In the experiment, conducted by Dr Christine Cuskley at the University of Edinburgh, you learn an alien language called Ferro. Since the more participants the merrier, you can also learn Ferro from your computer at home!
So if you want to learn Ferro and participate in language evolution research you can do so here!
“Chomsky still rocks!” This comment on Twitter refers to a recent paper in PNAS by David M. Gómez et al. entitled “Language Universals at Birth”. Indeed, the question Gómez et al. address is one of the most hotly debated questions in linguistics: Does children’s language learning draw on innate capacities that evolved specifically for linguistic purposes – or rather on domain-general skills and capabilities?
Lbifs, Blifs, and Brains
Gómez and his colleagues investigate these questions by studying how children respond to different syllable structures:
It is well known that across languages, certain structures are preferred to others. For example, syllables like blif are preferred to syllables like bdif and lbif. But whether such regularities reflect strictly historical processes, production pressures, or universal linguistic principles is a matter of much debate. To address this question, we examined whether some precursors of these preferences are already present early in life. The brain responses of newborns show that, despite having little to no linguistic experience, they reacted to syllables like blif, bdif, and lbif in a manner consistent with adults’ patterns of preferences. We conjecture that this early, possibly universal, bias helps shaping language acquisition.
More specifically, they assume a restriction on syllable structure known as the Sonority Sequencing Principle (SSP), which has been proposed as “a putatively universal constraint” (p. 5837). According to this principle, “syllables maximize the sonority distance from their margins to their nucleus”. For example, in /blif/, /b/ is less sonorous than /l/, which is in turn less sonorous than the vowel /i/, which constitues the syllable’s nucleus. In /lbif/, by contrast, there is a sonority fall, which is why this syllable is extremely ill-formed according to the SSP.
In a first experiment, Gómez et al. investigated “whether the brains of newborns react differentially to syllables that are well- or extremely ill-formed, as defined by the SSP” (p. 5838). They had 24 newborns listen to /blif/- and /lbif/-type syllables while measuring the infant’s brain activities. In the left temporal and right frontoparietal brain areas, “well-formed syllables elicited lower oxyhemoglobin concentrations than ill-formed syllables.” In a second experiment, they presented another group of 24 newborns with syllables either exhibiting a sonority rise (/blif/) or two consonants of the same sonority (e.g. /bdif/) in their onset. The latter option is dispreferred across languages, and previous behavioral experiments with adult speakers have also shown a strong preference for the former pattern. “Results revealed that oxyhemoglobin concentrations elicited by well-formed syllables are significantly lower than concentrations elicited by plateaus in the left temporal cortex” (p. 5839). However, in contrast to the first experiment, there is no significant effect in the right frontoparietal region, “which has been linked to the processing of suprasegmental properties of speech” (p. 5838).
In a follow-up experiment, Gómez et al. investigated the role of the position of the CC-patterns within the word: Do infants react differently to /lbif/ than to, say, /olbif/? Indeed, they do: “Because the sonority fall now spans across two syllables (ol.bif), rather than a syllable onset (e.g., lbif), such words should be perfectly well-formed. In line with this prediction, our results show that newborns’ brain responses to disyllables like oblif and olbif do not differ.”
How much linguistic experience do newborns have?
Taken together, these results indicate that newborn infants are already sensitive for syllabification (as the follow-up experiment suggests) as well as for certain preferences in syllable structure. This leads Gómez et al. to the conclusion “that humans possess early, experience-independent linguistic biases concerning syllable structure that shape language perception and acquisition” (p. 5840). This conjecture, however, is a very bold one. First of all, seeing these preferences as experience-independent presupposes the assumption that newborn infants do not have linguistic experience at all. However, there is evidence that “babies’ language learning starts from the womb”. In their classic 1986 paper, Anthony DeCasper and Melanie Spence showed that “third-trimester fetuses experience their mothers’ speech sounds and that prenatal auditory experience can influence postnatal auditory preferences.” Pregnant women were instructed to read aloud a story to their unborn children when they felt that the fetus was awake. In the postnatal phase, the infants’ reactions to the same or a different story read by their mother’s or another woman’s voice were studied by monitoring the newborns’ sucking behavior. Apart from the “experienced” infants who had been read the story, a group of “untrained” newborns were used as control subjects. They found that for experienced subjects, the target story was more reinforcing than a novel story, no matter if it was recited by their mother’s or a different voice. For the control subjects, by contrast, no difference between the stories could be found. “The only experimental variable that can systematically account for these findings is whether the infants’ mothers had recited the target story while pregnant” (DeCasper & Spence 1986: 143).
The controversy over whether Neanderthals possessed a capacity for language may have been resolved. After years of speculation by evolutionary anthropologists and geneticists, a group of linguists has announced today that they have uncovered written evidence proving the Neanderthal capacity for language.
Schmaltz’ team was able to identify and translate two texts left by Neanderthals. The first, a recent discovery in Spain, is a fragment of a teenager’s diary. It reads oog.oog.oog and has been translated as ‘[Dear diary, I feel] emotionally distant. [I wish I had my own cave]’.”
