In his autobiography, Bastard Tongues, Derek Bickerton said that most science papers don't lead to anything, either for the author or for others. I suppose that's so, but papers as a class remain the seeds of science. That's where ideas and facts are passed around. I'm not sure how many papers I have discussed on this blog, but it is in the hundreds and some few have turned my thinking around. Others have opened horizons I didn't even realize were out there. Here's my list of the must-read papers for understanding language origins. I thought I would whittle the list down to the top ten, but I couldn't shave it quite that close.
When I began this blog I was in exactly the position Tecumseh Fitch describes in his text book on The Evolution of Language. Meaning was a pure mystery to me and blocked all hope of explanation. I thought of meaning as something added to language. I was saved by
- Giorgio Marchetti (2006). A Presentation of Attentional Semantics. Cognitive Processing, 163-194. Marchetti showed me a new way of thinking about meaning, as something language does rather than carries. Words have meaning because they pilot attention, not because they are paired with something as mystical as the soul. (See: Attention! It's a Revolution)
If words work by directing attention, it follows that language is related to perception. After all, attention is a function of perception. A book by Jean-Louis Dessalles (Why We Talk) got me thinking in this direction, but particularly important was
- Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini (2008). Novel Tools at the Service of Old Ideas. Biolinguistics. This piece was a book review, a genre I've reported on only a few times. I did it in this case because, although I disagreed with the author, his facts were invaluable and fit in with my search for a way to understand language and perception. Language is pereception by other means. (See: The One Model that Works)
I also want to mention two presentations at conferences
- Susan Goldin-Meadow (2008). Gesture Adds More Than Structure. Evolang Conference. Barcelona, Spain. (See: Gesture Adds More than Structure)
- Judy Kegl (2006). The Whole Shebang: Looking at language as a human trait. Cradle of Language Conference. Stellenbosch, South Africa. (See: 4 Instincts Led the Way)
These two women both made presentations on gesture. What they had to say was based on observation and quite original. Goldin-Meadow's point was that gesture contributes something to a spoken sentence. It illustrates and makes concrete the things that are hard to point at. Meanwhile, Kegl spoke about what enabled deaf children in Nicaragua to create a sign language:rhythm, imitation, competence, and the wish to be like others.
All of these things—attention, perception, illustation, and Kegl's points—have a clear biological basis. It is not necessary to imagine some kind of remarkable mutation that permits meaning. These elements are concerned with pragmatics ( how context and other features contribute to understanding) rather than focusing on computations and syntax in my definition of what evolved.
Changes in Brain Circuitry
Decades ago I read Eric Lenneberg, The Biological Foundations of Language, and was of course aware that the rise of language involved serious changes in the brain. I also came to the blog having read Terrence Deacon's The Symbolic Species, which covered brain structure and the co-evolution of brain and language, quite a brilliant point. But I began this blog with few expectations concerning the brain. Three papers dealt with brain circuitry and taught me how new brain functions can be built from old ones. Linking existing functions in unprecedented ways can create new capacities.
- Peter Mundy & Lisa Newell (2007). Attention, Joint Attention, and Social Cognition. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 269-274. This paper provided an explanation of how joint attention has been formed by uniting two ancient forms of attention. Reading this paper buttressed other arguments that the pragmatic concentration on attention was a promising way to go. (See: How the Brain Supports Conversation) By the way, this paper was drawn to my attention by a long time regular on this blog, Janet Kwasniak. She maintains a blog on consciousness that is worth tracking.
- Francisco Aboitiz & Ricardo Garcia (2009). Merging of Phonological and Gestural Circuits in Early Language Evolution. Reviews in the Neurosciences, 71-84. Proposes a circuitry for working memory that links the sensory neurons that perceive sound and the motor neurons that produce vocalizations. (See: Speech Circuitry)
- Terrence Deacon (2010). Relaxed Selection, Complexity and Language. Darwinism Inside-Out. Elizabethtown . Deacon planned to give a version of this presentation at the 2010 Evolang conference, but he was unable to attend because of the Iceland volcano. Nevertheless, he had planned a great presentation on how duplicates of a brain circuit can lead to the evolution of new traits. (See: Grand Cru D'Utrecht)
These papers find new variations on old themes. I have read plenty of evolutionary treatises that say language can only differ from animal communications in magnitude because evolution builds on what exists. But that's a pretty unimaginative view of things. Try listening to Bach or Charlie Parker and learn how much freshness can come from reworking what already is.
