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Razib’s Dialect Similarity

Language dialect is something that we often pick up unconsciously, so I find it an interesting if narcissistic project to query my own dialect affinities. The above was generated using a 140 question test (warning: server often slow). In case you were curious, my most ‘similar’ city (to my dialect) is Sunnyvale, California. Though most of my life has been spent on the West coast of the United States, I did spend my elementary age years in upstate New York. You can see evidence of that in the heat-map. There are particular words I use and pronunciations that I have which I know are probably relics of my formative years, but it was a little surprising that this survey picked up on that, as I thought most of them had disappeared.

• Category: Science • Tags: Linguistics 
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In 1866 the French Academy of Sciences banned discussion of the origin of language. The nature of language in an evolutionary context is a big question which just keeps giving. But obviously the French academy thought that it was giving a little too much without resolution. Despite being fascinated with the topic at one point, and reading books such as The Symbolic Species and The Language Instinct, I’ve come away with the opinion that there’s a lot to the evolution of language which is just unknown. A few years ago some researchers were strongly implying that fully fleshed out language is what led to the behavioral revolution of anatomically modern humans ~50,000 years ago (see The Dawn of Human Culture). But now many scholars are arguing that language may be an ancestral character of the descendants of H. erectus.

Of course to gain some clarity on the evolutionary origins of language we need to think deeply about what language is for. The simplest explanation is that language is to communicate. You tell your mother that you are hungry. You communicate with your peers about whatever cooperative task you are engaged in. But a new article in The New York Times highlighting the discovery in the first generation of a new language emphasizes one aspect that I think we often forget:

Carmel O’Shannessy, a linguist at the University of Michigan, has been studying the young people’s speech for more than a decade and has concluded that they speak neither a dialect nor the mixture of languages called a creole, but a new language with unique grammatical rules.

The language, called Warlpiri rampaku, or Light Warlpiri, is spoken only by people under 35 in Lajamanu, an isolated village of about 700 people in Australia’s Northern Territory. In all, about 350 people speak the language as their native tongue. Dr. O’Shannessy has published several studies of Light Warlpiri, the most recent in the June issue of Language.

“Many of the first speakers of this language are still alive,” said Mary Laughren, a research fellow in linguistics at the University of Queensland in Australia, who was not involved in the studies. One reason Dr. O’Shannessy’s research is so significant, she said, “is that she has been able to record and document a ‘new’ language in the very early period of its existence.”

Dr. O’Shannessy suggests that subtle forces may be at work. “I think that identity plays a role,” she said. “After children created the new system, it has since become a marker of their identity as being young Warlpiri from the Lajamanu Community.”

Language is to a great extent a hard-to-fake identity marker. Though you may learn a language as an adult with a modicum of fluency, accent and idiom often make plain to genuine ‘native speakers’ that you did not learn the language in childhood. Humans are an extremely social organism for mammals, with elaborated complexity in institutional structures, both explicit and implicit. The data density of linguistic communication facilitates this, but, the identity marker of language may be critical in maintaining group cohesion due to the character of the trait’s relative immunity to ‘cheaters’ being able to infiltrate. The emergence of new languages in such a punctuated fashion does I suspect give us a sense of the fluctuating nature of cultural fission in the prehistoric past. There is much yet to learn about the origins of language by surveying more deeply the variation which is present, and fast vanishing.

• Category: Science • Tags: Evolution of language, Linguistics 
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My daughter has four grandparents. Genetically she is a little over 25 percent her paternal grandfather and maternal grandmother, and a little under 25 percent her maternal grandfather and paternal grandmother.* Why? Because she is 50 percent genetically identical by descent with her mother and likewise with her father. This is all rather straightforward. But what about culturally?

