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Babel's Dawn



A blog about the origins of speech: from primate vocalizations to story telling



Updated: 2017-11-21T16:18:01-05:00

 



A Blog for Internet Neutrality

2017-11-21T16:18:01-05:00

I try to keep my political opinions to myself on this blog, but I must speak up when the blog itself is under threat. It has been possible for me to maintain this blog (now in its 11th year) because...

I try to keep my political opinions to myself on this blog, but I must speak up when the blog itself is under threat. It has been possible for me to maintain this blog (now in its 11th year) because the Internet infrastructure plays no favorites. Google, Facebook and Amazon are big but not so big that they block out access to all the tiny voices that the Internet makes possible.

Internet neutrality, simply put, forbids Internet Service Providers from favoring certain providers. In effect, it prevents the rich Internet sites from slowing down or blocking entirely the sites of other, less rich websites. In other words, a no-money site like this one can still find its audience. My audience is small but surprisingly loyal. Some people have been with me for years.

If you believe that small sites are a valuable part of the Internet, please  take the time to get a little informed and strive to make your voice heard in opposition to the proposed rule changes. The New York Times predicts there will be a huge lobbying effort both pro- and con- neutrality. The big money will be on the side of changing the Internet, but even in the age of Trump the little guy is not without hope of an even break. Let your voice be heard now, lest it be the last time your voice can be heard at all.




Chimpanzees Warning Calls -- How Close to Language?

2017-11-16T19:55:10-05:00

The New York Times has a story in today's Science section about chimpanzees changing their warning call if they think other chimps already know about the danger: The significance of the finding, Dr. Crockford said, is that it challenges the...

The New York Times has a story in today's Science section about chimpanzees changing their warning call if they think other chimps already know about the danger:

The significance of the finding, Dr. Crockford said, is that it challenges the view that only humans keep track of what others know and change their communication to match. “This experiment shows they are monitoring their audience,” she said of the chimps.

That part did not interest me much. Chimps are smart and know something of what their fellows think. This is the kind of finding that gets a reaction when the finder (and Times reporter) have no theory about what matters.

But I have a theory and something else in the story struck me as quite important:

...chimps that thought their fellows were unaware of the road hazard made more alert hoo calls. They also stayed longer to look back and forth from the snake to where they thought their companions were. That’s the way chimps try to show their friends where a danger is.

Why do I think that's a big deal? Because the chimpanzees are drawing attention to something.

It sounds like they are drawing attention to their own location rather than the snake itself. It is not quite joint-attention. The signaler focuses attention on another chimp and the listener looks at the signaler rather than trying to make out the snake. But they have a topic (a snake) and wouldn't have to change much to have a true speech triangle. Keep your eye on chimp behavior during warning signals.

 




Speech's Side Effects

2017-11-12T21:30:39-05:00

Language, at its core and as presented on this blog, is a tool for sharing joint attention in contemplation of a topic. By now it has other functions as well, but the definition I just offered is the sine qua... Language, at its core and as presented on this blog, is a tool for sharing joint attention in contemplation of a topic. By now it has other functions as well, but the definition I just offered is the sine qua non of the phenomenon. When language appeared, it suddenly became possible to discuss or at least report matters of mutual interest. Most definitions ignore the business about joint attention and say something like language is a tool for communicating with symbols. But I have  become persuaded that focusing on symbols misses language’s key feature, the harnessing of attention.Symbol-based theories of language origins look for the introduction of a words, but a better question asks how the human lineage managed to bring attention under control. Attention itself is very old and reflexive. Animals do not control it; it controls them. Any of the senses can be startled and reflexively an animal directs attention to the surprise. Chimpanzees have figured out how to use that reflex. They have been observed slapping the ground and then, when a troop-mate turns its head, the slapper begs for food. Presumably, the apes of 6 million years ago did the same, but joint attention is something else. If a chimpanzee slapped the ground and then, upon catching another’s attention, pointed toward a third thing, perhaps a pineapple bush, we would have an example of harnessed attention producing joint attention. It turns out, however, that chimpanzees do not harness attention to point elsewhere. Their attention-claiming is very much a look-at-me-dammit kind of action. Joint attention is a double phenomenon. A person pays attention to something out there in the world, but is also is aware of the other attender. Joint attention is more complicated than simply paying attention to the same thing. Two strangers can pay attention to the same thing just by standing at the corner and watching for the green light. Joint attention allows one person to say to another, “Boy, it is a long time coming,” and the listener replies, “Will it ever change?” In this case, their common attention of the light signal is complicated by their mutual awareness of the other’s focus on the same thing. That’s joint attention: focus on one thing along with shared awareness of each other. Joint attention might have begun with a sound and a pointer. Ork and point toward a rival band of hunters on the horizon; ork and point toward vultures circling and landing off toward the horizon. Ork may have been just an attention getter, but once attention was combined with pointing, language became inevitable, assuming our ancestors had world enough and time. The cooperative benefits were just too great for evolution to ignore. But what happened to make our ancestors willing to share attention? If speech is a side effect of joint attention, speech has several astonishing side effects of its own. First, talkers live much more of a conscious life than non-verbal species. Attention requires awareness. An animal is startled by a sound or a movement or odor and focuses attention on it, becoming aware of sensations and perceptions. Awareness is a total mystery, but I see no reason to suppose that an elephant at attention is any less aware than a human. However, humans have become such chatterboxes, paying joint attention to one thing after another, that we live in our consciousness much more than any other animal type does. Sure we have plenty of unconscious reflexes and associations shaping our behavior as well, but we can have conscious purposes too. Apes, especially orangutans, are clever and surely have conscious purposes at times, but human civilization is amazingly shaped by conscious purposes. Many people attribute these talents to language, but computers can use language (in a way) but they proc[...]



