November 26 (today) is the great American holiday, celebrating no particular mythological or patriotic event. so nobody is excluded. I'm celebrating with longtime friends and have no time to write a post. Barring some surprise news, my next post will be on Dec 6/7.
This blog is often hard on the imperialism of generative grammarians who take only their own field’s work into account when trying to explain language origins, so naturally I expected to nod my head all the way through an essay in the latest issue of Trends in Cognitive Science complaining that biology’s “great strides of understanding… causes of behavior… are generally ignored in the debate regarding linguistic knowledge, especially in the realm of syntax.” But in the end I was of two minds. The opinion piece, “Language: the perspective from organismal biology,” by Daniel Margoliash and Howard C. Nusbaum (abstract here) makes some excellent points, but the authors seem not to realize that many fields besides organismal biology have “great strides of understanding” to contribute to the study of language origins. (Organismal biology, by the way, is what used to be called biology, the study of living organisms. These days, with cell biology, molecular biology, etc., old-time biology has a fancy new name.)
I just watched the third part of the PBS television series on "Becoming Human." It barely discussed the origins of speech or language, which I suppose is just as well. Better to say nothing than to say something superficial and pretend that it is the whole story. Still, I'm struck by the fact that they did a three hour report tracing the human lineage over about 6 million years and had very little to say about the issues discussed routinely on this blog. The speech triangle, voluntary control of vocalizations, words, syntax ... nope.
A letter to the current issue of Nature has caused a stir among those interested in the evolution of language. It looks at the FOXP2 gene in more detail than any paper has ever done before. It also inspires at least as many questions as it answers, but now at least we have better questions. Also it has dealt yet another blow to the theory that language depends on distinct cognitive modules that permit internal thought and that later interface with motor modules (vocalizing or signing) for “externalizing” what you are thinking. If anything is becoming apparent from FOXP2, it is that language and motor activities are deeply entangled. It also provides more reason to doubt the original recent date ascribed to the gene's mutations.
The letter, titled, “Human-specific transcriptional regulation of C[entral] N[ervous] S[ystem] development genes by FOXP2,” was written by a large team represented by Genevieve Konopka and Daniel Geschwind (abstract here). The journal also had a summary article on the study, “The Importance of Being Human,” by Martin H. Dominguez and Pasko Rakic (abstract here).
The story so far: The FOXP2 gene is a highly stable gene, changing very little over millions of years, but it has changed twice since the last common ancestor with chimpanzees and bonobos, and it turns out to be important to the proper development of language. It cannot be directly responsible for speech, however, because it works by regulating the activity of other genes. (See: The Human FOXP2 Gene) The gene’s role in vocalization has been strengthened by evidence that FOXP2 is crucial in songbirds for enabling young birds to learn how to imitate the songs of their elders, (see: Birds Also Use FOXP2) and making echolocation sounds in bats (see: The Latest on the FOXP2 Gene). A year ago British researchers identified a “downstream” gene (CNTNAP2) regulated by FOXP2. Their report ended by saying that their work was a first step in understanding molecular networks affecting language. (See: A Second Gene Supports Language). Now it is time for another step.
I’ve just read an article in the latest journal of Evolutionary Anthropology that confirms this blog is not alone in many of the most radical positions that it has taken. The view of human nature emerging from the effort to understand language origins differs dramatically from the classic Western position that reason separates us from the animals, and from the Romantic view of the lone genius who pulls civilization along. Those widespread assumptions have strongly influenced the view that language arose when we became smart enough to think syntactically and/or recursively, or when we became creatively enough to think symbolically. They are the commonsense assumptions that still dominate popular media discussions of language and human origins, but have now been challenged now by strong empirical data.
apes have a strong ability to understand the thoughts and intentions of others but they use that knowledge to compete and control, not cooperate or help, and
apes are inventive and create useful tools for themselves, but they do not build on one another’s ideas.
Language is the great demonstration of these differences. It requires a willingness to share (cooperate and help) and modify (build on) existing words and phrases. But that observation provokes an obvious question: how did we become so hypersocial? The authors’ answer is via “cooperative breeding.”
Here’s a book with a novel thesis: the English language has been, to coin a term, Vikingized. A creolized language is a grossly simple pidgin language that has been turned into a syntactically-complex mother tongue. A Vikingized language is the opposite: a syntactically-complex natural language that has been turned into something simpler. Creolization reflects the natural ability of children to communicate richly. Vikingization reflects the natural difficulty adults have learning the subtleties of a foreign language. I find myself intrigued by the idea because I can immediately think of two other languages—Swahili and Afrikaans—that are candidates for the same historical process. If investigation supported that thought, and other Vikingized languages can be identified, John McWhorter’s book (coming out in paperback tomorrow, Nov. 3)—Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold History of English—will have proved to be a real breakthrough in linguistic theory.