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Ecology

Where Do New Languages Come From?

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Listening to traditional Koro song

As part of the Enduring Voices project, Abamu Degio (left) listens to a recording of herself singing a traditional Koro song, with linguist David Harrison (right). (Credit: Jeremy Fahringer, Living Tongues Institute)

In the desert town of Lajamanu, Australia, at the bend of a narrow dirt road, Carmel O’Shannessy worked at a school as a teacher-linguist in the early 2000s. Lajamanu’s Indigenous Warlpiri people, who live in the country’s Northern Territory, were skilled at drawing sustenance from the landscape’s parched red soil, and O’Shannessy soon discovered hidden cultural riches the Warlpiri had stored up.

As she got to know the children in the community, O’Shannessy noticed they had a different way of expressing themselves than their elders. People in Lajamanu generally spoke English, Warlpiri (an established local Aboriginal tongue), and some Kriol (a blend of English and Aboriginal languages). But O’Shannessy, who speaks both English and Warlpiri, grew convinced that the kids joking in the schoolyard were communicating in an unusual way. “When I listened more closely to how the children were speaking, they seemed to be using two languages in every sentence,” remembers O’Shannessy, now a lecturer at the Australian National University in Canberra. “I thought, This is really interesting. This is something worth investigating.”

As O’Shannessy recorded conversations and took notes, she realized that the children’s speech was distinct from anything she’d heard before. She created a storybook in pictures about a dog that escapes from a monster, then asked the kids to describe what was happening in the story. That exercise helped her confirm a few key features of their language. The children were using sentence structures from Warlpiri, but the verbs came from Kriol. The nouns, meanwhile, came from English, Warlpiri, and Kriol.

Speakers mixed in some completely new rules as well, like using the suffix “-m” to refer to past and present events but not future ones. That custom was not present in any earlier languages, O’Shannessy says. “That really consolidated that this is a new [language] system all by itself.”

The media hailed O’Shannessy for highlighting a newly discovered language, called Light Warlpiri. And that discovery is not an isolated incident. Within the past decade or so, linguists and anthropologists around the world have described a handful of recently recognized tongues for the first time, including Jedek in Malaysia, Koro Aka in northern India, and Zialo in Guinea.

Understanding how languages emerge and survive holds great interest for researchers, since many languages are slipping away in increasing numbers around the world. The United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) states that more than 40 percent of the world’s estimated 6,000 languages are endangered. But each new language debut or discovery represents a bright spot against the global backdrop of widespread language die-offs. Tongues like Light Warlpiri, Jedek, and Koro Aka fill gaps in our knowledge of how languages arise and endure, revealing some of the factors that can help keep rare languages alive.

Uncommon languages are better equipped to survive, researchers are learning, when young people are actively speaking them, whether in a family setting, in a school system, or in immersion programs. Elders who transmit cultural traditions to young people through a language can help it to thrive as well. But when the number of speakers drops from year to year — sometimes due to outside forces such as globalization that are difficult to control — rare languages may vanish, whether they’ve lingered for centuries or popped up seemingly overnight.

In some ways, the origin story of any language mirrors the broader story of how language evolved in the first place. Within close-knit groups of humans, whether on the savanna or in bustling towns, two factors have been present since ancient times: the need to communicate clearly and specifically, and the cognitive capacity to develop language systems that satisfy that need.

Relatively young languages, however, such as Light Warlpiri, are distinct in that they typically emerge out of the swirl of other, older languages that surround them. These new languages often arise in settings where there is some degree of cultural blending or displacement — and Light Warlpiri certainly fits that description. After British settlers arrived in northern Australia in the 1800s, Indigenous Australians began to speak English and Kriol.

Jedek Speakers

Jedek-speakers, settled hunter-gatherers living in the Malay Peninsula, often gather to share stories and work together. (Credit: Niclas Burenhult/Lund University)

In this fluid setting, Indigenous people became very comfortable switching between languages, a practice that helped drive Light Warlpiri’s emergence in the 1970s and ’80s. When adults spoke to children, O’Shannessy says, “they would speak in Warlpiri, but insert verbs and pronouns from English and Kriol. So the children internalized that system as if it was a single system.”

