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Tower of Babel? Scientists Say Language "Evolved" In A Leap

Evolutionists believe everything "evolved", humans, all animal life, plants, society, culture--language. So does the evidence show that language evolved from signs, to grunts, to a few simple words--to a full language? Or, does the evidence show something akin to the Biblical approach--that Adam and Eve began life with a fully realized language that diverged at the Tower of Babel?

In Tower of Babel, we looked at scientific evidence that all human language came from the fertile crescent, near Turkey. In this article scientists put forward another hypothesis that in our view supports the Biblical view though we're pretty sure the authors wouldn't agree. It's almost as if language was-- Designed!

Language Evolved in a Leap
Philip Ball

Conflicting needs may have driven rapid development of communication.

Speakers want few words;
listeners want many.

Language probably leapt, not crept, from squeaks to Shakespeare, two physicists have calculated. Human communication, they propose, underwent a 'phase transition', like solid ice melting to liquid water.

Tower of Babel Engraving by Dore. Click and drag photo to resize.

The richness of human languages is a fine-tuned compromise between the needs of speakers and of listeners, explain Ramon Ferrer i Cancho and Ricard Solé of the Universitat Pompeu Fabra in Barcelona. Just a slight imbalance of these demands prevents the exchange of complex information, they argue.

So languages between those of present-day humans and the limited signalling of some animals cannot really exist. There must, at some point, have been a switch from rudimentary to sophisticated language.

This contrasts with some linguists' view that language evolution was a gradual affair in which new words accumulated steadily.

Greek or grunt

A language that conveyed all information unambiguously, say Ferrer i Cancho and Solé, would have a separate word for every thing, concept or action it referred to. Such a language would be formidably complicated for the speaker: the green of grass, for example, would be represented by a totally different word to the green of sea, an emerald or an oak leaf. But it would be ideal for the listener, who wouldn't have to work out any meanings from a word's

context. Ideal for the speaker is a language of few words, where simple, short utterances serve many purposes. The extreme case is a language with a single sound that conveys everything that needs saying. Some might suggest that teenagers prefer this kind of minimal-effort tongue that forces others to figure out what their grunts actually mean.

Ferrer i Cancho and Solé have devised a mathematical model in which the cost of using a language depends on the balance between these conflicting preferences1. They calculate the properties of the lexicon that requires minimal effort for different degrees of compromise, from exhaustive vocabularies to one-word languages.

They find that the change from one extreme to the other does not happen smoothly. There is a jump in the amount of communication, from very little to near-perfect, at a certain value of the relative weightings of speaker and hearer preferences.

Human languages, say the duo, seem to sit right on this sudden change. When it happens, the frequency of word usages develops a distinctive mathematical form, called a power law. The power law disappears on either side of the communication jump.

It has been known since the 1940s that human languages do indeed show just this kind of statistical distribution of word usage - the social scientist George Kingsley Zipf spotted the power-law behaviour. But it has never been satisfactorily explained before, although Zipf himself speculated that it might represent some kind of "principle of least effort".


1. Ferrer i Cancho, R. & SolĂ©, R. V. Least effort and the origins of scaling in human language. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA, published online, doi:10.1073/pnas.0335980100 (2003). © Nature News Service / Macmillan Magazines Ltd 2003

See Also: Tower of Babel; All Human Languages Have a Common Source



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