Evolutionary dynamics of language systems

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A new paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science studies the rates of change between grammar and vocabulary in 81 Austronesian languages and finds that grammatical changes in language differ much quicker. The paper suggests a more nuanced reading of language evolution is needed in order to trace their movement in time.

Understanding how and why language subsystems differ in their evolutionary dynamics is a fundamental question for historical and comparative linguistics. One key dynamic is the rate of language change. While it is commonly thought that the rapid rate of change hampers the reconstruction of deep language relationships beyond 6,000–10,000 y, there are suggestions that grammatical structures might retain more signal over time than other subsystems, such as basic vocabulary. In this study, we use a Dirichlet process mixture model to infer the rates of change in lexical and grammatical data from 81 Austronesian languages. We show that, on average, most grammatical features actually change faster than items of basic vocabulary. The grammatical data show less schismogenesis, higher rates of homoplasy, and more bursts of contact-induced change than the basic vocabulary data. However, there is a core of grammatical and lexical features that are highly stable. These findings suggest that different subsystems of language have differing dynamics and that careful, nuanced models of language change will be needed to extract deeper signal from the noise of parallel evolution, areal readaptation, and contact.

Source: Evolutionary dynamics of language systems

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Rice in Madagascar point to Southeast Asian origin

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Excavations in Madagascar. Source: ABC Science 20160531

A new paper in PNAS describes the first tangible evidence that Madagascar was colonised by Southeast Asians who probably spoke an Austronesian language. Charred rice and mung beans found in Madagascar are slightly older than their first appearance in East Africa.

Excavations in Madagascar. Source: ABC Science 20160531

Excavations in Madagascar. Source: ABC Science 20160531

Ancient crops provide first archaeological signature of the westward Austronesian expansion
PNAS, doi: 10.1073/pnas.1522714113

Ancient rice ‘first evidence’ Madagascan ancestors crossed Indian Ocean from South-East Asia
ABC Science, 31 May 2016

Abstract:

The Austronesian settlement of the remote island of Madagascar remains one of the great puzzles of Indo-Pacific prehistory. Although linguistic, ethnographic, and genetic evidence points clearly to a colonization of Madagascar by Austronesian language-speaking people from Island Southeast Asia, decades of archaeological research have failed to locate evidence for a Southeast Asian signature in the island’s early material record. Here, we present new archaeobotanical data that show that Southeast Asian settlers brought Asian crops with them when they settled in Africa. These crops provide the first, to our knowledge, reliable archaeological window into the Southeast Asian colonization of Madagascar. They additionally suggest that initial Southeast Asian settlement in Africa was not limited to Madagascar, but also extended to the Comoros. Archaeobotanical data may support a model of indirect Austronesian colonization of Madagascar from the Comoros and/or elsewhere in eastern Africa.

News story here; download the article here.

The prehistoric links between Taiwan and the Philippines

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The Tsou Tribe of Taiwan. Source: Philippine Inquirer 20150406

A feature describing the prehistoric and modern links between the indigenous tribes of Taiwan and the Philippines.

The Tsou Tribe of Taiwan. Source: Philippine Inquirer 20150406

The Tsou Tribe of Taiwan. Source: Philippine Inquirer 20150406

Taiwan’s ‘rock star’ tribal folk share same ancestry with Filipinos
Inquirer, 06 April 2015

In communities of the indigenous Amis tribe across Taiwan, locals say lima for five, pito for seven and mata for eye, just like Filipinos. In southern Taiwan’s Alishan mountain, the Tsou tribe calls the community’s meeting hut a kuba, strikingly similar in design to the Philippines’ kubo.

Whether in language, architecture or way of life, links among indigenous peoples of the Philippines and Taiwan are undeniable, with both sides tracing their ancestry to the Austronesian migrations across the Pacific Islands thousands of years ago.

The ties are ever apparent as Taiwan’s indigenous groups continued to reemerge, a revival seen over the last three decades. Once neglected and kept to themselves, Taiwan’s tribal peoples have now become rock stars.

Today, Taiwan’s 540,000 indigenous peoples—a two percent segment of the total 23 million—are prominent in Taiwanese daily life, from billboards and stage shows to their own television stations, newspapers and even rap albums.

With this rise came the urge to reach out to their Austronesian brothers and sisters, eager to have not just their history and ancestry as a common ground, but also a shared future.

Taiwan officials and scholars believe prehistoric ties between Philippine and Taiwanese indigenous groups provide a window where the two sides may pursue stronger relations, despite occasional irritants.

Full story here.

Wednesday Rojak #66

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Catching up on a month’s worth of rojak, so some of the stories may be a little dated. Today’s assortment takes us to the ongoing culture war between Malaysia and Indonesia, the origin of the Komodo Dragon (no, it hasn’t gone to Malaysia), and Java Man’s eating habits (no, they didn’t eat at Malaysia either).
Orchestre de gamelan (Musées de Dahlem/Berlin)
photo credit: dalbera Read More

The Chinese origin of Pacific Islanders

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Archaeologist Jiao Tianlong is exploring the origins of the Austronesian people, who spread their language and technology from Southeast China and Taiwan to the rest of Southeast Asia and the Pacific Islands some 6,000 years ago.

Archaeologists Find Evidence of Origin of Pacific Islanders
Voice of America, 31 March 2008
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