Darwin and the World Wide Words

By Janaina de Aquino

Recently, researches at the University of Pennsylvania have discovered that the African San people are the most ancient race in the world. According to the study, the genetic DNA of the San people was more diverse than any other group and their ancestors had migrated from the continent to spread their DNA throughout the world. Scott Williams, investigator in the Vanderbilt Center for Human Genetics Research, claimed that “as one moves away from Africa, genetic diversity declines rather dramatically” . Likewise, “as human beings spread out into isolated communities, [language] stresses and peculiarities develop”.

BBC webpage reports that “a large amount of the group's data comes from populations that have never previously been studied genetically. This allows the map to provide an entirely new link between biology, and existing anthropology and linguistic information”. This linguistic information is possible due to the fact that it was identified the same language features spoken by San people in other East African languages. A research conducted in 2003 indicated the San language might be the key to explain human language origin.
In light of this, it is possible to better understand why human phenotypic diversity is rather similar among internal and neighbouring populations but gradually distinct from those distanced. Interestingly, the research discoveries also give room to comparison with language development. Although different populations may [virtually] speak the same language, it is clear the way they speak it shall differ considerably. The oft-quoted example of BBC English and General American language differences demonstrates this distinction.

Nonetheless, such a distinction occurs among the unnumbered languages and dialects spread around the world or inside a country, such as the peculiar language varieties between Spanish spoken in Spain and Mexico and Peru or Portuguese spoken in Portugal and Brazil and Angola. Notice that the examples given occur narrowly from three different continents:

From this point of view, it resembles the early Darwin’s tree of life, which shows how species are related through evolutionary history along branches. However, recent researches have indicated that the symbolic tree is ‘wrong and misleading’ as “evolution is far too complex to be explained by a few roots and branches”¹.

Scientists now talk about a “tangled bank” (Darwin himself wrote about it), meaning that “instead of genes simply being passed down individual branches of the tree of life, they are also transferred between species on different evolutionary paths”².

Illustration by Thomas Porostocky; Photographs, from left, by Michael Sanderson; Mciary Altaffer/Associated Press; Tal Dagan and William Martin

Similarly, the history of language development and particular accent include a number of combinations through loan words process, ethnic backgrounds, external foreign interactions, and so on. Thus, the hypothetical language parallelism shall, according to the “tangled bank”, look like:

Going from the colonization legacy, the illustration above would be understood as Spanish and Portuguese settlers ‘lending’ their native language to the colonizing people. Simultaneously, these settlers would ‘borrow’ words or expressions from the native people. In addition, once settled in the same continent, countries like Peru and Brazil would be able to interchange (∩, in the illustration Box ) language over the years. On the other hand, the early Spanish and Portuguese spoken in the colonies began to differ progressively, regardless of whether as a result of political reasons, as it was the case of American and British English, or space distance.

The webpage Englisch-hilfen.de explains that the German word “Gesundheit” is used in American English after someone sneezes, just like in German Speaking countries, but any or a very few Americans do not really know what it means.

According to the referred webpage, “the expression arrived in America with early German immigrants, such as the Pennsylvania Dutch, and doubtless passed into local English usage in areas with substantial German-speaking populations. The expression is first widely attested in American English as of 1910, about the time when large numbers of Yiddish-speaking Ashkenazi Jews immigrated to the United States. The correct Yiddish pronunciation is gezunterheyt”.

Furthermore, the webpage reports that the word is also used in Australia, and was imported to the southern of the country through the Evangelical Lutheran refugees who fled the established Lutheran church in the east of Germany. Also, it explains that “occasionally in popular culture, if a character in, for example, a cartoon says a particularly long or complex word or phrase, someone else will often sarcastically say "Gesundheit!" in return, owing to the awkwardness of the way the word sounds”³. Rather curiously, some Brazilians say the word “Saúde!” (something like ‘(God) bless you’ after someone sneezes) for the same situation.

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