Zebra finches sensitive to human speech, new research


This video is called Wild Zebra Finches in Australia.

From Proceedings of the Royal Society B in Britain:

Zebra finches are sensitive to prosodic features of human speech

Michelle J. Spierings
1,2
and Carel ten Cate
1,2

1
Behavioural Biology, Institute Biology Leiden (IBL), Leiden University, PO Box 9505, Leiden 2300 RA, The Netherlands
2
Leiden Institute for Brain and Cognition (LIBC), Leiden University, PO Box 9600, Leiden 2300 RC, The Netherlands

Variation in pitch, amplitude and rhythm adds crucial paralinguistic information to human speech. Such prosodic cues can reveal information about the meaning or emphasis of a sentence or the emotional state of the speaker.

To examine the hypothesis that sensitivity to prosodic cues is language independent and not human specific, we tested prosody perception in a controlled experiment with zebra finches.

Using a go/no-go procedure, subjects were trained to discriminate between speech syllables arranged in XYXY pat-
terns with prosodic stress on the first syllable and XXYY patterns with prosodic stress on the final syllable. To systematically determine the salience of the various prosodic cues (pitch, duration and amplitude) to the zebra
finches, they were subjected to five tests with different combinations of these cues.

The zebra finches generalized the prosodic pattern to sequences that consisted of new syllables and used prosodic features over structural ones to discriminate between stimuli. This strong sensitivity to the prosodic pattern was maintained when only a single prosodic cue was available. The change in pitch was treated as more salient than changes in the other prosodic features.

These results show that zebra finches are sensitive to the same prosodic cues known to affect human speech perception.

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Robert Lowth’s unknown letters discovered


From Leiden university in the Netherlands:

Leiden student discovers unknown letters by Robert Lowth

Myrte Wouterse, third-year student at Leiden University, has discovered two previously unknown letters by Robert Lowth in the University Library. Lowth was the leading English grammarian of the 18th century.

Letter signed by R. Oxford, or rather Robert Lowth

Letter signed by R. Oxford, or rather Robert Lowth

The letters give important insight into the lives of Lowth (1710-1787) and his correspondent, Leiden orientalist H.A. Schultens (1749-1793). They are also a source of information on informal networks in the 18th century. The letters were written during Schulten’s stay in England from 1772 to 1773 and were hidden away in an appendix to Schulten’s account of his visit. This probably explains how they remained undiscovered and why they are not to be found in the Library catalogue.

Social networks in the 18th century

Schultens is known to have studied in Oxford, where he obtained an MA, but these newly discovered letters tell the real story behind this qualification. It was an honorary title, that in Schultens’ own words was awarded only in rare cases, and certainly not to foreigners. Schultens made good use of his social network to acquire his MA. He wrote to the father of his friend and fellow student Thomas Henry Lowth (1753-1778), Bishop Lowth in other words, asking Lowth to put in a good word for him. Robert Lowth writes in his letters that he often receives such requests, but that he never accedes to them. He advises Schultens to take the official route and at the same time shows that he is prepared to help by promising to write to a number of his friends in Oxford. Which he duly did, as is witnessed by the fact that Schultens did receive his Oxford MA.

We now know that Schultens has Lowth to thank for his MA, and we can see how contemporary informal networks operated: Schultens was a friend of Lowth’s son, a connection that he made good use of for his career. This was how the system of patronage worked at that time: Lowth himself owes his own career within the Anglican church largely to his social contacts.

Another letter signed by R. Oxford, or rather Robert Lowth

Beginner’s luck

Myrte Wouterse discovered the letters by Robert Lowth in the appendix to a trip report by orientalist H.A. Schultens.

Myrte Wouterse discovered the letters by Robert Lowth in the appendix to a trip report by orientalist H.A. Schultens.

This remarkable find was made by Myrte Wouterse, third-year student of English Language and Culture and a student of the Leiden Honours Academy:

‘It was pure chance, beginner’s luck. I was given a tour of the University Library by Thijs Porck, one of my lecturers, on the subject of the special collections, and how we can use them for our research. At the time I was preparing a presentation as part of Professor Tieken’s ‘Introduction to Late Modern English’ course. Actually, we had requested a different letter (from William Jones to Schultens) and to our surprise we received a whole package of letters, including Schulten’s report of his visit to England. When we leafed through the documents we found the name ‘R. Lowth’ (a very familiar name to students of English Language and Culture), but the letters were signed ‘R. Oxford’. I now know that it was common practice for bishops at the time to use the name of their diocese, and Lowth was then bishop of Oxford.’