With biological heredity we can speak of genes, the substrate by which inheritance occurs. With culture memes have been far less fruitful as anything more than an illustration, as opposed to the basis of a formal system of logic and analysis. Nevertheless, we can describe with relative clarity many aspects of culture as a trait or phenotype. And this is important. Recall that evolutionary process was characterized by Charles Darwin despite lacking a satisfying theory of inheritance.

One of the more fascinating aspects of surveying human phenotypic variation is that one can consider the differing dynamics which those which are genetically controlled, at least in part, are subject to in contrast to those which are entirely “memetic” in character. Variation in skin color, for example, is mostly genetically controlled. In other words, skin color is a heritable trait in a genetic sense. In contrast the language one speaks is a function of milieu. One’s hair form, blood type, and nose shape, are matters contingent upon one’s biological parents in a necessary and determinative sense. Language, religion, and culinary preferences are accidents contingent upon one’s parents’ preferences.

But it doesn’t end here. In sexual organisms genetic inheritance is symmetric (the autosomal genome has equal contributions from both parents), and exclusively vertical (parents to offspring). In contrast cultural inheritance can be asymmetric (i.e., one inherits by and large the culture of one parent) and horizontal (one inherits the culture of one’s peers). In The Nurture Assumption Judith Rich Harris relates the story of cultural continuity in elite British boarding schools. For generations norms and folkways were transmitted from older students to younger ones, with no parental input. This regular and systematic inter-quasi-generational horizontal transmission illustrates flexibility of cultural transmission which has few parallels in biological genetics. One reason that the logic of biological genetics is powerful is that the system is straight-jacketed by is own constraints, reducing the space of inferences and narrowing one’s extrapolations. Often complexity breeds intractability (see: economics). This is why a formal and systematic study of cultural evolutionary process analogous to that in biology has been a quixotic quest (promoted periodically by individuals of note such as E. O. Wilson and L. L. Cavalli-Sforza, and pushed forward by Peter Richerson and Robert Boyd and their students for several decades).

And yet all this is the broader purview of a paper in Proceedings of the Royal Society B. It is not online as of yet, so I will point you to the report in Nature, Genes mix faster than stories. Here is the top line result:

If folk tales simply spread by diffusion, like ink blots in paper, one would expect to see smooth gradients in these variations as a function of distance. Instead, researchers found that language differences between cultures create significant barriers to that diffusion.

These barriers are stronger than those for the exchange of genes — a message that might be crudely expressed as: “I’ll sleep with you, but I prefer my stories to yours.”

The irony here is that despite the powerful flexibility of cultural transmission, quite often it is cultural variation which exhibits sharp inter-group differences. Both common sense and population genetic theory support this finding. Without inquiring further into the matter I will assert, and be willing to take a $100 bet, that the genetic distance between the Flemish and Walloons of Beligum is smaller than that between the Walloons and Catalans. The language of the Walloons is clearly more closely related to other Romance dialects than that of their Flemish neighbors (go to Google Translate and listen to various Germanic and Romance languages with the same phrase, and it is obvious). But it does not follow that this cultural resemblance must entail a genetic resemblance.

As far as population genetics goes, gene flow is a very powerful force in equilibrating allele frequencies. Only 1 migrant per generation is needed between two populations to prevent them form diverging. Even a 1 percent admixture between two populations will quickly equilibrate allele frequency differences, especially considering that on most loci those differences are not of the disjoint character (frequency 0 vs. 1). Continuous gene flow defined by isolation by distance is a constant homogenizing force across adjacent populations.

But the genetic homogenization on a genome-wide inter-population scale mediated by migration does necessarily hold for culture. It may in some cases, but by and large it does not. This is most easy to illustrate with language, and that is why I focus on that example. The case of the “rape of the Sabine women” by the early Romans is a legendary illustration of the distinction between cultural and genetic inheritance. The Romans assimilated many groups early in their history. In fact, the elite patrician gens Claudia even had paternal Sabine ancestry. But no matter the biological nature of their genealogy the Latin Roman cultural matrix persisted, and propagated. The children of the Sabine women were culturally Roman, not a hybrid between the Sabine and the Roman.

