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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

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Karthik Durvasula

The discussion of whether "language is exclusive to humans is really a red-herring to a proper study of the topic of animal communications.

For a professional linguist, language is the commucation system of humans. period. It is going to have some properties that are similar to/different from other communication systems.

Just like "barking" is something dogs do. It's just a name given to a certain communication system. It makes no sense to say barking is not exclusive to dogs. That violates the very definition of the word.

While there are similarities between language and other communication systems, the truism should be obvious when Chomsky says no other animal grows up to speak language therefore, they aren't capable of language. This just means, no other animal has the cluster of properties in their communication system that we do. It doesn't mean there are no commonalities.

In fact, all the way from the 70's, Chomsky's been saying that probably the only qualitative difference at some level of discussion between language and all other natural animal communication systems is that of recursion. Again, this could be incorrect, but this is a very specific testable hypotheses.

Re "That long list often inspires people to ask why anyone thinks language is exclusive to humans." No one (at least, no one serious) is saying only humans possess a communication system. The issue of language being human is almost a matter of definition for the sake of scientific progress. If we aren't clear about the object we are trying to study, we just can't make progress.


You can define language as human language but that is not going to help with the subject of this blog which is about how that language came to be. This is a process with humans speaking human languages at the near end and animals communicating without language at the far end. Between to two are types of almost human animals and almost human languages. You are correct about being clear on the object being studied. But it is not human language but a long series of transitional forms of communication.

Jerry Moore

Some animals and insects are doing well by communicating on chemical level…
Communication is something you can see in behavior of gold fishes or trees. We tend to apply our set of mind on nature by inability to “think” like fish or tree. This is what pushing some people away from science to mystics of synergy or even farther.
We have to remember that before human language there was quite efficient pre-human communication/”language”.
What we call human language came in cluster with consciousness, mind and culture, which hardly applicable to animals as you know.
And by the way, this blog is not about human Language. It is about one of its modern manifestations – human Speech – as Blair warned few times.

Karthik Durvasula

@Janetk and Jerry Moore: I wasn't commenting on the blog but on the blog post and particularly the comment "That long list often inspires people to ask why anyone thinks language is exclusive to humans", as I quoted. My remarks seem very appropriate in this regard. So, I am not sure what you are getting at.

Also, there is an irritating tic on the blog of constantly misreading/misquoting Chomsky that I have pointed out earlier. It doesn't help anyone to misunderstand the other's point of view. And crucially, I would be equally annoyed if Blair's views were to be caricatured by someone else (Full disclaimer: I disagree with Blair's interpretations of a lot of what the data he discusses means to our understanding of the evolutionary process of language).

I should say the blog posts are very interesting and informative. The treatment of the actual data available appears to be fair to the best of my knowledge. However, I become at least a little skeptical of Blair's treatment of other people's viewpoints/hypotheses, if only because it is almost obvious that his treatment of Chomsky's views in many cases doesn't actually follow from Chomsky's actual writings (and parallelly, many generativists' views), and instead appears to be traceable to the popular folklore on what Chomkyan linguistics represents/claims.

@Blair: I don't mean to insult you at all. We all succumb to folkloric viewpoints on theories/hypotheses that we have an instinctive distrust of. I only mean to raise caution for the sake of proper dissemination of knowledge.
BLOGGER: Blogging requires a thick skin of sorts. I'm not insulted by being taken seriously. I'll say in my defense that I've actually read a fair amount of Chomsky and began the exercise many years ago expecting to be a disciple of the man.... But that is not to say I understand the guy. Anyway, KD, you keep pitching.

If you accept the idea of evolution, and that human language evolved, as this blog does, making a sharp distinction between animal communication and human language is just not scientific. There must be intermediate states. Early man probably communicated in a way which was very similar in scope to hyaenas and at some stage developed additional communication skills which have developed into what became language.

I find this interesting because about 40 years ago I started working on an unconventional information processing system (not a Von Neumann type computer) which was designed to provide easy human-machine communication of a wide range of tasks. For various reasons the project was abandoned and now I am realising that it could be very relevant to modern work on the brain and language. The model I developed, with minor modifications, could well form a workable model of how significant amounts of information can be held and processed on a neural net. Because of my age I am a bit slow in getting my notes online but if it proves to be a reasonably accurate model there should be a tripping point in human skill development once communication/language reached a particular point.

The problem with the information in an animal brain, in evolutionary terms, is that after all the work building up a mental understanding of the environment it is all lost when the animal dies. Once it is possible to communicate useful information verbally rather than visually – for instance explaining how to make a flint tool or light a fire without a demonstration – knowledge no longer has to die when the individual dies. Not only does this mean that each generation has less to learn from the bottom up, but once the process starts there will be a “demand” to find ways of passing more information from one generation to the next. Basically even a rudimentary language makes teaching easier and when the advantages of being taught are realised any improvements in verbal teaching methods are rapidly adopted.

Generation by generation more information and the related skills are passed on and better “language” techniques are developed (later expanding to include writing, printing, and computers) to make it easier to communicate information that does not get lost when the individual dies. In archaeological terms there would appear to have been a steady acceleration in the development of skills from about 50-75 thousand years ago – which fits in well with the recent paper suggesting that language started in Africa about 75 thousand years ago.


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