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’.

Continue reading “James Hurford: Animals Do Not Have Syntax (Compositional Syntax, That Is)”

Cognitivism and the Critic 2: Symbol Processing

It has long been obvious to me that the so-called cognitive revolution is what happened when computation – both the idea and the digital technology – hit the human sciences. But I’ve seen little reflection of that in the literary cognitivism of the last decade and a half. And that, I fear, is a mistake.

Thus, when I set out to write a long programmatic essay, Literary Morphology: Nine Propositions in a Naturalist Theory of Form, I argued that we think of literary text as a computational form. I submitted the essay and found that both reviewers were puzzled about what I meant by computation. While publication was not conditioned on providing such satisfaction, I did make some efforts to satisfy them, though I’d be surprised if they were completely satisfied by those efforts.

That was a few years ago.

Ever since then I pondered the issue: how do I talk about computation to a literary audience? You see, some of my graduate training was in computational linguistics, so I find it natural to think about language processing as entailing computation. As literature is constituted by language it too must involve computation. But without some background in computational linguistics or artificial intelligence, I’m not sure the notion is much more than a buzzword that’s been trendy for the last few decades – and that’s an awful long time for being trendy.

I’ve already written one post specifically on this issue: Cognitivism for the Critic, in Four & a Parable, where I write abstracts of four texts which, taken together, give a good feel for the computational side of cognitive science. Here’s another crack at it, from a different angle: symbol processing.

Operations on Symbols

I take it that ordinary arithmetic is most people’s ‘default’ case for what computation is. Not only have we all learned it, it’s fundamental to our knowledge, like reading and writing. Whatever we know, think, or intuit about computation is built on our practical knowledge of arithmetic.

As far as I can tell, we think of arithmetic as being about numbers. Numbers are different from words. And they’re different from literary texts. And not merely different. Some of us – many of whom study literature professionally – have learned that numbers and literature are deeply and utterly different to the point of being fundamentally in opposition to one another. From that point of view the notion that literary texts be understood computationally is little short of blasphemy.

Not so. Not quite.

The question of just what numbers are – metaphysically, ontologically – is well beyond the scope of this post. But what they are in arithmetic, that’s simple; they’re symbols. Words too are symbols; and literary texts are constituted of words. In this sense, perhaps superficial, but nonetheless real, the reading of literary texts and making arithmetic calculations are the same thing, operations on symbols. Continue reading “Cognitivism and the Critic 2: Symbol Processing”

Language as a board game

I’ve just finished reading The Player of Games by Iain M. Banks.  Yes, I’m a little behind the times for a geek.  Anyway, I was struck by the concept of Azad in the book.  The protagonist visits an Imperial civilisation whose whole society revolves around the playing of a board game called Azad.  Except this is a vastly complicated board game, played on multiple, football-field-sized boards with semi-conscious pieces and developed over thousands of years.  In fact, the game is so complicated that you can’t play it well unless your cognitive structures have been shaped by the game from a very young age.  Here’s a little extract:

Continue reading “Language as a board game”

Recursion: what is it, who has it, and how did it evolve?

Hello Hello and Happy New Year,

So a new article appeared on the internet late last year by Coolidge, Overmann and Wynn (2010) (hereafter referred to as COW because it makes me smile). It’s a really short sweet little paper and you should read it as recursion is perhaps one of the hottest topics around language evolution. This generally stems from Hauser, Chomsky and Fitch’s (HCF, 2002) claim that it is the only feature of language unique to humans. I thought it would be useful to outline some of the issues surrounding it as put forward by the COW paper due to its high-profile, controversial and important position within current issues in language evolution.


Recursion was first talked about within the field of linguistics by Bar-Hillel in 1953. This was before Chomsky included the concept in his Generative Grammar in 1956.

It wasn’t until 2002 that HCF made the claim that recursion was the only feature of language which was included in the faculty of language in the narrow sense (FLN) and was therefore unique to humans.


The article outlines two definitions of recursion (within linguistics):

(1) embeddedness of phrases within other phrases, which entails keeping track of long-distance dependencies among phrases

(2) the specification of the computed output string itself, including meta-recursion, where recursion is both the recipe for an utterance and the overarching process that creates and executes the recipe

I always worry when there is more than one definition for a thing because this often results in people talking past eachother or getting confused within their own arguments. These definition are also important to define before one starts making claims about whether recursion is present in species outside of humans or what people are talking about when referring to the evolution of recursion.

