Berwick, Friederici, Chomsky, Bolhuis (2013): Evolution, brain, and the nature of language

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:

Full-size image (42 K)

“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’”

Spontaneous Imitation of Human Speech

Lately, there have been a string of news articles regarding animals imitating human speech sounds. First, there was an account of the nine year-old beluga whale named NOC who was recorded making unusually low, clipped bursts of noise. Then, today, news from the University of Vienna was reported of an asian elephant named Koshik using his trunk to imitate Korean words.  Koshik does attempt to match both the pitch and timbre of the human voice, though the researchers doubt there is any meaningfulness to his phrases beyond an attempt at social affiliation.

The more interesting aspect of NOC’s speech is that, unlike the dolphins that are trained to imitate human noises or computer generated whistles, it is the first recorded spontaneous imitation of human speech. Similarly, the marine animals previously studied were raised primarily in captivity. NOC is not only a wild beluga whale, but his speech was also recorded in the wild. The study,  published in Current Biology, can be found here (only the abstract is available for free).



Sam Ridgway, Donald Carder, Michelle Jeffries, Mark Todd. Current Biology – 23 October 2012 (Vol. 22, Issue 20, pp. R860-R861)

Angela S. Stoeger, Daniel Mietchen, Sukhun Oh, Shermin de Silva, Christian T. Herbst, Soowhan Kwon, W. Tecumseh Fitch. “An Asian Elephant Imitates Human Speech.” Current Biology, 2012; DOI:10.1016/j.cub.2012.09.022

The Evolution of Speech: Learned Vocalisations in Mice

Mice can learn vocalisations! A new article realised today on PLOS ONE by Gustavo Arriaga, Eric Zhou and Erich Jarvis, shows that mice share some of the same mechanisms used to learn vocal patterning in songbirds and humans.

Mice can learn vocalisations! A new article realised today on PLOS ONE by Gustavo Arriaga, Eric Zhou and Erich Jarvis, shows that mice share some of the same mechanisms used to learn vocal patterning in songbirds and humans.

Very few animals have the capacity for vocal learning. This ability allows species to modify the sequence and pitch of sounds that create songs or speech. Currently, only three groups of birds – parrots, hummingbirds and songbirds – and some mammalian species – humans, whales, dolphins, sea lions, bats and elephants – have demonstrated vocal learning. This ability is still yet to be found even in non-human primates.

This study looks at the ultrasonic vocalizations known as mouse ‘song’ and provides evidence that mice can change at least one acoustic feature of these vocalizations based on their social exposure.

Two mice were put together and over time learned to match the pitch of their songs to one another. The paper suggests this is a limited form of vocal learning.

The paper also shows evidence that the mice can control their vocal motor neurons. In the press release, Erich Jarvis states, “This is an exciting find, as the presence of direct forebrain control over the vocal neurons may be one of the most critical aspects in the human evolution of speech.”

While this vocal learning in mice seems to be much more primitive than in songbirds or humans, it may reveal some of the intermediate steps in the process by which vocalization evolved in advanced vocal learners like songbirds and humans.

Exciting stuff!



Arriaga G, Zhou EP, Jarvis ED (2012) Of Mice, Birds, and Men: The Mouse Ultrasonic Song System Has Some Features Similar to Humans and Song-Learning Birds. PLoS ONE 7(10): e46610. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0046610

“Hierarchical structure is rarely…needed to explain how language is used in practice”

How hierarchical is language use?

Stefan L. Frank, Rens Bod and Morten H. Christiansen

Abstract: It is generally assumed that hierarchical phrase structure plays a central role in human language. However, considerations of simplicity and evolutionary continuity suggest that hierarchical structure should not be invoked too hastily. Indeed, recent neurophysiological, behavioural and computational studies show that sequential sentence structure has considerable explanatory power and that hierarchical processing is often not involved. In this paper, we review evidence from the recent literature supporting the hypothesis that sequential structure may be fundamental to the comprehension, production and acquisition of human language. Moreover, we provide a preliminary sketch outlining a non-hierarchical model of language use and discuss its implications and testable predictions. If linguistic phenomena can be explained by sequential rather than hierarchical structure, this will have considerable impact in a wide range of fields, such as linguistics, ethology, cognitive neuroscience, psychology and computer science.

