Evolution Basics: Becoming Human, Part 2: Language Evolution and Lines on a Gradient

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May 22, 2014 Tags: Genetics, History of Life, Human Origins

Today's entry was written by Dennis Venema. You can read more about what we believe here.

Note: This series of posts is intended as a basic introduction to the science of evolution for non-specialists. You can see the introduction to this series here. In this post we introduce the development of languages over time as an analogy for speciation, and use this analogy to explore the challenge of finding a biological “beginning” of our species.

John 1:29 from West Saxon Gospels
John 1:29, West Saxon Gospels, c. 990
Anothir day Joon say Jhesu comynge to hym, and he seide, Lo! the lomb of God; lo! he that doith awei the synnes of the world. (Wycliffe Bible, 1395)
The nexte daye Iohn sawe Iesus commyge vnto him and sayde: beholde the lambe of God which taketh awaye the synne of the worlde. (Tyndale New Testament, 1525)
The next day Iohn seeth Iesus coming vnto him, and saith, Behold the Lambe of God, which taketh away the sinne of the world. (KJV, 1611)
The next day John seeth Jesus coming unto him, and saith, Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world. (KJV, Cambridge Edition)
The next day John saw Jesus coming toward him and said, “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (NIV, 2011)

In previous posts in this series, we’ve outlined the challenge of finding a definitive biological “beginning” for a species, since declaring a “speciation” event is attempting to draw a line on a gradient of continuous change. A similar challenge besets linguists: though it is possible to divide the development of the modern English language into stages such as “Old English”, “Middle English” and “Modern English” such conventions are ones of scholarly convenience. In reality, the development of English is a continuum where speakers in each generation are perfectly conversant with both their parents and their children – and yet changes creep in that gradually shift the language over time. This is easily illustrated through the various texts of John 1:29 above: West Saxon (an Old English dialect in use in the late 10th century) is pretty much incomprehensible to modern readers, and cannot be adequately represented using a modern keyboard (hence the image). Four hundred years later (Wycliffe) and the text is significantly more readable, but comprehension is still a stretch. And on it goes: in the Tyndale version, things are increasingly more familiar, except for the equivalences of “I” and “J” or “v” and “u”, plus the extra “e” appended to several words – the latter of which is familiar to those who have read Shakespeare or the original 1611 edition of the King James Bible (KJV). The Cambridge edition of the KJV is quite familiar to many Christians, though it can hardly be said to be written in entirely “modern” English (despite being a prime example of an early Modern English text). Last but not least, the 2011 edition of the New International Version (NIV) reads easily for us, as we would expect a modern translation to do.

Language evolution is in fact one of the better analogies for biological evolution, in that it forces one to think of change in the context of a population over time. Just as a language has a population of speakers, so too a species has a population of genomes. Each member of a language group may have their own slight preferences of grammar, spelling, and pronunciation, just as a biological population will have genetic variation. Language variation within a population can also shift over time, as differences start and “propagate” by becoming more common, or others become less common and are eventually lost. One example seen in the verses above concerns the letters “u” and “v” in English – they were once entirely interchangeable – duplicates if you will. These duplicates later became distinct, however – they took on non-overlapping functions (sounds). The process by which this took place was a gradual one – the variation was there in 1611, but by the time of the Cambridge Edition(s) of the KJV (from the 1700s and following) their roles had stabilized to the functions we know. In addition to gains, loss of variation also can occur in languages (as well as in genetics, as we have seen). For example, Old English had an additional letter, thorn, which was gradually replaced by th in Middle English. (You can see three thorns in the West Saxon text above – it looks like a stylized “p” to modern eyes).

Language evolution as an analogy for biological evolution also helps us understand transfer of variation between languages (or, in the case of biological evolution, between species). English, as it is well known, “borrows” many words from other distinct languages, most notably from French. This borrowed vocabulary that was introduced into, and subsequently took root in, the English speaking population is analogous to genetic exchange between related species – populations of organisms that are distinct, yet not distinct enough to prevent interbreeding (and thus genetic exchange). This feature of language evolution also makes defining a “start” of a language problematic – since some of its variation is developed slowly within the population, and some is brought in from a related language (and thus reflects its prior history in the donor language). For species, variation from cross-species genetic exchange produces the analogous pattern, where some of the variation of a species has its history in another species altogether.