Language's First Use

2017-10-28T16:23:47-04:00

Why do people talk? That is the central question of this blog: what was the purpose of the utterance, the first time somebody said something? I have been taking it for granted that the first intention was informative, as in... Why do people talk? That is the central question of this blog: what was the purpose of the utterance, the first time somebody said something? I have been taking it for granted that the first intention was informative, as in enemy or carcass thataway. But other ambitions are possible. Maybe language began with a curse or a prayer. I seem to recall reading in Stephen Pinker that cursing uses a different part of the brain, so perhaps we can toss that purpose aside. But was the first utterance a prayer? That doesn’t look impossible. Imagine Homo earlymus on a vast, grassy plain surrounded by barking hyenas. It looks like a good time for a prayer. But prayers require a concept of at least a higher power, and such a concept seems unlikely to arise without there already being a language with which to work out the notion of some kind of power to pray to. It seems a secondary reason to speak, that is a reason to be discovered by a person already endowed with speech. Actually, it seems like a tertiary reason. You have language (for whatever purpose) and then you develop the ability to work or reason out such things as there must be a god of the hyenas, and then you start praying  to said god to call off his earthly manifestations. But if prayer is too advanced a reason for using language, we cannot assume our ancestor trapped on  the African savanna was forced into silence. He/She might have cried out with some sort of magical purpose – say abracadabra and the hyenas will leave. Yet even that seems a bit too advanced for the first use of language. Ancestors surrounded by yelping hyenas may have cried in despair or shrieked in horror, but these sorts of emotional ejaculations are too primitive to be called language. It’s more of a joke than anything else to propose that the first linguistic utterance was Oh no! Magic, by the way, may have led to the whole range of speech acts in which people do accomplish effects by using words as in marrying someone or promising to do something. I don’t think I can rule out on first principles that the first word wasn’t something like Selah or something similar said to seal a new relationship. Another use of language that requires pre-existing speech is signaling attention. One person may be telling a story (using language to amuse) while a listener periodically says un hunh or wow or I see. These interjections are socially important, but by definition require speech to have already existed before they were introduced into human communications. Some people have suggested, tongue a bit in cheek, that language began as a method of deceiving others. Ogg said carcass thataway, when really it was t’otherway so Ogg could have the whole feast to his greedy self. The argument against deception as the original purpose is that language would never have survived if it had been lies from the beginning. For it to become an essential part of our lives, it had to be useful so that we kept language even as we recognized speech meant we would be surrounded by liars. This same argument can be used to dismiss a variety of anti-social purposes behind speech. Donald Trump often uses language to confuse people and situations, but if the first speaker had been a prehistoric Trump, language would have died aborning. Trump also uses language to splinter a group, as happened in his announcement of his candidacy, when he denounced Mexican immigrants, costing him the support of one group but winning the support of anti-immigrant voters. Might the first word have been the prehistoric equivalent of wetback? It ousted one group while increasing the solidarity of another. Language does not have to divide if it is to solidify. Many politicians are able to increase solidarity without splintering. The fine[...]



