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Language Genetics

April 17, 2018

Genes may influence the ability to tell certain consonants apart and may play a role in the evolution of languages.

Transcript

BOB HIRSHON (Host):

Certain genes can affect whether we can hear the difference between two similar consonants, like say “buh” and “puh.” And that may be a factor in the language we speak.

JEFFREY GRUEN (Yale University):

You don’t produce something you can’t hear.

HIRSHON:

That’s Yale genetics researcher Jeffrey Gruen. In the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, he and his colleagues report studying 43 human populations and finding that a genetic element called READ1 was associated with the number of consonants in their languages. Gruen says that as a language spreads to new populations, READ1 may affect how they hear some of its sounds.

GRUEN:

So when they try to reproduce that sound, it’s not going to come out quite right. And so you could imagine that over generations that specific sound could be lost.

HIRSHON:

The work adds a new perspective to the evolution of human language. I’m Bob Hirshon, for AAAS, the science society.

Story by Bob Hirshon