A similar melding prompted the rise of a language known as Jedek on the Malaysian peninsula, where many languages are spoken in a limited geographic area. Linguists from Sweden’s Lund University first stumbled across Jedek in the early 2000s while studying a variety of other languages spoken on the peninsula. Jedek bears some resemblance to Jahai, a language commonly spoken nearby, and is akin to other Malaysian languages heard somewhat farther away. But it is also its own separate entity, with distinct grammatical structures and “r” sounds that Jahai does not possess. In late 2017, the Swedish researchers published their first paper confirming that Jedek is a totally distinct language.

The village where Jedek is spoken places a high value on cooperation and exchange. As such, the language includes many words that describe sharing and few that describe individual ownership.

Creating a full-blown new language often cements a kinship felt among its speakers — whether that kinship is rooted in religion, common social practices, or ancestral ties. Usually, O’Shannessy says, speakers of a fledgling language draw on older word forms and start to incorporate patterns they hear, or they might make small changes to a language pattern that already exists. “And then, because they’re all speaking to each other, that new pattern stays.”

Some newly discovered languages, meanwhile, have very old roots. Linguist David Harrison, of Swarthmore College, and his research team, supported by the National Geographic Society, happened upon Koro Aka about 10 years ago in a remote region of northern India where dozens of Indigenous languages are spoken. Although Harrison is not sure exactly when Koro Aka originated, he thinks it may have existed for centuries.

In the northern Indian region where Koro Aka arose, people share a common identity, living in bamboo homes on stilts, growing rice, and raising livestock. But all of Koro Aka’s speakers — about 1,000 people — already speak another language called Hruso Aka. That has researchers wondering why a community went on to develop a new language, especially since Koro Aka speakers identify culturally with people who only speak Hruso Aka.

“The Koro Aka population is subsumed within a larger population of Hruso speakers,” Harrison says. “That’s the usual scenario where people would switch over to the majority language.” What’s more, Koro Aka does not resemble the languages spoken in closely surrounding villages; it is as different from them, Harrison says, as English is from Japanese. But Harrison thinks Koro Aka may have linguistic predecessors that have not yet been uncovered, so he and his colleagues are tracing ever-expanding circles around the Koro Aka community to gather clues about the language’s true roots.

Parallel quests to understand what nurtures new languages and what sustains existing ones have led social scientists to one key answer: Languages often survive when young people are speaking them on a regular basis. This language transfer can be actively encouraged, as in immersion schools in Native American communities, or it can simply occur naturally.

O’Shannessy is optimistic about Light Warlpiri’s future for this reason. Even though only a few hundred people know the language, nearly all of the youth in the community are absorbing it and speaking it frequently.

warlpiri family

Linguist Carmel O’Shannessy (left) with Grace White Napaljarri (right) and children in her extended family, near their hometown of Lajamanu, in Australia’s Northern Territory. (Credit: Carmel O’Shannessy)

In general, fostering language vitality is one of anthropologist Gwyneira Isaac’s goals as director of the Smithsonian Institution’s Recovering Voices program. Though Isaac does not work specifically with emerging languages, she witnessed how cultural practices can help revive language after meeting a Canadian man who spoke the endangered Anishinaabe language. The man found some of his tribe’s maple syrup–making tools in a cabinet at the Smithsonian and was so excited that when he returned home, he produced a series of videos about syrup-making using phrases from his native tongue.

Young people in his community hear the language when they watch the videos, but they also encounter aspects of their cultural heritage. “This small thing of opening a cabinet turned into this journey,” Isaac says, “building the collective knowledge which is really at the base of language.”

When young people no longer speak a language, however, its prospects for survival may dwindle. Traditional societies around the world have suffered repeated traumas related to displacement, as, for example, when the U.S. government pushed Native American people onto reservations and forced their children to attend Western schools between the late 19th and late 20th centuries. Indigenous peoples in Canada and Australia received similar treatment. These policies disrupt generational links and may lead to the death of established languages. Dominant languages like English, introduced from outside, can also threaten the survival of less common languages over time.

