James Hurford: Animals Do Not Have Syntax (Compositional Syntax, That Is)

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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Schizophrenia and brain evolution (plus bold adjectives)

ResearchBlogging.org When exploring the etiology of schizophrenia, a feat that has mostly eluded understanding for over 100 years, a common denominator emerges in that associated deficiencies are rooted in cognitively demanding tasks. One suggestion is that, where schizophrenic individuals are involved, disorganised thoughts, abnormal speech, auditory hallucinations and paranoid delusions are symptomatic consequences of our haphazardly evolved brains. It might not seem revelatory, nor is it a particularly new thought on the matter, yet this disorder clearly has ties with human-specific, recently evolved behaviours, such as language and social relationships. And it is here in which our problem emerges: we don’t even know how language or social relationships evolved. In fact, the evolution of the human brain is still very much an enigma, despite the whole host of literature having you believe otherwise. As Darwin put it: “Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge[…]”.

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