Monday, June 18, 2007

Language, Genetics and Alien Communication

Two scientists at the University of Edinburgh, Dan Dediu and Robert Ladd, recently published a study that looked at variants of two genes involved in brain growth and development, microcephalin and ASPM. Their findings were surprising (at least to me): there are genetic differences between populations that speak tonal languages (such as Chinese) and atonal languages (such as English). Of course, just because there is a correlation between particular gene variants and the type of language spoken doesn't mean that the genetic differences cause the language differences.* Even so, the authors speculate that there is indeed a relationship.
Therefore, we propose that this relationship is causal; that is, the genetic structure of a population can exert an influence on the language(s) spoken by that population.
There are some interesting implications for communication with truly alien species. TV shows like Star Trek make it look easy - even on Enterprise, which only has a rudimentary universal translator, the crew's linguist, Hoshi Sato, has little trouble learning alien languages. But what if there are languages we simply can't learn because our brain isn't wired the right way?

Or maybe the opposite would be true. Ted Chiang has a fabulous short, "Story of Your Life," in which learning the alien language actually changes the linguist's cognitive function. Tenser, said the Tensor has an interesting series of posts on linguistics in SF for more on the topic.

I guess we won't really know until it happens . . .

* Language Log has a detailed criticism of the statistical analysis in the paper.

(via Pure Pedantry)
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