Tag Archives: blogosphere

Some Links #19: The Reality of a Universal Language Faculty?

I noticed it’s almost been a month since I last posted some links. What this means is that many of the links I planned on posting are terribly out of date and these last few days I haven’t really had the time to keep abreast of the latest developments in the blogosphere (new course + presentation at Edinburgh + current cold = a lethargic Wintz). I’m hoping next week will be a bit nicer to me.

The reality of a universal language faculty? Melodye offers up a thorough post on the whole Universal Grammar hypothesis, mostly drawing from the BBS issue dedicated Evans & Levinson (2009)’s paper on the myth of language universals, and why it is a weak position to take. Key paragraph:

When we get to language, then, it need not be surprising that many human languages have evolved similar means of efficiently communicating information. From an evolutionary perspective, this would simply suggest that various languages have, over time, ‘converged’ on many of the same solutions.  This is made even more plausible by the fact that every competent human speaker, regardless of language spoken, shares roughly the same physical and cognitive machinery, which dictates a shared set of drives, instincts, and sensory faculties, and a certain range of temperaments, response-patterns, learning facilities and so on.  In large part, we also share fairly similar environments — indeed, the languages that linguists have found hardest to document are typically those of societies at the farthest remove from our own (take the Piraha as a case in point).

My own position on the matter is fairly straightforward enough: I don’t think the UG perspective is useful. One attempt by Pinker and Bloom (1990) argued that this language module, in all its apparent complexity, could not have arisen by any other means than via natural selection – as did the eye and many other complex biological systems. Whilst I agree with the sentiment that natural selection, and more broadly, evolution, is a vital tool in discerning the origins of language, I think Pinker & Bloom initially overlooked the significance of cultural evolutionary and developmental processes. If anything, I think the debate surrounding UG has held back the field in some instances, even if some of the more intellectually vibrant research emerged as a product of arguing against its existence. This is not to say I don’t think our capacity for language has been honed via natural selection. It was probably a very powerful pressure in shaping the evolutionary trajectory of our cognitive capacities. What you won’t find, however, is a strongly constrained language acquisition device dedicated to the processing of arbitrary, domain-specific linguistic properties, such as X-bar theory and case marking.

Babel’s Dawn Turns Four. In the two and half years I’ve been reading Babel’s Dawn it has served as a port for informative articles, some fascinating ideas and, lest we forget, some great writing on the evolution of language. Edmund Blair Bolles highlights the blog’s fourth anniversary by referring to another, very important, birthday:

This blog’s fourth anniversary has rolled around. More notably, the 20th anniversary of Steven Pinker and Paul Bloom‘s famous paper, “Natural Language and Natural Selection,” seems to be upon us. Like it or quarrel with it, Pinker-Bloom broke the dam that had barricaded serious inquiry since 1866 when the Paris Linguistic Society banned all papers on language’s beginnings. The Journal of Evolutionary Psychology is marking the Pinker-Bloom anniversary by devoting its December issue to the evolution of language. The introductory editorial, by Thomas Scott-Phillips, summarizes language origins in terms of interest to the evolutionary psychologist, making the editorial a handy guide to the differences between evolutionary psychology and evolutionary linguistics.

Hopefully I’ll have a post on Pinker and Bloom’s original paper, and how the field has developed over these last twenty years, at some point in the next couple of weeks. I think it’s historical importance will, to echo Bolles, be its value in opening up the field: with the questions of language origins and evolution turning into something worthy of serious intellectual investigation.

Other Links

Hypnosis reaches the parts brain scans and neurosurgery cannot.

Are Humans Still Evolving? (Part Two is here).

The Limits of Science.

On Language — Learning Language in Chunks.

Farmers, foragers, and us.

Tweet This.

On Music and The Brain.

Why I spoofed science journalism, and how to fix in.

The adaptive space of complexity.

Some Links #14: Can Robots create their own language?

