Introduction to special issue

First Words

Science  27 Feb 2004:
Vol. 303, Issue 5662, pp. 1315
DOI: 10.1126/science.303.5662.1315

Contents

News

The Origin of Speech

The First Language?

Speaking in Tongues

Search for the Indo-Europeans

Why Anatolia?

From Heofonum to Heavens

Viewpoint

The Future of Language

D. Graddol

Software and the Future of Programming Languages

A. V. Aho

Of Towers, Walls, and Fields: Perspectives on Language in Science

Related Book Reviews and Science's STKE material

Whatever the traits that separate humans from our ape ancestors, complex language is clearly among them. The advantages conferred by the ability to string meaningful words together in unlimited combinations are obvious to anyone who has ever struggled to communicate across a language barrier. Words offer a bridge to another mind, allowing us to cooperate in complex ways and knitting our communities together.

But how did this powerful ability evolve? And how has language changed through time, from what was presumably one mother tongue to the babel of thousands of languages spoken today? This interdisciplinary special issue explores these twin problems of language evolution, and also peers ahead into our ever-evolving linguistic future. Five News stories explore the history and prehistory of language evolution, from the origin of speech to recent language changes, and three Viewpoints speculate on the future. Elsewhere in this issue, three Book Reviews explore the latest in a growing crop of books on this topic.

In several cases, old theories associated with leading scholars are breaking down. For example, as Holden reports (p. 1316), linguists and neuroscientists armed with new types of data are moving beyond the nonevolutionary paradigm once suggested by Noam Chomsky, and tackling the origins of speech head-on. As for the first language, tantalizing linguistic and genetic clues suggest that it was rich with clicking and sucking noises now heard only in a few corners of Africa (see Pennisi's story on p. 1319).

As humans colonized the world and separated into distinct groups, one language diverged into many. Over the past several decades, influential linguist Joseph Greenberg categorized many of these languages into appealingly simple schemes. But today some historical linguists, as they seek the ghosts of dead languages in living ones, find that the evidence does not support simple divisions (see story by Pennisi on p. 1321). Most linguists do agree on grouping together the 144 members of the Indo-European language family, which encompasses tongues as distant as English and Sanskrit. But researchers debate rival theories concerning which culture first spread this language family throughout Europe (see story by Balter on p. 1323 and the Book Review by Mithen on p. 1298).

An individual language can evolve over the time scale of centuries, as seen in the dramatic differences between Modern English and Old English. Bhattacharjee reports (p. 1326) that researchers now use computer models as well as historical texts to probe how such changes arise and spread.

Language evolution has not stopped, of course; in fact, it may be progressing more rapidly than ever before. Population growth, which is concentrated in non-English-speaking countries, and the rapid growth of technology and global communication are causing the demise of many languages while feeding the emergence and growth of new ones. Three Viewpoints explore these dynamics and speculate on the future of written, spoken (and now encoded) language. Graddol (p. 1329) provides a glimpse of how these and other forces may affect the evolution of languages worldwide over the next several decades, raising the notion that English may be waning in dominance and pondering a mixed multilingual future. Aho (p. 1331) describes the rapid evolution of computer languages, which are and increasingly will be an enormous hidden cost in societies' infrastructure. And Montgomery (p. 1333) explores the evolution and future of scientific discourse, where language is affecting and being affected by specialization and renewed attempts to bridge disciplines and cultures. These dynamics are further illustrated in two articles in Science's STKE. The new generation of studies in language evolution has not yet produced simple answers, but it is reframing the questions—a sure sign of progress.

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