New Blog: A Rare Bite of Linguistics

Being someone who likes to welcome new academics blogs on the scene, particularly ones of a linguistic tilt, I urge you to go over, visit, read and maybe even leave a comment at A Rare Bite of Linguistics. It’s only one-post old, but the subject topic of language change and grammaticalisation fits in nicely with this blog’s overarching themes. As some of you might know, I wrote a bit about grammaticalisation at the start of this year, so the work is especially useful to lay folk such as myself. The post is the first of two that report the author’s findings of her MA project, which focused on the grammatical status of certainly in collocation with modal verbs. In the author’s own words:

My hypothesis is that the adverb is not fully grammaticalised even though it might show signatures of grammaticalisation.

Following Noël (2007), Bybee (2003) and Hopper and Traugott (2003) grammaticalisation affects a construction primarily and a single word secondarily; I suggest that, for modal synergy, a structural unit is formed of a modal verb and an adjacent modal adverb in mid-position, e.g. would certainly, must certainly etc. Mid-position is the ‘natural habitat’ of the modal particle and if there is grammaticalisation of certainly into a modal particle, this is consequently where we would expect to find it. Moreover, if this were a grammatical unit/construction consisting of two grammatical constituents, the grammaticality would lie in the bondedness (syntagmatic restriction) of the two elements, and the semantic and paradigmatic restrictions which are said to be part of grammaticalisation (cf. Lehmann’s parameters): we would expect an abstract meaning and perhaps reduced phonological properties (which I cannot test), paradigmaticity, low paradigmatic variability and high cohesion with modal verbs in general. Scope is a contested parameter and it seems that in this case too, we will deal with increased scope. Lastly, as Bybee (2003) indicated, frequency plays a staple role in the propagation of an item to becoming grammaticalised (see also Croft 2000).

It’s at quite a high level, but she does provide good, comprehensive definitions of what she’s studying and, more importantly, a fleshed out understanding of grammaticalisation theory and the processes underpinning it.

The Bog

If you like wading through deposits of dead animal material, then you should go over and visit Richard Littauer’s new blog, The Bog. Having been exposed to his writings on both this blog, and through the Edinburgh language society website, I’m sure it will be worth a visit — for good writing, if not for your dire need to distinguish between forest swamps and shrub swamps. His first post is on Mung, the colloquial name for Pylaiella littoris, which is apparently a common seaweed. Here is his quick overview of the blog:

So, The Bog is going to be the resting place for various studies and explorations. Richard Littauer is the writer; he is working on his MA in Linguistics at Edinburgh University. He writes about evolutionary linguistics and culture at Replicated Typo, about general linguistic musings at a non-academic standard at Lang. Soc., about constructed languages on Llama, and about various philosophical things at Pitch Black Press. Since none of these blogs were a perfect fit for the scientific equivalent of a swamp-romp through subjects he doesn’t study, he set up this blog. Expect posts about ecology, biology, linguistics, anthropology, or anything in between.

The fact that it’s called the Bog has nothing to do with the British slang for ‘bathroom’. Rather, Richard (well, I) have an affinity with swamps for some unexplained reasons. Expect posts on swamps.

If that doesn’t appeal to you, then Richard is also well-known for being the world’s number one Na’vi fan.

Language, Thought and Space (I): Lumpers and Splitters

There have been some very interesting discussions of the relationship between language and thought recently, including for example, Sean’s absolutely fascinating series of posts about the evolution of colour terms,  a great post on descriptions of motion in different languages over at the lousy linguist (here), Guy Deutscher’s article “Does Your Language Shape How You Think?” (for discussions, see e.h. here and here), a slightly less recent piece by Lera Boroditsky in the Wall Street Journal, and an excellent recent discussion of her article by Mark Liberman (here). (see also James’ post, including a great/terrible joke about Whorf).

One of the things that Deutscher wrote in his article was that:

“The area where the most striking evidence for the influence of language on thought has come to light is the language of space — how we describe the orientation of the world around us.”

As I’ve written a bit about this topic on my other blog, Shared Symbolic Storage, I’ll repost a short series of posts over the next couple of days.
As Deutscher said, this is a very fascinating avenue of linguistic research that gives much insight into the nature of language and cognition as well as their relationship. In addition, it also presents us with new facts and considerations we have to take into account when we think about how language and cognition evolved.

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What Makes Humans Unique ?(IV): Shared Intentionality – The Foundation of Human Uniqueness?

What Makes Humans Unique (IV): Shared Intentionality – The Foundation of Human Uniqueness?