Languages and species: lines on a gradient

Having sketched out the analogy between languages and species, consider this question: when, exactly, did “English” have its origin? In A.D. 990 with the West Saxon text of John 1:29? No, for even in A.D. 990 the words of this verse have a deeper history into even more ancient forms of Old English. The question is in fact a meaningless one: there is no “first speaker” of “English”, but rather a population of speakers who gradually, generation by generation, have come to speak the language we call “Modern English.” Along the way, we can trace these populations and see the gradual shifts in their vocabulary, grammar, spelling, and pronunciation – changes that are quite dramatic when viewed over long timescales – but nonetheless accumulated bit by bit over time, without any breaks in continuity for the population. Each generation has a fully functional language, and each generation between A.D. 990 and the present day spoke the “same language” as the generation preceding and following them. Despite that continuity, however, one would be hard pressed to claim that West Saxon and present-day English are the “same language”: too much change has accumulated. The challenge, of course, is where to draw the line – and the exact same issue is what presents a challenge for biologists defining species as distinct. Widely-separated groups are easily distinguished when the variation connecting them has disappeared. If we had knowledge of West Saxon, and knowledge of present-day English, but nothing in between, it would be easy to classify these languages as distinct. Once one knows the history, however, such a distinction is revealed to be a line of convenience on what is in fact a continuous gradient.

As we have seen in previous posts, at the time of Darwin, the gap between humans and living great apes was viewed as very wide – as wide as West Saxon and modern English. Over time, however, other hominin species were found that – like texts preserved from different eras – suggest a continuous population undergoing gradual change. And as we will explore in the next post in this series, the analogy of “texts” for ancient species has become even more appropriate, for now we are able to recover and sequence DNA from ever more ancient hominin remains. Like a linguist uncovering long-lost manuscripts, these results give us a clearer picture of our origins – and indicate that our speciation was prolonged and complex.

For further reading

Dennis Venema is professor of biology at Trinity Western University in Langley, British Columbia. He holds a B.Sc. (with Honors) from the University of British Columbia (1996), and received his Ph.D. from the University of British Columbia in 2003. His research is focused on the genetics of pattern formation and signaling using the common fruit fly Drosophila melanogaster as a model organism. Dennis is a gifted thinker and writer on matters of science and faith, but also an award-winning biology teacher—he won the 2008 College Biology Teaching Award from the National Association of Biology Teachers. He and his family enjoy numerous outdoor activities that the Canadian Pacific coast region has to offer. Dennis writes regularly for the BioLogos Forum about the biological evidence for evolution.

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Gregory - #85526

May 22nd 2014

I’m worried this article is making an analogical stretch, even a disanalogy.

First, it’s confusing to see both “language evolution” and “development of languages” when the primary scholarly topic seems to be ‘language change.’ It is important to note that ‘change’ is the master category among the three terms; one can’t have either ‘evolution’ or ‘development’ without it.

This article might help:


The author concludes: “Evolution and human traditions belong to different categories of history.”

Jon Garvey - #85531

May 23rd 2014

Maybe it will do (roughly) as a mere “illustration”, Gregory? That would actually mean no more than “Some aspects of language change gradually.”

But the dysanalogies with Darwinian evolution are many, and include:

  1. As well as gradual change there can be saltational events like the hybridisation of languages (such as Old French being grafted on to Middle English by invasion). So language could just as plausibly be an analogy for modern man’s sudden arrival by the hybridisation of disparate populations, for example (which has been seriously suggested).
  2. Each neologism is intentional, and is generally adopted, or not, by conscious human choice. There are no linguistic variations that are random with regard to function. Granted, there is no master plan in most language change, but like all human progress it’s one of additive directed change, not undirected change - “the evolution of science” would be no less suitable an analogy.
  3. Language change is largely non-adaptive - eg the adoption of “fashions” like the American nasal twang or the adoption of “plummy” English by the fashionable classes in the 18th century. Specialist vocabulary aside, all human languages are equally adaptive - the revival of Hebrew and the resurgence of Welsh, for example, have neither aided nor inhibited the quality of communication. One could happily run the modern world using Anglo-Saxon.
  4. Neodarwinian biology has concentrated on a discrete unit of change, that can be observed - the gene. The “evolution” analogy for language seems to hit the same lack of parallel for a mechanism that Dawkins’ nebulous “memes” do.
  5. The word “evolution” itself has changed in meaning: before Spencer, it implied the unfolding of something inherent (ie frontloaded). Neither Darwinian proceeses nor language involve that. Spencer (echoed faintly by Darwin) had in mind change as an inevitable progress towards perfection. That’s gone out of fashion in biology, and was always untenable in language except to jingoists. Evolution has acquired a novel (and etymologically nonsensical) specialist meaning in biology - but applying to non-biological issues has been hugely misleading.