Rejecting the Axioms of Olde

2017-09-27T18:19:19-04:00

When I began this blog, I assumed the big step in developing language was the creation of the first word. I took it for granted that this was accomplished by yoking a sound and a meaning together to give us...  When I began this blog, I assumed the big step in developing language was the creation of the first word. I took it for granted that this was accomplished by yoking a sound and a meaning together to give us something like chair. I no longer believe either of those things. Today I believe that the big step towards language came when our ancestors were willing to share their knowledge, and that language began when we started pointing things out to one another. The change in my thinking resulted from a doodle I created early in the blog’s history: the speech triangle. Its corners mark a speaker and a listener who focus joint attention on the third corner, a topic. It might seem that we could eliminate the topic and just have that as something shared by speaker and listener, but the role of joint attention forces listener and speaker to focus on the topic rather than each other. If you try to eliminate the topic and redirect attention to the speech itself, you get pointless remarks—e.g., this sentence is six words long—or paradoxes such as: This sentence is false. The way out of this jumble is to realize that language works by directing attention away from the fact of communication to some other topic out there in the universe or in imagination. The topic is a distinct part of the speech triangle. Embrace of the speech triangle puts an end to a search for any relevance in communication and information theory. Claude Shannon’s information theory presents a pair, speaker and receiver, and proposes that the function of communications is for the speaker to control a receiver at a distance. There is no role for either meaning or topic in such a definition. The theory is enough to explain computer networks, heredity, and the hormonal, immune, and nervous systems, but it is not rich enough to tell us anything about language. Efforts to calculate the information content of a sentence mix oranges and apples. The speech triangle also implies that generative grammarians are on a wrong track. Traditional approaches to language imposes no function on verbal interactions; hence, grammar is not asked to contribute to any task. The speech triangle, however, locks in a function. Speaker and listener are paying joint-attention to a topic. Words must be organized in a way that directs attention from one point to another so that the shifts becomes meaningful. Generative grammar’s search for an underlying, common set of rules has been oblivious to the universal task of shifting attention. Another benefit of the speech triangle doodle is that it give us something to look for in other animals when we ponder whether they are using language. Take vervet monkeys. They make one warning cry if they see a snake and another cry if they see a leopard. Is that a precursor to language? Like symbols, the cries have arbitrary meanings, so it might seem a step toward language. On the other hand it is nothing like a discussion of a topic. One vervet yells the equivalent of leopard. Other monkeys look around and when they see the leopard join in making the same warning cry. Soon the trees are filled with the chaotic racket of the jungle. Signals, yes. Speech triangle, no. Elephants, crows, parrots, dolphins… there may be another hypersocial species somewhere that pays joint attention to a topic. Or maybe not. But at least we have something concrete to test. Meanwhile, I have been forced to notice that chimpanzees do not have a speech triangle. I had always thought of chimps as a very social animal. They live in groups, know one another as individuals, engage in some cooperative activities, and (Jane Goodall discovered) keep up family bonds. The absence of a speech triangle draws attention, however, to something they lack. They [...]



How Does Language Work?

2017-08-16T12:14:42-04:00

These days we expect our sciences to have a practical side. We understand how things work and make use of the knowledge. Science began as common sense put into theoretical shape by Aristotle. Thus, pretty much every advanced science has... These days we expect our sciences to have a practical side. We understand how things work and make use of the knowledge. Science began as common sense put into theoretical shape by Aristotle. Thus, pretty much every advanced science has begun by showing what common sense missed and Aristotle got wrong. So common sense says the sun revolves around the earth. Then Aristotle developed a theory of physics that took common sense observations for granted. Aristotle’s physics, however, was purely theoretical without practical benefit. Copernicus, Galileo and Newton overturned that common sense and introduced a more modern physics. The proof of the new science was that it led to practical applications, first in mechanics and later in space travel. At the time of Galileo, Rene Descartes was also introducing a new theory of physics, one that relied solely on logical hypotheses and deduction. Although widely admired at the time, this work has not held up. For one thing, it did not address the common sense of earlier ages, for another it led to no practical or explanatory work. Sixty years ago the study of language grew radical without addressing common sense or Aristotle. The common-sense proposition was that language is meaningful, and the Aristotelean theory was that language works by combining sounds with meaning. Reasonable as this definition sounds, nobody ever figured out how to use it and the practical traditions of rhetoric and composition pay no attention to Aristotle. The linguistics’ movement of the late 1950s also ignored Aristotle and common sense. It pursued questions based on the logical hypothesis that language is a computation. Interestingly, the movement was led by a young thinker whose great hero was Descartes, and like Descartes, the movement’s work has led to no practical or explanatory success. It answers none of the traditional questions about language—e.g., Why are there so many and how can they be so different? What is meaning? How could it have begun? –and offers no practical clues to using language more effectively, or translating texts, or improving speech therapy, or overcoming dyslexia. The problem seems to lie at the assumption that sentences are computations. On its own, the idea has some plausibility. If the brain is a computer, its output must be a computation. In computations, however, the same input produces the same result. In language, the result is not so predictable. If I participate in a soccer game and must report what just happened, I might say I kicked the ball or I sent the ball flying or The ball really jumped off my toe or I missed the goal or Joe was racing for the ball but I beat him to it or … and on and on ad infinitum. This observation brings us back to meaning. Our utterances depend on what we have to say and language seems to communicate meaning. Could Aristotle have been right after all? No. The proposition that language combines sound with meaning cannot be correct. The problem is that meaning is not a physical thing that we can somehow combine with sound waves. It is a ghost that Aristotle inserted into language back when inserting ghosts was no vice. He also inserting yearning into his list of elements: fire yearned to be high in the sky and rose toward the sun; earth yearned to go to the center of the world, so earthen matter fell and even accelerated as it approached its goal. Kicking out the ghosts of physics was not easy because the things that Aristotle explained still needed explaining. The solution lay in saying that the rising smoke and falling meteors are effects of gravity. My work on this blog has likewise persuaded me that meaning is an effect, rather than a cause. The [...]