Evolutionary Scenarios

The paper also outlines two evolutionary scenarios for the adaptive value of recursion in human language.

(1) The gradualist position posits precursors, such as animal communication and protolanguages, and holds that the selective purpose of recursion was for communication.

(2) The saltationist position assumes no gradual development of recursion and posits that it evolved for reasons other than communication

The latter of these is the stand point taken by the HCF paper. Reasons for recursion evolving if one discounts communication could include the increase of working memory for other reasons or spacial navigation.

Pinker and Jackendoff (2005) argue that since recursion only exists in language to express recursive thoughts it must have pre-existed language.

COW (2010) points out that this is all very well but the question remains of what are recursive thoughts and why are they adaptive? These recursive acts may exist for the purposes of diplomatic speech, perlocutionary acts or for prospective memory and cognition (these are discussed at greater length in COW). These assume that the adaptive force was a social one which before Pinker and Jackendoff was not considered because recursion is often understood away from the social context of speech acts in the realm of mathematics.

Unique to Humans?

An often cited example debunking recursion’s importance to human language is the Piraha tribe who apparently do not have it (Everett 2005). The data from Everett is anecdotal, from one source and sketchy. Even if one was to accept the claims of lack of recursion they can be attributed to other factors such as cultural constraints or (although I think this is going a bit far, but then Bickerton always does go a bit too far) claiming the Piraha tribe have an underlying neurophysiological deficiency such as a limited working memory capacity or an extreme case of acquisitional delay.

COW then covers several animal studies which claim that recursion is present in animals including starlings and various monkeys. These are subject to the claim that the ability to acquire a phrase structure grammar means the presence of recursive ability (which is bollocks). These studies also fall short when one considers that starling’s songs are used to communicate emotional states, not recursive thoughts.


Bar-Hillel Y. (1953) On recursive definitions in empirical science. Proceedings of the 11th International Congress of Philosophy, Brussels. 19535:160165.

Coolidge, F., Overmann, K., & Wynn, T. (2010). Recursion: what is it, who has it, and how did it evolve? Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Cognitive Science DOI: 10.1002/wcs.131

Hauser MD, Chomsky, N, Fitch (2002) The faculty of language: what is it, who has it and how did it evolve? Science, 298:1569-1579


Fungus, -i. 2nd Decl. N. Masculine – or is it?: On Gender

ResearchBlogging.orgIn an attempt to write out my thoughts for others instead of continually building them up in saved stickies, folders full of .pdfs, and hastily scribbled lecture notes, as if waiting for the spontaneous incarnation of what looks increasingly like a dissertation, I’m going to give a glimpse today of what I’ve been looking into recently. (Full disclosure: I am not a biologist, and was told specifically by my High School teacher that it would be best if I didn’t do another science class. Also, I liked Latin too much, which explains the title.)

It all started, really, with trying to get my flatmate Jamie into research blogging. His intended career path is mycology, where there are apparently fewer posts available for graduate study than in Old English syntax. As he was setting up the since-neglected Fungi Imperfecti, he pointed this article out to me: A Fungus Walks Into A Singles Bar. The post explains briefly how fungi have a very complicated sexual reproduction system.

Fungi are eukaryotes, the same as all other complex organisms with complicated cell structures. However, they are in their own kingdom, for a variety of reasons. Fungi are not the same as mushrooms, which are only the fruiting bodies of certain fungi. Their reproductive mechanisms is rather unexpectedly complex, in that the normal conventions of sex do not apply. Not all fungi reproduce sexually, and many are isogamous, meaning that their gametes look the same and differ only in certain alleles in certain areas called mating-type regions. Some fungi only have two mating types, which would give the illusion of being like animal genders. However, others, like Schizophyllum commune, have over ten thousand (although these interact in an odd way, such that they’re only productive if the mating regions are highly compatible (Uyenoyama 2005)).

