Evolutionary biology, mathematical models and language study – an unexpected mix

Language is an inherited system of information – we inherit the language of our parents in much the same way that we inherit their genes …

And why is that useful? Because we can use language to study questions about human history. That’s what the Radio 4 programme Material World discussed on 28 February 2013.

Evolutionary biologists at Reading University have been looking at the language of Homer’s Iliad so they could work out exactly when it was written.

800px-Heroes_of_iliad_by_Tischbein

So what did they do?

  • they looked at the many different copies of The Iliad to put together an ‘original’ version of Homer’s oral poem
  • they compared the vocabulary and turns of phrase with Modern Greek
  • they studied the rate of replacement of two hundred common words (e.g. body parts, colours, family relationships, pronouns, numbers)

Using their mathematical model, they found that closed class words evolved slowly and open class words more quickly. 

To find out more – including a ‘precise’ date for Homer’s poem – use the link below :

Scroll through to 22:11 to find the start of the discussion.

Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under History of language, Uncategorized

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s