Can Robots create their own language? Sean already mentioned this in the comments for a previous post. But as I’m a big fan of Luc Steels‘ work this video may as well go on the front page:

Speaking in Tones: Music and Language Partner in the brain. The first of two really good articles in Scientific American. As you can guess by the title, this article is looking at current research into the links between music and language, such as the overlap in brain circuitry, how prosodic qualities of speech are vital in language development, and the way in which a person hears a set of musical notes may be affected by their native language. Sadly, the article is behind a paywall, so unless you have a subscription you’ll only get to read the first few paragraphs, plus the one I’m about to quote:

In a 2007 investigation neuroscientists Patrick Wong and Nina Kraus, along with their colleagues at Northwestern University, exposed English speakers to Mandarin speech sounds and measured the electrical responses in the auditory brain stem using electrodes placed on the scalp. The responses to Mandarin were stronger among participants who had received musical training — and the earlier they had begun training and the longer they had continued training, the stronger the activity in these brain areas.

Carried to extremes: How quirks of perception drive the evolution of species. In the second good article, which by the way is free to view, Ramachandran and Ramachandran propose another mechanism of evolution in regards to perception:

Our hypothesis involves the unintended consequences of aesthetic and perceptual laws that evolved to help creatures quickly identify what in their surroundings is useful (food and potential mates) and what constitutes a threat (environment dangers and predators). We believe that these laws indirectly drive many aspects of the evolution of animals’ shape, size and coloration.

It’s important to note that they are not arguing against natural selection; rather, they are simply offering an addition force that guides the evolution of a species. It’s quite interesting, even if I’m not completely convinced by their hypothesis — but my criticisms can wait until they publish an actual academic paper on the subject.

A robotic model of the human vocal tract? Talking Brains links to the Anthropomorphic Talking Robot developed at Waseda University. Apparently it can produce some vowels. Here is a picture of the device (which looks like some sort of battle drone):

Battle Drone or Model Vocal Tract?

Y Chromosome II: What is its structure? Be sure to check out the new contributor over at GNXP, Kele Cable, and her article on the structure of the Y Chromosome. I found this sentence particularly amusing:

As you can see in Figure 1, the Y chromosome (on the right) is puny and diminutive. It really is kind of pathetic once you look at it.

Scientopia. A cool collection of bloggers have banded together to form Scientopia. With plenty of articles having already appeared it all looks very promising. In truth, it’s probably not going to be as successful as ScienceBlogs, largely because it doesn’t pay contributors and, well, nothing is ever going to be as big as ScienceBlogs was at its peak. This new ecology of the science blogosphere is well articulated in a long post by Bora over at A Blog Around the Clock.

Cultural Diversity, Economic Development and Societal Instability

ResearchBlogging.orgMost of you in the science blogosphere have probably come across Razib’s recent post on linguistic diversity and poverty. The basic argument being that linguistic homogeneity is good for economic development and general prosperity. I was quite happy to let the debate unfold and limit my stance on the subject to the following few sentences I posted previously:

From the perspective of a linguist, however, I do like the idea of really obscure linguistic communities, ready and waiting to be discovered and documented. On the flip side, it is selfish of me to want these small communities to remain in a bubble, free from the very same benefits I enjoy in belonging to a modern, post-industrialised society. Our goal, then, should probably be more focused on documenting, as opposed to saving, these languages.

Since then, the debate has become a lot more heated, with Neuroanthropology wading in against Razib, which, in the second-half of the post at least, is worth reading just to get the general flavour of the other side in this debate. Having said that, I wasn’t convinced by the evidence Greg Downey used to dismiss Razib’s hypothesis, so I decided to actually look at the literature on the subject. The first paper I found upon searching was one by Nettle et al, in which they examine the relationship between cultural diversity and societal instability using a large cross-national data set of 212 nations. Importantly, they look at cultural diversity in the context of three areas: linguistically, ethnically and religious affiliation. Also, they draw a distinction between within-nation (alpha) diversity and between-nation (beta) diversity. Lastly, unlike other studies on the subject, where simple regression or correlation methods are used, the current study employs structural equation modelling (SEM):

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