Some fungi are homothallic, meaning that self-mating and reproduction is possible. This means that a spore has within it two dissimilar nuclei, ready to mate – the button mushroom apparently does this (yes, the kind you buy in a supermarket.) Heterothallic fungi, on the other hand, merely needs to find another fungi that isn’t the same mating type – which is pretty easy, if there are hundreds of options. Other types of fungi can’t reproduce together, but can vegetatively blend together to share resources, interestingly enough. Think of mind-melding, like Spock. Alternatively, think of mycelia fusing together to share resources.

In short, the system is ridiculously confusing, and not at all like the simple bipolar genders of, say, humans (if we take the canonical view of human gender, meaning only two.) I’m still trying to find adequate research on the origins of this sort of system. Understandably, it’s difficult. Mycologists agree:

“The molecular genetical studies of the past ten years have revealed a genetic fluidity in fungi that could never have been imagined. Transposons and other mobile elements can switch the mating types of fungi and cause chromosonal rearrangements.Deletions of mitochondrial genes can accumulate as either symptomless plasmids or as disruptive elements leading to cellular senescence…[in summary,] many aspects of the genetic fluidity of fungi remain to be resolved, and probably many more remain to be discovered.” (Deacon, 1997: pg. 157)

At this point you’re probably asking why I’ve posted this here. Well, perhaps understandably, I started drawing comparisons between mycologic mating types and linguistic agreement immediately. First, mating-type isn’t limited to bipolarity – neither is grammatical gender. Nearly 10% of the 257 languages noted for number of genders on WALS have more than five genders. Ngan’gityemerri seems to be winning, with 15 different genders (Reid, 1997). Gender distinctions generally have to do with a semantic core – one which need not be based on sex, either, but can cover categories like animacy. Gender can normally be diagnosed by agreement marking, which, taking out genetic analysis of the parent, could be analogic to fungi offspring. Gender can be a fluid system, susceptible to decay, mostly through attrition, but also to reformation and realignment – the same is true of mating types. (For more, see Corbett, 1991)

As with all biologic to linguistic analogues, the connections are a bit tenuous. I’ve been researching fungal replication partly for the sake of dispelling the old “that’s too complex to have evolved” argument, which is probably the most fun point to argue against creationists with. However, I’ve mostly been doing this because fungi and linguistic gender distinctions are just so damn interesting.

If anyone likes, I’ll keep you updated on mycologic evolution and the linguistic analogues I can tentatively draw. For now, though, I’ve really got to get back to studying for my examination in two days. Which means I’ve got to stop thinking about a future post involving detailing why “Prokaryotic evolution and the tree of life are two different things” (Baptiste et al., 2009)…


  • Corbett, G. Gender. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge: 1991.
  • Deacon, JW. Modern Mycology. Blackwell Science, Oxford: 1997.
  • Reid, Nicholas. and Harvey, Mark David,  Nominal classification in aboriginal Australia / edited by Mark Harvey, Nicholas Reid John Benjamins Pub., Philadelphia, PA :  1997.

Uyenoyama, M. (2004). Evolution under tight linkage to mating type New Phytologist, 165 (1), 63-70 DOI: 10.1111/j.1469-8137.2004.01246.x
Bapteste E, O’Malley MA, Beiko RG, Ereshefsky M, Gogarten JP, Franklin-Hall L, Lapointe FJ, Dupré J, Dagan T, Boucher Y, & Martin W (2009). Prokaryotic evolution and the tree of life are two different things. Biology direct, 4 PMID: 19788731

Musings of a Palaeolinguist

Hannah recently directed me towards a new language evolution blog: Musings of a Palaeolinguist. From my reading of the blog, the general flavour seems to be focused on gradualist and abruptist accounts of language evolution. Here is a section from one of her posts, Evolution of Language and the evolution of syntax: Same debate, same solution?, which also touches on the protolanguage concept:

In my thesis, I went through a literature review of gradual and abruptist arguments for language evolution, and posited an intermediate stage of syntactic complexity where a language might have only one level of embedding in its grammar.  It’s a shaky and underdeveloped example of an intermediate stage of language, and requires a lot of exploration; but my reason for positing it in the first place is that I think we need to think of the evolution of syntax the way many researchers are seeing the evolution of language as a whole, not as a monolithic thing that evolved in one fell swoop as a consequence of a genetic mutation, but as a series of steps in increasing complexity.

