Comic suggests ‘putting down’ old physicists-turned-linguists

I seem to be the comic poster on this blog, but hey – Mark Liberman often quotes comics on Languagelog, and it’s before breakfast for me. So I feel ok with that.

(Update: I did beat Mark Liberman! By almost 5 hours! CF.

Anyway, I was reading Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal this morning, a comic that is occasionally quite good, and I came upon this gem. I wonder who exactly he is taking a jibe at with the physicist-turned-linguist mention. Any bets?

I’m glad he said first language, and not protolanguage. Proto-world isn’t the most likely thing we’re going to find – at best, we’ll be able to get half a dozen cognates, like Ruhlen did in 1994. Ruhlen is, of course, not a physicist, but a Greenbergian linguist, so he couldn’t have been the butt of the above joke. For that matter, I can’t be either – not because I am a linguist, but because I don’t believe there was one language, and I think it isn’t theoretically sound to stipulate that there was one language at any point in our history. My argument for this view (which I learned last week isn’t necessarily common) is that a) languages don’t exist outside of their host’s minds, anyway, so language needs to be redefined as a collaborative, shared signalling system b) this wouldn’t have occurred at any point in our history, excepting perhaps for the Adam and Eve time zones c) even then, we’d have different, contacting communities that would keep ‘language’ as such as a constantly changing system that would need to be defined most clearly in relation to the other contrasting systems, and d) even within the group, there would have been considerably idiolectic variation that would have, in my unfounded opinion, been much more rife in early language than today. I’m still working on backing that up theoretically, and hopefully one day with models.

Back to the comic, I hope you didn’t miss the reference to ‘tensors’ as well. Every time I see that word, I think of The Demolished Man, a truly fantastic science fiction book where a key point in the plot is that a man can block out psychics by repeating an annoying commercial meme – Tenser, said the tensor – in his head over and over again. Since we’re talking about science fiction, the comic above also reminds me of that one Star Trek episode where it is revealed that all Kaelon’s must commit mandatory suicide so that they don’t stress society by being elderly, sort of like Sarah Palin’s ‘death panels’.

You’ll never teach a monkey how to sing

While my posts are often less than serious, this one is slightly sillier than usual. It’s a song I wrote a while ago about animal communication. Enjoy/Endure/Evade:

You can read about some of the theory that I distort with my artistic license here:

Articles by Michael: Imitation in ChimpanzeesAnimals learning syntax , Self-Domestication

Asymmetry, developmental stress and musical protolanguage (about Keelin Murray’s work)

Article by Richard: Breathing control and language

Alarm calls:  Seyfarth RM, Cheney DL, & Marler P (1980). Monkey responses to three different alarm calls: evidence of predator classification and semantic communication. Science (New York, N.Y.), 210 (4471), 801-3 PMID: 7433999

Fooling chimpanzees: Seyfarth, R., & Cheney, D. (2012). Animal Cognition: Chimpanzee Alarm Calls Depend On What Others Know Current Biology, 22 (2) DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2011.11.050

FoxP2 and birdsong: Haesler S, Rochefort C, Georgi B, Licznerski P, Osten P, & Scharff C (2007). Incomplete and inaccurate vocal imitation after knockdown of FoxP2 in songbird basal ganglia nucleus Area X. PLoS biology, 5 (12) PMID: 18052609

Evolution of voluntary control of breathing: MacLarnon AM, & Hewitt GP (1999). The evolution of human speech: the role of enhanced breathing control. American journal of physical anthropology, 109 (3), 341-63 PMID: 10407464

Tool use: Ottoni, E., & Izar, P. (2008). Capuchin monkey tool use: Overview and implications Evolutionary Anthropology: Issues, News, and Reviews, 17 (4), 171-178 DOI: 10.1002/evan.20185

Clever Corvid

Continuing with the theme of ravens, I’d thought I’d quickly point out this pretty cool video of a crow snowboarding down a roof using a small disc it found. When it gets to the bottom, the crow goes back up and does it again. This reminds me of the New Zealand orcas which have learned to surf the waves there. Hopefully, the crow teaches this to its young.

On an only tangentially related note, I’m still trying to decide if this is the use of a tool or not. If so, it’s a major win for dogs.

The Stoned Ape Theory of Speech Origins

Outside the world of evolutionary linguistics I used to spend some of my time working in a charity shop. Of the many dull moments, much of which spent bickering with overzealous bargain hunters about the arbitrary nature of our pricing, there were a few gems of conversation. On one of these days, I found myself conversing with several people about language change, when one of the customers chimed in with something I hadn’t heard before. He said, quite confidently, that the origin of speech and language lay in our ancestor’s proclivity for getting stoned. I humoured him on the magic mushroom hypothesis of speech origins, until he decided to share his wisdom about the foretold destruction of our society in 2012 (at which point I directed him to our copy of Emerich’s latest disasterpiece). Still, it appears he wasn’t completely barmy, at least on the speech origins front, as there is a Stoned Ape theory of human evolution by one Terence McKenna (from Wikipedia):

The mushroom, according to McKenna, had also given humans their first truly religious experiences (which, as he believed, were the basis for the foundation of all subsequent religions to date). Another factor that McKenna talked about was the mushroom’s potency to promote linguistic thinking. This would have promoted vocalisation, which in turn would have acted in cleansing the brain (based on a scientific theory that vibrations from speaking cause the precipitation of impurities from the brain to the cerebrospinal fluid), which would further mutate the brain. All these factors according to McKenna were the most important factors that promoted evolution towards the Homo sapiens species. After this transformation took place, the species would have begun moving out of Africa to populate the rest of the planet. Later on, this theory by McKenna was given the name “The ‘Stoned Ape’ Theory of Human Evolution”.

