I’ve been reading a biography of Augustus Caesar and taken its warning. Probably no life in the ancient world is better documented, and yet there are many things about that period which are hidden behind a perpetual fog. It’s a reminder of the vanity of this blog which seeks to understand things that are completely undocumented and hidden behind the great screen of time. There are no sharp boundaries or turning points in our story. So the question I have been probing all this week (see 1 2 3) of just where to place the boundary marking an end point for speech origins is sure to have a vague answer.
One of the axioms of linguistics is that all languages are equal. You may prefer the English of many millions to the Chividunda of a few thousand, but the two languages are equally expressive. Anything one of them can say, the other can say. Is it true? And if it is true, how can anyone possibly know it? This week Babel’s Dawn is trying to get a handle on where the border lies between the biological properties that support language and the cultural properties that distinguish a particular language.
One question I have been avoiding on this blog is the boundary between two kinds of speech evolution. Babel’s Dawn is about the evolution of speech itself, the transformation from vocalizing to talking. But there is a second kind of evolution, the sort that in a thousand years transformed spoken English from a Germanic, inflected language to the Frenchified, word-order thing we speak to day. The first kind was the result of Darwinian evolution, the second reflects changes of culture and habit. The trouble begins when you try to show where one begins and the other ends.
Our regular post returns Monday, in the meanwhile you can check out news that songbirds alter their songs to meet the needs of urban environments. With so much noise pollution birds have a hard time being heard, so they have adapted their songs to carry above the city's racket. This blog's position that speech is used for joint attention means that songbird communications are not a form of language, but their flexibility still makes for a good story. (Press release here.)
The Simpler Syntax discussed on the blog all this week appears to been developed in response to
overwhelming evidence from comparative ethology [i.e., animal psychology] that the behavior of many animals must be governed by combinatorial computation [i.e., putting 2 and 2 together]. … Thought [may be] highly structured in our nonlinguistic relatives—they just cannot express it. Combinatorial thought could well have served as a crucial preadaption for the evolution of … human language. (p. 416)
This week Babel’s Dawn has been looking at an article titled “The Simpler Syntax Hypothesis” that appeared in the September issue of Trends in Cognitive Science (abstract here). It points towards solutions for several issues of interest on this blog, notably the evolution of syntax (discussed yesterday) and certain technical problems connected with unspoken meanings.
There is an old lyric sung by Andy Williams and Julie Andrews, “Not a word need be spoken in our language of love.” Very romantic, but obviously something of a problem in theories of language that say words are the pilots of attention.
Yesterday’s post (here) discussed an essay (abstract here) in the in the September issue of Trends in Cognitive Science that sets forth a theory called "Simpler Syntax" as a rival to the dominant, Chomsky-inspired theory of a syntax rich enough to capture all meanings not covered by the bare words themselves. Today I want to look at Simpler Syntax's implications for the evolutionary origins of syntax.
Standard theory (as illustrated at the recent Stellenbosch conference) imagines a preliminary protolanguage with one or more evolutionary jumps leading to syntactical speech. Protolanguage might consist of single words or a couple of words joined together in no particular order. In short, it’s what we see in children today. Around their first year they start speaking single words; half a year or so later they begin adding two words together. That last seems so natural that most parents don’t even notice when it begins. By age three they are lumping three or more words together in a loose order, when suddenly they begin speaking in true sentences.
This blog has lamented several times the absence of an attentional syntax of some sort. We need, or at least I need, a way to discuss the relation between words in terms of the attentional triplet (speaker, listener, topic). Thus, I have been pleased to find an essay in the September issued of Trends in Cognitive Science that suggests what such a syntax would be like.