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RESEARCH NIBS - December / January 2018


Tel Aviv bats pick up ‘Scottish’ accents

Young bats can learn their mother ‘tongue’ and another specific ‘dialect’ by listening to the bat crowd around them, a study conducted at Tel Aviv University has found.

The research offers an insight into the evolutionary origins of language acquisition skills, which may not be as uniquely human as we thought, researchers say.

‘The ability to learn vocalisations from others is extremely important for speech acquisition in humans, but it’s believed to be rare among animals,’ Dr Yossi Yovel said.

The researchers raised 14 bat pups with their mothers in three artificial colonies, exposing each colony to a recording of a specific subset of bat vocalisations (a ‘dialect’) for a year.

Even though the pups could communicate with their mother, they also acquired the dialect they heard through the recording as if they had acquired it from their surrounding roost mates. And these two bat languages weren’t similar at all – Dr Yovel compared the difference between them to that which exists between a London accent and a Scottish accent.

‘The pups heard their mothers’ “London” dialect, but also heard the “Scottish” dialect mimicked by many dozens of “Scottish” bats. The pups eventually adopted a dialect that was more similar to the local “Scottish” dialect than to the “London” accent of their mothers,’ he explained.

A linguist and a biologist walk into a bar…

Along with climate change deniers, Twitter likes to poke fun at language change deniers.

By reading Shakespeare, it is immediately clear that the English language has indeed changed a lot over the centuries. But how do languages change? Are there selective pressures – social pressures, for example – guiding its evolution, or is it all just a question of chance?

An unlikely team composed of two biologists and two linguists has been investigating the issue at the University of Pennsylvania. Working on the Corpus of Historical American English, which comprises texts from 1810 to 2009, they found that random chance can play a big role, especially with changes related to rare words. And when selective forces are at play instead, they may not work as we thought.

Verbs are not commonly undergoing regularisation: for example the use of ‘quit’ instead of the regular ‘quitted’ was caused by an overall increase in the use of rhyming irregulars such as ‘hit’ and ‘split’.

This work, published in Nature, is opening the doors for a better understanding of language evolution.

‘By looking at the analogies between social science and biology, this work is pushing toward a unification between the two fields. I think both sides stand to gain,’ said one of the authors.