Living Tongues

Living Tongues

Languages, even seldom-used languages, can tell us a great deal about how a group of people categorize the natural and mental world, says Jeff Good, a linguistics professor at the State University of New York at Buffalo (1). Languages are rich in the history and taxonomy of a place, reflecting subtleties that can be lost in translation, says Greg Anderson, an ethnographer who directs Oregon’s Living Tongues Institute (2). When the last keepers of a language die off, so does the fluent understanding of that particular environment.

“As the numbers of languages decline, we lose rich and distinct cultural variations from which we can learn a great deal in fields as far ranging as anthropology, agriculture, linguistics, philosophy, geography and prehistory,” says Good.

Why are languages interesting to a pharmacometrician? Well, I see at least two correlations between language and drug development. As the “ancient culture” of empirical drug development adjusts to the emergence of a “modern culture” of model-based drug development, pharmaceutical scientists not only must learn a new way of thinking but also they must learn the new language that comes with it. For example, efficacy and safety are conceptualized differently in the world of modeling and simulation than they are in the old world of empirical research.

You can see this difference at work when a pharmacometrician tries to solicit information for an analysis plan from a drug development team. The pharmacometrician speaks a language that that might as well be Greek as far as the development team is concerned. Often the two groups don’t even start to understand each other until study results are available, and that can mean having to start over to get the right data for the modeling project. We need to study these differences in conceptualization and develop a common language. We will then be able to gather better requirements for modeling and simulation activities. This, in turn, will lead to a clearer understanding of the role for modeling and simulation in decision-making.

The second correlation of language with drug development is in the following description that Good provides of his work.

The languages of concern to me are in the Bantu language family, which itself includes 500 or 600 distinct languages. The languages I study remain alive in part because the hilly terrain of this area seems to foster language variety and isolates the region commercially and politically. In fact, people living in one village may speak an entirely different language than that spoken in the next village. When these villagers move to a new place, they add new languages to their repertoire, rather than replacing one language with another. Even in large cities they maintain their native languages by attending regular “country meetings” with their fellow villagers.

Doesn’t that description sound amazingly like the silos in pharma companies? The jargon we use within our specialties are the separate languages, and the various research departments are the hilly terrain. AAPS and ACOP are the “country meetings” where we go for the comfort of hearing our own language spoken with abandon (theta, epsilon, omega, Oh My!)

Makes me wonder if linguistics is another of the sciences that must be engaged as we engineer a model-based drug development paradigm.

If that knocked your socks off, just wait until you see our next cool topic. Only one way to find out – come back soon.

(1) Donovan P. Disappearing languages: linguist documents them to link present, prehistoric past. UB Reporter. January 31, 2008. Accessed April 14, 2009.
(2) Simon S. Saving Dying Languages in ‘The Linguists.’ Weekend Edition Saturday. NPR. February 21, 2009. Accessed April 14, 2009.