British English, American English, Antarctic English: How Do Accents Develop?

A group of British researchers spent months alone on the isolated continent of Antarctica.

There, an acoustic analysis was made of their speech characteristics as individuals.

In a matter of months, changes were observed.

The acoustical study created a computational model based partially on a common accent in Antarctica to predict the phonetic changes they expected to hear from this group’s prolonged isolation.

Recorded productions of the participating individuals were then taken and compared to the model.

In some ways, the model predicted the phonetic changes in the individuals’ accents.

Published in The Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, the results suggest that the initial stages of phonetic changes in accent occur incrementally when individuals in isolation interact.

Let’s delve deeper into this example of how accents and phonetics develop across the same language.

Shared Spoken Idiosyncrasies

Defining a spoken accent as “shared spoken idiosyncrasies across a community of speakers,” the study touches upon theories regarding potential evolutionary reasoning behind the development of accents.

Some evolutionists theorize that, due to its difficulty in imitation by outsiders, the function of an accent can allow the in-group to identify imposters, while simultaneously breeding cooperation, coordination, and camaraderie amongst individuals with the same accent.

Children are more apt at developing accents than adults, because the phonetic specifications are highly dependent on precise timing and vocal organ coordination, which is more easily acquired at a younger age.

How Accents Form

In this study, communication density was identified as the primary catalyst for accent formation.

This means that who you talk to and how often you talk to them can influence the early stages of accent formation.

The Antarctic researchers’ unique position of isolation created an environment resembling a microcosm of a former colonial settlement.

There was little-to-no communication with outside groups and yet regular communication with each other.

Being inside this bubble amplified the results.

BrainStuff’s Laurie L. Dove notes that the two primary factors influencing accent are isolation and human nature.

Dove writes,

“Human nature, vague as it sounds, simply refers to our innate love of being in groups. When a human is part of a crowd, they identify membership by wearing certain styles of clothing or eating specific foods. That group of people also may speak a certain way — so distinctly so that an accent becomes part of the group’s identity.”

What else impacts accent formation?

Next week, we’ll talk about social class, migration, and invasion.

How Does Culture Influence the Way We Use Our Brains? Find Out Here.

We’ve all heard of “right-brain” and “left-brain” thinkers.

Left-brain thinkers are thought to be more logical and mathematical, while right-brain thinkers tend to lean emotional and artistic.

But are there any links between the way our brains function and our cultures?

We’ve talked a lot about gene-culture coevolution over these past few weeks.

In short, the theory suggests that genetics and culture are interconnected.

This brain imaging study about visual perceptual tasks seems to substantiate that theory.

Individualist vs. Collective 

Psychological research has shown that individualist and collective values are demonstrated in an individual’s view of objects in relation to their context.

Americans, valuing individuality, tend to view the two as independent from each other.

East Asian cultures, which value the collective, view objects as contextually interdependent.

These differences have been shown to impact perception and memory by behavioral scientists.

The Study: How Our Brains Work

A study by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology took a look at whether these cultural tendencies can be measured in brain activity patterns.

Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans from a group of 20 participants – 10 from East Asia, 10 from the U.S. – McGovern Institute for Brain Research Professor John Gabrieli and his team examined participants’ mental operations.

Participants were asked to compare a sequence of images, and their mental operations were mapped via blood flow changes in the brain.

The images were lines within squares.

Participants were asked to compare each image with the previous image, making judgments based on relative judgments of interdependent objects or absolute judgments of individual objects without context.

For instance, some questions asked whether the lines were proportional to the squares, regardless of size (interdependent); others asked whether the lines were the same length as each other, regardless of the squares (independent of context).

The Results: Confirmed

While the simplicity of the task resulted in no differences in accuracy between the groups, brain activation patterns did differ.

Relative judgments, which have been shown to be harder for Americans, stimulated the brain regions dedicated to mental tasks that demand attention. 

These regions were less active for absolute judgments.

