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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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"an unquestioned fact: phonemes give us morphemes which give us words which give us sentences"

How do you reconcile this assertion with polysynthetic languages where words and sentences are indistinguishable, or signed languages where phonemes only arguably exist?
BLOGGER: The point is that languages work by combining a number of discreet sounds (or other elements). Polysynthetic languages have a great many morphemes per word/sentence and are not an interesting challenge to that concept. I don't know enough about signed languages to comment, although from your remarks they too sound combinatorial.


Fair enough, but it might be well to reword your last sentence (among others) as it indicates a specific sequence.

It could very well be sentences which give us morphemes, which give us features, instead of the other way around. Elissa Newport's work for example.
BLOGGER: I agree with you in general, but this is a blog where even at the level of Babel's Dawn a certain overgeneralizing brashness is used to pepper the reports. In my book--where I do have a thing or two to say about combinations--I hope I'm more precise.


It seems to me that self-awareness has similarities to the speech triangle.

In self-awareness, the speaker is one's inner monologue. The listener is, to extend the monologue metaphor, one's inner audience. The topic is one's own thoughts.

Before the advent of language, the inner monologue could have consisted as a stream of evoked feelings and memories. The key, though, is the mind drawing its own attention to those thoughts instead of being a passive observer.

Perhaps the speech triangle developed as an extension of this.

Other great apes have been shown to have a theory of mind, but does that necessarily mean they have self-awareness? Perhaps their lack of the proto-speech triangle of self-awareness is why they don't use speech in nature. They can be trained to emulate it, but could it be that this is just one step above training a parakeet to talk?
BLOGGER: Thanks for the comment. I have given this material some thought even though it gets beyond the scope of this blog. I do suspect (don't really know) that apes have some self awareness, in the sense that they know they are an individual among several other individuals, and they know what they are doing (at least some time) and that it is they who are doing it. If that makes any sense.

Where the speech triangle probably comes in as a source of uniqueness is in its ability to turn the self into a topic. With language we can direct our attention to a topic and contemplate it.

As for which came first, the point is debatable but I lean toward the notion that internal, verbal thinking is an internalized version of speech. In my own case I remember pretty clearly that as a boy I worked things out by speaking aloud. Eventually I internalized the process and after that my internalized blabbermouth never really shut up. Of course Chomskyans have it exactly the other way: speech is an externalized form of what was already going on internally.


With language we can direct our attention to a topic and contemplate it.

Without language we can do this as well. The best description of it is still Susan Schaller's book, A Man Without Words, 1991, University of California Press.
BLOGGER: Uzza is a good example of how blogs work (at there best). The blogger says something genera;a commenter raises a sharp point. The two go back and forth and (one hopes) matters clarify.

It is certainly true that people today can contemplate topics without resorting to language. Nobody can write a book about how Einstein thought without llearning that. Duke Ellington is another example. I don't know the book Uzza mentions, but I'll put it on my list.

Thinking about topics in any detail beyond watching them closely requires shifting attention and even focusing on two things (e.g., subject, predicate) simultaneously. I suspect (hypothesize) our ability to do this evolved with the evolution of the brain supporting language. The power to shift attention comes from connections between different parts of the brain. Apes may be able to do this on occasion, but humans have circuits that make it all much more efficient, which means less exhausting and more persistent. Now that we have a long history of the brain and language co-evolving we can take control of our attention without language. Some people are very good at this, others (me for example) are weak. But when discussing the origins of something like self-awareness we are talking about a species of Homo rather earlier than our own. In those days dependence on speech to control attention was likely more dependent on speech and less on brain circuits.

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