Monday, July 1, 2019

Stacking networks based on sign language manual alphabets

This post is the first of a mini-series on sign language manual alphabets. While the evolution of spoken languages has been studied intensively using phylogenetic methods, sign languages have not, as yet.

In this post we will first introduce our readers to a set of stacked networks, and how it assists in establishing ancestor-descendant relationships in a pretty straightforward (but not trivial) case: the evolution of manual alphabets in sign languages. In the next post, I will demonstrate the use of networks for character mapping and putting forward hypothesis about ancestor-descendant relationships.

In 2004, Spencer et al. (Two papers you may want to read...) showed that Neighbor-nets outperform tree inferences when it comes to explicit ancestor-descendant relationships. The data set they used was quite particular: copies of written text. Here, scribes copy a text, and then other scribes, some of them ignorant of the language of the text they are copying, copy the copies. In the paper, the sequence of copies was recorded (the 'true tree'), and then the various texts were transferred into phylogenetic matrices, in order to infer trees and networks, and then this result was compared to the 'true tree'. The best fit of the data to the truth was the Neighbor-net.

This is a compelling conclusion, because, as a planar network and in contrast to median networks, Neighbor-nets don't explicitly place taxa in ancestor-descendant relationships. However, we have shown for many cases here at the Genealogical World of Phylogenetic Networks how ancestors are often placed with respect to their descendants: they are often closer to the center of the graph, or the root when known, and thus they bridge the center or sister lineages and their descendants. We can thus see why Neighbor-nets might be useful in practice.

In this context, the evolution of sign language manual alphabets, ie. the hand-shapes used to represent letters of a written alphabet, should be relatively easy to reconstruct. Once an alphabet is established in a sign language school / community, the ancestor, it will be passed on to other "generations" within the community and other schools / communities, the descendants. However, this is not necessarily a dichotomous process, as depicted in the first figure.

A scheme depicting how manual alphabets may evolve and disperse.

There are a few complications here: for example, hand-shapes may change in course of being used (the hand-shape evolves); contact may lead to exchange or appropriation of hand-shapes (called "borrowing" in linguistics); and, in some cases, entire alphabets will need to be adapted to a particular use. The latter case occurs when changing from one script (Latin, say) to another (Cyrillic or Arabic) — the first formal school for the deaf was established in Paris, for example. As a teacher, I need to decide: Do I take a hand-shape from the morphologically similar letter, or the phonetically similar one? As a scientist, I need to assess the homologies among such hand-shapes without inflicting systematic bias.

Standardization will wipe out local customs and replace them with a multinational standard. For instance, Country 2 in the scheme above, drops its original B-type manual alphabet (red) for an A-type (blue); and in Country 7 both traditions are fused. Over time, originally distinct sign languages may converge due to geographic proximity, or even just feasibility.

The evolution of spoken languages has been studied intensively using phylogenetic methods, and in particular networks are much more commonly found in the linguistic literature than in the biological one. For sign languages we have made a first step in a recently published pre-print:
Justin M. Power, Guido W. Grimm, and Johann-Mattis List (2019) Evolutionary dynamics in the dispersal of sign languages. Humanities Commons.
What excites me about our study is that it combines historical manual alphabets (going back to 1593), which are potential ancestors, with a set of modern-day alphabets, which are their likely descendants. The data set is thus an evolutionary paleontologist's dream (and, possibly, a cladist's nightmare, if we expect a simple tree-like set of relationships rather than a network). As a scientist, I simple love to boldly go where no-one has gone before.

The next figure shows the all-inclusive network from our paper, but focusing on the age of the manual alphabets.

For more linguistic details see the pre-print.
* Historical version(s) of these lineages are not included in our data set

Obviously, there has been quite a lot of evolutionary changes, as well as standardization, going on, although some parts, like the Swedish SL (sign language), have stuck to its unique original. Historical and contemporary Spanish / Catalan are still most similar to the oldest manual alphabets that Justin dug out for our study. On the other hand, the contemporary Norwegian SL is placed far apart from his historical counterparts, and lacks any obvious affinity. Austrian, Danish, and German look back on a long and diverse history, the green "Austrian-origin Group", but the contemporaries have been homogenized by standardization (note the closeness to the International Sign manual alphabet). If we use an analogy with common biological and biogeographical processes (such as range expansion, competition, extinction, etc), then the Austrian-origin Group only survived in a remote island population, where we still find a sort of living fossil, the Icelandic SL.

In contrast to biological data, the old, putatively ancestral, manual alphabets are not closer to the graph's center, or the oldest manual alphabets in our data set. The reason for this seems to lie in the data itself and how manual alphabets evolve, and this will be the topic of the next post(s).

Still, we can isolate some evolutionary pathways, especially when we make time-wise taxon-filtered networks and stack them (see this introduction to stacking and this application using Osmundaceae, a data set including an even larger ratio of fossil taxa to modern taxa).

Fig. 4 from Power et al. Coloring same as above: pink – Spanish; turquoise – French-origin; green – Austrian-origin; orange – Polish; red – Russian; light blue – Swedish Group. The English-origin and Afghan-Jordanian groups are not included, since not represented by historical manual alphabets in our data set

Each of the three networks includes manual alphabets from a certain time period, starting with pre-1840 at the bottom, historical 19th-/20th-century manual alphabets in the middle, and post-1950 manual alphabets in the top network. The dotted links between the networks connect manual alphabets that are included in two of the networks.

Even from these graphs alone, we can say a lot about how ancestors (original manual alphabets in a country) relate to descendants (later and contemporary manual alphabets) and their evolutionary pathways. Here are some examples.

Shortly after the time when the first schools for the deaf were established in continental Europe (late 18th, early 19th centuries), manual alphabets showed quite a diversity, and were very different from their potential Spanish sources, such as Yebra 1593 and Bonet 1620, with the French and Austrian teachers and communities going different ways. The oldest Cyrillic alphabet, Russian 1835, is more closely related to (ancient) Austrian than it is to (ancient) French.

The Swedish manual alphabet of 1866 is a fresh invention. Some hand-shapes may have been borrowed from one or another alphabet in use on the continent, but, as we will see in the next post of the series, includes genuinely new forms.

The French tradition was dispersed into the new World (American SL appears to be a direct derivation from the French, while the Brazilian SL is an adaptation) but remained a relatively homogeneous group. On the other hand, the Austrian-origin languages diversified, in particular within the Danish influence zone. Politically, the Danish king ceded Norway to Sweden in the Treaty of Kiel 1814 (note the distance between Norwegian and Danish languages in the late 19th century), while Iceland was a Danish dependency until 1918, when the Danish-Icelandic Act of Union was signed. Furthermore, the German manual alphabets subsequently diverged from the Austrian source.

The Polish manual alphabet, originally an adaptation of the Austrian-Danish manual alphabets (see the graph in the middle), became closer to the Russian group, with the Latvian sign language taking up an intermediate position. The Cyrillic alphabets evolved further away, too (top graph).

In the following post(s) of this miniseries, we will explain what we learned from simple character mapping on the time-taxon-filtered networks, and how to score manual alphabets in the first place.

Follow-up posts in this miniseries

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