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The Student News Site of Stony Brook University

The Statesman

The Student News Site of Stony Brook University

The Statesman


Darwin Day lecture demonstrates natural selection’s effects on language

Stony Brook professor Jeffrey Levinton was quick to attest to the credentials of Mark Pagel, saying “there is an authenticity that this fellow is one of the world’s leading experts in language and the structure of language.” PHOTO CREDIT : STONYBROOK.EDU

Science and the humanities were brought together on Friday night in a lecture titled, “The Evolution of Human Languages,” given by Mark Pagel. In commemoration of Darwin Day, the guest speaker emphasized the importance of the natural selection theory in the field of linguistics in the Earth and Space Sciences lecture hall.

Pagel is a fellow of the Royal Society, professor of evolutionary biology at Reading University in the United Kingdom, and author of “Wired for Culture: The Natural History of Human Cooperation.”

“All animals communicate, even most plants communicate, but humans are the only species with languages,” Pagel said, further elaborating that by language, he means the use of coherent sentences. “Your pet dog can tell you it’s angry, it can even tell you how angry it is, but it cannot tell you its life story.”

His research has shown that there are over 7,000 different languages, but half of the world’s population uses the top ten to communicate. He also stated that about 30–50 languages go extinct every year and hypothesized that English will come out as the unifying language as it becomes more widespread.

Pagel recalled one of his experiences in Tanzania. He tried to speak to a man in broken Swahili, to which the man stopped him and responded that his English was better than the professor’s Swahili. This set the lecture’s theme that the languages of the world are becoming increasingly homogeneous and the use of technological connection across the globe, including social media, is speeding up this process.

He mentioned a story reported by The Guardian in which authorities attempt to disrupt this flow of languages when Quebec language police, an actual unit within the Quebec government, tried to ban the word “pasta” on a menu, claiming that the menu had too many Italian words.

Natural selection is constantly acting on words to choose the ones that work easiest because “the brain wants something that’s short and easy to pronounce,” Pagel said. “The words that we use most often are the ones that retain their ancestry over very long periods of time.”

He demonstrated that the equivalent of the word “two” was strikingly similar throughout various languages, but the word for “bird” showed little to no resemblance, claiming this is so because the number is used more commonly throughout daily speech in all languages.

“The lecture takes some important topics and brings people from many communities together and evolution is a major organizing force of humanity,” Jeffrey Levinton, a Stony Brook professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolution, stated. “There is an authenticity that this fellow is one of the world’s leading experts in language and the structure of language. You don’t get this on television.”

Along with some of the university’s professors, the audience consisted of students and local residents, some of whom shared similar enthusiasm in the event.

“I’m more interested in physics and astronomy so for me this was a quick study in a branch of science that I don’t typically get exposed to and it was great,” Elliot Serebrenik, who works as an engineer, reputed.

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