One can illustrate this reality with other cultural characters. Modern Mexicans are a genetically hybrid population between Europeans and Amerindians. But their religion is a European sect (even if their Roman Catholicism has an indigenous flavor, no one would confuse it with the Aztec or Maya religion). Their language is also a European language (even if there are indigenous loan words, regional Mexican Spanish is intelligible with Castilian). But, their cuisine arguably has a predominantly Amerindian basis, albeit inflected with Iberian influences.

The focus on regional, ethnic, and national constructs here is not coincidental. Cultural variation as noted above exhibits high levels of inter-group variation. When comparing the genes of the Yoruba and Tuscans, most of the variation is within each group. But when comparing the language of the Yoruba and Tuscans, most of the variation is across the two groups. The organismic analogy for groups or cohorts of individuals applies much more appropriately to cultural entities than it does to biological genetic abstractions (e.g., the Body of Christ). The origin of the term shibboleth illustrates the functional relevance of this reality of inter-group variation: even though culture is highly plastic across generations and populations, it is not always facultative in the lives of individuals. The way you speak marks your origins and your class. It constraints your norms, and shapes with whom you identify.

And with that, back to my daughter. She will speak English, and she will be irreligious. Her norms and views will not be atypical for the average American. She will eat bacon (OK, she has), and when of age, drink beer. In all ways culturally that matter she resembles her maternal grandparents, and not her paternal grandparents. There was never a great question about this. In choosing to bring up their children to an American milieu my parents risked severing us from the culture in which they were embedded, and which nurtured them. So it is, and so it will always be. The dreams of generations past may die, but their genes live on.

* Her whole recent pedigree has been genotyped, so these proportions are known with precision.

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At A Replicated Typo, Most important paper on cultural evolution that includes acacia trees published. The lessons here can be generalized obviously:

Last month saw the publication of a paper by James and I (our first paper!) on the so-called ‘nomothetic’ approach to links between language structure and social structure. In it we review the recent trend of using large-scale cross-cultural statistical analyses to find links between cultural traits and social structures (e.g. Lupyan & Dale, 2010). We show that statistical tests can be misleading because of the nature of cultural systems. We also argue that using statistics alone does not provide strong explanatory power. However, they can be a valuable part of a pluralistic approach to problems – especially generating hypotheses and as a catalyst for debate. Other approaches can help support the suggestions made by nomothetic studies, such as experiments and models.

The paper is open access, Social Structure and Language Structure: the New Nomothetic Approach.

• Category: Science • Tags: Linguistics 
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A reader pointed me to this critique of Nick Wades’ telling in The New York Times Reports that the recent Reich et al. paper on Native Americans is a vindication of Joseph Greenberg’s ideas on the languages of the Americas. 90-Year-Old Consensus:

Nicholas Wade’s reported the Reich et al. research in the New York Times (July 11, 2012). Wade treats it as a vindication of a three-way genetic (historical linguistic) distinction among languages of the Americas proposed in Joseph Greenberg’s (1987) book of the same name, although Reich et al. do not cite it in their paper in Nature. (The only reference to Greenberg by Reich et al. is to a paper coauthored with Turner and Zegura and published in 1986 as one of the proponents of the three-way split.) The “vindication” here is entirely Wade’s. The bottom line is that this three-way distinction was known linguistically since the 1920s (for example, Sapir 1921). Basically, it’s a division among the Eskimo-Aleut languages, which straddle the Bering Straits even today, the Athabaskan languages (which were discovered to be related to a small Siberian language family only within the last few years, not by Greenberg as Wade suggested), and everything else. That’s essentially the three-way distinction that is constantly credited to Greenberg. We know of many major linguistic families among the “everything else”, worked out painstakingly through well-established methods, but don’t know how the “everything else” language families are connected to each other on a large-scale level.

Let me add that I am skeptical when someone says that a biological genetic grouping corroborates a historical linguistic grouping or vice versa for a simple reason: genetic material and language are transmitted by different mechanisms (I’ll skip my usual joke about this), so in principle a one-to-one correspondence should be surprising.

First, when I first heard about Greenberg’s system in the late 1990s I chatted up a few people who were involved in the linguistics of Native Americans on the issue. They thought he was full of it, but, they were also pretty much opposed to imposing any real coarse structure on Native American languages, including the model which is claimed to be pretty well known above. My sample could be very unrepresentative. I’ll let readers who know more weigh in (note that I’m skeptical of classifying all the “First American” languages into one group after 15,000 years, even assuming they derive from a common ancestor).

On the other hand, the author caricatures the paper which he discusses by suggesting a “one-to-one correspondence.” In fact, the two non-First American groups are genetic, but not linguistic, hybrids. Additionally, the argument that cultural and genetic transmission differ is specious. Certainly it is true, but the two are also correlated due to the effect of culture and language on marriage networks. This seems common sense, but many social scientists in my experience seem to recoil from any disciplinary integration with genetics, and so totally distinguish the character of cultural heritability and genetic heritability.

• Category: Science • Tags: Anthropology, Linguistics 
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I don’t know the answer to the question posted in title above, and I’m moderately skeptical that he has. But I wanted to give him full credit in the public record if researchers confirm his findings in the next few years. You can read the full post at his weblog, but basically he found that a West Asian modal element in a north British (Orkney) and Lithuanian individual seems to be negatively correlated with a Northwest European modal element and positively correlated with Near Eastern and South Asian components on a genomic level across different models in ADMIXTURE (e.g., does “South Asian” at K = 5 tend to match “West Asian” at K = 8).

Two major concerns:

– I don’t have a good intuition for this method. Could this be an artifact of the algorithm?

When you have a hypothesis in mind you can unconsciously seek out confirmatory points. As you can see in the comments below Dienekes and his interlocutors have given this issue much thought. Frankly, I found it difficult to follow a lot of the dialogue, and I follow this topic more than most.

It seems that at this point someone should do follow up analyses with other populations, assuming that the method is informative.

• Category: History, Science • Tags: Anthropology, Indo-Europeans, Linguistics 
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Mr. James Winters has finally offered his take on Phonemic diversity supports a serial founder effect model of language expansion from Africa. The Return of the Phoneme Inventories:

There are several assumptions made in the paper that I’ve already considered investigating in my own work. Most notable of these assumptions is that the serial founder effect model is the only explanation available. As in population genetics, where numerous papers have supposedly verified the out of Africa model, Atkinson doesn’t really test any other competing hypotheses. It therefore makes it hard for me to accept he’s really shown that geographic distance from Africa is concomitant with a series of population bottlenecks for phoneme inventories. Indeed, with bolstered support for Neanderthal admixture in some human populations, it is becoming increasingly likely that the serial founder effect model is unlikely to hold true in relation to genetic diversity…

… I’m not saying that Atkinson thinks that serial founder effects are solely responsible for the observed patterning (as noted in the quote above)… But I do think the model’s flawed on several theoretical grounds. Specifically, Atkinson hasn’t ruled out the possibility of selection as having shaped these languages according to different socio-cultural niches.

Again, I can’t speak to the linguistics. But overall I believe that cultural evolution has more freedom in terms of the dynamics of transmission, and so is less likely to be captured by an exceedingly general model. In other words I think the space of possibilities of plausible models for the patterns we see in population genetics is smaller than the space of possibilities of plausible models for the patterns we see in linguistic diversity, mostly because the transmission of culture is much more plastic, flexible, and rapid in action.

• Category: Science • Tags: Culture, Linguistics 
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The Xibo are one of populations in the Human Genome Diversity Project data set, so you’ve probably seen them here and there. They’re a Tungusic group affiliated with the Manchus, which explains why their script is a modified form of the nearly extinct Manchu script.

The Manchurian alphabet is itself a modification of the Mongolian alphabet. Though marginalized by Cyrillic, the old alphabet is making a comeback since the fall of Communism.

In its turn the Mongolian script derives from the old Uyghur alphabet. This has been extinct since the 18th century, having been replaced by and large by an Arabic derived script (there have been experiments with Cyrillic and Chinese, and now Latin, for Uyghur).

Old Uyghur was a descendant of the Sogdian alphabet. This was the alphabet of an ancient East Iranian people who are now extinct culturally (Yaghnobi is a linguistic descendant).

Finally, Sogdian itself derives from Syriac, which was the child of Aramaic, the “original alphabet,” though it itself may derive from Proto-Sinaitic.

The point of this post was to show how cultural connections can stretch long and far, often in strange unexpected directions.

• Category: Science • Tags: Linguistics 
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Mark Liberman at Language Log has looked through the Science paper Phonemic Diversity Supports a Serial Founder Effect Model of Language Expansion from Africa. Overall he seems to think it is an interesting paper, but he has some pointed criticisms. Here’s the utility of the post: Liberman uses analogies to domains (e.g., genomics) which are comprehensible to me. My main issue with linguistic evolution is that I’m so ignorant that I barely understand the features being discussed. I may know their definition, but I have pretty much no deep comprehension with which to test the inferences against. By analogy, imagine trying to evaluate a morphological cladistic model with no understanding of anatomy. Here’s the part which may be of particular interest to readers of this weblog:

However, this combination of coarse binning into ranges, for functionally-defined subsets of elements with radically different numbers of members, seems to me to be much more problematic for Atkinson’s purposes. It’s as if a human genomic survey made geographically localized counts of the number of alleles involved in color vision and in blood physiology, divided each set of counts into a few bins (“a little variation”, “a medium amount of variation”, “a lot of variation”), standardized the binned counts for each functional class separately, and averaged the results, thus giving as much weight to each color-vision variant as to several orders of magnitude more blood-physiology variants. This might be OK, but choosing to give this kind of boost to features that happen to be enriched in one region or another will obviously push the results around by a considerable amount

Even if you can’t evaluate the technique in its guts, it is easy to spot some possible issues in the way the data you input into the method is coded or categorized. I hope in the near future this will be less and less of an issue, but it’s a problem which I can understand pretty easily without being very aware of the linguistic details. Also, Liberman’s last paragraph is funny. Though in defense of this paper I think we need to evaluate its plausibility in terms of the overall conditional probability; we often have strong prior models of the origin and expansion of modern humanity, and so we give a particular specific significance to this result. That can of course lead us to greater error than would otherwise be the case if our priors aren’t quite as robust as we’d thought.

Looking forwarded to A Replicated Typo’s take. Also see Dienekes’ opinion.

• Category: Science • Tags: Culture, Language, Linguistics 
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Several people have emailed/tweeted at me about the new paper in Science, Phonemic Diversity Supports a Serial Founder Effect Model of Language Expansion from Africa:

Human genetic and phenotypic diversity declines with distance from Africa, as predicted by a serial founder effect in which successive population bottlenecks during range expansion progressively reduce diversity, underpinning support for an African origin of modern humans. Recent work suggests that a similar founder effect may operate on human culture and language. Here I show that the number of phonemes used in a global sample of 504 languages is also clinal and fits a serial founder–effect model of expansion from an inferred origin in Africa. This result, which is not explained by more recent demographic history, local language diversity, or statistical non-independence within language families, points to parallel mechanisms shaping genetic and linguistic diversity and supports an African origin of modern human languages.

Though there are major differences between biological evolution, constrained by relatively regular forms of inheritance, and cultural evolution, which is much more potentially protean, I think that there is great potential for unity of model and process. That is why I read A Replicated Typo (and presumably why several of the contributors to that weblog read the content here). But I generally have zero ability to evaluate the linguistic plausibility of these sorts of hypotheses about the origin and development of languages.

Generally attempts to translate biological models into linguistics seem to be met with skepticism, but Nick Wade in The New York Times has some quotes from linguists who do not seem overly hostile toward the new model. This in particular was kind of funny in my opinion:

“We’re uneasy about mathematical modeling that we don’t understand juxtaposed to philological modeling that we do understand,” Brian D. Joseph, a linguist at Ohio State University, said about the Indo-European tree. But he thinks that linguists may be more willing to accept Dr. Atkinson’s new article because it does not conflict with any established area of linguistic scholarship.“I think we ought to take this seriously, although there are some who will dismiss it out of hand,” Dr. Joseph said.

Sociology of science in action! In any case, I’m waiting to see if anyone at A Replicated Typo will humor me and perhaps touch upon the plausibility of this model. It isn’t as if everything published in Science is really quite as firm as outsiders might assume. This is a huge finding if valid. But extraordinary claims need to be met with caution.

• Category: Science • Tags: Human Evolution, Linguistics 
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The New York Times has an interesting piece, As English Spreads, Indonesians Fear for Their Language. It is dense with the different strands of this story. Basically, upper and upper middle class Indonesians are switching from Bahasa Indonesian to English to give their children a leg up, and are sending their children to English-medium schools. Because these children have a weak command of Indonesian some authorities are fearing for the cohesion of the Indonesian nation. Though the piece alludes to other languages in Indonesia, such as Javanese, it does not emphasize the fact that the widespread knowledge of Bahasa Indonesian was the outcome of a top-down project of nation-building, and that that language is the native tongue of only a minority of the citizens of Indonesia!

From Wikipedia:

Whilst Indonesian is spoken as a mother tongue (first language) by only a small proportion of Indonesia’s large population (i.e. mainly those who reside within the vicinity of Jakarta), over 200 million people regularly make use of the national language – some with varying degrees of proficiency. In a nation which boasts more than 300 native languages and a vast array of ethnic groups, the use of proper or ‘good and correct’ Indonesian (as opposed to Indonesian slang or regional dialects) is an essential means of communication across the archipelago. Use of the national language is abundant in the media, government bodies, schools, universities, workplaces, amongst members of the Indonesian upper-class or nobility and also in many other formal situations.

The origins of Indonesia are complex. Though the islands of maritime Southeast Asia were long part of the Dutch “sphere of influence,” true direct rule came to much of the archipelago only in the early 20th century. Before that local identities were paramount, whether it be Javanese, the various ethnic groups in Sumatra or Sulawesi, and of course the culturally more distinctive peoples to the east on the island of New Guinea (the pre-modern precedent for an Indonesian state is Majapahit, but like the Dutch colonial empire for most of its history, Majapahit directly controlled and influenced only a small proportion of the archipelago).

I think the complexities and peculiarities of Indonesian history before the rise of the nation-state can be illustrated by Blambangan in eastern Java. This kingdom was deeply influenced by, and to a large extent a cultural satellite of, Bali. As such it was the last major Hindu polity within Java in the 18th century (though isolated communities managed to avoid Islamicization, all Javanese political entities had switched to Islam as their state religion except Blambangan). The VOC, the Dutch East India Company, participated and encouraged what was notionally religious war, a jihad against Blamgangan. The Dutch collusion with Muslim religious enthusiasm was purely a matter of self-interest, as the rulers of Bali were major impediments to VOC hegemony. With the fall of Blamgangan this last region of Java was subject to Islamicization and most of the population converted.