And sadly, just because the linguistic community has only recently identified a language does not mean it’s invulnerable. Recently identified languages can disappear just as easily as those recognized for decades. Koro Aka, for instance, may already be at risk of slipping away, since there are few Koro Aka speakers under the age of 20. “A process of language shift is underway,” Harrison says. “Younger generations are using it only sporadically. It’s definitely in decline.” Even so, he reports, a small group of young Koro Aka speakers is putting up a valiant fight to save the language. Some even appeared on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., recently to share the Koro Aka language and culture with visitors around the world.

The youthful Koro Aka speakers on the mall may have grasped something many of us do not: the rewards of keeping a rare language alive even if a more common tongue would suffice. Languages supply the very framework on which our thoughts coalesce — a framework that is completely distinct in each language and gives rise to distinctive modes of thinking and expression.

Over time, the structure of each newly discovered language grows to support a community’s history, folklore, and scientific innovations — a world unto itself that may be threatened if the language disappears. “People don’t fully appreciate the vast body of knowledge contained within any language,” Harrison says. “What does Koro Aka have to say that we never knew? These languages have a contribution to make.”

 

Elizabeth Svoboda is a journalist and author of What Makes a Hero?: The Surprising Science of Selflessness.

This work first appeared on SAPIENS under a CC BY-ND 4.0 license. Read the original here.

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Ecology

What if a jolt of electricity could make you happy?

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Scientists found a way to literally spark joy using joly of electricity. (Credit: icon99/shutterstock)

Scientists found a way to literally spark joy using jolts of electricity. (Credit: icon99/shutterstock)

People all around the world (or at least where Netflix is available) have been exhausting themselves of late trying to “spark joy” in their lives. The urge comes from cleaning guru Marie Kondo, whose philosophy rests on the principle that we should rid our homes and minds of things that don’t inspire bursts of pleasure.

The message resonates, in part, because it ties positivity to the world of material things. Happiness is in our minds. So having a tangible mechanism for producing joy is understandably comforting.

But there’s a simpler way to spark joy, if we really want to get literal about it. Any emotion we feel has a physical cause inside our brains. Electrical charges pass from neuron to neuron, spreading ripples of thought and feeling. What we call happiness is just electricity. And now researchers say they’ve found a remarkably specific means of triggering the electrical fireworks that add up to happiness in our brains. By electrically stimulating a brain region known as the cingulum, scientists created spontaneous laughter and a sense of calm and joy in three different patients.

The find could lead to treatments for anxiety and depression, and it hints at insights into the very roots of our emotions themselves.

An artist's illustration shows how an electrode tapped into the cingulum. (Credit: From Bijanki et al, J. Clin. Invest. (2019). Courtesy of American Society for Clinical Investigation)

An artist’s illustration shows how an electrode tapped into the cingulum. (Courtesy of American Society for Clinical Investigation)

Unexpected Bliss

The young woman is clad in hospital garb, sitting upright in a bed. A white hospital cap mushrooms above her head, wires splay from its rear. She’s due for brain surgery in a few days to treat a difficult, disruptive kind of epilepsy. She’s been worried and anxious.

She breaks into a radiant smile, laughter flowing uninhibited.

“I’m kind of like smiling because I can’t help it,” she says. A bit later, “Sorry, that’s just a really good feeling. That’s awesome.”

Neuroscientists just administered a tiny jolt of electricity to wires threaded through her skull and into her brain. The wires are there to guide surgeons to the source of her seizures. But before the procedure, she’s agreed to play guinea pig to a team of Emory University researchers.

Patients like her offer an unprecedented opportunity for researchers to test the workings of various brain regions with unparalleled specificity. By delivering targeted bursts of electricity through the electrodes, they can watch what happens when specific neural circuits are activated.

The team was sending small bursts of electricity to her cingulum, a horseshoe of brain matter that links to regions associated with emotion, self-assessment, social interaction and motivation, among other things. It’s also known to regulate anxiety and depression.

This kind of research, though hardly common, is not new. The patient’s reaction is.

“It was really exciting,” says Kelly Bijanki, a neuroscientist at Emory University who studies behavioral neuromodulation. She was one of the scientists working with the young woman, whose name was not given for privacy reasons, that day. She says the kind of spontaneous joy she saw was unprecedented.

