Thursday, July 31, 2008

Language and life: from evolution to Esperanto

Yesterday my wife was searching for sites that mention Darwin, Esperanto and Klingon and sent me some links she found: she does that kind of thing, claiming that it is a tongue-in-cheek effort to outdo me in obscure obsessions (but while she was obsessing, I was engaged in the ordinary family activity of watching the Poseidon Adventure with the children!).

One of the links was to a discussion on the EvC (Evolution versus Creationism) forum on the parallels between the evolution of languages and biological evolution. I was all fired up to make that the basis of a blog post, until I realised that the discussion was three years old. But now I have started, I might as well get on with it.

The link between evolution, Esperanto (which I speak) and Klingon (which I don’t) comes from a paragraph at the end of one of the posts:
Right, I'm just rambling now, but just this last point: its quite fun. It just occured to me that linguists have already made Chimeras! Klingon and Esperanto are good examples. Ah! And Klingon in fact gives us a really interesting example of a language where a cultural force (Trekkiness) makes a language that was deliberately made difficult to learn, very popular.

This draws out some interesting analogies, but I think, to some degree, misses the mark. Natural chimaeras do exist in biology, particularly in microbiology. Karen Nelson and her colleagues surprised the world back in 1999 with their description of the genome of Thermotoga maritinum, a bacterium, but with a quarter of its genes most closely related to equivalents in archaea (the third major branch of life alongside eukaryotes and bacteria).

However, the correct linguistic analogy here is not with an artificial language like Esperanto, but with English (a Germanic language), a natural language, which has borrowed a huge vocabulary from French (a Romance language) or perhaps with Yiddish, a Germanic language which has borrowed extensively from Hebrew and Slavic languages (an alternative heretical view from Paul Wexler is that Yiddish is a “re-lexified” Slavic language).

Esperanto, although offered considered artificial, is in fact based on European languages (a mashup of Romance, Germanic and Slavic), both in terms of vocabulary and syntax. The biological equivalent of Esperanto would be an genetically engineered organism that draws its gene set and regulatory networks from a range of existing organisms. As far as I can see nothing quite like that exists, although it soon will if the proponents of synthetic biology have their way.

The Klingon language (tlhIngan Hol in Klingon) is another kettle of fish—a made-up language deliberately created by linguist Marc Okrand to be as different as possible from existing languages in many important ways. Creation of the biological equivalent of Klingon, say with DNA and RNA polymerases nothing like anything seen in biology, would be a remarkable achievement, scarcely on the horizon, even for synthetic biologists.

Curiously, the discussion on EvC neglects the existing and historical literature on biological/linguistic evolution. The idea goes back to the mid-nineteenth century, when German language expert August Schleicher saw languages as organisms and started to borrow ideas from Linnean taxonomy in his linguistic classifications. Schleicher embarked on a genealogical classification of languages that incorporated a branching-tree model, uncannily similar to Darwin’s and Wallace’s later view of biological evolution.

In fact, even Darwin noticed the analogies. In The Origin, he writes:
It may be worthwhile to illustrate this view of classification, by taking the case of languages. If we possessed a perfect pedigree of mankind, a genealogical arrangement of the races of man would afford the best classification of the various languages now spoken throughout the world... The various degrees of difference in the languages from the same stock, would have to be expressed by groups subordinate to groups; but the proper or even only possible arrangement would still be genealogical…

And then Schleicher read The Origin and immediately saw its relevance to his own work on languages. In 1863, he published a paper, Darwinism and the Science of Language, in which he draws a tree of indo-European languages and comments on Darwin’s work:
First, as regards Darwin’s assertion that species change in course of time, a process repeated time and again which results in one form arising from another, this same process has long been generally assumed for linguistic organisms… We set up family trees of languages known to us in precisely the same way as Darwin has attempted to do for plant and animal species.

In return, Darwin elaborated at length on the parallel between languages and species in The Descent of Man:
We find in distinct languages striking homologies due to community of descent, and analogies due to a similar process of formation. The manner in which certain letters or sounds change when others change is very like correlated growth. We have in both cases the reduplication of parts, the effects of long-continued use, and so forth. The frequent presence of rudiments, both in languages and in species, is still more remarkable.

Bizarrely, Darwin’s intellectual opponent, Swiss-born Harvard geologist Louis Agassiz accepted the analogy between biological and linguistic evolution, but was then driven to deny that Latin, Greek and Sanskrit shared a common ancestor, because he refused to accept biological evolution!

Anyhow, to return to Esperanto. Despite rumours of its demise, the language is still going strong and hit the news headlines recently after its alleged use in a Littlewoods advert.

In fact, whatever language that is, it ain’t Esperanto!

Information about Darwin and evolution can be found in Esperanto on the Vikipedio. And Klivo Lendon has translated the whole of the Origin of Species into Esperanto: la Origino de Specioj. In the Origin of Species in Dub, we used a slightly modified version of his translation of the concluding words of the Origin to close one of the tracks:
Estas grandiozeco en ĉi tiu perspektivo de la vivo, kun ĝiaj pluraj povoj, kiu originale enspiriĝis en kelkajn formojn aŭ unu; kaj en tio, ke dum ĉi tiu planedo orbitadis laŭ la fiksa leĝo de gravito, de tre simpla komenco, senfinaj formoj, plej belaj kaj plej mirigaj, evoluis, kaj evoluadas.

[and following on from previous post here is a Wordle view of the Origin in Esperanto]

I did, at one stage, manage to get someone to start translating the passage into Klingon, but the job was never finish and it would be hard to find anyone who could read it out! Any takers?

PS. John van Wyhe, of Darwin Online fame, has written a nice piece on The Descent of Words, which covers some of the above topics.


Brian Barker said...

The main problem with Esperanto seems to be aboutmisconception.

On two fronts.

Firstly, that Esperanto is not a living language. However the Beijing Olympics have appointed an Esperanto translator and Pope Benedict has added this language to those used during his Easter address from the Vatican. This would not happen if Esperanto was not a living language.

Secondly, there is a misconception that this alleged new global language wants to be a single, world language. Esperanto aims to be a common, auxilliary language.

Interestingly, as well, nine British MP's have nominate Esperanto for the Nobel Peace Prize 2008.

You can see detail on

Saluton Mark!

You can see detail at

Tonyo said...

Ĉu ni sukcesos vidi presitan version de la traduko de "La origino de la specioj"? Kion ni povus fari por atingi tiun mejloŝtonon?