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LINGUIST List 18.1697

Mon Jun 04 2007

Disc: Tones and Genes: Scientific American (2)

Editor for this issue: Ann Sawyer <sawyerlinguistlist.org>

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        1.    Hal Schiffman, Tones and Genes: A Question
        2.    Bob Ladd, Tones and Genes: Article Author's Comments

Message 1: Tones and Genes: A Question
Date: 31-May-2007
From: Hal Schiffman <haroldfsgmail.com>
Subject: Tones and Genes: A Question

My reaction to the report on a putative connection between tone languages 
and genetics was that there are tonal languages like modern Tibetan that
were originally non-tonal, i.e. Classical Tibetan has no tones. Would the
genetic hypothesis claim that the genes of Tibetans have changed radically
in the last two millennia?

Linguistic Field(s): General Linguistics
                            Historical Linguistics

Message 2: Tones and Genes: Article Author's Comments
Date: 31-May-2007
From: Bob Ladd <bobling.ed.ac.uk>
Subject: Tones and Genes: Article Author's Comments

I refer to Roger Blench's comment on the paper that Dan Dediu and I (not 
''Ladd et al.'' as Blench says) have just published in PNAS, on a possible
link between population genetics and language typology.

In reply to Blench's specific question (''Who referees articles for
PNAS?''), I know the identity of one of our referees but I don't think it
would be appropriate to reveal their name; I don't know the other two. The
PNAS editor in charge of our submission was Henry Harpending. It is
probably true that the genetic and statistical aspects of our paper got a
closer look than the linguistic aspects.

However, we can assure Blench that we are well aware of the difficulty of
classifying typological traits into either-or boxes. We do not feel that
such broad-brush classification is necessarily always inappropriate or
misleading; for example, for similar global-overview purposes in the World
Atlas of Linguistic Structures, Ian Maddieson classified tone into three
boxes (no tone/simple tone/complex tone). We used the two-way
classification for a very specific statistical reason, and in the paper we
discuss the simplifying assumptions that this classification involves.

We are also at pains to emphasize that we are not suggesting any sort of
deterministic relationship between population genetics and linguistic
typology. What we propose is an indirect link between individual genetic
makeup and the slow process of language change: we hypothesize that genetic
differences could lead to ''cognitive biases'' of one sort or another
(which we freely concede are ill-defined and hypothetical, though
plausible, as discussed at greater length in the paper), and that these
biases could influence language acquisition or language processing in a way
that might influence the direction of language change. Such an influence,
if it exists, would coexist (and interact) with all the other factors that
we know are involved in influencing language change - contact, conquest,
and so on. Pace Blench, our hypothesis is in no way inconsistent with the
fact (of which we are well aware) that ''highly tonal languages can be
closely related to those with no tones.''

We have demonstrated a correlation, and have proposed a hypothetical
mechanism to account for it. We hope shortly to do experimental work
looking for the basis of the hypothesized ''cognitive bias''. We welcome
critical comment on our work, ideally based on a reasonably careful reading
of the actual paper rather than the Scientific American summary. More
information is available on our web page, which aims to clarify the goals,
methods and conclusions of the paper for those who have only seen secondary
press reports: please go to


Linguistic Field(s): General Linguistics
                            Historical Linguistics

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