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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.



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.


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.


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.


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