Experiments with brain stimulation have elicited laughter and smiles before. But those responses seemed mechanical. Bijanki says the patients usually described it as a purely motor response. “Their body has laughed, but there’s no content to it.”

This case was different. There was real warmth behind the laughter; true happiness in her voice. At one point, the patient reported she was “so happy she could cry,” the researchers write in their paper.

“The way she was laughing was really infectious,” Bijanki says. “The whole room felt different: she was laughing, she was having a good time, and not afraid. Just that social, emotional contagion took over.”

Further tests confirmed the response. They conducted sham trials, telling the patient that they were providing stimulation when they weren’t. She didn’t react. They tested various levels of stimulation and saw that the more electricity they delivered, the stronger the joyous reaction was. The pattern remained the same: An initial burst of exultation faded into a state of happy relaxation after several seconds.

The researchers found no drawbacks to the treatment, either, they report in a paper in the Journal of Clinical Investigation. Her language skills and memory remained perfectly intact, and they saw no ill aftereffects of the stimulation.

In a screengrab from the scientists' experiment, the patient feels overwhelming joy even while pondering her dog dying. (Credit:)

In a screengrab from the scientists’ experiment, the patient feels overwhelming joy even while pondering her dog dying. (Credit: Bijanki et al, Journal of Clinical Investigation)

Put to the Test

The woman’s impending surgery would require her to remain awake while surgeons probed inside her skull. Their goal was to cut out the tissue responsible for her epilepsy, but it’s a game of millimeters. Doctors must remove enough to ensure that seizures don’t recur, but without causing permanent harm. The patient’s seizures appeared to emanate from a region near to language processing centers. Her job was to stay awake while surgeons worked, reading and talking to ensure they wouldn’t excise anything important.

The brain stimulation turned out to work so well that doctors were able to cut out completely the drugs used to manage anxiety during this type of brain surgery. Those medications can make patients sleepy and unresponsive, so the anesthesiologist decided to stop them midway through. The young woman, her skull opened to surgical tools, breezed through.

“During the surgery … she was telling me jokes about her dad, where prior to turning on the stimulation she had been crying and hyperventilating and right on the edge of panic,” Bijanki says.

To confirm their findings, the researchers performed the same tests with two more epilepsy patients with electrodes similarly implanted in their skulls. They got the same results. Jabs of electricity literally sparking joy inside their heads.

Putting Happiness to Work

It’s too simplistic to say the researchers have stumbled upon the place where joy hides within us. The brain is complex, and emotions well up from more than just a single place. Multiple brain regions are involved, and each contributes a facet to the emotion that we come to know as happiness.

In fact, researchers have found joy in another place in the brain as well. Sameer Sheth, a neurosurgeon at the Baylor College of Medicine, says that he’s had patients report feelings of euphoria during the course of his own work with brain stimulation as well. He was working with the ventral striatum, a region separate from the cingulum, though the two are tightly connected.

Stimulation to the ventral striatum has also produced the same sort of laughter and mood elevation that Bijanki saw, Sheth says.

But just because emotions are neurologically complex doesn’t mean there’s no value to understanding their origins.

“The more we understand this circuitry, the more we can fine tune how to harness that capability within an individual and the better we’ll be able to treat patients with mood disorders,” Sheth says.

Bijanki sees a range of applications for brain stimulation aimed at specific targets, beginning with the kind of surgeries the young epileptic was undergoing. By precluding the use of sedatives, the find might give brain surgeons new options when performing the kind of procedures the young woman went through. Allowing patients to give more feedback could make brain surgeries more targeted. It might also expand the scope of neurosurgery.

“The definition of what is an inoperable tumor is in some circumstances related to what is the surgeon reasonably comfortable with removing that isn’t going to ruin the patients life,” Bijanki says. “If the surgeon could know that in real time, then the surgery could proceed a little bit differently.”

More broadly, it could also find use as a treatment for mental disorders like depression, anxiety and PTSD. Bijanki imagines electrodes powered by a pacemaker battery delivering continuous, low-grade stimulation to patients with depressive disorders.

