This blog's fourth anniversary has rolled around. More notably, the 20th anniversary of Steven Pinker and Paul Bloom's famous paper, "Natural Language and Natural Selection," seems to be upon us. Like it or quarrel with it, Pinker-Bloom broke the dam that had barricaded serious inquiry since 1866 when the Paris Linguistic Society banned all papers on language's beginnings. The Journal of Evolutionary Psychology is marking the Pinker-Bloom anniversary by devoting its December issue to the evolution of language. The introductory editorial, by Thomas Scott-Phillips, summarizes language origins in terms of interest to the evolutionary psychologist, making the editorial a handy guide to the differences between evolutionary psychology and evolutionary linguistics.
- Function: what use is the trait or activity?
- Mechanism: how does the trait or activity work?
- Phylogeny: how did the trait or activity evolve?
- Ontogeny: how does the trait or activity develop in a modern individual?
The table lists 20 questions that have been asked about language origins by different language scholars, and it categorizes the questions according to the list found above. Half (10) of the questions are about phylogeny. This listing may be biased as six of the questions come from Derek Bickerton and all of his have to do with how language evolved. The other big area is mechanism; seven of the questions ask how language works. Two have to do with ontogeny, but that may be misleading because the study of language in children is a large field, but its results are generally ignored by students of language origins. The table also includes two questions about function. (That totals 21 instead of 20 because one of the function questions is linked with phylogeny).
Function is a bit more controversial than that count indicates. The chief reason people don't ask about function is they come to the subject with an answer already in mind and are not much open to change. Some scholars assert that the function is communications; others say thought is the function. People differ, but the answer seems settled for each researcher. Scott-Phillips'paper does not consider a third, more empirically based function that comes out of the Tomasello approach and focuses on language's cooperative role. On this blog the function of language/speech is to enable joint engagement with a topic.
I call my position 'empirically based' because it emerges from observation about how language works. When I began this blog four years ago I had no notion about joint attention and language's function. I came to my current view because I see that language works by directing attention from point of focus to point of focus, creating a perception (or pseudo-perception).
There is also empirical evidence based on comparative, or phylogenetic, information. Apes in the wild do not point. Immediately I must hedge that statement. Apes in captivity will sometimes point in response to a question. In this same issue of JEP is a survey of this question and, according to Scott-Phillips, it looks "at the effects of early rearing" on pointing. Apes reared in a "complex cultural environment" [I love the way we can't just say 'human environment'] can do some pointing. Pointing is like using sign language; apes raised in captivity can do a little bit of it, but that simply indicates that we did not need to evolve new powers to get started. What we needed was motivation, and maybe a bit more intelligence to see the good of it.
This past week, after reading Scott-Phillips' paper, I found myself in New York's Lincoln Center, waiting by the fountain for some friends. Since I was waiting for people, I sat on the fountain ledge looking outward. Everybody I saw was looking past me toward the fountain. A steady stream of young parents arrived with small children, and all the children loved the fountain. They looked at it with popping eyes; they went rushing toward it, alarmed parents trailing behind, and they pointed. Time and again they pointed at the fountain. Frankly, it is just plain silly to suggest that chimpanzees do anything similar. It is not that they cannot do it; plainly they can. They have the body for pointing, the intelligence for it, and on occasion, in quite unnatural circumstances, will do a modest form of pointing, but even then they haven't the motivation or the enthusiasm that erupts from small kids. In brief, apes do not have the phylogentic history for pointing out topics for mutual engagement and enjoyment.
How and why did we start such weird behavior? The old question about language origins was how did we start using words? For some, that question moved on to how did we start forming sentences? But I have now switched to Tomasello's question. Whence comes the motivation and enthusiasm for mutual engagement? What happened to make our ancestors willing to use their existing capabilities to work together toward a common goal?
So on this blog, the answers for the evolutionary psychology list of concerns says:
- Function: enable joint engagement with a topic.
- Mechanism: direct attention from point of focus to point of focus, thereby creating a joint perception (or pseudo-perception).
- Phylogeny: ancestral lineage developed motivation and enthusiasm for engaging.
Four years ago when I began this blog I wasn't thinking about any of these issues. So I have either learned or lot from the process of continual blogging, or I have been driven mad by it. I doubt I've lost my mind because the answers point toward one another. I have different sources for the different points. Thoughts on the mechanism began when I read Marchetti and were sharpened by Dessalles. Phylogeny comes out of reading Tomasello. Function comes from my doodle of the speech triangle. Each point has proven a useful thought supporting multiple posts, and they all seem to support one another.
I come to the same conclusion I always feel in my anniversary posts. For me, the blog has been time well spent. When I was finally joined by friends at the Lincoln Center fountain we went to see a new movie, Catfish, which does not inspire much enthusiasm for the new media on the Internet. But this blog has proven to my satisfaction that the web can be a grand source for learning; it has permitted me to begin and maintain a project that would have been impossible without the Internet.