Published online before print September 12, 2012, doi: 10.1098/rspb.2012.1741
Proceedings of the Royal Society B

Full text online HERE.

PLM2012 Coverage: Pleyer & Winters: Integrating Cognitive Linguistics and Language Evolution Research

Today James and I are giving a talk at the Poznań Linguistic Meeting (PLM) on “Integrating Cognitive Linguistics and Language Evolution Research.”  It’s a talk in a thematic section on “Theory and evidence in language evolution research”, which I hope to blog about a bit tomorrow.

We’ll come back to our talk later on and talk about it in a bit more detail but for the time being here’s our abstract:

Cognitive Linguistics is a school of modern linguistic theory and practice that sees language as an integral part of cognition and tries to explain linguistic phenomena with relation to general cognitive capacities (e.g. Evans 2012; Geeraerts & Cuyckens, 2007). In this talk, we argue that there is a wealth of relevant research and theorizing in Cognitive Linguistics that can make important contributions to the study of the evolution of language and cognition. This is in line with recent developments in the field, which have attempted to apply key insights from Cognitive Linguistics on the nature of language and its relation to cognition and culture to the question of language evolution and change (cf. e.g. Evans, 2012; Pleyer, 2012; Sinha, 2009; Tomasello, 2008)

We illustrate this proposal with relation to the three timescales that have a bearing on explicating the structure and evolution of language (Kirby, 2012):

  1. The ontogenetic timescale of individuals acquiring language
  2. The glossogenetic timescale of historical language change
  3. The phylogenetic timescale of the evolution of the species

Continue reading “PLM2012 Coverage: Pleyer & Winters: Integrating Cognitive Linguistics and Language Evolution Research”

Evolang Previews: The Evolution of Morphological Agreement

Evolang is busy this year – 4 parallel sessions and over 50 posters.  We’ll be positing a series of previews to help you decide what to go and see.  If you’d like to post a preview of your work, get in touch and we’ll give you a guest slot.

Richard Littauer The Evolution of Morphological Agreement
Every lecture theatre but Lecture Theatre 1, all times except 14:45-15:05, and certainly not on Friday 16th

In this talk I’m basically outlining the debate as I see it about the evolution of morphology, focusing on agreement as a syntactic phenomenon. There are three main camps: Heine and Kuteva forward grammaticalisation, and say that agreement comes last in the process, and therefore probably last in evolution; Hurford basically states that agreement is part of semantic neural mapping in the brain, and evolved at the same time as protomorphology and protosyntax; and then there’s another, larger camp who basically view agreement as the detritus of complex language. I agree with Hurford, and I propose in this paper that it had to be there earlier, as, quite simply put, there is too much evidence for the use of agreement than for its lack. Unfortunately, I don’t have any empirical or experimental results or studies – this is all purely theoretical – and so this is both a work in progress and a call to arms. Which is to say: theoretical.

First, I define agreement and explain that I’m using Corbett’s (who wrote the book Agreement) terms. This becomes relevant up later. Then I go on to cite Carstairs-McCarthy, saying that basically there’s no point looking at a single language’s agreement for functions, as it is such varied functions. It is best to look at all languages. So, I go on to talk about various functions: pro-drop, redundancy, as an aid in parsing, and syntactic marking, etc.

Carstairs-McCarthy is also important for my talk in that he states that historical analyses of agreement can only go so far, because grammaticalisation basically means that we have to show the roots of agreement in modern languages in the phonology and syntax, as this is where they culturally evolve from in today’s languages. I agree with this – and I also think that basically this means that we can’t use modern diachronic analyses to look at proto-agreement. I think this is the case mainly due to Lupyan and Dale, and other such researchers like Wray, who talk about esoteric and exoteric languages. Essentially, smaller communities tend to have larger morphological inventories. Why is this the case? Because they don’t have as many second language learners, for one, and there’s less dialectical variation. I think that today we’ve crossed a kind of Fosbury Flop in languages that are too large, and I think that this is shown in the theories of syntacticians, who tend to delegate morphology wherever it can’t bother their theories. I’m aware I’m using a lot of ‘I think’ statements – in the talk, I’ll do my best to back these up with actual research.