The point of recounting this episode is to show that prior to the construction of Indonesian identity after World War II the ties which bound the archipelago together were very loose. Some regions, such as Aceh, had been Muslim for nearly one thousand years. Java, the demographic and cultural heart of the archipelago had switched to Islam far more recently, and retains a strong pre-Islamic stamp to its culture (e.g., Hindu epics remain popular in Java, while the Javanese elite has not repudiated its own mystical tradition which pre-dates Hinduism and Islam). And finally, the eastern islands were only marginally influenced by the Indian and Islamic trends which were prominent in more populous western islands, and their population converted to Christianity during the colonial period. Many Ambonese, who feared Javanese Muslim hegemony in Indonesia because of their support for Dutch rule were relocated to the Netherlands.

Abstract principles such as Pancasila and concrete policies such as the promotion of Bahasa Indonesian, which was already an interregional lingua franca analogous to Swahili, were seen as critical to cementing national cohesion. Despite the national motto of Indonesia, loosely translated as “unity in diversity”, the post-World War II period has seen the spread of a unifying national language, and a deeper connection among many of the nation’s Muslims with international-normative Islam. The rise of santri Islam as Islam qua Islam in Indonesia, and the decline of local Muslim traditions which are strongly inflected by Dharmic and indigenous religious influences, is part of the cultural revolution in uniform manners.

Indonesia’s conundrum is simply a more extensive and contemporary manifestation of what many European nations faced centuries ago. When France was declared a republic some estimate that only 1/3 of the citizens spoke standard French. The proportions of Italians and Germans who spoke the standard national languages may have been even smaller (in the case of Italy I have seen estimates of less than five percent speaking Italian at the founding of the Italian nation-state!). The period of the Wars of Religion in the 17th century may have pushed theological motivations to the back-seat in the game of kings, but it is important to note that religious homogeneity increased due to the migrations compelled by the conflicts, as well as subsequent expulsions in France, and persistent legal and social disabilities for Roman Catholics in England. The emergence of Germany in its modern form, which did not include the Austrian domains, was driven in part by considerations of religious and ethnic homogeneity (the Austrian lands included many more Magyars and Slavs, and would have resulted in Catholic demographic majority, as opposed to a overwhelming Protestant dominance in the Prussian-dominated “Little German” state).

In A Study of History Arnold Toynbee introduced the concept of “still-born” civilizations. The Christianity of the Church of the East, which grew out of the Christianity of the Sassanid Empire, is a perfect illustration of the type. On the eve of the Islamic conquest of Persia there was a vibrant Christian community, which in some ways was engaged in a rivalry with the Zoroastrian state religion. It had pushed beyond the frontiers into Central Asia, to the point where it managed to persist even after the collapse of the Sassanids in the face of the Arab conquests. In the early 13th century many of the Turkic and Mongol tribes of Central Asia were Christians in the tradition of the Church of the East, including one of Genghis Khan’s daughter-in-laws (the mother of Kublai and Hulagu Khan). But this Christian tradition never gained the prominence, the embeddedness within steppe society, to become a religious monopoly and spread its wings with the rise of the Mongol Empire. Though many of the Mongols were sympathetic to Christianity, none of the great leaders died as Christians (though some were baptized at some point in their life), and the Mongol Empire was religiously pluralistic. Without this state support Eastern Christianity did not bloom, and became a minority sect in the lands of Islam and South India, fading away in Central Asia and China after the decline of the first Mongol Empire.

