Language and Genetic Analysis Sheds Light on the Origins of Humanity

In Africa, a team of researchers has combined linguistic and DNA analysis of African tribes to shed light on the migrations of early humans more than 50,000 years ago.

The study, which has been going on for the past 10 years, is a continuation of an earlier study by Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza, a geneticist from Standford. During the study, researchers took DNA samples from many remote African tribes, looking at more than 3000 people in 121 population groups. They also compared the results to Europeans and African Americans living in the United States.

By looking at the DNA of the study participants and looking at languages they speak and how they have changed over time, researchers were able to map out the origins of different tribes, showing where their ancestors came from originally. DNA analysis is a great way to discover genetic connections among people, but linguistic analysis often provides a necessary tool to fill in the gaps. The distinctive characteristics of specific language groups can link people across a continent, revealing a common ancestry.

Also, when people migrate, their language is influenced by the language of the areas in which they settle. Borrowed words included in a language can help create a map of the different places the people that speak that language have been, as well as the different groups of people they encountered along the way.

For example, languages with distinctive “clicking” sounds are spoken by tribes spread across the African continent. Researchers think that this language group may be the original language spoken by humans, and DNA analysis confirms that the tribes that speak languages in this group have common ancestors. Based on these migratory patterns, the researchers theorize that modern humans first emerged in southern Africa, near modern-day Namibia, and then began to migrate up to populate the rest of Africa and eventually, the world.

Does Texting Limit Your Vocabulary?

The popularity of texting may have expanded the English language with abbreviations like “LOL” and “ROFL,” but is it actually limiting our vocabulary? Research conducted by Joan Lee, a linguistics student at the University of Calgary in Canada suggest that it might be.

The abbreviations used in text messages irritate language curmudgeons to no end, so Ms. Lee assumed that people who texted frequently were linguistic iconoclasts, willing to make up new words on the fly. As she told the Calgary Herald:

“I had a hypothesis that because there are a lot of acronyms and novelties in texting language, that people who texted more would be more flexible or casual about what they considered acceptable.”

To test this hypothesis, she rounded up some college students and gave them a questionnaire to gauge how much texting they did. Then, she presented them with a mix of real and made-up words to test how accepting they were of words they had not encountered before. As she explained, the results defied her expectations:

“People who texted accepted fewer words while people who read traditional media accepted more words. People who read more traditional print media were generally more accepting of real words and fictitious words.”

Why is that? According to Lee, people who text more may tend to read less. Reading exposes you to many different types of language and expands your vocabulary, which makes it easier to accept new words. As she put it,

“Exposure to print media gives people exposure to more variety of words, or difficult words, which may be helping people who read more frequently to interpret words they’ve never seen before. People who are texting more may not be getting that exposure to all that variety.”

Texting may seem like a secret language to people who aren’t familiar with it, but it’s not. The purpose of that jumble of acronyms and abbreviations is not to create new words, but rather to more efficiently communicate words that already exist. Or, as Lee explained to Psych Central , “Textisms represent real words which are commonly known among people who text.”

Should we be concerned about this? Possibly. Remember, it’s normal and healthy for a language to change over time. If it were not, we’d all still be talking like this:

Hwæt! We Gardena in geardagum, þeodcyninga, þrym gefrunon, hu ða æþelingas ellen fremedon.

That’s the first bit of the prologue of Beowulf, in Old English.

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