Now biological evolution is seen (by the scientistic community) as a completely undirected process, perhaps governed by emergent properties of physics and chemistry. Nobody pretends that’s the case for changes in languages - or if they do, it’s on the assumption that human culture is just another mindless phenomenon, and the human soul just more emergent chemistry.

You’re right to remind us that applying the same terms for our analogies that we do for the thing in question (in this case “evolution of language”, “evolution of life”) has a way of giving the analogy a life of its own.

My own bugbear is the use by theistic evolutionists of words like “freedom”, “spontaneity”, “self-creation” and so on in evolution, thus turning a poor analogy with human will into a personification of Nature which actually then drives theological novelties. In the case of language the tendency is to de-humanise something fundamentally human and render it a blind natural process.

GJDS - #85537

May 23rd 2014

Hi Gregory,

This blog by Dennis imo is a classic case where a combination of over-enthusiam for Darwinian thinking is mixed with an extraodinary simplistic understanding of language and culture. I mused with the thought that Homer’s writings should have evolved by now, and then wonder how the refinements in the Ancient Greek language are not found in the modern form. Your link is well worth following by those interested in what is true, and the conlcuding remarks are worth noting:

“at a time when scholars in other historical human sciences areevidently looking for a suitable conceptual framework, historical linguisticscan best serve the wider field of human sciences by presenting a distinctive,adequate terminology, one that does not gloss over, but acknowledges thecomplex modalities of change characteristic of cultural systems.”

Roger A. Sawtelle - #85529

May 22nd 2014

I think language change and population change have much in common.

The problem with trying to use evolution or memes to describe language change is that the Darwinian model does not work, not that there serious differences between the these situations.

Darwinian change is based on genetic change in a strange vacuum.  It has no understanding of what natural selection is and how it works. 

On the other hand it should be clear how language works.  Language works to create meaning and meet the needs of users.  Language adapts to its environment and creates new environments. 

It is not that Darwinism can teach us about how language changes, but how language change can show us about how species are affected with changes in the environment.

sy - #85533

May 23rd 2014

I like this post for one particular reason, but I also agree to large extent with Gregory and Jon about its limitations. I understand the value of using comparisons to explain the nature of Darwinian evolution, but there is always a danger in doing so. That is that people will might begin to conflate other examples of change (like language, technology, ideas, cities, etc.) with biological evolution, and that is a huge mistake. As Dennis has in the past clearly demonstrated, biological evolution operates by very clear and unique processes, involving specific mechanisms of genetic variation, inheritance, and natural selection, a close link between inherited genotype, and selected phenotype (this is missing in all other examples of change), and each of those steps are complex molecular processes. 

The reason this conflation is dangerous, is that it leads to the concept that Darwinism applies where it really doesnt, as in social Darwinism and “evolutionary psychology” and other pseudo scientific claims. 

The reason I do like this post, aside from the elegance of the analogy as a teaching tool (as long as the analogy part is clearly stressed) is the fact that Cavalli Sforza and others have shown an interesting linkage between dialect and language and genetic drift around the world. In other words populations with some unique genetics also speak unique language (Sardinians and Basques for example). This is somewhat beside the main idea of the article, and is simply an indication of population history, but I do think the connection between language and genetic change is interesting.  

Steve Sterley - #85535

May 23rd 2014

Hey Dennis,

Is your first link pointing to the right place?

(In addition to gains, loss of variation also can occur in languages (as well as in genetics, as we have seen).)

I’d like to read more on that but the link provided doesn’t seem to cover loss of variation.

Lou Jost - #85536

May 23rd 2014

Many of the complaints about Dennis’ analogy seem overstated, and some of the reasons people give for complaining are actually arguments in favor of the analogy.

Take some of Jon’s numbered complaints above: 1.Yes, some language change is saltational or due to sudden migrations. but sometimes evolution works that way too. 3.Yes, most language variation is non-adaptive, but so is most evolution. This is exactly like neutral evolution by genetic drift. And Sy brings up a really interesting point that there is often actually a connection between genetics and language variations of this kind.

Jon says “Now biological evolution is seen (by the scientistic community) as a completely undirected process…. Nobody pretends that’s the case for changes in languages…” But much linguistic change is also undirected; the difference between British regional accents seems mostly attributable to random variation, and perhaps influence from geographical neighbors, just like much evolution.

I think the analogy, though of course not perfect, is an excellent one which immediately answers some of the more thoughtless objections to evolution, like “Why are there still monkeys?” or “If like begets like, how could a bird ever hatch from a reptile egg, or how could an ape give birth to a human?” These are questions we’ve probably all heard recently. (I hear them often.) The language analogy, which captures the essence of the process of inherited variation in populations, is familar enough to people that they immediately see why their silly objections are wrong.


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