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Journal of No. 118

January 19th, 2015

The First Word, by Christine Kenneally - MLK Day @ 03:34 pm

The Search for the Origins of Language

Like my search for a book about the origins of music, it seems my search for one about the origin of language may be long and difficult. Because this one was not fully satisfying. It started well, but the last half was tedious and uninformative. But you will, no doubt, be delighted to know that I took copious Kindle notes (in the interesting first half).

For me, this part of the story began in an introductory linguistics lecture in the early 1990s at the University of Melbourne. I can clearly remember my frustration when, after asking the lecturer about the origin of language, I was told that linguists don’t explore this topic: we don’t ask the question, because there is no definitive way to answer it.
The explanation given to me in a lecture hall in late-twentieth-century Australia had been handed down from teacher to student for the most part unchallenged since 1866, when the Société de Linguistique of Paris declared a moratorium on the topic.

[Darwin] [I think] "noted that parrots can sound exactly like humans and described a South American parrot that was the only living creature that could utter the words of an extinct tribe."

"Speakers make all sorts of muscular maneuvers in articulating words, and these are carefully controlled to make sure that the air pressure generated by their lungs stays at a steady level as they talk. Lieberman found that these maneuvers are keyed to the length of the sentence we intend to speak, showing that humans anticipate a long sentence before they utter a sound. "

There are lots of interesting tidbits like this in the first half, which focuses on some direct evidence from humans and animals. To continue...

In another study many Parkinson’s patients were shown to have trouble if they first heard an active sentence (“The hawk ate the sparrow”) and then were asked a related question in the passive voice (“Who was the sparrow eaten by?”). They also had difficulty when the original sentence was passive and the subsequent question was active. The patients experienced no problems in working out the meaning of sentences; it was just the syntax that tripped them up. The fact that damage to a brain area that controlled motor skills also affected syntax was a smoking gun for a biological relationship between language and motor control.
We found that patients with Parkinson’s disease have more trouble with regular than with irregular verbs, and they have more trouble with novel verbs. Like, when a new word enters the language, like, “to spam,” everyone knows that the past tense is “spammed.” I don’t think you’d look that up in a dictionary or memorize it, but you can just deduce it from your world of recursive grammar. That’s something that patients with Parkinson’s disease have more trouble with than irregular forms, and that fits into Lieberman’s theory that the basal ganglia are implicated in recursive syntax.

"When rats carry out genetically preprogrammed sequences of grooming steps, they are using the basal ganglia. If their basal ganglia are damaged, then their separate grooming moves are left intact, but their ability to execute a sequence of them is disrupted. (Lieberman calls their grooming pattern UGG, universal grooming grammar.) The fact that a number of different animals use the basal ganglia for sequencing, whether it involves grooming or words, said Lieberman, suggests that there is no innately human specialization for simple syntax. Instead of being a contained and recent innovation in the human lineage, the foundation of syntactic ability is an adaptation of our motor system, a primitive part of our anatomy."

This is some heady stuff.

"When you are a male baboon, communication can be very high stakes: it’s not uncommon for one of these animals to reach forward and rip the testicles off its interlocutor."

Less heady, but of vital importance.

Primate Sorting Hat: "There is a saying among primate keepers, Heidi Lyn explained, that if you give a give a screwdriver to a chimp, it will throw it at someone. If you give a screwdriver to a gorilla, it will scratch itself. But if you give a screwdriver to an orangutan, it will let itself out of its cage."

I know that's me: "the researchers marked three Asian elephants and gave them access to mirrors. They noted that, compared to dolphins, elephants have the advantage of being able to touch most of their body with their trunks. Accordingly, after being marked the elephants spent a significant amount of time in front of the test mirror, repeatedly touching the experimental marks (but, crucially, not touching invisible marks that had also been made)."