How Old is Speech?

2017-08-02T15:40:55-04:00

This blog takes the position that language, in the sense of two or more people focusing together on a topic, is quite old. Archaeologists, Chomskyites and others tend to put it as a more recent in the human lineage, about... This blog takes the position that language, in the sense of two or more people focusing together on a topic, is quite old. Archaeologists, Chomskyites and others tend to put it as a more recent in the human lineage, about 100 thousand or fewer years. I put it at approaching 2 million years. My main grounds for thinking such is based on cooperativeness and the idea that it took a long time to create the verbal environment that we now take for granted. Slow evolution I noticed an article from a couple of weeks back about the “truly” bilingual child, and I came across this passage, “Pediatricians routinely advise parents to talk as much as possible to their young children, to read to them and sing to them. Part of the point is to increase their language exposure, a major concern even for children growing up with only one language.” It is a familiar sentiment, but it sparked me to think about the days when language was really new. At first people probably did not have too much to say to one another; talking was an occasional thing, and even today verbal richness is impaired if we are not surrounded by words. When language was new our ancestors could talk, but they were still linguistically impoverished when compared to today’s oral cultures. Their children did not grow up hearing a ceaseless yakety-yak and did not create a rich verbal environment themselves. We can assume that language was first used to relate news of the here and now: there is a carcass we can scavenge yonder; I just saw a lion; your mother is down at the creek. News of this type is not going to produce chatterboxes. For that you need narratives, strings of two or more sentences: (1) there is a carcass we can scavenge yonder; (2) bring some cutting stones. It seems unlikely that early talkers went straight to sentences. The pattern we see in children is probably a quick-time recapitulation of the developmental process—words, phrases, basic sentences; richer sentences; strings of sentences. The jump from words to phrases probably came quickly as a few captive bonobos have managed to join words meaningfully in sign language. I once heard a toddler use a phrase on her first birthday. I was inclined to attribute it to the excitement of a birthday party, but she quickly made phrases a regular part of her speech. Sentences, however, were another matter. When we imagine early talkers—say, Homo erectus and precursors—we ought to think of their language like their tools, simple but persistently part of their lives. And we should try to imagine it staying that simple for perhaps a million years while their brain grew large enough to handle the load. Full, transitive sentences join two things with an action, e.g., the zebra kicked the lion. Children use a few verbs right away—eat cookie; want juice—but most verbs are late in arriving. Some extra maturation of the brain appears to be required for a person to unite two things through a single action. Simply perceiving what happened requires a feat of attention that may be beyond a two-year-old. Anybody who has watched an unfamiliar sport knows how difficult it is to perceive just what happens in complex, unexpected actions. Transitive verbs allow for mythological and abstract thinking. Abstract ideas like not fair are probably very old, but the idea of making something fair—as in I will weigh my mischief in the balance with three days labor—requires a very difficult concept. The verb weigh…in the balance is a metaphor that somehow compares apples (my mischief) and oranges (three days labor). We take for granted blind justice holding up scales, but the original person who spoke of such things was a first-[...]