I’m fairly sure this just offloads part of the craziness onto McKenna, but I might name drop the theory next time I’m looking for a more lively reaction when discussing language origins.

N.B. This is one of my many posts that was written some time ago. I decided to publish in 2012 just in case the customer was right about our impending doom. With that out of the way, we can now focus on the critical issues surrounding the size of a language’s phoneme inventory and the distribution of Psilocybe cubensis.

Alice Roberts on Language Evolution

The BBC are at it again and by ‘at it’ I mean talking about language evolution!

Hello! The BBC are at it again and by ‘at it’ I mean talking about language evolution!

The latest episode of ‘Origins of Us’, which is a series about human evolution from an anthropological/archaeological angle, is on brains. The program is presented by Alice Roberts and she doesn’t do a bad job of discussing the issues relating to the lack of direct fossil evidence for language. She discusses the anatomy used in speech which is something which Stephen Fry did not do in his program on the origins of language. We also get an excellent rendition of the cardinal vowels from Dr. Roberts! She also discusses the role of language in symbolic thought and there is a wee bit at the end on cultural evolution.

The part of the program on language starts about 25 minutes in, but I’d suggest watching the whole thing as all aspects of the evolution of the brain are relevant to language evolution, and also, it’s bloody interesting.

Scientifically Pedantic Movie Reviews…


I’ve written a review of the new Planet of the Apes film (“Rise of the Planet of the Apes”, ARGH! OH GOD THE PLANET IS RISING etc.). It concentrates on the linguistic abilities of apes a bit, but I hope I haven’t made it too dull for the purposes of a movie review. There should be more scientifically/linguistically pedantic reviewing going on out there… get on it guys. It’s up on now. Here’s a excerpt and link:

As someone who has dedicated quite a lot of time to reading about the linguistic abilities of apes, I didn’t enter the cinema to see “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” hoping for viable or realistic linguistic science. After all, we’ve all seen the original films and the apes talk just as humans do. It shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone that this would never happen in the real world, and this is not just because of the cognitive abilities of apes, but also because of the vocal tract of apes. That is to say that no matter how intelligent an ape is, it will not be possible for that ape to create the sounds of English as the physical ability simply isn’t there…

Read more at:

Mr Crusoe’s Trained Parrots

In the magazine section on the BBC news website today is a feature on wild parrots picking up phrases from domesticated birds.

The article begins:

Wild parrots in Australia are apparently picking up phrases from escapee pet cockatoos who join their flocks. Why – and how – can some birds talk?

Those strolling in Sydney’s parks are being startled by squawks of “Hello darling!” and “What’s happening?” from the trees.

Wild birds such as galahs, sulphur-crested cockatoos and corellas are repeating phrases passed on by domesticated counterparts that escaped or were released, says naturalist Martyn Robinson, of Sydney’s Australian Museum.

The museum has received numerous reports of talkative wild birds from startled members of the public.

You can continue reading the article here It talks a bit about how parrots can produce human like sounds but I posted the story here because I found it interesting that wild birds would pick up human phrases through social learning and wondered how far these phrases could go through a process of cultural transmission.

It reminded me of this figure from Eva Jablonka and Marion J. Lamb’s book “Evolution in four dimensions: genetic, epigenetic, behavioral, and symbolic” inspired by a story by Spalding (1876). The story tells of Robinson Crusoe landing on his island and teaching 2 parrots the phrase “how do you do sir?”. He continues to teach the phrase to the offspring of these parrots for some generations.  Crusoe then (because he’s on a dessert island and he’s bored) breeds the parrots who say “how do you do sir?” the best.  After a while the young parrots start to repeat the phrase so early it is not known if it is learned behaviour or instinct. It is found to have become instinct because Crusoe selected for the best learners and the parrots will presumably continue this behaviour long after Crusoe has died. Spalding then hypothesises that should the parrots acquire a taste for good English this behaviour should continue to be selected through sexual selection. Taking figure 8.1 at face value it seems the parrots are also selected for fine taste in hats and ability to sit properly on chairs.

Chomsky derides purely statistical methods

This month sees MIT’s Brains, Minds, and Machines symposium. The opening panel discussion was moderated by Steven Pinker and called for a reboot in artificial intelligence. The panel consisted of Noam Chomsky, Marvin Minsky, Patrick Winston, Susan Carey, Emilio Bizzi, and Sidney Brenner. Most panelists called for a reboot of old style research methods in AI as opposed to the more narrow applications of AI seen today. An article on Technology review summarizes Chomsky’s contribution:

Chomsky derided researchers in machine learning who use purely statistical methods to produce behavior that mimics something in the world, but who don’t try to understand the meaning of that behavior. Chomsky compared such researchers to scientists who might study the dance made by a bee returning to the hive, and who could produce a statistically based simulation of such a dance without attempting to understand why the bee behaved that way. “That’s a notion of [scientific] success that’s very novel. I don’t know of anything like it in the history of science,” said Chomsky.

I wondered what people thought of this argument and how it relates to the computational and statistical models used to demonstrate language that are becoming so fashionable these days.