum mechanics distinguishes between something that might happen and something that did happen," said Professor Dan Greenberger, of the City University of New York, US.  "If we don't know your father is alive right now - if there is only a 90% chance that he is alive right now, then there is a chance that you can go back and kill him.  But if you know he is alive, there is no chance you can kill him."  In other words, even if you take a trip back in time with the specific intention of killing your father, so long as you know he is happily sitting in his chair when you leave him in the present, you can be sure that something will prevent you from murdering him in the past.  It is as if it has already happened.  "You go back to kill your father, but you'd arrive after he'd left the room, you wouldn't find him, or you'd change your mind," said Professor Greenberger.  "You wouldn't be able to kill him because the very fact that he is alive today is going to conspire against you so that you'll never end up taking that path leads you to killing him."

Greenberger and colleague Karl Svozil introduce their quantum mechanical model of time travel on the ArXiv e-print service.

Source: BBC News 17 June 2005 © BBC MMV

BS Bingo

Do you keep falling asleep at meetings?  Here's a way to change all that!  (The solitaire version of this game, for those of you who work at home and/or have no meetings, is to play virtual bingo while listening to NPR news and talk shows.)

  1. Before (or during) your next meeting, seminar, or conference call, prepare your "BS Bingo" card by drawing a square - 5"x 5" is a good size.  Divide it into columns - five across and five down.  That will give you 25 1-inch blocks.
  2. Write one of the following words/phrases in each block (leaving out your least-favourite word/phrase):
bulletstrategic fit
bulletcore competencies
bulletbest practices
bulletbottom line
bullettake that off-line
bulletout of the loop
bulleton the ground
bulletthink outside the box
bulletfast track
bulletempower (or empowerment)
bulletknowledge base
bulletat the end of the day
bullettouch base
bulletclient focus(-ed)
bulletgame plan
  1. Check off the appropriate block when you hear one of those words/phrases during the course of the meeting.
  2. When you get a row of five blocks horizontally, vertically, or diagonally, stand up and shout "BS!"

The following are testimonials from satisfied "BS Bingo" players:

"I had been in the meeting for only five minutes when I won!" - Jack W, Boston, Massachusetts

"My attention span at meetings has improved dramatically!" - David D, Tampa, Florida

"What a gas!  Meetings will never be the same for me after my first win." - Bill R, New York, New York

"The atmosphere was tense in the last meeting as 14 of us waited for the fifth box!" - Ben G, Denver, Colorado

"The speaker was stunned as eight of us screamed 'BS' for the third time in two hours!" - Kathleen L, Atlanta, Georgia

"It sure was a novel way to get my *** fired!" - Dave B, Sudbury, Massachusetts

Source: The web

For more on the unusual: events, abilities, means of self-expression, houses, conditions, people, luck, narrow escapes, resemblances, facts, diversions, heroism and more - click the "Up" button below to take you to the Index page for this Odds and Oddities section.

Back Home Up Next