Wednesday, June 10, 2009

French antiquity

I just discovered that modern French is more than 100,000 years old, on good authority. Let me explain how I found this out.

languagehat's recent post That darn gene again is about sensationalist claims by some people that a certain FOXP2 "gene" is "responsible" for language, and even grammar. The post links to a Language Log article from 2005 by Geoff Pullum, who puts these claims in their place - the dustbin of media malarkey. Pullum quotes from a useful 2003 survey by Alec MacAndrew entitled FOXP2 and the Evolution of Language . MacAndrew says this:
No-one should imagine that the development of language relied exclusively on a single mutation in FOXP2. They are many other changes that enable speech. Not least of these are profound anatomical changes that make the human supralarygeal pathway entirely different from any other mammal. The larynx has descended so that it provides a resonant column for speech (but, as an unfortunate side-effect, predisposes humans to choking on food). Also, the nasal cavity can be closed thus preventing vowels from being nasalised and thus increasing their comprehensibility. These changes cannot have happened over such a short period as 100,000 years.
The 100,000 figure comes from this:
... by looking at silent polymorphisms in the gene, Enard et al estimate that the mutations in the FOXP2 in the human lineage occurred between 10,000 and 100,000 years ago
Having been polishing my French like a madman over the last few years, I find these observations helpful in understanding why my ability to understand spoken French, apart from that of intellectuals, still does not shine as it should. I conclude that the incomprehensible, nasalizing quality of French vowels must have been established before larynges descended, and noses closed, to enable the bell-like* clarity of West Texas English.

*Think Big Ben rather than Tinkerbell.


AJP CROWN said...

Stuart, do you have a strong Texas accent? I know someone else from West Texas (Marfa) called Linda, you may know her.

I think not understanding the spoken language as easily as text may be a stage of learning, though my excuse with dialects of Norwegian is my slight deafness.

Stuart said...

I grew up in El Paso, where people speak a flat and featureless English, as I used to think. At any rate, no one could tell where you came from. I have a certain ability to mimic the speech of people with whom I deal, which helped me acquire an excellent German accent. It has helped me with French, but not that much, as the blog implies.

But having listened to Radio 4 so much over the years and since I usually speak only in German and have no English-speaking friends, my American accent apparently has been shot to hell. People have told me I sound vaguely East Coast USA, or Continental. I understand them to be telling me that I speak in a superior, professorial manner. I charge that to my general intellectual bearing, Radio 4, and the kind of philosophy and sociology I read.

However, my German speech-persona is strangely and completely different. I recorded myself talking recently, and found that I sound like everybody's favorite, kindly uncle with a clandestine shilling for each kid when he visits. That's what I sound like even in a technical context. Although I think of myself as saying a lot of sarcastic, outlandish things, they come across as Christmas greetings. I do speak the way I write, but with a deceptively mild-mannered presentation. That's probably why I haven't been strung up from the nearest tree long ago.

I discovered the internet Poetry Archive recently, which was set up by Andrew Motion. There are recordings of contemporary poets, but also Yeats, Dylan Thomas etc. reading their stuff. I was amazed at how plummy they all sound. Now I have difficulty reconciling Thomas' voice with the lit-crit depiction of a wild man of drunken excesses. It just occurred to me, though, that plums soaked in the best alcohol are very tasty.

I don't know any Lindas, and I've never been to Marfa. West Texas is not exactly Picadilly Circus.