A couple of other papers were also important
- Morten H. Christiansen & Nick Chater (2008). Language as Shaped by the Brain. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 489-509. Uses the co-evolution idea to reject both the Chomskyan disciples and any surviving Skinnerians. (See: Language Adapted to Us)
- Karin Isler & Carel van Schaik (2008). Why are There So Few Smart Mammals (But So Many Smart Birds)? Biology Letters, 125-129. A striking paper that argues more cooperation leads to bigger brains. The great thing about this paper is that, if correct, it provides a way of using skull fossils to date when humans became cooperative. (See: The Riddle, the Mystery, and the Enigma)
I began this blog assuming that the evolution story would be a tale of selection at the gene level. Aren't they all? But it quickly became apparent that language is too much of a group activity. We direct one another's attention and share perceptions as we contemplate topics. We have evolved brain circuits for attention and working memory that assume interactions. We have an enormous brain, which is only sustainabile in a cooperative society.
- John L. Locke & Barry Bogin (2005). Language and Life History: A New Perspective on the Development and Evolution of Human Language. Behavioral & Brain Sciences, 259-280. This remarkable paper posits two special periods in a human's life cycle: childhood (ages 3-7) and adolescence (puberty – 18). It also includes the idea that vocalizations began before speech. I've chewed over these ideas for years and still find them helpful. (See: Teenage Troglodytes)
- David Sloan Wilson & E.O. Wilson (2007). Rethinking the Theoretical Foundation of Sociobiology. The Quarterly Review of Biology, 327-348. Before I read this paper I had already declared that I thought language must have been the product of group selection. But I was nervous. Who am I to be a heretic? So I was deeply relieved to read this paper because it gave me a leg to stand on: the notion of multi-level selection. (See: A Vote for Group Selection)
- Dan Dedieu & Robert Ladd (2007). Linguistic Tone is Related to the Population Frequency of the Adaptation Haplogroups of Two Brain Size Genes, ASPM and Microencephalin. PNAS, 10944-1049. A startling paper that found language features can reflect population statistics rather than indidivual genes. The discovery is much more easily explained in terms of multi-level selection than in one-on-one competition. (See: Was the First Language Tonal?)
This material really changed the basic questions I ask when I consider how language began. The question of how and when our lineage became cooperative became important. That kind of issue was very far from my mind when I started this blog.
On the other hand, I did expect to have a lot to report about syntactical changes but found very little news. There is a steady flow of syntactical work, but not much that contributes to thinking about origins. A couple of exceptions to that rule
Ljiljana Progovac. (2007). If Syntax Evolved, What Might Be Some Vestiges of Its Evolution in Modern-Day Languages? The Emergence of Language in the Child and in the Species Conference. Hunter College, New York, NY. Progovac has done a great labor in looking at clauses and phrases that defy the basic rules of structure and putting them together into an account of the rise of a syntax. She summed up her work in a paper she co-authored with John Locke. I see that because of outside pressures I gave that paper short shrift on this blog, but it is worth reading twice.
- Ljiljana Progovac & John L. Locke (2009). The Urge to Merge: Ritual Insult and the Evolution of Science. Biolinguistics. (See: Fossilized Syntax; A Protolinguistic Fossil; Intermediate Syntax; Three Free Papers Worth Reading)
- Hurford, J. R. (2009). Pragmatics, Storage & Computation in the Evolution of Syntax. Ways to Protolanguage Conference. Torun, Poland. This presentation sticks in my mind for its linkage of pragmatics and syntax and for its focus on the basics of subject + predicate. For predicate he talks about news. Sentences bring news about a subject. Like Marchetti's paper on attention, I keep coming back to this one. I see now how a sentence works. It focuses attention on a subject, then on news about that sentence and it combines the two points of attention with a verb that works for both parts. Willy Mays snagged the fly ball. The points of attention are first Willy Mays and the fly ball. They are united by the verb caught: Willy Mays snagged…; … snagged the fly ball. It was when our lineage began linking phrases with verbs that we broke with out ape heritiage. We no longer had just a scaled up brain, but were understanding things to a new depth. (See: The Word-Sentence Continuum)
I've got a few more papers I could list, but that's enough for now.