Derek Bickerton, one of my favourite authors of evolutionary linguistics material, has written a number of excellent books and papers on the subject.  But he also argues that language likely experienced a jump from a syntax-less protolanguage to a fully modern version of complex syntax seen in languages today.  To me that seems unintuitive.  Children learn syntax in steps, and non-human species seem to only be able to grasp simple syntax.  Does this not suggest that it’s possible to have a stable stage of intermediate syntax?

I’ve generally avoided writing about these early stages of language, largely because I had little useful to say on the topic, but I’ve now got some semi-developed thoughts that I’ll share in another post. In regards to the above quote, I do agree with the author’s assertion of there being an intermediate stage, rather than Bickerton’s proposed jump. In fact, we see languages today (polysynthetic) where there are limitations on the level of embedding, with one example being Bininj Gun-wok. We can also stretch the discussion to look at recursion in languages, as Evans and Levinson (2009) demonstrate:

In discussions of the infinitude of language, it is normally assumed that once the possibility of embedding to one level has been demonstrated, iterated recursion can then go on to generate an infinite number of levels, subject only to memory limitations. And it was arguments from the need to generate an indefinite number of embeddings that were crucial in demonstrating the inadequacy of finite state grammars. But, as Kayardild shows, the step from one-level recursion to unbounded recursion cannot be assumed, and once recursion is quarantined to one level of nesting it is always possible to use a more limited type of grammar, such as finite state grammar, to generate it.

What can Hungarian Postpositions tell us about Language Evolution?

I spent quite a lot of time as an undergraduate analysing Hungarian syntax with my generative head on and using the minimalist framework. Bear with me. This post is the result of me trying to marry all of them hours spent reading “The Minimalist Program” (Chomsky, 1995) and starring at Hungarian with what I’m currently doing¹ and ultimately trying to convince myself that I wasn’t wasting time.

So here’s a condensed summary of what my dissertation was about:

Hungarian has a massive case system which, as well as structural cases, has many items which have locational, instrumental and relational uses (lexical case markers). Because of this many constructions which feature prepositions in English, when translated into Hungarian can be translated as case markers or postpositions.

It struck me as odd that these 2 things; case markers and postpositions, despite having the same position in the structure (as a right-headed modifier to the noun) and very similar semantic function, would have different analyses in the syntactic framework, simply due to the fact that one was morphologically attached (case markers) and the other not (postpositions).

Continue reading “What can Hungarian Postpositions tell us about Language Evolution?”

Never Too Old to Learn: FoxP2 Gene Has Important Post-developmental On-line Function

Experimental studies (e.g. Jones & Munhall 2000) indicate that humans monitor their own speech through hearing in order to maintain accurate vocal articulation throughout the lifespan. Similarly, songbirds not only rely on song input from tutors and conspecifics in the early stages of song development, but also on the ability to hear and detect production errors in their own song and adjust it accordingly with reference to an internal ‘sensory target’ following the initial song learning phase.

This phenomenon also extends to ‘closed-ended learners’  – birds who do not acquire novel song elements after an initial learning period, but who still demonstrate song variability in adulthood. Experimental studies have shown that in such species, vocal learning is more prolonged and fundamental to song production than originally thought. For example, Okanoya and Yamaguchi (1997) showed that afflicted deafening in adult Bengalese Finches resulted in the production of abnormal song syntax in a matter of days. This is parallel to the human condition whereby linguistic fidelity, particularly with regards to prosodic aspects such as pitch and intensity, gradually degrades in human adults with postlinguistically acquired auditory impairments.

Continue reading “Never Too Old to Learn: FoxP2 Gene Has Important Post-developmental On-line Function”

The Problem With a Purely Adaptationist Theory of Language Evolution

According to the evolutionary psychologist Geoffrey Miller and his colleagues (e.g Miller 2000b), uniquely human cognitive behaviours such as musical and artistic ability and creativity, should be considered both deviant and special. This is because traditionally, evolutionary biologists have struggled to fathom exactly how such seemingly superfluous cerebral assets would have aided our survival. By the same token, they have observed that our linguistic powers are more advanced than seems necessary to merely get things done, our command of an expansive vocabulary and elaborate syntax allows us to express an almost limitless range of concepts and ideas above and beyond the immediate physical world. The question is: why bother to evolve something so complicated, if it wasn’t really all that useful?

