After passing my final exams I feel that I can relax a bit and have the time to read a book again. So instead of reading a book that I need to read purely for ‘academic reasons’, I thought I’d pick one I’d thoroughly enjoy: James Hurford’s “The Origins of Grammar“, which clocks in at a whopping 808 pages.
I’m still reading the first chapter (which you can read for free here) but I thought I’d share some of his analyses of “Animal Syntax.”
Hurford’s general conclusion is that despite what you sometimes read in the popular press,
“No non-human has any semantically compositional syntax, where the form of the syntactic combination determines how the meanings of the parts combine to make the meaning of the whole.”
The crucial notion here is that of compositionality. Hurford argues that we can find animal calls and songs that are combinatorial, that is songs and calls in which elements are put together according to some kind of rule or pattern. But what we do not find, he argues, are the kinds of putting things together where the elements put together each have a specified meaning and the whole song, call or communicative assembly “means something which is a reflection of the meanings of the parts.”
To illustrate this, Hurford cites the call system of putty-nosed monkeys (Arnold and Zuberbühler 2006). These monkeys have only two different call signals in their repertoire, a ‘pyow’-sound that ‘means’, roughly, ‘LEOPARD’; and a ‘hack’ sound that ‘means’, roughly, ‘EAGLE’.
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How many languages do you speak? This is actually a difficult question, because there’s no such thing as a language, as I argue in this video.
This is a video of a talk I gave as part of the Edinburgh University Linguistics & English Language Society’s Soap Vox lecture series. I argue that ‘languages’ are not discrete, monolithic, static entities – they are fuzzy, emergent, complex, dynamic, context-sensitive categories. I don’t think anyone would actually disagree with this, yet some models of language change and evolution still include representations of a ‘language’ where the learner must ‘pick’ a language to speak, rather than picking variants and allowing higher-level categories like languages to emerge.
In this lecture I argue that languages shouldn’t be modelled as discrete, unchanging things by demonstrating that there’s no consistent, valid way of measuring the number of languages that a person speaks.
The slides aren’t always in view (it improves as the lecture goes on), but I’ll try and write this up as a series of posts soon.
A paper by Gell-Mann & Ruhlen in PNAS this week conducts a phylogenetic analysis of word order in languages and concludes that SOV is the most likely ancestor language word order. The main conclusions from the analysis are:
(i) The word order in the ancestral language was SOV.
(ii) Except for cases of diffusion, the direction of syntactic change, when it occurs, has been for the most part SOV > SVO and, beyond that, SVO > VSO/VOS with a subsequent reversion to SVO occurring occasionally. Reversion to SOV occurs only through diffusion.
(iii) Diffusion, although important, is not the dominant process in the evolution of word order.
(iv) The two extremely rare word orders (OVS and OSV) derive directly from SOV.
This analysis agrees with Luke Maurtis‘ work on function and Uniform Information Density (blogged about here).
A new paper in PlosOne has used new fancy research methods to look at whether humans are more capable of describing a word using just spoken communication, or whether the use of gesture also helps. This research is pertinent to the field of language evolution because it might help us understand if spoken language co-evolved with gesture as well as helping us understand how language is processed in the brain.
This new study builds on previous research in this area by using avatars in a virtual reality setting. Participants were either in control of the movements of their avatar, or not.
The study found that participants were much more successful in communicating concepts when the speaker was able to use their own gestures when explaining a concept using spoken language. The body language of the listener also impacted success at the task, showing the need for nonverbal feedback from the listener.
It’s worth noting that the primary purpose of this research wasn’t to find if gesture is helpful in communication (though that is certainly interesting and worthwhile) but rather whether using virtual reality is fruitful in these kinds of experiments.
The press release discusses some of the problems with using avatars:
The researchers note that there are limitations to nonverbal communication in virtual reality environments. First, they found that participants move much less in a virtual environment than they do in the “real world.” They also found that the perspective of the camera in the virtual environment affected the results.
Lead author, Dr. Trevor Dodds maintains, “this research demonstrates that virtual reality technology can help us gain a greater understanding of the role of body gestures in communication. We show that body gestures carry extra information when communicating the meaning of words. Additionally, with virtual reality technology we have learned that body gestures from both the speaker and listener contribute to the successful communication of the meaning of words. These findings are also important for the development of virtual environments, with applications including medical training, urban planning, entertainment and telecommunication.”
The work was led by Dr. Trevor Dodds at the Max Planck Institute for Biological Cybernetics in Germany.
Lexicons from around 20% of the extant languages spoken by hunter-gatherer societies were coded for etymology (available in the supplementary material). The levels of borrowed words were compared with the languages of agriculturalist and urban societies taken from the World Loanword Database. The study focussed on three locations: Northern Australia, northwest Amazonia, and California and the Great Basin.
In opposition to some previous hypotheses, hunter-gatherer societies did not borrow significantly more words than agricultural societies in any of the regions studied.
