Tag Archives: Bill Benzon

Robustness, Evolvability, Degeneracy and stuff like that…

Much of the work I plan to do for this year involves integrating traditional and contemporary theories of language change within an evolutionary framework. In my previous post I introduced the concept of degeneracy, which, to briefly recap, refers to components that have a structure-to-function ratio of many-to-one, with a single degenerate structure being capable of performing distinct functions under different conditions (pluripotent). Whitcare (2010: 5) provides a case in point for biological systems: here, the adhesin gene family in A. Saccharomyces “ expresses proteins that typically play unique roles during development, yet can perform each other’s functions when expression levels are altered”.

But what about degeneracy in language? For a start, we already know from basic linguistic theory forms (i.e. structures) are paired with meanings (i.e. functions). More recent work has expanded upon this notion, especially in developing the concept of constructions (Goldberg, 2003): “direct form-meaning pairings that range from the very specific (words or idioms) to the more general (passive constructions, ditranstive construction), and from very small units (words with affixes, walked) to clause-level or even discourse-level units” (Beckner et al., 2009: 5). When applied to constructions, degeneracy fits squarely with work identifying language as a Complex Adaptive System (see here) and as a culturally transmitted replicator (see here and here), which offers a link between the generation of first order synchronic variation – in the form of innovation (e.g. newly introduced linguistic material in the form of sounds, words, grammatical constructions etc) – and the selection, propagation and fixation of linguistic variants within a speaker community.

For the following example, I’m going to look at a specific type of discourse-pragmatic feature, or construction, which has undergone renewed interest over the last thirty-years. Known as General Extenders (GEs) – utterance- or clause-final discourse particles, such as and stuff and or something – researchers are realising that, far from being superfluous linguistic baggage, these features “carry social meaning, perform indispensible functions in social interaction, and constitute essential elements of sentence grammar” (Pichler, 2010: 582). Of specific relevance, GEs, and discourse-pragmatic particles more generally, are multifunctional: that is, they are not confined to a single communicative domain, and can even come to serve multiple roles within the same communicative context or utterance.

It is proposed the concept of degeneracy will allow us to explain how multifunctional discourse markers emerge from variation existent at structural components of linguistic organisation, such as the phonological and morphosyntactic components. If anything, I hope the post might serve as some food for thought, as I’m still grappling with the applications of the theory (and whether there’s anything useful to say!).

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Cultural Evolution: A Vehicle for Cooperative Interaction Between the Sciences and the Humanities

Bill Benzon of New Savanna has a long article over at On the Human about cultural evolution. It touches on some very important topics, which includes an example of coordinating behaviour:

Consider the bi-modal clapping that routinely rewards a successful performances—music, drama, circus, etc.—in eastern European communities, but which is less common in western Europe and North America. Z. Néda and colleagues (2000) have investigated this phenomenon, recording applause for a number of performances in Romania and Hungary. The applause would start out randomly and then quickly become strongly synchronized. Synchronized clapping would continue for a short while (one mode) and then disintegrate into random clapping (the other mode), from which synchronized clapping would reemerge, and so forth.

He also emphasises the importance of, and the need for, description in cultural evolution, drawing on Darwin’s own situation in the 19th Century:

Consider the situation of Darwin faced in the 19th century. When he began formulating his ideas on the origin of species he had three bodies of knowledge to work from: prior thought on the topic, his own observations over three decades, and the cumulative results of four centuries of descriptive work in natural history (cf. Ogilvie 2006) to which he had access through books and collections. That descriptive work provided models for his own observation and description. Plants and animals, and their lifeways, are very complex. Which traits and features are the most important to observe and describe? That is not an obvious matter, and it took naturalists decades to arrive the useful descriptive methods (cf. Foucault 1973, pp. 128 ff.). Secondly, it gave him the means to abstract and generalize from his own observations, to explore their implications throughout the natural world, most of which, of course, was beyond his immediate experience.

I’m planning on posting a comment tomorrow, but only if I’ve got something worth adding to the discussion. I think there are definitely areas worth looking at, such as the use of phylogenetic techniques in investigating culture, though I’m still juggling in my head whether they are entirely relevant to the conversation at hand. Also, be sure to check out John Wilkins’ comment about memes.

Some Links #5

The returns on homogeneity Razib Kahn writes about the potential costs of  the world having diversity in its languages, instead of just one. He also asks: “The extreme linguistic diversity of less developed regions of the world, or even 18th century France and Italy, is probably detrimental to economic growth and economies of scale, but do diminishing returns kick in at some point?” I’m not too sure where my thoughts lie on this, as I’ve never really thought about it before, which, for me at least, is always the sign of a good blog post. Of course, the economic woes or pros will be negated once the universal translator is made…

Cultural Induction is hard Sean Roberts offers a very thought-provoking post about cultural induction. A week or so ago he ran a little experiment on Facebook, with the explicit aim of looking at Welsh Mutations and agreements between Welsh-speaking individuals in regards to simple sentences. All this fits into a larger picture, with Sean arguing, quite persuasively, that “cultural induction may not be easier than learning about the natural world if everybody is doing something different.”

Cultural Evolution I tend to think I write fairly in-depth posts about cultural evolution, but it appears Bill Benzon over at New Savanna has dethroned me with a knock out tome of posts. These include one on language games, which, in the spirit of being completely honest, I haven’t yet had chance to completely read. I think a New Savanna day is due at some point next week.

Simon Jenkins writes something stupid, and in doing so invites a whole number of science bloggers to have their very own spoof Jenks day, in which (apparently) evil boffins seek revenge.

A new Papua tribe is discovered. Numbering around 3000 the tribe will surely be of interest to field linguists. They also apparently live in trees and run around completely naked (apart from banana leaves covering their private parts).

Culture as an evolutionary phenomenon. An interesting lecture by Rob Boyd over at the ICCI’s website.