As you might guess, the results for the East Asian group were the opposite, with brain activity becoming more active for absolute judgments and less for relative.

The paper’s lead author, Trey Hedden, said of the study:

“We were surprised at the magnitude of the difference between the two cultural groups, and also at how widespread the engagement of the brain’s attention system became when making judgments outside the cultural comfort zone.”

Even more interesting, questionnaires had been distributed prior to the exam to see how closely each individual identified with their culture, using questions regarding values and norms.

Those individuals who identified more intimately with their culture’s values showed a stronger reactive pattern of brain activity relative to their culture.

This study suggests that our culture – and how closely we individually identify with our culture – can influence the way our minds work.

Pretty heady.

Slava Ukraini: Glory to Ukraine and Its Culture

Considering current events, I wanted to take a moment to celebrate Ukraine, its culture, and its people.

The country, currently under siege by its much larger neighbor, has been independent since the break up of the Soviet Union in 1991.

Ukrainians are fiercely proud of their culture and independence.

From the ancient monasteries of Kyiv to the bright, cheery sunflower fields that are represented in their national flag, Ukraine is a country with a rich and unique history – one that most folks likely don’t know much about.

This dedicated post will provide a short summary of pieces – or sunflower petals – of Ukrainian culture.

Language

Language has been a talking point in Ukraine for years and for good reason.

Oblasts in the East speak Russian, those in the West speak Ukrainian.

And those in some central oblasts speak a combination of both, called Surzhyk.

The language divide is due to the East’s proximity to Russia and the country’s historical ties with its neighbor.

While both languages use Cyrillic, the Ukrainian alphabet has the letters – “Ґ ґ,” “Є є,” “Ї ї,” and “І і” – while the Russian alphabet does not; and the Russian alphabet has the letters – “ы,” “Ё ё,” and “ъ” – while the Ukrainian alphabet does not. 

The languages are similar in grammar and vocalization, but the Ukrainian language is actually more closely related to its northern neighbor, Poland, when it comes to vocabulary.

Many who live in Ukraine are of Russian descent, with 17.3 percent of the population identifying as ethnically Russian in 2001.

Thus, since Crimea was annexed in 2014 and the eastern oblasts of Donetsk and Luhansk became occupied territories, language has become a hot-button issue in Ukrainian politics.

Traditions and Customs

Some of the country’s brightest traditions and customs come in the form of celebration.

Image credit: Jolanta Dyr from Pixabay

As mentioned, the colors of the Ukrainian flag represent the vast sunflower fields and the brilliant blue skies that paint the countryside – a true sight to behold.

Public domain

Traditional dress includes the vyshyvanka, an embroidered shirt. 

Often featuring black, white, and red thread, the embroidery design is specific to Ukrainian folk costumes.

Image by Yevhen Paramonov from Pixabay

The famous Ukrainian decorated egg, the pysanka (derived from the word for “to write” or “to inscribe”), is made around Easter. 

Every pattern, detail, and coloring of the painted eggs means something.

And, according to legend, if the painting of the pysanka ceases, so does the world’s existence, as evil will overrun the world.

Slava Ukraini: Glory to Ukraine

“Ukraine is not yet dead, nor its glory and freedom”

“Ukraine is not yet dead, nor its glory and freedom,
Luck will still smile on us brother-Ukrainians.
Our enemies will die, as the dew does in the sunshine,
and we, too, brothers, we’ll live happily in our land.

We’ll not spare either our souls or bodies to get freedom
and we’ll prove that we brothers are of Kozak kin.”

These are the lyrics to the Ukrainian national anthem, translated.

The phrase you may be hearing frequently, “Slava Ukraini,” means “Glory to Ukraine.”

As this country continues to fight for its life, I hope every one of us watching can celebrate the great character and pride of its people.

Are Facial Expressions Perceived Differently Across Cultures? Find Out Here.

Languages have shaped our genetics in terms of physiological differences in speech.

The roof of the mouth, for instance, differs across cultures.

