- Discovering a Problem
I was the kind of kid who hit upon questions rather than answers. One time, I was thinking about how French kids learned French from their parents and American kids learned English. That process went back to the cavemen, but who did the cavemen learn language from?
In college I asked a visiting teacher how language could have begun and was told that the question was forbidden. It had been banned for a century. I was not going to learn the answer by joining a group of scholars already hard at work on the puzzle.
During my days as a Peace Corps teacher I used Swahili. The language had astounded me by how different it was from the Indo-European languages (English, French, German and Latin) that I had studied. One day I answered a question with the word sijamwona, which translates into English as a full sentence: I have not seen him yet. The si- prefix indicates a negative, 1st person singular, nominative (not I); the –ja- affix indicates the not-yet tense; the –mw- is a 3rd person singular, accusative (him); while the last part of the word –ona is the root of the verb to see. As I walked on I thought that English was so different from Swahili that I had to wonder whether what I talked about was really out there or was just an invention of a particular culture. Then I was struck still by another thought. Both English and Swahili had subjects and objects. There was something universal to language after all.
Back in the USA, a friend of my brother’s asked, “Blair, what would you say information is?” I said something and the friend said, “No. Information is a measure of uncertainty.” I disagreed. “That’s what my communications professor says it is,” came the rebuttal. So right then I knew that what people mean by information and communications is not what technicians say it is. We are talking about two different things when we talk about communication.
Seventeen years after wondering who taught the cavemen language, I was falling into bed when I had an idea. Maybe, I told myself, we don’t learn language from our parents. Maybe we invent it ourselves. I sat back up. At last I had something serious to grab onto. A decade later I had a firmer grasp of what goes on. Children start by making up language, but quickly come over to the much richer solution of using the language spoken around them. I had ceased to be paralyzed by the who-taught-the-cavemen problem.
Back in Africa with a book contract in my pocket, my driver and I went for a dawn excursion alongside the Seronera River. We found three lions, two males and a female, hunting. When the alpha male went off scouting, the lesser male made a play for the female. She was having none of it and rebuffed the fellow easily. The male soothed his wounded pride by engaging in a series of terrible roars that were surely heard three miles away. So much for surprising any zebra. The alpha soon came trotting back and gave his companion a what-the-heck look. I could have told him, but realized the alpha would not have cared to listen. Since then I have understood that language requires both a willing speaker and a willing listener.
Writing projects were coming along and I managed to persuade a publisher to let me do a book on children’s language. As they get older, children sometimes correct themselves. They say something and then go, “I mean,” and change a word or two. How do they do that? I wondered. They must be comparing their output with something apart from their words. Computers, thought I, don’t act that way.
An editor who liked my children’s language book asked me to do one on memory. It seems memory comes in two forms. One is productive, generally known as recall. The other is a form of knowing. You see something and know what it is, an ability generally called recognition. It occurred to me that a speaker recalls words, while a listener recognizes them. Sometimes, of course, speakers recognize an error in their recall and correct themselves. So using language is a two-system activity.
I persuaded an editor to let me write a book on perception so I could learn more about non-symbolic knowledge. The results have left me increasingly impatient with the computer/mind analogy. Computers are passive devices; perceptive animals are active judges of what is going on. Betting on the rightness of the computer analogy strikes me as similar to watching a battle between a cobra (lightning reflexes) and a mongoose (slower perceptions) and betting on the cobra.
- Babel’s Dawn
I decided that, as time is passing and I still didn’t know how language could have begun, I would start a blog with the specific intention of reporting what was known and being discovered about language origins. Fortunately, in the years since my university days the question’s legitimacy had been accepted, so there was work to report. While preparing a series of posts that would be available as soon as I formally launched the blog, I was drawn to a term that was new to me: joint-attention. It had immediate appeal because it makes the listener an active member of the process, it combines both recall and recognition into a simultaneous process, and I know from my perception book that attention is a challenge for mind=computer theorists. Within weeks of launching my blog I stumbled across Giorgio Marchetti’s paper (A Presentation of Attentional Semantics) asserting that words get their meaning by piloting attention. I could see immediately how this approach solved many semantic mysteries and I decided to see how far I can get by trusting this idea. A few weeks later I diagrammed the human-communications relationship with what I call the speech triangle: speaker and listener pay joint attention to a topic.
The inherently cooperative nature of joint-attention forced me to consider the contradiction between the speech triangle and the idea of a selfish gene. I posted my conclusion that group selection must be behind the biology of language. A few weeks later I read David Sloan Wilson and Edmund Wilson’s defense of multilevel selection and I promptly signed up for the cause.
Reading a book review by Massimo Piatelli-Palmarini persuaded me of something quite contrary to the reviewer’s position: language is perception by other means. What is universal in language is its reliance on the peculiarities of perception—case, location, point-of-view, focus on something.
With that union of language and perception, the question I had asked myself at age 11 had an explanation: At some point, evolution of the human lineage began to depend on survival of the group rather than the fittest individual. As part of that cooperative process, group members began to voluntarily share attention and a new form of communication describable by the speech triangle appeared. Once a simple language was invented (say, 1.8 million years ago) all it needed was time and the constant pressure of group competition to get us to the advanced cultural tools we have today.
I’m moving on now, hoping to get a clear understanding of language as artificial perception.