Now, why is it that morphology, and in particular agreement morphology, which is incredibly redundant and helpful for learners, is pushed back after syntax? Well, part of the reason is that pidgins and creoles don’t really have any. I argue that this doesn’t reflect early languages, which always had an n-1 generation (I’m a creeper, not a jerk*), as opposed to pidgins. I also quote some child studies which show that kids can pick up morphology just as fast as syntax, nullifying that argument. There’s also a pathological case that supports my position on this.

Going back to Corbett, I try to show that canonical agreement – the clearest cases, but not necessarily the most distributed cases – would be helpful on all counts for the hearer. I’d really like to back this up with empirical studies, and perhaps in the future I’ll be able to. I got through some of the key points of Corbett’s hierarchy, and even give my one morphological trilinear gloss example (I’m short on time, and remember, historical analyses don’t help us much here.)  I briefly mention Daumé and Campbell, as well, and Greenberg, to mention typological distribution – but I discount this as good evidence, given the exoteric languages that are most common, and complexity and cultural byproducts that would muddy up the data. I actually make an error in my abstract about this, so here’s my first apology for that (I made one in my laryngeal abstract, as well, misusing the word opaque. One could argue Sean isn’t really losing his edge.)

So, after all that, what are we left with? No solid proof against the evolution of morphology early, but a lot of functions that would seem to stand it firmly in the semantic neural mapping phase, tied to proto-morphology, which would have to be simultaneous to protosyntax. What I would love to do after this is run simulations about using invisible syntax versus visible morphological agreement for marking grammatical relations. The problem, of course, is that simulations probably won’t help for long distance dependencies, I don’t know how I’d frame that experiment, and using human subjects would be biased towards syntax, as we all are used to using that more than morphology, now, anyway. It’s a tough pickle to crack (I’m mixing my metaphors, aren’t I?)

And that sums up what my talk will be doing. Comments welcomed, particularly before the talk, as I can then adjust accordingly. I wrote this fast, because I’ll probably misspeak during the talk as well – so if you see anything weird here, call me out on it. Cheers.

*I believe in a gradual evolution of language, not a catastrophic one. Thank Hurford for this awesome phrase.

Selected References

Carstairs-McCarthy, A. (2010). The Evolution of Morphology. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.
Corbett, G. (2006). Agreement. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
Heine, B., and Kuteva, T. (2007). The Genesis of Grammar. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.
Hurford, J.R. (2002). The Roles of Expression and Representation in Language Evolution. In A. Wray (Ed.) The Transition to Language (pp. 311–334). Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.
Lupan, G. & Dale, R (2009). Language structure is partly determined by social structure Social and Linguistic Structure.

Social networks and Cooperation

A new paper in Nature, by Apicella, Marlowe, Fowler & Christakis was published today. It hypothesises that social network structure may have been present in early human history, and this structure may account for the emergence of cooperation.

A new paper in Nature, by Apicella, Marlowe, Fowler & Christakis, was published today. It hypothesises that social network structure may have been present in early human history, and this structure may account for the emergence of cooperation. The study used data from the Haza people of Tanzania, who presumably already have cooperation, so I’m not sure what data they’re using to back up claims of emergence. I can’t read the article because I don’t have institutional access any more, so I’d be keen to hear thoughts others have.

Here’s the abstract:

Social networks show striking structural regularities, and both theory and evidence suggest that networks may have facilitated the development of large-scale cooperation in humans. Here, we characterize the social networks of the Hadza, a population of hunter-gatherers in Tanzania. We show that Hadza networks have important properties also seen in modernized social networks, including a skewed degree distribution, degree assortativity, transitivity, reciprocity, geographic decay and homophily. We demonstrate that Hadza camps exhibit high between-group and low within-group variation in public goods game donations. Network ties are also more likely between people who give the same amount, and the similarity in cooperative behaviour extends up to two degrees of separation. Social distance appears to be as important as genetic relatedness and physical proximity in explaining assortativity in cooperation. Our results suggest that certain elements of social network structure may have been present at an early point in human history. Also, early humans may have formed ties with both kin and non-kin, based in part on their tendency to cooperate. Social networks may thus have contributed to the emergence of cooperation.

