She won't catch that ball. Space is ambiguous. It is up to the speaker to select items for attention and define the relation between them.
The language faculty has evolved from the capacity for spatial thinking, or at least so speculates theoretical linguist Boban Arsenijević in the current issue of the online journal Biolinguistics (article available here). The article, “From Spatial Cognition to Language,” is provocative and worth thinking about, even for readers who, like me, are skeptical about the existence of a “language faculty” and are doubly skeptical about Arsenijević’s seeming confidence that this supposed faculty works by making the sorts of computations that linguists make when they work out the formal structure of a syntactic statement. But the thesis seems promising, so in this post I going to do more riffing than reporting. Like I said, the article is free, so sign on to Biolinguistics and read it. Meanwhile, I’m going to be like the jazz soloist who takes somebody else’s melody and follows it down a different trail.
John Hawks has published an advanced notice on an article in Nature about work on when the human and chimpanzee/bonobo lineages went their separate ways—6.3 million years ago or less. Hawks is not much of a fan of the article, but the details are worth knowing about. You can find the full post here.
UPDATE: This is a link to an old post. See comments.
Cats that look like humans and humans that look like cats are unknown to nature, but commonplaces of speech. How can that be?
The April issue of the Journal of Anatomy is devoted to review articles on the evolution of humans. The result is as handy as an up-to-date textbook. What’s more, all the articles appear to be free. So I suggest readers jump to the journal’s table of contents and start downloading those PDFs. The article most directly concerned with issues on this blog is “A natural history of the human mind: tracing evolutionary changes in brain and cognition” by a team from The George Washington University’s Mind, Brain and Evolution Center (Chet C. Sherwood, Francys Subiaul, and Tadeusz W. Zawidzki). The most useful part of the article for readers of this blog is probably its listings of mental traits that humans share with apes and traits that are unique to humans. Listening, sharing information, and expressing a boundless imagination all rest on the unique traits.
Joint Attention is often thought to require catching another's eye and a willingness to look in the eye.
It has long seemed to me that if we understood the origins of speech, we would better understand what it is that sets humanity apart from the rest of the animal kingdom. Many people come at the issue from the other end. They claim to identify what it is that sets humanity apart, and then try to relate their conclusion to speech. The proposed X factor might be rational thought, recursive syntax, having a theory of mind, symbolic thinking, tool using, etc. Sometimes the proposed X turns out to exist elsewhere in the primate world, but even when the assumption stands, the approach turns the problem of speech origins into a two step affair:
Explain the origins of X, and,
given X, explain the origins of speech.
I have tried to simplify the problem by coming at from the other end. Learn something about the origins of speech and see what X emerges. After last week’s post (here) it seems to me that an X may have emerged.
Some gestures stay in the mind as sharply as the most memorable phrase.
Simone Pika has published a useful review of ape gestures in the First Language journal, “Gestures of apes and pre-linguistic human children: Similar or different?” (abstract here). I don’t suppose it will bowl anyone over with its finding that while both apes and children can make imperative gestures (e.g., give me food) human children, but not apes, also make “gestures for declarative purposes to direct the attention of others to some third entity, simply for the sake of sharing interest in it or commenting on it” [p. 131]. But when all the different sorts of ape gestures are drawn together it is quite evident that the really peculiar aspect of speech is the presence of what this blog calls the speech triangle, and what Pika calls triadic form. That is, humans are peculiar in having a speaker, a listener, and an outside topic.
Dyadic gestures—actions used to attract attention to the actor—are common enough among apes, but informative triads among apes in the wild are almost unknown. (The one exception: a free bonobo once was observed probably pointing out human observers hiding in the bushes.) Pika says a little ambiguously, “It is therefore quite puzzling why only human beings comment on outside entities simply to share experiences.” I would put it a little differently. It’s quite puzzling how we came to comment on outside entities when no other animal seems to share the need. Once we can give a solid explanation for that puzzle, we will have come a long way in understanding why humans are different.