The 20th anniversary special commemorative issue of Pragmatics & Cognition features a number of interesting articles which comment on linguist Dan Everett‘s 2012 book “Language: The Cultural Tool“. In this book, Everett, who is best known for his work on the indigenous language Pirahã, argues for the important of culture and interaction and against the Chomskyan idea of innately specified, specifically linguistic knowledge or architecture. The issue also includes replies by Dan Everett to each of his commentators.
Unfortunately, the articles are all behind a paywall, but the abstracts already make some interesting points.
“language use, and coordinated communication more generally, is an emergent product of human self-organization processes. Both broad regularities and specific variations in linguistic structure and behavior can be accounted for by self-organizational processes that operate without explicit internal rules, blueprints, or mental representations. A major implication of this view is that both linguistic patterns and behaviors, within and across speakers, emerge from the dynamical interactions of brain, body, and world, which gives rise to highly context-sensitive and varied linguistic performances.”
The Call for Papers can be found here (Deadline for paper & poster submission is September 1, deadline for workshop proposals April , 2013).
To quote from the website:
“The Evolangconference series provides the major meeting for researchers worldwide in the origins and evolution of language. The Evolang conferences are interdisciplinary, with contributions from disciplines including, but not limited to: anthropology, archeology, artificial life, biology, cognitive science, genetics, linguistics, modeling, paleontology, physiology, primatology, and psychology. Typically, about 300 delegates attend, with representatives from all these disciplines. Additional information on Evolang can be found here.”
UPDATE: This paper is now a Trends in Cognitive Sciences Free Featured Article and is available for free here
Noam Chomsky, who infamously stated that the field of language evolution research is “a burgeoning literature, most of which in my view is total nonsense” (see, e.g. here), has a new paper on the topic in press (together with linguist Robert Berwick and neuroscientists Angela Friederici and Johan Bolhuis) called Evolution, brain, and the nature of language (here, unfortunately it’s behind a paywall).
Here’s the abstract:
Language serves as a cornerstone for human cognition, yet much about its evolution remains puzzling. Recent research on this question parallels Darwin’s attempt to explain both the unity of all species and their diversity. What has emerged from this research is that the unified nature of human language arises from a shared, species-specific computational ability. This ability has identifiable correlates in the brain and has remained fixed since the origin of language approximately 100 thousand years ago. Although songbirds share with humans a vocal imitation learning ability, with a similar underlying neural organization, language is uniquely human.
Also interesting is their figure on the Desing of the language system:
“The basic design of language. There are three components: syntactic rules and representations, which, together with lexical items, constitute the basis of the language system, and two interfaces through which mental expressions are connected to the external world (external sensory-motor interface) and to the internal mental world (internal conceptual-intentional interface).”
This still looks very much like the model advocated in for example, the influential and controversial Hauser/Chomsky/Fitch 2002 Science paper (see e.g. here) and from a brief look through the review. The paper also reiterates the view that language is primary an instrument aiding internal thought, and its use for communication is a later by-product (a view that has been thouroughly criticized, by for example Steven Pinker and Ray Jackendoff, e.g. here):
“communication, an element of externalization, is an ancillary aspect of language, not its key function, as maintained by what is perhaps a majority of scholars (cf. [Jim Hurford, Michael Tomasello], among many others). Rather, language serves primarily as an internal ‘instrument of thought’”
Here’s a link to another conference that might be of interest:
The 3rd Linguistic Conference for Doctoral Students will take place at Heidelberg University, Germany from 05.-06. April 2013. The overarching topic of the conference will be: “Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Language, Discourse, and Culture.” The deadline for submissions is 15 February.
I’ve included the Call for Papers below (The Call for Papers can also be downloaded here):
(1) There was a single biological mutation which (2) created a new unique cognitive domain, which then (3) immediately enabled the “unlimited command of complex structures via the computational operation of merge. (4) This domain is used primarily for advanced private thought and only derivatively for public communication. (5) It was not promoted by natural selection.
(1) There were many cumulative mutations which (2) allowed the expanding interactions of pre-existing cognitive domains creating a new domain, which however is not characterized by principles unique to language. This then (3) gradually enabled the command of successively more complex structures. Also, on this view, this capacity was used primarily for public communication, and only derivatively for advanced private thought and was (5) promoted by natural selection.
Hurford criticized the position that the biological changes enabling languages primarily evolved for private thought, because this would imply that the first species in the Homo lineage that developed the capacity for unlimited combinatorial private thought (i.e. “merge”) were non-social and isolated clever hominids. This, as Hurford rightly points out, is quite unrealistic given everything we know about human evolution regarding, for example, competition, group size, neocortex side and tactical deception. There is in fact very strong evidence that what characterizes humans the most is the exact opposite as would be predicted by the “Merge developed in the service of enhancing private thought” position: We have the largest group size of any primate, the largest neocortex (which has been linked to the affordances of navigating a complex social world) and have the most pronounced capacity for tactical deception.