Deictic Gestures in Ravens

Ravens can point. It’s scary how clever birds can be.

Guys! Guys! Guys!

Ravens can point. It’s scary how clever birds can be. People keep sending me this paper so I thought I’d link to it here so that people know I’ve seen it and stop bothering me (I actually don’t mind being bothered, especially if it’s about interesting things like this, please don’t stop). Abstract below.

Around the age of one year, human children start to use gestures to coordinate attention towards a social partner and an object of mutual interest. These referential gestures have been suggested as the foundation to engage in language, and have so far only been observed in great apes. Virtually nothing is known about comparable skills in non-primate species. Here we record thirty-eight social interactions between seven raven (Corvus corax) dyads in the Northern Alps, Austria during three consecutive field seasons. All observed behaviours included the showing and/or offering of non-edible items (for example, moss, twigs) to recipients, leading to frequent orientation of receivers to the object and the signallers and subsequent affiliative interactions. We report evidence that the use of declarative gestures is not restricted to the primate lineage and that these gestures may function as ‘testing-signals’ to evaluate the interest of a potential partner or to strengthen an already existing bond.

If you’re interested in reading about referencial gestures in humans and chipanzees and why these things are relevant to the evolution of language you should read Michael’s post here.

The Declining Academic Performance of Men

PZ Myers points to a TED video of Philip Zimbardo (see below) that links the declining academic performance of men with arousal addiction: here, the transition from boys to men in our modern society is characterised by “digitally rewired” brains that are in search of constant arousal etc etc. Like Myers, I’m sceptical of these claims, but I think they are certainly worth investigating, just not in the fashion employed by Susan Greenfield (you know, she of pseudo-neuroscientific fame). What I would like to see answered is: Do all Internet-influenced societies see this general trend of declining academic performance in men?

Another research question we might want to test, or control for in our hypothetical study, is whether or not there is a correlation between the number of female teachers and male academic performance? I haven’t bothered to look into the literature on this, so maybe a study has already been done, but female teachers certainly appear to outnumber their male counterparts in many corners of the globe (especially in primary school education). In Wales, for instance, I was astonished to find that 74.7% of teachers are female. My point: there might be a more obvious underlying cause as to why women are outperforming men, other than the rise of the zombie-generation of internet-addicted gamers. Still, I’m going to go with the cop-out approach and claim there are numerous factors underpinning male achievement (or lack of) in academia and beyond. I just wanted to point out that, in any study purporting to provide answers about declining educational attainment, you first really need to look at who is doing the teaching.

Continue reading “The Declining Academic Performance of Men”

Never mind language, emotions are in a category of their own

A new paper in the journal ‘Emotion’ has presented research which has implications for the evolution of language, emotion and for theories of linguistic relativity.

A new paper in the journal ‘Emotion’ has presented research which has implications for the evolution of language, emotion and for theories of linguistic relativity. The paper, entitled ‘Categorical Perception of Emotional Facial Expressions Does Not Require Lexical Categories’, looks at whether our perception of other people’s emotions depend on the language we speak or if it is universal. The results come from the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics and Evolutionary Anthropology.

Human’s facial expressions are perceived categorically and this has lead to hypotheses that this is caused by linguistic mechanisms.

The paper presents a study which compared German speakers to native speakers of Yucatec Maya, which is a language which has no labels which distinguish disgust from anger. This was backed up by a free naming task in which speakers of German, but not Yucatec Maya, made lexical distinctions between disgust and anger.

The study comprised of a match-to-sample task of facial expressions, and both speakers of German and Yucatec Maya perceived emotional facial expressions of disgust and anger, and other emotions, categorically. This effect was shown to be just as significant across the language groups, as well as across emotion continua (see figure 1.) regardless of lexical distinctions.

The results show that the perception of emotional signals is not the result of linguistic mechanisms  which create different lexical labels but instead shows evidence that emotions are subject to their own biologically evolved mechanisms. Sorry Whorfians!


Sauter DA, Leguen O, & Haun DB (2011). Categorical perception of emotional facial expressions does not require lexical categories. Emotion (Washington, D.C.) PMID: 22004379