Not in the catalogue

To her surprise, Myrte was unable to find the letters in the library catalogue, and it was then that she realised that this could be a very special find: ‘In Schulten’s account of his travels, there was only a reference to the original appendix, nothing more. With such an important name as Lowth, I had expected that the letters would be in the catalogue. When I talked to Professor Tieken about my presentation, that should actually have been about an English diary from the 18th century, she was very enthusiastic. She had not been aware that there were letters by Lowth in Leiden. Luckily, she agreed to my changing my presentation to these letters by Lowth, rather than sticking to the diary idea.’

A pleasant – and valuable – surprise

The Bishop’s Grammar, Robert Lowth and the Rise of Prescriptivism

Last year, Professor Ingrid Tieken-Boon van Ostade published a book about Lowth: The Bishop’s Grammar, Robert Lowth and the Rise of Prescriptivism (Oxford University Press, 2011). This book is largely based on Lowth’s letters, and it was a pleasant surprise for her to discover that there were also letters by Lowth in the University Library.

Tieken-Boon van Ostade explains: ‘The Bishop’s Grammar focuses on Lowth’s grammar, about which there are all kinds of preconceptions. I wanted to use my book to put some of these right. An important part of my research consists of examining Lowth’s letters, because I wanted to show that, contrary to expectations, his grammar rules were not taken directly from his own language use, which in itself is another preconception. I have spent several years collecting Lowth’s letters, and now have a total of 330, 250 of them written by him personally. And now there are another two, so close to home! Eventually, I intend to publish an edition of his letters. Putting together a complete collection of letters is always problematic, as the discovery of these letters confirms. If Myrte hadn’t discovered the new letters, aided by Thijs Porck, I would never have known of their existence.’

Lowth as a person

‘Apart from their importance for our knowledge of the way that Schultens obtained his honorary master’s degree at the University of Oxford, this find is also important for our understanding of Lowth as a person. He is very cautious, but is prepared to assist other people and to approach his network contacts about something that he considers a worthy purpose. Just like Lowth’s son Thomas Henry, Hendrik Albert Schultens was a promising young man.’

‘What is also important is that I have discovered another individual who actually met Lowth, and who was even a friend of his son who had died at much too early an age. In my line of research, all my informants are long dead, but you still want to try to build a picture of what motivated people. These letters, as well as Schultens’ diary, that I have now studied more carefully, will make a valuable contribution to my research.’

Further research on language use and social networks

Myrte is now going to devote her presentation for the Late Modern English course to the newly discovered letters by Lowth. Later, she intends to write an essay on them, focusing on the use of language in the period, but also on how social networks were used. After that, the plan is to write a joint article with Ingrid Tieken for publication.

Special collections

Leiden University Library (UB) has sizeable special collections of national and international standing. The Western manuscripts and private archives contain a total of 500,000 letters. More than 300,000 of these are accessible via the UB’s own catalogue and the national Catalogus Epistularum Neerlandicarum (CEN). Besides letters, the special collections of the UB also contain manuscripts, archives, photos, maps and atlases, oriental collections, old editions, prints and drawings. Holders of the LU-Card can view this material in the Special Collections Reading Room. Many of the items can also be viewed via Digital Special Collections.

Read more

Research profile

Global Interaction of Civilizations and Languages is one of the six themes for research at Leiden University.

Old Caribbean Papiamento text discovered


From Leiden University in the Netherlands:

Third oldest Papiamento text discovered

Leiden University researchers have discovered by chance a note from 1783 in Papiamento. They are working on a linguistic study on confiscated Dutch letters. This study, ‘Letters as loot’, is a project of professor Marijke van der Wal’s.

‘Mi papa bieda die mi Courasson’

First page of Papiamento letter

First page of Papiamento letter

Anna Elisabeth Schermer-Charje wrote a note in Papiamento, signed it from [sic; for] her son, Jantje, and sent it to her husband, Dirk Schermer, who was in Rotterdam at the time. Mi papa bieda die mi Courasson ‘My daddy, my heart’s life,’ bieni prees toe seeka bo joego doesje ‘come quickly to your sweet little child’: thus starts the note that Dirk Schermer never received.

