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Selected Books by Edmund Blair Bolles

  • Galileo's Commandment: 2500 Years of Great Science Writing
  • The Ice Finders: How a Poet, a Professor, and a Politician Discovered the Ice Age
  • Einstein Defiant: Genius vs Genius in the Quantum Revolution

« Three Free Papers Worth Reading | Main | Language’s Building Blocks »

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mike shupp

It's long struck me that our hominid ancestors, up to the time of early Homo sapiens, were probably vocal beasts even if they lacked symbolic speech. A large repetoire of sounds for conveying common concepts ("Booh!", "Let's look THERE for things to eat," "Of course, I'll still respect you in the morning", etc.) would have been of immense use, if only for preserving group solidarity ("We're the knights that say 'Nie!'"). I.e., we might have been pre-adapted for more ambitious forms of speech when modern large brains evolved. (or, modern large brains took advantage of our capability for speech to increase our behavioral flexibility).

It is a Just-so Story, I realize.

Raymond Weitzman

As De Boer rightly points out the mechanics of vocalization are such that having a vocal apparatus that mechanically has less degrees of freedom than the human system does not prevent such systems from being a mode of language behavior. So there is more to speech behavior than just the mechanical system that produces it. The big question is “What is this more?” A hint lies in your statement “An ape with the motivation to speak could produce enough sounds to make a variety of single-word utterances.” We know that human infants emit many different vocalizations after birth. We also know that a little later they start to babble, even deaf infants. Furthermore, infants are known to imitate the utterances they hear. But imitation while seeming to be necessary is not sufficient for the development of speech skills. Speech skills are those kinds of vocalizations that are somehow functionally related and appropriate to the environment in which they occur, particularly the social environment. In other words, a necessary and sufficient basis for speech lies in the interactions of human beings in a community. How could speech have arisen any other way? Why and how would an ape or a human being produce even single-word utterances if they didn’t have any one else to talk to?

Karthik Durvasula

I challenge you to provide one quote from the generativist camp that actually says this. :)

"If you want to agree with the generativists and the archaeologists who argue that speech is at most only a hundred thousand years old".

Not one generative article "argues" for this position, if only because it makes no difference to understanding the formal/mathematical properties of language as it exists today

Futhermore, for a generativist, language and speech aren't (necessarily) the same thing. There is a lot more to language than speech.

The argument is always made by defining language as a system of communication with increased vocal control, and then it is said that the generativist claim is provably falsifiable.

But, as definied by any generative linguist worth his salt, language is way more than that - it is a system of communication with very specific mathematical and operational properties.

And to be honest, it hardly makes any difference to the generativist argument when language evolved. It is just speculation on their part, and is always acknowledge as such - and the only evidence provided for the speculation is usually the great social change that is observed (or claimed to be observed) around 50K years. However, the theory itself suffers no consequences from a change in the date.

I have noticed this for a long time on this blog, there is a lot of invective/abuse thrown at the generative position, yet it appears to me that the understanding is based on reading secondary literature on the topic, and not the primary literature. On reading the primary literature, I am not sure there is anyway in which one could come to the conclusions that you state on your blog.

It would be equally pointless of one to read your opinions from someone who doesn't understand them and then make fun of your ideas. It seems to be scientifically irresponsible.

Karthik Durvasula

I did want to say, I am not out to "defend" the generativist position. I would be equally offended if someone caricatured your position to the point of making tangential/contrary claims.

I enjoy the facts/data and discussion you present on this blog. They are thought-provoking, to say the least.

But the, at least, palpable agenda of generative-grammar-bashing is especially embarrassing in the face of the misunderstandings.

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