Miller’s solution is that our most intriguing abilities, including language, have been shaped predominantly by sexual selection rather than natural selection, in the same way that large cumbersome ornaments, bright plumages and complex song have evolved in other animals. As one might expect then, Miller’s theory of language evolution has been hailed as a key alternative to the dominant view that language evolved because it conferred a distinct survival advantage to its users through improved communication (e.g. Pinker 2003). He believes that language evolved in response to strong sexual selection pressure for interesting and entertaining conversation because linguistic ability functioned as an honest indicator of general intelligence and underlying genetic quality; those who could demonstrate verbal competence enjoyed a high level of reproductive success and the subsequent perpetuation of their genes. Continue reading “The Problem With a Purely Adaptationist Theory of Language Evolution”

Specific Language Impairment, Autism and Language Evolution

My last post speculated about what some conditions which manifest impaired theory of mind could tell us about the evolution of ToM. Of these conditions autism was one which could be the most informative when it comes to looking at the genetics of how ToM evolved, in this post I will look at what autism could tell us, not only about theory of mind, but also about other aspects of the language faculty.

Dorothy Bishop has recently written a paper exploring the above average co-occurrence of Specific Language Impariment (SLI) and Autistic Spectrum Disorders (ASD).

SLI is a condition where a child fails to develop spoken language on the normal schedule, for no observable or obvious reason (Bishop and Norbury 2008). Whilst ASD and SLI are regarded as distinct conditions, these disorders co-occur at above chance levels.

Bishop (2010) explores why this might be. Bishop begins her paper by painting a textbook example of a child with SLI. This example is of a child with normal social interaction and nonverbal communication, but with specific difficulties in mastering structural aspects of language, especially syntax and phonological skills. So this typical picture is not one of an autistic child in that one of the defining features of autism is a limited capacity for normal social interaction and a child is much more likely to be deficient in pragmatic skills than syntactic or phonological skills.

Bishop states that despite the fact that according to conventional diagnostic frameworks, SLI andASD are mutually exclusive diagnoses, similarities exist between the two conditions and these include:

  • They are both highly heritable
  • Identical, monozygotic twins are significantly more concordant than fraternal, dizygotic twins for autism and SLI
  • In both conditions rates of impairment in first degree relatives are higher than in the general population
  • First degree relatives of affected individuals of both conditions often manifest sub-threshold symptoms
  • These conditions correspond to points on a continuum of impairment, rather than all-or-none diseases

So any model of causation for either condition must take into account the following considerations:

  • Above chance levels of comorbidity between SLI and ASD
  • Rates of language impairment in relatives of probands with SLI and ASD
  • Molecular genetic findings of shared genetic risk factors for ASD and SLI

Now the article goes on to explore etiological models which explain these considerations with varying degrees of success. I’m not going to pretend to understand these models as I have only ever been formally taught in linguistics and so I’m a bit stumped by genetic psychology. If you’re much smarter than me you can read the article yourself here:


So what I got from this article was that the genetic factors involved in autism can not only cause the characteristics typical of a person with autism (pragmatic impairments) but also other language impairments which are typical of a person with a Specific Language Impairment. Specifically the CNTNAP2 gene has been found in independent samples to be associated with both ASD and SLI. This is interesting because it could show that gene mutations which cause improved social abilities could have also caused changes in our linguistic ability on a syntactic or phonological level.

Disclaimer: Sorry if I’ve made too many assumptions in the conclusion I’ve just drawn. As I said above I know next to nothing about genetic psychology but I just felt this research would have interesting consequences in the field of language evolution. I’d love to hear the thoughts of people who know better than I do.


Bishop, DVM. (2010) Overlaps Between Autism and Language Impairment:
Phenomimicry or Shared Etiology? Behavior Genetics 40:5, 618-629

Bishop DVM, Norbury CF (2008) Speech and language disorders. In: Rutter M, Bishop DVM, Pine D, Scott S, Stevenson J, Taylor E, Thapar A (eds) Rutter’s child