Language Among the Topsy-Turvy

2017-07-17T19:23:46-04:00

In the last post I commented on the paper “Wild Voices” by Chris Knight and Jerome Lewis in Current Anthropology. The article focuses on the social changes that were required to make language possible. The changes should be generally familiar... In the last post I commented on the paper “Wild Voices” by Chris Knight and Jerome Lewis in Current Anthropology. The article focuses on the social changes that were required to make language possible. The changes should be generally familiar to regulars on this blog. The main one is the switch from a society based on dominance and submission to a community held together by trust and a willingness to cooperate. These behavioral changes have been accompanied by several biological changes as well. One, mentioned before on this blog, is the switch from black to white eyes that make it easy to see where one’s attention is focused. A couple of important reflexive changes have occurred as well. For example, apes respond to threats from others with a reflexive “fear grin” that indicates a nervous submission. That reflex has been transformed into the human smile which signals a relaxed good-humor in friendly company. And laughter provides a weird combination of friendliness and aggression. An example of that not mentioned in the paper is the late night TV anti-Trump satire that bonds the laughing audience while humiliating its target.   The authors speak of a “principle of reversal,” i.e., a series of steps that result in a reversal of the old ape standard to something new. The change of the grin to a smile, turned a signal of submissive fear into one of confident trust. Other reversals saw mothers who never let anyone else touch their infant become mothers who let many others help with the care and even delivery of infants. Another reversal necessary for people using modern languages is the signaling of non-physical facts through ritual.  A wedding ritual, for example, changes the way the entire community understands the relationship between the marrying people. In many contemporary societies this ritual includes vows to love one another, so that language is part of the ritual. And many groups include verbal prayers in their rituals, but more is claimed for the ritual than physical actions. Identities and spiritual natures are said to change. Once introduced, these changes cannot be undone. A shift from black eyes to white eyes is one small shift, but as part of a series of changes that cannot be taken back. something novel and lasting appears. A particularly important change was the new relationship between males and females. Studies of animal behavior typically find the males are dangerous and irresponsible. Male mammals fight for the right to spread their seed and then leave the females to raise any offspring. Particularly bad actors kill rival offspring and mate with the grieving mothers. Somehow humans have developed an enormous variety of cultures in which men help raise the children and keep the brawling over women to a minimum. These changes combine to create a species that is motivated to help one another when trouble strikes, is routinely cooperative, and engages in a series of rituals and actions that cement trust. It might sound as though the authors have strayed pretty far afield from the question of how language emerged in human history, but the their point is that without trust it would be a foolish for speakers to risk revealing what they think, and it would be equally foolish for listeners to believe what they are told. Trust is not easily found and maintained. It requires simple signals like smiles, bonding like shared laughter, and a series of reassuring ceremonies and actions,  This need for a trusting, helpful and cooperative species stands, no matter how you think language arose. Even if you accept Chomsky’s idea that language began as a way [...]



Hey Interesting Topic, What’s Your Name?

2017-07-10T17:53:45-04:00

I want to propose the embrace of an ugly word: logogenology (low-go-jen-ahl-oh-gee). It comes from three Greek words, logos [word], gennesi [birth], and logia [study of], and it names the study of language origins. In other words, it refers to... I want to propose the embrace of an ugly word: logogenology (low-go-jen-ahl-oh-gee). It comes from three Greek words, logos [word], gennesi [birth], and logia [study of], and it names the study of language origins. In other words, it refers to this blog’s beat. Normally I dislike academic coinages, but in this case I think we need to recognize that there is a community of scholars who began in many fields—e.g., linguistics, literature, biology, psychology, archaeology, and anthropology—who share common questions and are interested in one another’s results. Thus a biologist might learn from a linguist and come to a conclusion that is of more interest to that biologist than to most linguists. Instead of identifying themselves as biologists and linguists, it might be better to focus on their shared community and say , “I’m a logogenologist,” even if one has to add, “That’s somebody who studies language origins.” I have come to this position after reading an interesting paper by two people calling themselves anthropologists, Chris Knight and Jerome Lewis. The paper is titled “Wild Voices” and is published in Current Anthropology. They begin their essay, “Anthropology is the study of what it means to be human. So it must be at least part of our job to explain why it is that out of 220 primate species, only humans talk.” The authors seem to be claiming that explaining speech is a part of anthropology, but they concede immediately that their account of language origins requires taking the work from many other fields of study. The third paragraph says: “A word of warning. The way we have constructed this article is novel, and we ask the reader not to be surprised that we conjoin a wide range of previously unconnected fields. Our basic idea is simple: using language is so closely bound up with everything else humans do—singing, ritual, kinship, economics, and religion—that no separate, isolable theory of its origins is likely to work.” While the authors seem to be writing for anthropologists, they acknowledge that their data comes from many other fields. Members of the language-origins community will find nothing startling in the connections the authors make. So why not just admit that there is a community of scholars who use data originally developed in a variety of other fields to answer questions that are peculiar to the new community? The main logogenological question is how did language begin, and there are a variety of sub-questions too such as when did it begin, what bodily and cognitive changes were required, how did it become universal to the species, etc. The first section heading in the Knight/Lewis paper poses a common sub-question of the field, “Why Do Only Humans Talk?” The authors give a shockingly brief answer: “Since language is not a system for navigating within the physical or biological world, it follows that nonhuman primates—creatures whose existence is confined to the realm of brute facts, not institutional ones—will have no need for either words or grammar.” What? Where did that premise come from? It seems to be based on an anthropological dictum that “words and grammar are means of navigating within a shared virtual world.” Here we see the circular trap that comes from acting as though one of logogenology’s contributory fields is able to answer logogenological questions. Anthropology is the study of the various virtual worlds (cultures and institutions) created by humanity. Thus, the element of language that interests anthropologists is how language helps members of a group navigate that [...]



