The Evolang conference in Barcelona that ran from March 12 through 15 gave a strong boost to two ideas that Terrence Deacon promoted as anti-Chomskyan heresies in his book The Symbolic Species: Language and the Brain Co-Evolved (discussed in last week’s post) and Language’s controlling element is semantics, not syntax. For non-linguists this idea is plain common sense, but for linguists of the Chomsky era it is a resurrection as shocking as watching dead Lazarus return from his tomb.
The most insistent argument for semantics came from Derek Bickerton, a linguist who has long gone his own way, but who was at least orthodox enough to accept the dominance of syntax. (See: Words Are More Human than Syntax) According to the book supplied to conference participants, Bickerton had planned to give an altogether different talk, and his presentation surely startled anybody who had studied his pre-conference submission. He rejected neither a biological basis for language nor a universal grammar, but said there was no explanatory need for a “narrow” language faculty in which human syntax separates itself from other primate minds by adding on a capacity for recursion (embedding phrases within other phrases).
Instead, he said we can take a point from Deacon, whom Bickerton mentioned by name, and added that when Deacon’s book first appeared he had disagreed with it. Now Bickerton has reconsidered, at least in part. He agrees with Deacon that “symbolic units” (words) are unique to humans and that aspects of the lexicon are true universals. It is not just that every language is likely to have an equivalent for the English verb “to see,” but that equivalent word in every language will require any speaker who uses the verb to also say who did the seeing and what was seen.* If somebody asks, “Did you see?,” we wait expectantly to hear more. If nothing comes, we are likely to demand, “See what?”
There were other presentations that stressed the importance of meaning. Susan Goldin-Meadow’s report looked at gesture’s capacity to help illustrate meaning. (See: Gesture Adds More Than Structure) She was talking about the iconic gestures—hand waving—that accompanies so much speech, not the linguistic gestures of people using sign language, and she included many bits of video to make her point. Most memorably, she showed a congenitally blind young woman giving directions and moving her hands to show exactly how to get from here to there. Another striking image was of a man making a rather abstract point about negotiations and using his hands artfully to clarify and concretize his abstractions. The gestures expressed the semantics, not the syntax of the speech. When forced to try to express a full sentence in signs, Goldin-Meadow reported, people automatically adopt a system that promotes clarity first, even when it means going against the syntax of their spoken language.
Simon Kirby’s presentation (see: Language Structure is Cultural, Not Genetic) made a similar argument when he described experiments in which structure emerges automatically as people learn to express meanings clearly. Expressivity and learnability, he said, are the key features in the addition of regularity to word order; an innate syntax is not required.
Looking back from this side of Bickerton’s presentation I find it regrettable this his was the conference’s very last plenary session rather than one of the first. It would have been interesting to see if Kirby’s and Goldin-Meadow’s presentations changed in reaction to what he said. Both were stressing semantics and clarity at a time when linguistic orthodoxy emphasized syntax. Would they have shorn up their orthodox credentials by distancing themselves from Bickerton, or would they have embraced the changed and been even more open about it?
For students of speech origins, this shift gets rid of a demand for a syntactical intervention at some point in the story. The orthodox scenario for speech origins was that whatever else happened, there came a moment when a mutation suddenly endowed the human lineage with the ability to perform syntactical recursions. We no longer had to say Jack built this house. A mouse lived in the house. The mouse ate cheese. Now we could say This is the mouse that ate the cheese that lived in the house that Jack built. What happened to make that sentence possible and give speakers able to say such things a reproductive advantage? This question disappears in a puff of smoke.
Does syntax disappear from the story altogether? Did new syntactic powers emerge after we split from the chimpanzee lineage, or are the relationships we recognize things primates too can recognize? (See: Just How Old Are Noun Phrases?) We don’t know, but now we can at least imagine that syntax builds on our primate inheritance while semantic and social evolution led to modern speech.
Next week I will take a look at what survived the Barcelona conference.
* For those browsers looking for counter-examples, I know that see can be used intransitively—e.g., I was blind, but now I see.—but that argument misses Bickerton’s point by a country mile.