But language isn’t the only part of communication.

Facial expressions and mannerisms are a big part of communication, and the interpretation of these types of expression differs across cultures.

The facial musculature of humans is highly developed, far more so than in any other primate species.

As such, the lips and eyes reveal a lot about human emotion.

According to Herbert Gintis’ “Gene-culture coevolution and the nature of human sociality”:

“Humans have evolved a highly specialized and very costly complex of physiological characteristics that both presuppose and facilitate sophisticated aural and visual communication, whereas communication in other primates, lacking as they are in cumulative culture, goes little beyond simple calling and gesturing capacities.”

While other primate species’ may go “little beyond,” how far does ours go?

Emotional Expression

Prior studies have suggested that the evolutionary nature of facial expressions does not differ across cultures, but at least one study has found that expressions of happiness, anger, and sadness are perceived differently between the East and the West.

According to the study’s abstract:

“Briefly stated, the universality hypothesis claims that all humans communicate six basic internal emotional states (happy, surprise, fear, disgust, anger, and sad) using the same facial movements by virtue of their biological and evolutionary origins [Susskind JM, et al. (2008) Nat Neurosci 11:843–850].”

Published by the American Psychological Association in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, the research, led by Rachael E. Jack, PhD, of the University of Glasgow, opposes this theory.

The Study

Looking at the way in which Western Caucasians and East Asians view various expressions according to their facial features, two groups – one of Caucasians and one of Chinese participants – were selected.

The study’s participants viewed emotion-neutral faces that were altered at random using technology. They were asked to classify the faces as happy, sad, angry, disgusted, fearful, or surprised.

Researchers were then able to identify the facial features that the groups of participants associated with the emotions.

From the responses, researchers deduced that Western Caucasians focused more on the mouth and eyebrows when identifying facial expressions, while Chinese participants focused primarily on the eyes.

These differences can lead to complexities in communication across cultures, resulting in misinterpretation or missed signals of emotional expression. 

The findings support the concept of gene-culture coevolution and how culture is increasingly driving human behavior more than genetics.

We’ll talk more about cultural mannerisms and body language next week.

From Mandarin to Italian, How Language Shapes Genetics

Can you differentiate Mandarin from French or Italian?

Of course, you can. 

The sounds of each of these languages are very different, from hard or soft consonants to long or short vowels.

Due to the dynamic sounds of each mother tongue, you can see the adaptation of different vocal tracts across cultures.

These adaptations have developed across generations according to the languages spoken in countries around the world.

We discussed gene-culture coevolution last week in relation to the human species and speech.

Now, let’s talk about how speech and language have evolved our genetics across cultures.

Physiological Traits Adapt to Language

Speech-related physiological adaptations vary across the human species according to the language spoken.

Some languages, like German or Arabic, require deep guttural sounds due to the harsh consonants.

Others, like Spanish, require speakers to roll their r’s.

One of the ways in which this presents in our physiology was reported by Discover Magazine.

Researchers found that the roof of the mouth differs across cultures, according to how vowel sounds are pronounced. 

Furthermore, these anatomical variations evolve upon each generation, creating an evolution in the language itself and the sounds of speech.

The study’s author, Linguistics Expert Dan Dediu, says, 

“Even small variations in the shape of our vocal tract may affect the way we speak, and this may even be amplified — across generations — to the level of differences between dialects and languages.”

The Study

How did researchers discern this change?

The study looked at over 100 people from several ethnolinguistic groups in Europe, North America, China, and across India.

MRI scans were taken of the hard palate of each participant.

Using the scans and machine learning, computer models formed a picture into the future of the hard palate and the sounds it might produce. 

Five commonly used vowel sounds – the “uh” in sofa,” the “ah” in “hot,” the “oo” in “boot,” the “a” in “bat,” and the long “e” in “feet” – were plugged into the computer model. 

A second generation, mimicking the sounds from the first, showed the amplified pronunciation of each sound – as did 50 generational models after it.