With the rise of the idea of the nation-state, modern communication, and the models of European states in their generation of cohesion via both top-down and bottom-up processes, you are seeing I suspect both the flowering and still-birth of new national complexes bound together by common language. Both India and Pakistan have attempted to forge a national unity with a South Asian language, overlain atop the preexistent diversity. Pakistan privileged Urdu, the traditional language of upper class Muslims throughout the subcontinent, as well as the day to day language of the Muslim population of the Gangetic plain excluding Bengal. At independence only a small minority of the population of the state spoke Urdu as their native tongue, but while in the western provinces there was acceptance of the necessity of Urdu as a link language, in the east Bengalis objected, and the rejection of Urdu became one of the symbolic aspects of conflict which led to the emergence of Bangladesh.* India has not had the same faction due to language, but standard Hindi plays the same role that Urdu does in modern Pakistan. And yet over 60 years since independence English remains commonly used as an elite language among a segment of the upper classes. Hindi is not understood in much of southern India, but since this region is demographically inferior to the north, as opposed to Bengal, which was demographically superior to West Pakistan, the tensions are not of the same magnitude. Additionally, English serves as a prestigious alternative lingua franca for Indians with a weak or nonexistent command of Hindi. Over the long term Hindi may suffer the same fate of Nahuatl and Quechua after the Spanish conquest. Because of the superior communication technologies, as well as the more persistent and powerful integrative institutions introduced by the Spaniards, the language of the fallen pre-Columbian empires actually spread in the centuries leading up the independence of Mexico and Peru from Spain, at the expense of local languages. Only in the modern period has Spanish started to marginalize the elite native languages. Why the change? In The Rule of Empires the author notes that the Peruvian highlands in the centuries after the Spanish conquest was dominated by a local indigenous elite who served as intermediaries between the authorities of the Crown based out of Lima and the vast Andean peasantry. With the rise of international trade, the collapse of the Spanish Empire and greater national integration, and globalization writ large, the power and attraction of such sub-national elite identities faded. Quechua or Nahuatl may have been lingua francas in segments of the Spanish Empire, but Spanish opens up much more of the world to aspirants for status, power and wealth.

It is cliche today to say that the “world is flat,” and that globalization is inevitable. There was famously another period of globalization before World War I, and it took 50 years after its collapse for the engine of international integration to slowly start up. But assuming that globalization and an international political economy is inevitable I wonder as to number of languages which we will stabilize at. Consider religion. Since the rise of Islam there really hasn’t been another great international religious revolution which has given rise to a global civilization. The fracturing of Western Christianity into Protestant and Roman Catholic domains are the closest analog, but do not rise up to the same level of impact (the shattering of the Western Christian commonwealth with the rise of Protestantism was healed in large part by the marginalization of religion in the public realm after the Enlightenment and the acceptance by most Christian groups that religious monopolies enforced by the state were no longer feasible or moral). There are really only four religions of civilizational import, Islam, Christianity, Hinduism, and Buddhism (Judaism is culturally influential, but there is only one Jewish nation, so no Jewish bloc could emerge). Why so few religions, and why such religious homogeneity so early in relation to language? I think this is because world religions are the concern of elites, whose numbers are small, and whose information networks were much more globalized in the pre-modern era than that of the masses. A “republic of letters”, or peregrinations of men such as Ibn Battuta, are only relevant for tiny elites in a pre-modern era because of economic constraints. No longer today; every man is a potential prince of letters with mass literacy and the internet. If the international dynamics which were long operative with world religions are now operative with languages, then will we see the world winnowing down to half a dozen languages? Right now linguistic diversity experts the focus on the small-scale societies and micro-languages hovering at the point of extinction, but over the next century much of the change might occur in the “middle-weight” category. Languages which rose to prominence in the era before globalization as regionally prominent mediums, but which lack comparative advantage set next to global languages. Bahasa Indonesian for many families is a new language, of only the past few generations, so its sentimental value should be relatively shallow. It is a utility, and when a newer utility offers superior services for a cheaper price, why not switch? Well, sometimes the government imposes monopolies and shields native firms. So we’ll see.

* My parents grew up in the united Pakistan, and do recount the imperiousness of Urdu speakers in Bengal during that period. For example, Urdu speakers would demand the best positions on a buses, and berate drivers in Urdu (who likely did not have a good grasp of what they were saying) when their demands were not met. Though both know Urdu, I definitely get a sense that their experiences during this period left them with little sympathy for the idea that Urdu should be the common language of South Asian Muslims.

• Category: Economics, History, Science • Tags: Culture, Linguistics 
Razib Khan
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