"Dolphins instinctively eat only live fish, so in captivity they must be taught to consume prey that is already dead. Reiss had to cut each fish she fed them into three parts. A dolphin would happily eat the head and the middle, but it would eat the tail only if the fins were cut off. If the dolphin misbehaved during feedings, Reiss gave it a time-out. This involved getting up from where she knelt at the side of the pool, walking back about twenty feet, and looking at the dolphin but not interacting with it in any way for a minute or so. “It let her know something was not right,” explained Reiss. One day Reiss accidentally let an untrimmed tail slip into the dolphin’s food. The dolphin responded by swimming to the opposite side of the pool and then rising out of the water in a vertical position, just looking at Reiss for a minute or so. This feels a lot like a time-out! thought Reiss. She decided to test the dolphin, and a few days later she let an uncut fish tail slip through on purpose. The dolphin did the same thing, giving her another time-out. Reiss repeated the experiment three additional times, each with the same result."

It's not language, but damn if that isn't some piquant communication.

Naming is Knowing: "Lupyan told them that previous subjects had found it helpful to label the friendly and unfriendly aliens, calling the friendly ones “leebish” and the unfriendly ones “grecious” (or vice versa). He found that even though both groups eventually learned the difference between the aliens with equal success, the group that had words to label them learned to distinguish them much faster than the non-word group. He concluded that language, specifically the act of naming something with a word, helps categorize."

Chimps are dicks. "In one run-through, Hare pointed helpfully at the barrel with the food in it. But, said Tomasello, the chimpanzee would look at the finger, and then look at the barrel, and then look at the other barrel, and then it would choose completely randomly between them. It did not comprehend that Hare was being helpful and telling it where the food was located. In another run-through of the experiment, the chimpanzee would come into the room, and instead of pointing to the food, Hare would reach for the barrel, as if to grab it and the food in it. The chimpanzee understood this gesture without any problem, and it would head for the appropriate barrel. The movement Hare made was essentially the same in each case—a basic arm extension—but his intention was clearly cooperative in the first instance and competitive in the second."

Instead of the image of a brain issuing language to a mouth, from which it emerges as imperfect speech, think, rather, of language emerging in the child as an expression of its entire body, articulating both limbs and mouth at the same time.

Imagine a child learning how to write, his hand determinedly grasping the pencil and his tongue sticking out of the side of his mouth. Or visualize a seamstress biting her lips as she sews a small thread. Such unconscious mouth movements often accompany fine hand movement in humans. Of course, mouth and hand movements co-occur with speech and gesture, but in this case it seems that the mouth movement follows the hands (not the other way around). Experiments have shown that fine motor manipulation of objects by chimps is often accompanied by sympathetic mouth movements. The finer the hand movements are, the more chimps seem to move their mouths.

Cross-species understanding: "Diana monkeys, who live closely with the Campbell’s monkeys, appear to both understand and use their alarm cries to protect themselves. For example, if it hears a Campbell’s monkey make an alarm call for an eagle, a Diana monkey will make its own distinct eagle alarm cry."

As recently as twenty years ago it was taught that language specifically resided in Broca’s and Wernicke’s areas on the left side of the brain. [oh, hey, that's when I was in school!] It’s hard to even imagine now how confidently that belief was held, because as we know today, language function is spread throughout the brain. According to Fred Dick, a senior lecturer in psychology at Birkbeck, University of London, all the laboratories that have tried to find a language area have been successful in that they have indeed found dozens, even hundreds, of them.

All this stuff on animal models, and extreme human models is great! Relevant data straight from the horse's, or human's mouth. But the latter half of the book is a rather tedious fight between Chomsky(1), Chomsky's critics, and Chomsky(2) (who may or may not be the same Chomsky as Chomsky(1)). Far be it from me to disparage Chomsky(1), Chomsky(2), Chomsky(n), or their critics, but the presentation in the book is so devoid of any evidence, that it really does seem to be some serious wankery.

MLK Day. There was a parade down MLK nearby, and our street got parked up with parade-goers. We wimped out and watched the parade on TV, but it's neat seeing the area on TV. And also some of the emphasis of the parade. A lot of unions, #blacklivesmatter, minimum wage... It is not the Rose Parade.
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Journal of No. 118