Attention and Language

2017-06-11T23:18:58-04:00

The most important thing I have learned in working on this blog has been the relationship between language and attention. Language, I have concluded, works by sharing and directing attention to a topic. It is really that simple, yet it... The most important thing I have learned in working on this blog has been the relationship between language and attention. Language, I have concluded, works by sharing and directing attention to a topic. It is really that simple, yet it is rich in implications. Evolvability Attention is widespread in the animal world and all primates, certainly all apes, are well endowed with the ability to direct their attention to different points in their environment and stay focused on a task for an undefined length of time. Thus, any special human attention tasks such as joint-attention, interactive attention, etc. that language might demand only call for tweaks of the system, not wholly new mechanisms. Anybody interested in language origins should find this approach to language simplifies the evolutionary puzzles. Demystify meaning Meaning has always been a mysterious concept, rather like that of the soul, only meaning is the soul of the word rather than the body. How does meaning get into a word or sentence in the first place. Is it in the speaker’s head? Does the sound carry meaning to the listener’s head? Or is the meaning outside the body altogether? These questions, which come up when considering thought experiments like the Chinese Room, carry their own alarm bells. Where is the meaning? That question can only make sense if meaning is a thing. We can get rid of the confusion if we say meaning is not a thing but a response. Words pilot attention. All the many mysteries about where meaning is, how it is communicated, what changes it, etc. begin to look ridiculous as we see that all such questions assume that meaning has some kind of presence. People can be said to understand a language when their attention is directed by the words and sentences of that language. Computers may be able to translate languages perfectly decently, but we can still maintain that they don’t know the meaning of what they are doing because their processing never involved directing attention. Any philosopher of language should appreciate the firmer basis on which to consider meaning. (Personal note: It was my recognition of the demystification that persuaded me to grab the attention idea and see how far I could run with it.) Grounds language in perception Attention is a function of perception, so it should not be surprising if language has many of the features of a perception. Perceptions are always perceptions of something and language is always about something. Perceptions always have a point of view and speech does too. Perceptions organize sensations into a foreground and background, and language can do the same. The foreground of an utterance is the focal point of attention. For example, if a person focuses auditory attention on a honking goose while only being vaguely aware of other sounds, a speaker can restrict an utterance to the focal point—A goose honked angrily—or include background details—A goose honked angrily over the hens’ clucking sounds. There is enormous room for exploration here and this grounding in perception should provide much fodder for critics, gestalt psychologists, and psychologists of the newer, embodied-mind school. Explains syntactic structure Perception redirects attention and syntax works by controlling shifts in the listener’s attention. I argue this case in detail elsewhere and am confident that attention based syntax can explain even the strongest observations made in favor of a Universal Grammar and it has the extra benefit of making sense. Syntactic structure reflects the limits of attention and memory an[...]



Which came first: Words or Syllables?

2017-05-24T19:25:24-04:00

Back when this blog was starting out I reported on a paper given by Judy Kegl (now Judy Shepard-Kegl) at a conference in South Africa. Kegl is an expert on sign language and had observed a new sign language emerge... Back when this blog was starting out I reported on a paper given by Judy Kegl (now Judy Shepard-Kegl) at a conference in South Africa. Kegl is an expert on sign language and had observed a new sign language emerge at a school for the deaf in Nicaragua. She listed four innate qualities that lead to language: (1) love of rhythm or prosody, (2) a taste for mirroring (imitation), (3) an appetite for linguistic competence, and (4) the wish to be like one’s peers. I found this an interesting and plausible list and have wondered why I don’t see more references to it. Rereading that old post has made the silence more comprehensible. It is entirely human and childish and has nothing to do with computation, or syntax, or conditioning. The scene it brings to my mind is of a playground during class recess. The kids are lined up playing jump rope, chanting their rhymes as the rope twirls. Dashing in, making their leaps and dashing off. It is non-serious, but recognizably human. Other animals rough-house and tumble together but they do not form rhythmic play groups. We are too pompous to look to playgrounds for information about our own natures.I was reminded of that old post when I read a paper by Wendy Sandler, “What comes first in language emergence?” which is included in a volume entitled Dependencies in Language. She offers the following provocative sentence: The pattern of emergence we see [in sign languages] suggests that the central properties of language that are considered universal—phonology and autonomous syntax—do not come ready-made in the human brain, and that a good deal of language can be present without clear evidence of them. [page 65] She explains that in established sign languages, words do have a “phonological” structure. That is a set of ways of holding the hand and using the face and body to create and differentiate words. She offers this example from Israeli sign language. The signs for send and tattle call for the same hand gesture, but one is held away from the body and the other is close to the mouth. The spatial location is the equivalent of a spoken distinction between cattle and rattle. One phoneme makes all the difference. There are also body movements that achieve the same effect as intonation. Established sign languages have a clear duality of patterning, i.e., a level of repeated signs that are meaningless in themselves but gain meaningful when combined in agreed upon ways. A recently developed sign language, Al-Sayyid Bedouin Sign Language (ABSL) shows that the first signers did not have these “phonemes” from the beginning. Even now when the first signers are old they still use only hands to make words and do not make distinctions based on location or body movements. A dictionary of 300 signs in ABSL fails to show any “evidence of a discrete, systematic meaningless level of structure.” [71] Among the youngest signers, however, indications of phonemes have begun to appear, not so much to differentiate between words as to make articulation of a word easier. I must comment, however, that ease of articulation may vary by culture. I was always taught that we said an apple instead of a apple, because it is easier to say if you slip a consonant between the two vowels. Then I found myself trying to explain the rule to Swahili speakers where double vowels are routinely articulated as two consecutive sounds with no consonant in between. So the issue of ease of articulation suggests to me that some culture-bound norms may be making their way into ABSL. But this is beside the main point which is that[...]



