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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

Japan’s Hayabusa2 Is Going to Shoot an Asteroid Tonight

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Did Huge Volcanic Eruptions Help Kill Off The Dinosaurs?

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deccan traps volcanic eruptions

A large series of volcanic eruptions created India’s Deccan Plateau right around the same time dinosaurs were going extinct. (Planet Labs, Inc/Wikimedia Commons)

Nearly 66 million years ago, most living things on Earth died. Most researchers agree that the prime culprit was an asteroid that struck Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, leading to the mass extinction that took out most of the dinosaurs. But in a new research published Thursday, two independent research groups are making the case that enormous volcanic eruptions in India likely contributed to the demise of life, too.

The findings shed light on not only one of the most famous events in Earth’s history, but also the potential consequences of current environmental change, the researchers say.

“Understanding past extinction events — their causes, and eventual climatic and biotic recoveries — is crucial … when trying to wrap our heads around the many possible outcomes of our current trajectory towards disastrous climate change, ecosystem destruction and potential mass extinction,” Blair Schoene, a geologist at Princeton University in New Jersey, who led one of two new studies, said in a statement.

Death Debate

Geologic evidence uncovered in the ’80s and ’90s led researchers to conclude that a giant asteroid’s collision with Earth caused the extinction event. That setoff a worldwide hunt for the impact site. Amd geologists announced they’d finally discovered the Chicxulub crater in 1991.

“Despite this evidence, the impactor hypothesis has met with some skepticism because many extinction events roughly coincide with the [explosion] of enormous volumes of volcanic rock onto and into Earth’s crust,” explains Seth Burgess, a volcanologist with the U.S. Geological Survey in Menlo Park, California, who was not involved in the research, in a related perspective piece.

That lingering debate has led other scientists to study India’s Deccan plateau, an enormous landmass extending east and south of Mumbai, to create a precise timeline of the volcanic eruptions. For the latest analysis, Schoene and a research team studied uranium and lead isotopes — commonly used to date rocks — that they found in zircon mineral crystals buried beneath the lava flows. It revealed four high-volume eruptions that happened between 66.4 and 65.6 million years ago. The data show that the second of these eruptions likely began tens of thousands of years before the mass extinction event, the researchers report in the journal Science.

Unending Eruption

In a second study also out Thursday in Science, another team used a different technique to corroborate the finding. Here, the researchers assessed argon isotopes to date the eruption of lavas in the area. Their analysis also showed the eruptions began thousands of years before the mass extinction. However, the investigation revealed a more or less continuous eruption that lasted for about a million years. Although the finding contrasts with the punctuated eruptions Schoene and team discovered, both studies agree the Deccan eruptions likely played a role in the mass extinction event.

Given the timing of the eruption events and the meteor impact, it’s possible the two triggers delivered a double-whammy deathblow.

“Both of our datasets suggest a coincidence between the onset of Deccan eruptions and Late Cretaceous climate change, which has been attributed to the weakening of Late Cretaceous ecosystems, possibly making them more susceptible to the effects from the meteor impact,” Courtney Sprain, a geoscientist who led the second study while at the University of California Berkeley, said in a statement.



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A New Species of Tiny Tyrannosaur Helps Explain the Rise of T. rex

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moros intrepidus the tyrannosaur

Moros intrepidus, a new species of tyrannosaur whose name means “harbinger of doom,” weighed just 200 pounds as a fully grown adult. (Credit: Jorge Gonzalez, Copyright: Lindsay Zanno)

Scientists have discovered a new species of tiny tyrannosaur that lived some 95 million years ago in what’s now Utah. The find helps fill a frustrating gap in the fossil record at a critical time when tyrannosaurs were evolving from small, speedy hunters, into the bone-crushing apex predators we know so well.

The new dinosaur has been dubbed Moros intrepidus, and its name means “harbinger of doom.” The creature, known only from a leg bone and some various teeth, weighed under 200 pounds as a fully-grown adult. It was a specialist predator and scientists say it was fast enough to easily run down prey while avoiding other meat-eaters.

Their discovery was published Thursday in the journal Nature Communications Biology.

The Tiniest Tyrant

Tyrannosaurus rex was one of the most terrifying creatures to ever live. Few larger predators have walked the Earth. But tyrannosaurs – a group including T. rex and dozens of relatives and ancestors – weren’t always so awe-inspiring.

Tyrannosaurs roamed the planet for more than 100 million years. And for much of that time, the two-legged predators were bit players in Earth’s ecosystems. The earliest of their kind stood shorter than a human. They were fleet-footed and relied on their brains and strong senses to hunt down prey.

Meanwhile, during that same time in the Jurassic period, another kind of dinosaur, the allosaurs, which look like T. rex to the untrained eye, grew as big as a school bus and hunted giant, long-necked sauropods. But a big change was coming. A period of intense volcanic eruptions rocked the end of the Jurassic 145 million years ago. The allosaurs and other large dinosaurs started dying out.

Then, over a relatively short period, tyrannosaurs in North America evolved into the beasts we now imagine. And by the time an asteroid killed off the non-avian dinosaurs 66 million years ago, a full-grown T. rex weighed in at some nine tons and spanned a whopping 40 feet from snout to tail. How that happened is one of the biggest unanswered questions for dinosaur experts like Lindsay Zanno, a paleontologist at North Carolina State University.

That’s why Zanno and her team have spent more than a decade systematically searching North America’s rocks for fossils from this era. As she puts it, she wants to know how tyrannosaurs went from “wall flowers to prom kings.”

In particular, they’ve been combing the deserts of Utah near a giant 1,000-foot-tall rock formation the team calls the Cliffs of Insanity. The name sprung from the realization that one day they’d have to climb them looking for fossils.

“We have this data desert in between these small-bodied tyrannosaurs that lived in North American during the Jurassic and the sudden appearance of these large bodied, bone crushing tyrannosaurs that lived here in the Late Cretaceous,” she says. “And there’s no record of how we made this transition.”

Scientists already have some ideas about what may have happened. But there’s scant fossil evidence to confirm or refute their theories. It may be that amid the mini-mass extinction, dinosaurs and other animals migrated across a land bridge from Asia into North America, like our own ancestors eventually would. The small, ancient tyrannosaurs might have simply been following their prey: relatives of triceratops, which were also much smaller at the time.

“We know that there’s this ecological transition happening in this time when a lot of dinosaurs living in North America disappear and go extinct, and a lot of other animals suddenly appear that have their closest relatives in Asia,” says Zanno. “They become established here in North America and then they go on to evolve into these iconic species that we know and love like Tyrannosaurus rex and Triceratops.”

Mind the Gap

One of the major hang-ups in deciphering what happened has been a 70-million-year gap in North American tyrannosaur fossils during the time when this evolution was taking place. The new tiny tyrannosaur, Moros, narrows that gap by 15 million years.

And the team’s analysis of the new animal and its relatives hints that tyrannosaurs evolved into giants in no more than 16 million years. Though it could have happened much faster.

Tyrannosaurs were opportunistic in their rise to power,” Zanno says. “Moros tells us that the T . rex lineage moved here from Asia and remained small until they were able to take over ecosystems.”

Still, this doesn’t answer the question of why exactly all this change took place. Zanno says finding that answer is part of a decade-long project still in the works.



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