Shared or collective intentionality is the ability and motivation to engage with others in collaborative, co-operative activities with joint goals and intentions. (Tomasello et al. 2005). The term also implies that the collaborators’ psychological processes are jointly directed at something and take place within a joint attentional frame (Hurford 2007: 320, Tomasello et al. 2005).

Michael Tomasello and his colleagues at the Max-Planck-Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany have proposed that shared intentionality and the cognitive infrastructure supporting it may be the crucial feature that makes humans unique.

(You can hear Michael Tomasello talk about shared intentionality in his brief 2009 acceptance speech for the prestigeous “Hegel-Price” here. Transcript here)

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What Makes Humans Unique? (II): Six Candidates for What Makes Human Cognition Uniquely Human

ResearchBlogging.orgWhat makes humans unique? This never-ending debate has sparked a long list of proposals and counter-arguments and, to quote from a recent article on this topic,

“a similar fate  most likely awaits some of the claims presented here. However such demarcations  simply  have  to  be  drawn  once  and  again.  They  focus  our  attention, make us wonder, and direct and stimulate research, exactly because they provoke and challenge other researchers to take up the glove and prove us wrong.” (Høgh-Olesen 2010: 60)

In this post, I’ll focus on six candidates that might play a part in constituting what makes human cognition unique, though there are countless others (see, for example, here).

One of the key candidates for what makes human cognition unique is of course language and symbolic thought. We are “the articulate mammal” (Aitchison 1998) and an “animal symbolicum” (Cassirer 2006: 31). And if one defining feature truly fits our nature, it is that we are the “symbolic species” (Deacon 1998). But as evolutionary anthropologists Michael Tomasello and his colleagues argue,

“saying that only humans have language is like saying that only humans build skyscrapers, when the fact is that only humans (among primates) build freestanding shelters at all” (Tomasello et al. 2005: 690).

Language and Social Cognition

According to Tomasello and many other researchers, language and symbolic behaviour, although they certainly are crucial features of human cognition, are derived from human beings’ unique capacities in the social domain. As Willard van Orman Quine pointed out, language is essential a “social art” (Quine 1960: ix). Specifically, it builds on the foundations of infants’ capacities for joint attention, intention-reading, and cultural learning (Tomasello 2003: 58). Linguistic communication, on this view, is essentially a form of joint action rooted in common ground between speaker and hearer (Clark 1996: 3 & 12), in which they make “mutually manifest” relevant changes in their cognitive environment (Sperber & Wilson 1995). This is the precondition for the establishment and (co-)construction of symbolic spaces of meaning and shared perspectives (Graumann 2002, Verhagen 2007: 53f.). These abilities, then, had to evolve prior to language, however great language’s effect on cognition may be in general (Carruthers 2002), and if we look for the origins and defining features of human uniqueness we should probably look in the social domain first.

Corroborating evidence for this view comes from comparisons of brain size among primates. Firstly, there are significant positive correlations between group size and primate neocortex size (Dunbar & Shultz 2007). Secondly, there is also a positive correlation between technological innovation and tool use – which are both facilitated by social learning – on the one hand and brain size on the other (Reader and Laland 2002). Our brain, it seems, is essential a “social brain” that evolved to cope with the affordances of a primate social world that frequently got more complex (Dunbar & Shultz 2007, Lewin 2005: 220f.).

Thus, “although innovation, tool use, and technological invention may have played a crucial role in the evolution of ape and human brains, these skills were probably built upon mental computations that had their origins and foundations in social interactions” (Cheney & Seyfarth 2007: 283).

Continue reading “What Makes Humans Unique? (II): Six Candidates for What Makes Human Cognition Uniquely Human”

What Makes Humans Unique? (I): The Evolution of the Human Brain

Hello! This is my first post here at Replicated Typo and I thought I’d start with reposting a slightly modified version of a three-part series on the evolution of the human mind that I did last year over at my blog Shared Symbolic Storage.

So in this and my next posts I will have a look at how human cognition evolved from the perspective of cognitive science, especially ‘evolutionary linguistics,’ comparative psychology and developmental psychology.

In this post I’ll focus on the evolution of the human brain.

Human Evolution

We are evolved primates. (As are all other primates of course. So maybe it is better to say that we, like all other primates, are evolved beings with a unique set of specializations, adaptations and features. )

In our lineage, we share a common ancestor with orangutans (about 15 million years ago (mya)), gorillas (about 10mya), and most recently, chimpanzees and bonobos (5 to 7 mya). We not only share a significant amount of DNA with our primate cousins, but also major anatomical features (Gazzaniga 2008: 51f., Lewin 2005: 61) These include, for example, our basic skeletal anatomy, our facial muscles, or our fingernails (Lewin 2005: 218ff.).