In the future, we may not even need wires to spark such emotions. Scientists are developing means of activating brain regions with pulses of light, or with ultrasound. Flashes and vibrations could one day deliver ease to the afflicted.

There are drugs that accomplish similar things today, of course, but those often have side effects, and the treatment isn’t always as direct. Brain stimulation could offer a better path.

Banish the Sadness

Bijanki was also struck by an odd side-effect of the stimulation. Though patients had no trouble recalling sad memories during treatment, the recollections were wholly powerless to make them feel unhappy.

“I remember my dog dying, and I remember that it was a sad memory, but I don’t feel sad about it right now,” the young woman said, as reported by the researchers in their paper. Another patient concurred, unable to recollect a tragic memory without smiling. The effect is slightly jarring, but it could provide a shield of sorts to those overcoming trauma.

Those suffering from PTSD often go through what’s called exposure therapy, where they are asked to repeatedly sift through memories of a traumatic event. The goal is to drain those memories of their fearsome power over time, but it is difficult, frightening work.

Paired with temporary brain stimulation that elides sadness, Bijanki thinks PTSD patients might be far better equipped to tread through painful memories.

Finding Balance

Ultimately, however, the goal of therapies involving brain stimulation isn’t to wipe out negative emotions.

Anger, sadness and fear are not without their merits, and banishing them could have unintended consequences. Sadness sits at the other end of the spectrum from happiness, for example. Taking away any of our emotions would be removing an aspect of our humanity. What’s more, we have emotions for a reason.

“Our emotions exist for a very specific purpose, to help us understand our world, and they’ve evolved to help us have a cognitive shortcut for what’s good for us and what’s bad for us,” Bijanki says.

That’s not the goal here, of course, though discussions about the ethical use of such technologies in the future is certainly warranted. Bijanki says that we’d need to be careful about applying things like brain stimulation that could be abused.

But, she’s not very worried about electrodes and electric shocks becoming the next designer drug. It’s just too technically demanding, she says. And the potential benefits for those with depression and other conditions are great.

Sometimes the bad can outweigh the good. In those cases, sparking a little joy might be what we need.

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NASA Picks Science Experiments to Send to the Moon This Year

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Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo Just Made its Second Trip to Space

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SpaceShipTwo under rocket power

SpaceShipTwo is carried into the air on the back of a plane, but then takes off into space under its own power. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)

On Friday, Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo flew in space for the second time, taking off from Mojave, California after days of weather delay. SpaceShipTwo took off at 8:07 a.m. PST carrying two pilots, a crewmember, and a nearly full weight of science projects from NASA.

Unlike most spaceflights that fire rockets from the ground, SpaceShipTwo is carried on the belly of a plane named WhiteKnightTwo before being released to propel itself into the upper atmosphere. After being carried 45,000 feet into the air, SpaceShipTwo successfully fired its rocket engine and reached suborbital space at approximately 8:55 a.m. PST. It coasted there for only a few minutes before heading back toward the ground, where it landed much like any other plane, roughly an hour after takeoff. Like all of SpaceShipTwo’s planned flights, this one was suborbital, meaning it does not reach orbit, and attains weightlessness for only a few minutes during its trip.

SpaceShipTwo made its maiden space voyage in December 2018, and today was its fifth powered flight in total. Unlike other private spaceflight companies like SpaceX, Virgin Galactic has made their main goal ferrying private citizens into space, and have been taking reservations for years.

The third crewmember today was Virgin Galactic’s Chief Astronaut Instructor and cabin evaluation lead. Her job today was to see how SpaceShipTwo feels from the cabin. Eventually, Virgin Galactic hopes to seat six passengers in place of the science payloads – or alongside them.

The spacecraft today also carried research projects from NASA’s Flight Opportunities program, which pairs research institutions with private companies who can fly their projects into space. The combined weight of the payloads put SpaceShipTwo at close to, but just under, the requirements for the commercial launch weight that NASA has specified. One of Virgin Galactic’s goals during this flight was testing how the vehicle flies with a greater weight distribution. Details will likely come later, but the flight was successful, which bodes well for the craft’s future in ferrying cargo as well as passengers.

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