Though the change in the shape of the hard palate over time only impacted pronunciation slightly each generation, the change in the vowel sounds after 50 generations was much more pronounced.

The researchers write that,

“besides culture and environment, quantitative biological variation can be amplified, also influencing language.”

This research begs the question: what will our languages sound like in 50 generations…and how did they sound 50 generations ago?

The Myth of Spanish King Ferdinand, the Lisping King & the True Gene-Culture Coevolution of Speech

There is a common myth in Spain that King Ferdinand was born with a lisp.

As the story goes, this speech impediment led to the Spanish pronunciation of “z” and “c” with the soft “th” sound, as Ferdinand’s courtiers imitated his lisp.

This Spanish pronunciation of “z” as “th” differs from the “z” as “s” spoken in western Spanish-speaking countries.

In reality, the “s” sound exists in the Spanish language; it is just not applied to “z” or “c” (the latter, when followed by “i” or “e”). 

Thus, it follows that the differences in pronunciation across Spanish-speaking cultures are not due to a lisping king, but rather to the natural regional differences that develop in living languages.

In the same way that American pronunciation of English varies from British pronunciation, peculiarities of living languages emerge across many groups, regions, countries, etc.

While King Ferdinand’s story is nothing but an urban legend, culture and genetics really do work together to create physiological differences related to speech.

Here’s how.

Genes & Culture Interact

Herbert Gintis’ paper titled, “Gene–culture coevolution and the nature of human sociality,” defines the gene-culture coevolution theory as follows:

“Gene–culture coevolution is the application of sociobiology, the general theory of the social organization of biological species, to humans—a species that transmits culture in a manner that leads to quantitative growth across generations.”

Cultural differences have produced changes in brain size, body size, and other aspects of human anatomy across the human species.

Last week, we talked about how genes and culture worked together to alter our diet – specifically, our ability to consume milk products – and how that ability varies across cultures according to their cultural history.

In the same way, gene-culture coevolution has symbiotically shaped human speech and communication.

Speech & Communication

Gintis goes on to explain how gene-culture coevolution is readily apparent in the physiological evolution of human speech and facial communication.

He writes that genetic alterations that improve speech are propagated due to the increasing importance human society places on communication. 

In early humans, speech production was facilitated by the evolution of regions in the motor cortex, including the adaptation of muscles and nerves in the tongue, larynx, and mouth that help produce speech.

Other physical attributes that have adapted over time in humans to improve speech include a low larynx in the throat, a shorter oral cavity, and the hypoglossal canal of the tongue, all of which both help produce sounds.

The Wernicke’s and Broca’s regions in the cerebral cortex are either absent or are very small in other primates; they’re large in humans, enabling comprehension and speech.

Human facial musculature is also more highly developed, allowing the eyes and lips to impart nonverbal communication.

Considering the development of these attributes that facilitate speech in humans, you can see that genes and culture have worked closely together to evolve the human species.

Next week, we’ll talk about how these physiological aspects of speech differ across cultures.

Your Ancestors Couldn’t Drink Milk, But You Can: Here’s Why

Got milk?

Your ancestors didn’t.

About 10 millennia ago, human adults couldn’t drink milk.

The BBC article, “How Human Culture Influences Our Genetics,” outlines why the human adults of today are more lactose tolerant, while those of yesteryear were not.

Lactose tolerance – or intolerance – is genetic.

Prior to dairy farming, only children could manage to chug a glass of milk without getting sick. 

When some cultures began dairy farming, a genetic mutation created an ability amongst adults to digest milk properly.

This mutation was passed on to offspring over time.

Last week, we discussed how culture is outpacing genetics when it comes to human evolution.

This is one example where culture may not have outpaced genetics but still worked symbiotically to evolve a tolerance to milk through natural selection.

Lactose Tolerance Today

As mentioned, those cultures with a background in dairy farming are significantly more lactose tolerant today, because they’ve developed the related gene.

This is another example of how culture impacts biological evolution.

That gene effectively produces the enzyme, lactase, which breaks down lactose (the sugar found in dairy products) in the small intestine.

Cultures with a higher prevalence of lactose intolerance see lesser production of lactase in infancy.

Upwards of 70 percent of adults from East Asian and West African cultures suffer lactose intolerance, along with those of Greek, Italian, Jewish, and Arab heritage.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, those cultures with high lactose tolerance include Northern European cultures, particularly those of the Nordic region. 

The populations of Sweden and Finland have a reported tolerance of 74 percent and 82 percent, respectively.

These tolerance levels might be related to the immigration of lactose tolerant groups to these regions, rather than a background in dairy farming, as the cultures aren’t historically rooted in the production or consumption of milk.

But these countries may be the exception that proves the rule.

As anthropologist and co-author of The 10,000-Year Explosion: How Civilization Accelerated Human Evolution, Henry Harpending, writes:

“Which came first, the cattle or the mutation, you can’t tell. If the mutation had not occurred, there wouldn’t be so much dairying. But if people who could digest lactose didn’t have cattle, the mutation would have had no advantage.”

The Cow or the Milk

Although we may not know what came first – the cow or the milk tolerance – we can spot some aspects of “survival of the fittest” in the evolution of these cultures.

Cultures with higher lactose tolerance were historically able to survive famine at a higher rate and may have even made for stronger warriors, due to bone health.

In his research on the subject, Professor Daniel Wegmann of the University of Fribourg in Switzerland, concludes:

“Over the past 3,000 years, lactase-persistent individuals had more children or, alternatively, those children had better chances of survival than those without this trait.”

We can only expect lactose tolerance to grow even more within the next 3,000 years.

Does Culture Drive Human Behavior More Than Genetics?

Biologists say that behavior is ultimately determined by natural selection.

This is because genetic structures are constructed according to the mental processes and learned patterns and responses to different environments.

As Richerson and Boyd, authors of Not By Genes Alone: How Culture Transformed Human Evolution, note: physiological changes that shape behavior are evolutionary.

Take bird migration, for instance.

Instead of passing winter in harsh environments, birds have acquired their migratory behavior according to evolutionary physiological reactions.

The brain has formed evolutionary strategies across time to send hormonal signals that trigger annual migration to warmer climates.

So, while genes may determine the traits and behaviors best suited to the environment, the environment has helped shape these genes. 

Where does culture come into play?

Culture is part of the environment, especially where humans are concerned.

Culture Drives Human Evolution

Taking the environment’s impact on evolution a step further, in a study by the University of Maine, culture was found to drive human evolution even more so than genetics.

According to the 2021 study by researchers, Tim Waring and Zach Wood, humans adapt to their environment and challenges in their environment via culture – in the form of learned knowledge, skills, and practices –more effectively and at a faster pace than through genetics.

One reason for this “special evolutionary transition” is that the cultural transfer of knowledge is flexible and fast when compared to genetic transfer.

Waring notes that:

“Gene transfer is rigid and limited to the genetic information of two parents, while cultural transmission is based on flexible human learning and effectively unlimited with the ability to make use of information from peers and experts far beyond parents.”

This results in a stronger adaptation via cultural evolution than genetic evolution allows.

The researchers also argue that culture’s group-oriented nature produces more group-oriented evolution as well.

Ways in Which Humans Have Evolved

How have humans evolved via culture?

Humans have adapted in several key ways over the millennia.

These include:

  • Capacity for social learning
  • Predisposition to be cooperative
  • Capacity to collaborate
  • Diminishing aggression

Genetics and culture work together to adapt behaviors, but as Waring and Wood’s research suggests, culture is becoming even more influential on the evolution of human behavior.

As Waring concludes:

“This research explains why humans are such a unique species…We are slowly becoming ever more cultural and ever less genetic.”

Nature Vs. Nurture & Cultural Evolution

Language is culture. Food is culture. Customs are culture.