What most distinguishes us as humans on an anatomical level are our bizarre hair distribution, our upright posture and the skeletal modifications necessary for it, including a propensity for endurance running, our opposable thumbs, fat deposits that are unusually extensive (Preuss 2004: 5), and an intestinal tract only 60% the size expected of primates our size (Gibbons 2007: 1558).

Finally, there is also a distinguishing feature that is a much more remarkable violation of expectations – a brain three times the size expected of a primate our size. This is all the more interesting as primates are already twice as encephalized as other mammals (Lewin 2005: 217). A direct comparison shows this difference in numbers: Whereas human brains have an average volume of 1251.8 cubic centimetres and weigh about 1300 gram, the brains of the other great apes only have an average volume of 316.7 cubic centimetres and weigh between 350-500 gram (Rilling 2006: 66, Preuss 2004: 8). In a human brain, there are approximately a hundred billion neurons, each of which is connected to about one thousand other neurons, comprising about one hundred trillion synaptic connections (Gazzaniga 2008: 291). If you would count all the connections in the napkin-sized cortex alone, you’d only be finished after 32 million years (Edelman 1992: 17).

Expensive Tissue

The human brain is also extremely “expensive tissue” (Aiello & Wheeler 1995): Although it only accounts for 2% of an adult’s body weight, it accounts for 20-25% of an adult’s resting oxygen and energy intake (Attwell & Laughlin 2001: 1143). In early life, the brain even makes up for up 60-70% of the body’s total energy requirements. A chimpanzee’s brain, in comparison, only consumes about 8-9% of its resting metabolism (Aiello & Wells 2002: 330). The human brain’s energy demands are about 8 to 10 times higher than those of skeletal muscles (Dunbar & Shultz 2007: 1344), and, in terms of energy consumption, it is equal to the rate of energy consumed by leg muscles of a marathon runner when running (Attwell & Laughlin 2001: 1143). All in all, its consumption rate is only topped by the energy intake of the heart (Dunbar & Shultz 2007: 1344).

Consequently, if we want to understand the evolutionary trajectory that led to human cognition there is the problem that

“because the cost of maintaining a large brain is so great, it is intrinsically unlikely that large brains will evolve merely because they can. Large brains will evolve only when the selection factor in their favour is sufficient to overcome the steep cost gradient“ (Dunbar 1998: 179).

This is especially important for people who want to come up with an “adaptive story” of how our brain got so big: they have to come up with a strong enough selection pressure operative in the Pleistocene “environment of evolutionary adaptedness” that would have allowed such “expensive tissue” to evolve in the first place (Bickerton 2009: 165f.).

What About the Brain is Uniquely Human?

If we look to the brain for possible hints, we first find that presently, there is “no good evidence that humans do, in fact, possess uniquely human cortical areas” (although the jury is still out) (Preuss 2004: 9). In addition, we find that there are functions specific to humans which are represented in areas homologous to areas of other primates. Instead, it seems that in the course of human evolution some of the areas of the brain expanded disproportionally, “especially higher-order cortical areas, including the prefrontal cortex” (Preuss 2004: 9, Deacon 1998: 435-438). This means that humans are not simply ‘better’ at thinking than other animals, but that they think differently (Preuss 2004: 7). The expansion and apparent specializations of only certain kinds of neuronal areas could indicate a qualitative shift in neuronal activity brought about by re-organization of existing features, leading to a wholly different style of cognition (Deacon 1998: 435-438 Rilling 2006: 75).

This scenario squares well with what we know about the way evolution works, namely that it always has to work with the raw materials that are available, and constantly co-opts and tinkers with existing structures, at times producing haphazard, cobbled-together, but functional results (Gould & Lewontin 1979, Gould & Vrba 1982). Given the relatively short time span for the evolution of the “most complex structure in the know universe”, as it is sometimes referred to, we have to acknowledge how preciously little time the evolutionary process had for ‘debugging.’ It could well be that make the human mind is so unique because it is an imperfect ‘Kluge:’ “a clumsy or inelegant – yet surprisingly effective – solution to a problem,” like the Apollo 13 CO2 filter or an on-the-spot invention by MacGyver (Marcus 2008: 3f.). It may thus well turn out that what we think makes us so special is a mental “oddity of our species’ way of understanding” the world around us (Povinelli & Vonk 2003: 160). It is reasonable then to assume that human cognition did not just simply get better across the board, but that instead we owe our unique style of thinking to quite specific specializations of the human mind.

