Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

A genetic basis for language tones?

with one comment


For the most part, the thousands of languages in the world today fall into one of two categories (notable exceptions being Japanese, some Scandinavian dialects and northern Spain’s Basque tongue): tonal or nontonal.

Two linguists believe they know the genetic underpinnings for these differences. During a study of linguistic and genetic data from 49 distinct populations, the authors discovered a striking correlation between two genes involved in brain development and language tonality. Populations that speak nontonal languages (where the pitch of a spoken word does not affect its meaning) have newer versions of the genes, with mutations that began to appear roughly 37 thousand years ago.

“You can consider this as the first of the many possible studies that we could do to try to find a genetic basis for language and language typology and the different populations that speak a language,” says Patrick Wong, an assistant professor of communication sciences and disorders at Northwestern University, who was not involved in this study.

In English, the pitch at which a word is spoken conveys emotion but usually does not affect its meaning. But in many sub-Saharan Africa, Southeast Asian and Latin American languages tone changes the meaning of words. For instance, the Chinese word huar said in a high pitch means flower, but in a dipping pitch means picture.

The new research, published this week in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA ties this difference to two genes,…

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

1 April 2008 at 7:33 pm

Posted in Science, Toys

One Response

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  1. I’m doubtful about this. Whilst modern Chinese languages are tonal, Sinologists think that Ancient Chinese was not, and that the tones developed as certain consonant clusters were lost from word endings. Further, I have read that it is common for languages to change from non-tonal to tonal and back again. Ancient Greek was tonal, for example. There is even a technical term for this, but I have forgotten what it is.



    2 April 2008 at 5:09 am

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