News From Prairie Dog Town

2017-05-15T14:16:33-04:00

This week’s New York Times Sunday Magazine has an article titled Can Prairie Dogs Talk? The answer is so obviously no, that one is forced to read it to see what kind of case the author can make. Turns out... This week’s New York Times Sunday Magazine has an article titled Can Prairie Dogs Talk? The answer is so obviously no, that one is forced to read it to see what kind of case the author can make. Turns out he makes an interesting one. It is easy to come up with a definition of language that bars prairie-dogese. If you define a language as the set of sentences that can be generated by its syntactical rules, why then the answer is still no. Prairie dogs do not speak in sentences and appear to have no generative syntax. But I don’t define language that way. A biologist with the unusual name of Constantine Slobodchikoff has been studying prairie dogs for decades. He has demonstrated that the varmints make a distinct sound when people appear and a different sound when a coyote appears. This kind of thing has long been known about vervet monkeys and suggests the minimum that one can try to pass off as a language. However, the vervet sounds appear to be innate rather than learned and prompt different reactions: tree climbing in case of the leopard warning, ducking under bushes for the hawk or eagle warning, and bolting upright while checking the ground for a snake warning. Maybe these shouts are words, although there is no reason to insist on it. The vervets have a small set of distinctive warnings that produce different responses in the listeners. Perhaps prairie dogs have something similar, except for the fact that their response to pretty much any danger is to run down into their underground world. Let’s remind ourselves that in human language, words are cultural inventions that can be understood in a context. Some words like into and doesn’t require other words if they are to mean anything at all, and some words like table have a default meaning, but if said alone are likely to provoke a response along the lines of What about a table? Or perhaps the speaker is eighteen-months old, in which case the response may be yes, it’s a ping-pong table. It is going to take more than this to argue that vervets or prairie dogs have words. Then Slobodchikoff took his work a step further, sending students wearing different colored tee shirts to wander amongst the prairie dog grounds. The animals made their usual human warning but combined it with another sound that varied according to tee-shirt color. It seems the prairie dogs might be speaking phrases. Some scholars object to the proposal because there is no visible reaction to the different bits of color information, but that point misses one of the unusual features of language. Language needn’t produce any reaction at all in the audience. I can sit in a chair for two hours reading a book, showing no response beyond the occasional turning of a page. Yet I can then arise from my chair a changed man. The only way you might discover the change is three months later I say something based on that book. Suppose that some humans belong to an environmental group and when they go hiking they wear their organization’s green tee shirt. They pride themselves on the way they don’t mess with nature, and they pose no threat to the prairie dog community. But perhaps there is another group, this one a gang of trouble makers who wear red shirts and like to indulge in sadistic torment of the prairie dog, pouring gasoline down the holes and setting it on fire. Suddenly the human/green and human/red cries carry important, distinctive bits of information. I do not know, and the article does not say, but it suggests an area for further research: do the prairie dogs ever make use of the [...]