With this in mind, we can now ask the question how these neurological differences must translate into psychological differences. But this is where the problem starts: Which features really distinguish us as humans and which are more derivative than others? A true candidate for what got uniquely human cognition off the ground has to pass this test and solve the problem how such “expensive tissue” could evolve in the first place.

In my next post I will have a look at six candidates for what makes human cognition unique.


Aiello, L., & Wheeler, P. (1995). The Expensive-Tissue Hypothesis: The Brain and the Digestive System in Human and Primate Evolution Current Anthropology, 36 (2) DOI: 10.1086/204350

Aiello, L., & Wells, J. (2002). ENERGETICS AND THE EVOLUTION OF THE GENUS HOMO Annual Review of Anthropology, 31 (1), 323-338 DOI: 10.1146/annurev.anthro.31.040402.085403

Attwell, David and Simon B. Laughlin. (2001.) “An Energy Budget for Signaling in the Grey Matter of the Brain.” Journal of Cerebral Blood Flow and Metabolism 21:1133–1145.

Bickerton, Derek (2009): Adams Tongue: How Humans Made Language. How Language Made Humans. New York: Hill and Wang.

Deacon, Terrence William (1997). The Symbolic Species. The Co-evolution of Language and the Brain. New York / London: W.W. Norton.

Dunbar, Robin I.M. (1998): “The Social Brain Hypothesis Evolutionary Anthropology 6: 178-190.

Dunbar, R., & Shultz, S. (2007). Evolution in the Social Brain Science, 317 (5843), 1344-1347 DOI: 10.1126/science.1145463

Edelman, Gerald Maurice (1992) Bright and Brilliant Fire: On the Matters of the Mind. New York: Basic Books

Gazzaniga, Michael S. (2008): Human: The Science of What Makes us Unique. New York: Harper-Collins.

Gibbons, Ann. (2007) “Food for Thought.” Science 316: 1558-1560.

Gould, Stephen Jay and Richard Lewontin (1979): “The spandrels of San Marco and the Panglossian paradigm: a critique of the adaptationist programme.” Proclamations of the Royal. Society of London B: Biological Sciences 205 (1161): 581–98.

Gould, Stephen Jay, and Elizabeth S. Vrba (1982), “Exaptation — a missing term in the science of form.” Paleobiology 8 (1): 4–15.

Lewin, Roger (2005): Human Evolution: An Illustrated Introduction. Oxford: Blackwell.

Marcus, Gary (2008): Kluge: The Haphazard Evolution of the Human Mind. London: Faber and Faber.

Povinelli, Daniel J. and Jennifer Vonk (2003): “Chimpanzee minds: Suspiciously human?” Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 7.4, 157–160.

Preuss Todd M. (2004): What is it like to be a human? In: Gazzaniga MS, editor. The Cognitive Neurosciences III, Third Edition. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press: 5-22.

Rilling, J. (2006). Human and nonhuman primate brains: Are they allometrically scaled versions of the same design? Evolutionary Anthropology: Issues, News, and Reviews, 15 (2), 65-77 DOI: 10.1002/evan.20095

Population size predicts technological complexity in Oceania

ResearchBlogging.orgHere is a far-reaching and crucially relevant question for those of us seeking to understand the evolution of culture: Is there any relationship between population size and tool kit diversity or complexity? This question is important because, if met with an affirmative answer, then the emergence of modern human culture may be explained by changes in population size,  rather than a species-wide cognitive explosion. Some attempts at an answer have led to models which make certain predictions about what we expect to see when populations vary. For instance, Shennan (2001) argues that in smaller populations, the number of people adopting a particular cultural variant is more likely to be affected by sampling variation. So in larger populations, learners potentially have access to a greater number of experts, which means adaptive variants are less likely to be lost by chance (Henrich, 2004).

Models aside, and existing empirical evidence is limited with the results being mixed. I previously mentioned the gradual loss of complexity in Tasmanian tool kits after the population was isolated from mainland Australia. Elsewhere, Golden (2006) highlighted the case of isolated Polar Inuit, who lost kayaks, the bow and arrow and other technologies when their knowledgeable experts were wiped out during a plague.Yet two systematic studies (Collard et al., 2005; Read, 2008) of the Inuit case found no evidence for population size being a predictor of technological complexity.

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