They are all taught. They are all shaped and communicated across generations through group orientation and primary socialization.

In the book, Not By Genes Alone: How Culture Transformed Human Evolution, authors Peter J. Richerson and Robert Boyd explain that some scientists argue that culture and human behavior cannot be tied to evolutionary theory and biology, quoting the concept of nature versus nurture.

Culture is something created via nurture, while biology is formed by nature.

An individual’s concept of time, her values and customs, her language – all of this is formed by the environment in which she grows up.

It is nurtured.

An individual’s eye color, his height, any genetic disease he may have – all of this is formed by genes.

It is the result of nature. 

Considering this, many argue that evolutionary theory does not come into play in regards to learned behaviors that are shaped by the environment.

As we’ve discussed in many blog posts, cultural behaviors – and most other human behavior – is learned; therefore, the argument is that biology has little to do with creating it.

But Richerson and Boyd suggest that this is not the case, due to the symbiotic nature of genes and their environment.

Genes & the Environment Interact

Genes are not blueprints specifying an organism’s final draft.

Instead, the genetic information stored in an organism interacts with the environment around it while the organism is developing.

As Richerson and Boyd describe it:

“Genes are like a recipe, but one in which the ingredients, cooking temperature, and so on are set by the environment.”

And like any recipe, the traits of the organism will vary based on the differences in the environment.

Some traits are more affected by environment than others.

For instance, most humans develop two ears, despite the environment they’ve grown in, but depending on their nutritional environment during youth, they can develop different growth and health outcomes into adulthood.

Environmental differences can also cause differing behaviors in organisms that are genetically the same.

In such circumstances, the environment is the direct cause of different traits and behaviors.

And because culture is both a part of the environment and a reaction to it, while genes are the evolutionary response to past environments, neither can be removed from the equation.

They are symbiotic.

We’ll take a closer look at the degree to which genes and culture influence human behavior next week.

Population Thinking: How Darwin’s Theory of Evolution Contributes to Cultural Theory

Charles Darwin is best known for his theories of evolution and natural selection.

But biologist Ernst Mayr asserts that Darwin’s concept of “population thinking” is his most important contribution to biology.

In the book, How Culture Transformed Human Evolution, authors Peter J. Richerson and Robert Boyd delve into why this is the case.

This is what they’ve found.

The Theory of Evolution Evolves Our Thinking

Prior to Darwin’s theories on evolution, species were thought to be static and unchanging.

But what Darwin found was that a fluctuating pool of inherited information was passed on across generations over time, and this information was affected by the daily events of the species’ lives, which were also changing.

The persistence of the daily events and the spread of their prevalence would produce inherent properties and traits within a species.

In line with natural selection, those traits that allowed the “survival of the fittest” were passed on to their offspring.

Not only traits, but behaviors that benefited survival – a process Darwin called “the inherited effects of use and disuse.”

In this way, the core of the evolutionary theory is grounded in population thinking, which is the crux of cultural theory.

Cultural Evolution

Culture is an acquired state of behavior, produced via social learning.

Skills, values, norms, beliefs, attitudes, customs, moral systems – these are all acquired and comprise group culture.

And they all evolve via population thinking.

Like the theory of evolution, this theory of cultural evolution delves into why some attitudes and behaviors carry on in a group and others don’t.

As with evolution, the daily lives of people in a society contribute to the process of cultural change.

For instance, a moral value might, at one point in time, appear more appealing in relation to that era’s daily life or current events, thereby spreading and persisting from person to person in a society and generation to generation in a culture.

Similarly, beliefs and behaviors that are more easily imitable and allow survival will spread, while those that might result in group criticism or early death will vanish.

Over time, the persistence of certain beliefs, skills, attitudes, etc., create observable patterns that serve as the genes of culture.

But culture can adapt in a way that genes cannot.

Over the next few weeks, we’ll talk about how population thinking is enmeshed in culture.