The Ultimate Test

2017-04-18T13:39:30-04:00

I got a letter the other day that presented a theory of language my correspondent wanted me to consider. Regrettably, I doubted his idea could be accomplished by plain old evolution and I told him that I cannot take seriously... I got a letter the other day that presented a theory of language my correspondent wanted me to consider. Regrettably, I doubted his idea could be accomplished by plain old evolution and I told him that I cannot take seriously any account of language that requires a miraculous beginning. Years ago I read Stephen Pinker’s famous book The Language Instinct. Pinker is a gifted writer and his book is filled with interesting and entertaining facts, but I could never persuade myself to even consider his account of how language works. His system requires a set of modules in the brain for generating sentences. If language had been evolving for 15 or 20 million years I might have said OK, but we have had nowhere near enough time to evolve and perfect the linguistic modules Pinker talks about. Back in 1970 it struck me that evolution had played an important part in language origins and ever since that time I have required ideas about language origins to make evolutionary sense. So naturally I was delighted when reading Daniel Dor’s chapter, “The Evolution of Language and Its Speakers,” in The Instruction of Imagination, I came across this passage: The question of the evolution of language… [is] the most crucial bottleneck that any theory of language should be able to squeeze through…. For every theory of language we should thus ask: how is this evolvable? [p. 184] What makes a language evolvable? First, language should be adaptive; it should solve some problem. This may seem like an easy one, as language is so generally useful, but we always run into the fact that only humans have language. Why don’t many other species converse, if language is so darned useful? The most obvious answer is that it solves a problem faced only by humans. In writing this blog, I have found the problem of adaptation peculiarly vexing. The work of Michael Tomasello has been particularly helpful. His thesis is that humans alone live in dependent communities where we share things or die. Many thinkers try to finesse the issue by saying some primary support for language (e.g., recursive capacity, control of the lips, the ability to breathe irregularly while talking, etc.) evolved for some reason other than language and was co-opted by language. But this only pushes the question back a step. Why did that first step evolve? Many scholars seem willing to say the reason is unknown. Dor closely examines the adaptive issue in the notorious Hauser, Chomsky, Fitch paper of 2002 in which the authors propose that language depends on a recursive capacity that may have evolved originally for some task other than generating syntax. Dor groans: There is nothing here but a weary and desperate attempt to keep the essence of language … away from … evolutionary expression. Of course, capacities may evolve for one function and then be adapted for others, … but in such processes the capacities evolve and change to fit their new functional contexts: they do not stay the same. [187] Many attempts at evolutionary accounts begin with a genetic mutation that produces some novel benefit. But Dor is strong on the point that mutation need not be the trigger. The environment to which an organism is well adapted may change, tossing the creature into a sink or swim setting. New patterns of behavior will arise and, if they prove helpful, the genes will bring up the rear and evolve to support the new behavior, turning something burdensome into something easy. This explanation may seem scandalously Lamarckian, urgi[...]



Following the Experience

2017-03-19T22:15:38-04:00

Sorry about the interruption in my discussion of Daniel Dor’s book, The Instruction of Imagination. Let me assure you that the problem was entirely due to life’s trivialities and had nothing to do with the book itself, which is a... Sorry about the interruption in my discussion of Daniel Dor’s book, The Instruction of Imagination. Let me assure you that the problem was entirely due to life’s trivialities and had nothing to do with the book itself, which is a very important, fresh look at language. One of the real pleasures of this blog is that it gets me to read books like  this one. Dor’s thesis is twofold: language is socially constructed and it is used “to instruct imaginations.” This latter point means that we use language to bridge the gap between the speaker’s and listener’s experience, so that the listener can imagine what the speaker is saying. This may sound familiar, but Dor is radical in his insistence on the social construction part. Consider, for example, how Dor accounts for our knowledge of word meanings. At the opposite end of Dor’s theory is that of Chomsky, who insists that word meanings come from an innate collection of symbols. This theory is so perverse that if I were to spell it out in detail, you would suppose I was attacking the airiest of straw men. A more moderate version of innate symbols is Pinker’s notion that we are born with some symbols and then develop more in accordance with experience. Common sense, of course, tells us that we get our words from the world around us. Hence, we learned to say men, the French learned hommes, and the Zanzibaris watu. The trouble with common sense is that you cannot program a computer to learn language just by listening. You must provide your computer with a starter dictionary of symbols. And if computers require a built-in dictionary, we too must need one. After all, the brain is just a form of computer. Then comes the next problem. Consider a sentence like Peter set a trap. My American Heritage Dictionary has 14 different definitions for set when used as a transitive verb. Then these 14 definitions have a variety of sub-definitions, giving us a minimum of 40 possible meanings in this syntactic context. Trap as a noun is simpler, but still has a possible 15 meanings, yielding 600 (15 x 40) possible meanings for what Peter did. This multiplicity drives programmers mad, but as Dor points out, language users seem quite oblivious to the problem.  They go straight for the meaning appropriate to the situation. How do they master this when computers are so troubled by it? Dor denies that humans consider each word separately. Words are part of a web held together by experiences (both real and imagined) of language users. Thus, when we hear Peter set we do not wonder which of the many definitions of set applies here. Instead, we see what experiences are evoked as the speaker continues. We cannot tell from the sentence exactly what kind of trap is referred to, but we can tell that set here means Peter caused a trap (real or metaphorical) to be in proper working order. It never even occurs to us to rule out the definition of set meaning to cause to sit. How do we manage? Although words are mostly ambiguous, phrases point to “a single experiential cluster around an experiential anchor.” [p. 84] I take that to mean the phrase draws our attention to a general range of experience that is associated with (anchored to) a more specific experience. Let’s say that for me trap evokes a mouse trap, and setting one gets me imagining me baiting a mousetrap with a bit of cheese and putting it down. That’s my private response, but in social usage I know that setting a trap can be a broader, less [...]