From Curaçao

View of the harbour of Curaçao

View of the harbour of Curaçao

The value of the Papiamento note was confirmed by Creol expert Bart Jacobs at the University of Konstanz. He was unable to hide his enthusiasm when he laid eyes on the note that was sent from Curaçao to Rotterdam in 1783. The Papiamento of today’s ABC islands; Aruba, Bonaire and Curaçao, had always been a spoken means of communication. The two oldest written texts date from the late eighteenth century. This third text has now been added to them. The Leiden researchers found the remarkable document in the London National Archives, enclosed in a Dutch letter sent from Curaçao.

Papiamento heritage document

Professor Marijke van der Wal

Professor Marijke van der Wal

Professor Marijke van der Wal has been working on the project ‘Letters as loot’ since 2008 with her team. The project’s goal is to study the use of language in seventeenth and eighteenth century private letters that were seized by the British in times of war. The study gives new insight into the Dutch of people from different social ranks and positions, so also that of normal men and women from those times. Sometimes there are unexpected ‘extra catches’ such as this foreign language text. This Papiamento heritage document, supplied with explanatory notes, can now be read by everyone.

See also

Turkish origin of Indo-European languages?


This video is called Indo-European Languages Part-1.

From Science News:

Language family may have Turkish origins

Indo-European tongues traced back more than 8,000 years to Anatolia

By Bruce Bower

Indo-European languages range throughout Europe and South Asia and even into Iran, yet the roots of this widespread family of tongues have long been controversial. A new study adds support to the proposal that the language family expanded out of Anatolia — what’s now Turkey — between 8,000 and 9,500 years ago, as early farmers sought new land to cultivate.

A team led by psychologist Quentin Atkinson of the University of Auckland in New Zealand came to that conclusion by using a mathematical method to calculate the most likely starting point and pattern of geographic spread for a large set of Indo-European languages. The new investigation, published in the Aug. 24 Science, rejects a decades-old idea that Kurgan warriors riding horses and driving chariots out of West Asia’s steppes 5,000 to 6,000 years ago triggered the rise of Indo-European speakers.

“Our analysis finds decisive support for an Anatolian origin over a steppe origin of Indo-European languages,” Atkinson says.

He and his colleagues generated likely family trees for Indo-European languages, much as geneticists use DNA from different individuals to reconstruct humankind’s genetic evolution. Many linguists, who compare various features of languages to establish their historical connections, consider Atkinson’s statistical approach unreliable (SN: 11/19/11, p. 22).

Atkinson’s group analyzed 207 commonly used words, including terms for relatives and numbers, in 103 ancient and modern Indo-European languages. The researchers produced possible language trees based on estimated rates at which languages gained and lost cognates, words with similar meanings and shared sounds, such as five in English and fem in Swedish.

The studied cognates are basic vocabulary terms that rarely get borrowed when speakers of different languages encounter one another, Atkinson contends. Thus, in his view, these words provide a valuable window into the evolution of separate branches on the Indo-European family tree.

The researchers combined their language trees with present geographic ranges of individual languages to identify the most likely location and age of the Indo-European family’s origins. An ancient Anatolian root emerged whether the researchers combined linguistic data or separately considered the 20 ancient languages and 83 modern ones.

As a further check, statistical simulations that assumed slow rates of language migration if people traveled along land routes or faster migration rates spurred by water crossings converged on a scenario in which Indo-European tongues originated among Anatolian farmers sometime between 8,000 and 9,500 years ago.

Farmers alone didn’t propel the evolution of different Indo-European tongues, Atkinson says. His team’s proposed trees suggest that new languages began to sprout within the five major Indo-European subfamilies from 4,500 to 2,000 years ago, after agriculture had spread across Europe. Kurgans or other expansionist Indo-European cultures could have instigated those later linguistic developments, Atkinson says.

Atkinson’s statistical reconstruction is unpersuasive, comments linguist H. Craig Melchert of the University of California, Los Angeles. Researchers can confidently rebuild trees of Indo-European languages extending back no more than about 7,000 years, he says.

Many linguists and archaeologists suspect that Indo-European languages originated in what’s now the southern Russian steppes, and that’s unlikely to change as a result of the new study, says linguist Joe Eska of Virginia Tech in Blacksburg. Cognate swapping across languages could have occurred more often than assumed by Atkinson, undermining his conclusions, Eska contends.

Linguists Reveal Ancient Relations Between Language Families: here.