The rates of borrowing were universally low, with most languages not borrowing more than 10% of their basic vocabulary. The mean rate for hunter-gatherer societies was 6.38% while the mean for 5.15%. This difference is actually significant overall, but not within particular regions. Therefore, the authors claim, “individual area variation is more important than any general tendencies of HG or AG languages”.
Interestingly, in some regions, mobility, population size and population density were significant factors. Mobile populations and low-density populations had significantly lower borrowing rates, while smaller populations borrowed proportionately more words. This may be in line with the theory of linguistic carrying capacity as discussed by Wintz (see here and here). The level of exogamy was a significant factor in Australia.
The study concludes that phylogenetic analyses are a valid form of linguistic analysis because the level of horizontal transmission is low. That is, languages are tree-like enough for phylogenetic assumptions to be valid:
“While it is important to identify the occasional aberrant cases of high borrowing, our results support the idea that lexical evolution is largely tree-like, and justify the continued application of quantitative phylogenetic methods to examine linguistic evolution at the level of the lexicon. As is the case with biological evolution, it will be important to test the fit of trees produced by these methods to the data used to reconstruct them. However, one advantage linguists have over biologists is that they can use the methods we have described to identify borrowed lexical items and remove them from the dataset. For this reason, it has been proposed that, in cases of short to medium time depth (e.g., hundreds to several thousand years), linguistic data are superior to genetic data for reconstructing human prehistory “
Excellent – linguistics beats biology for a change!
However, while the level of horizontal transmission might not be a problem in this analysis, there may be a problem in the paths of borrowing. If a language borrows relatively few words, but those words come from many different languages, and may have many paths through previous generations, there may be a subtle effect of horizontal transition that is being masked. The authors acknowledge that they did not address the direction of transmission in a quantitative way.
A while ago, I did study of English etymology trying to quantify the level of horizontal transmission through time (description here). The graph for English doesn’t look tree-like to me, perhaps the dynamics of borrowing works differently for languages with a high level of contact:
Claire Bowern, Patience Epps, Russell Gray, Jane Hill, Keith Hunley, Patrick McConvell, Jason Zentz (2011). Does Lateral Transmission Obscure Inheritance in Hunter-Gatherer Languages? PLoS ONE, 6 (9) : doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0025195
Stephen Fry has embarked on a series of documentaries about language, beginning with the evolution of language which he calls ‘the final frontier’ of human understanding. The typical documentary hype is all here: Stephen Pinker sits in a gigantic fish tank with bits of taxidermied brain lying around like sandwiches; Michael Tomasello appears to live in a tropical primate enclose; Fry conducts his studies from a medieval study complete with quills, a CGI tree of languages and a talking parrot.
Despite this, it was actually a coherent and comprehensive review of topics in the field: Language versus communication in animals, phisological constraints of language, creativity and the desire to share information, the pragmatic origins of language, FoxP2 and the poverty of the stimulus. Bilingualism is even added to this cannon of interesting ways to approach the origins of language, somewhat tempered by Fry’s question “wouldn’t it be better if everybody spoke Esperanto?”.
Mercifully, Fry seems to be actually interested rather than trying to build up the conspiracy plot format endemic in other science documentaries. There are some odd diversions to a Klingon version of Hamlet, a trip to a German Christmas market and a slightly awkward re-enactment of a feral child case, but all in all the message is not objectionable: There is a graded difference between non-human and human communication, it’s partly genetic and partly cultural and languages continually change under pressures to be learned and to express new ideas. There are also welcome additions of the original Wug test and, of course, Fry & Laurie’s seminal sketch about language.
Overall, I’d say it was the second best documentary the BBC have made about the origins of language.
David Krakauer from the Santa Fe Institute asks “what is intelligence?” and discusses the rift in the field of computer science between the top down, symbolic approach to cognition (how can we make a machine play chess?) and the bottom-up, inferential approach (how can we evolve a general-intelligence machine?). He suggests that the singularity – when machines will outpace human beings – will occur only when machines master both aspects. But is it a good idea to trust them?
This is a typical SFI talk, sweeping over evolving brain size, poetry, the Turing test, Evolution, the Matrix, Blade Runner and Doctor Strangelove. Fantastically, Krakauer mentions my work on a cultural singularity that I blogged about here!
When asked to name a linguistically diverse place, I would have said Papua New Guinea, and if asked to name a stereotypically monolingual country, I would have named the USA. However, this recent report from the New York Times suggests that, due to its large immigrant population, New York harbours more endangered languages than anywhere else on Earth (tipped off from Edinburgh University’s Lang Soc Blog). From a field linguists’ point of view this may make discovery of and access to minority languages much easier (although may mean the end of exotic holidays). From a cultural evolution point of view, a more global community may mean a radically different kind of competition between languages. Nice video below: