Language About Language

How is it, then, that we can talk about talking? If you are willing to assume the existence of basic perceptual and cognitive capacities, a relatively simple answer follows immediately. The sounds of talk are, after all, sounds like any other sounds. We can perceive them in the same way we perceive the sound of a waterfall or a bird’s song, a thunderclap or the rustling of leaves in the wind, a cricket’s chirp or the breaking of waves on a beach. All are things we can hear, easily and naturally, and so it is with the sound of the human voice.

Roman Jakobson famously theorized that language has six functions: referential, emotive, poetic, conative, phatic, and the metalingual function. That’s the function we’re interested in, our capacity to speak about speech. Jakobson talked of the metalingual function as an orientation toward the language code, which seems just a bit grand. For I’m led to believe that many languages lack terms for explicitly talking about the ‘code.’ Thus, in The Singer of Tales (Atheneum 1973, orig. Harvard 1960), Albert Lord attests (p. 25):

Man without writing thinks in terms of sound groups and not in words, and the two do not necessarily coincide. When asked what a word is, he will reply that he does not know, or he will give a sound group which may vary in length from what we call a word to an entire line of poetry, or even an entire song. [Remember, Lord is writing about oral narrative.] The word for “word” means an “utterance.” When the singer is pressed then to way what a line is, he, whose chief claim to fame is that he traffics in lines of poetry, will be entirely baffled by the question; or he will say that since he has been dictating and has seen his utterances being written down, he has discovered what a line is, although he did not know it as such before, because he had never gone to school.

While I’m willing to entertain doubts about the full generality of this statement – “man without writing” – I assume the it is an accurate report about the Yugoslavian peasants among whom Milman Parry and Albert Lord conducted their fieldwork and that it also applies to other preliterate peoples, though not necessarily to all.

Given those caveats, the paragraph is worth re-reading. Before doing so, recall how casually we have come to see language as a window on the workings of the mind in the Chomskyian and post-Chomskyian eras. If that is the case, then what can one see through a window that lacks even a word for words, that fails to distinguish between words and utterances? And what of the poets who don’t know what a line is? The lack of such knowledge does not stand in the way of the poeticizing, no more than the lack of knowledge of generative grammar precludes the ability to talk intelligently on a vast range of subjects.

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Chomsky Chats About Language Evolution

If you go to this page at Linguistic Inquiry (house organ of the Chomsky school), you’ll find this blurb:

Episode 3: Samuel Jay Keyser, Editor-in-Chief of Linguistic Inquiry, has shared a campus with Noam Chomsky for some 40-odd years via MIT’s Department of Linguistics and Philosophy. The two colleagues recently sat down in Mr. Chomsky’s office to discuss ideas on language evolution and the human capacity for understanding the complexities of the universe. The unedited conversation was recorded on September 11, 2009.

I’ve neither listened to the podcast nor read the transcript—both linked available here. But who knows, maybe you will. FWIW, I was strongly influenced by Chomsky in my undergraduate years, but the lack of a semantic theory was troublesome. Yes, there was co-called generative semantics, but that didn’t look like semantics to me, it looked like syntax.

Then I found Syd Lamb’s stuff on stratificational grammar & that looked VERY interesting. Why? For one thing, the diagrams were intriguing. For another, Lamb used the same formal constructs for phonology, morphology, syntax and (what little) semantics (he had). That elegance appealed to me. Still does, & I’ve figured out how to package a very robust semantics into Lamb’s diagrammatic notation. But that’s another story.

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).

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Where Are Memes?

This is more a public note to myself than anything else. It’s likely to seem a bit odd to those who haven’t been following my thinking on memes. Cross-posted at New Savanna.

Back in 1996 I published a long article, Culture as an Evolutionary Arena (link to downloadable PDF), in the, alas, now defunct, Journal of Social and Evolutionary Systems. In that article I introduced the notion of units of cultural inheritance with these paragraphs:

Following conversations with David Hays, I suggest that we regard the whole of physical culture as the genes: the pots and knives, the looms and cured hides, the utterances and written words, the ploughshares and transistors, the songs and painted images, the tents and stone fortifications, the dances and sculpted figures, all of it. For these are the things which people exchange with one another, through which they interact with one another. They can be counted and classified and variously studied.

What then of the ideas, desires, emotions, and attitudes behind these things? After all, as any college sophomore can point out, words on a page are just splotches unless apprehended by an appropriately prepared mind, one that knows the language. Pots and knives are not so ineffable as runes and ideograms, but they aren’t of much use to people who don’t know how to use them, that is, to people whose minds lack the appropriate neural “programs”. Surely, one might propose, these mental objects and processes are the stuff of culture.

What I in fact propose is that we think of these mental objects and processes as being analogous to the biologist’s phenotype just as the physical objects and processes are analogous to the genotype. Properly understood, these mental objects and processes are embodied in brain states (cf. Benzon and Hays 1988). Thus we have the whole of physical culture interacting with the inner cultural environment to produce the various mental objects and activities which are the substance of culture.

Richard Dawkins has proposed the term “meme” for the units of the cultural genotype, but proposes no special term for the cultural phenotype, though he recognizes the necessity of distinguishing the two (Dawkins 1982, pp. 109 ff., see also Dawkins 1989, pp. 189 ff.). Following more or less standard anthropological usage, I offer “psychological trait”, or just “trait”, as a term designating phenotypical units or features. Note, however, that Dawkins places memes in the brain and traits in the external world, which is just the opposite of what I am doing.

I have maintained that position until quite recently, say a week or two ago. I am now considering abandoning that conception. But first, a little more about how I further developed it.

In my 2001 book on music, Beethoven’s Anvil, I developed that idea with respect to music, arguing that the neural ‘trace’ (trajectory in neural state space) of musical performances is a cultural phenotype while the memes are those aspects of musical sound around which individuals coordinate their music-making activities. I further developed this idea only a few weeks ago in a series of posts I wrote as background to a post I did for the National Humanities Center on cultural evolution.

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Language – An Embarrassing Conundrum for the Evolutionist?

Hello! This is my first post on the blog and whilst I didn’t want it to be an angry rant after I found this youtube video there seemed little could have been done to avoid it.

This is a video by a creationist named “ppsimmons” who writes on the front page of his youtube channel that he “apologizes for not knowing enough to scientifically refute the evidence for creation nor for being clever enough to “scientifically” support the theory of evolution.” And yet he feels to be enough of an authority to make videos refuting evolution using ‘science’.

I know I shouldn’t let this annoy me as much as it obviously has, I know that there will always be creationists out there and I know that these creationists will never listen to anything I have to say. However, in this case, I’ve decided to respond mostly to set straight the interpretation of Robert Berwick’s words used in this video.

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Can linguistic features reveal time depths as deep as 50,000 years ago?

ResearchBlogging.orgThroughout much of our history language was transitory, existing only briefly within its speech community. The invention of writing systems heralded a way of recording some of its recent history, but for the most part linguists lack the stone tools archaeologists use to explore the early history of ancient technological industries. The question of how far back we can trace the history of languages is therefore an immensely important, and highly difficult, one to answer. However, it’s not impossible. Like biologists, who use highly conserved genes to probe the deepest branches on the tree of life, some linguists argue that highly stable linguistic features hold the promise of tracing ancestral relations between the world’s languages.

Previous attempts using cognates to infer the relatedness between languages are generally limited to predictions within the last 6000-10,000 years. In the present study, Greenhill et al (2010) decided to examine more stable linguistic features than the lexicon, arguing:

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Some Links #4

Back to the future on syntax and Broca’s area. Talking Brains provide a concise and humorous post about why Broca’s area is not the seat of syntax, be it domain-specific or domain-general. I tend to think that areas important for syntactic processing are probably distributed throughout the left perisylvian region. Hence why Broca’s aphasiacs are quite capable of making grammatical judgements. Then again, another reason why damage to Broca’s area doesn’t, to quote Hickok, “obliterate the ability to make such judgements”, is because the processing shifts to another region (sort of an ancillary system). This is very possible in the advent of neuroplasticity.

Neuroplasticity is a dirty word. Having mentioned neuroplasticity, I now feel obligated to mention this brilliant post over at Mind Hacks. It provides a sort of 101 approach to neuroplasticity, which, after all, simply means something in the brain has changed. Still, as one poster from pointed out: “However, at its most abstract, the concept of neuroplasticity is often arrayed against that other commonplace abstract notion, that the brain is genetically ‘hard-wired’ in some way”.

Dialect Geography and Social Networks. Mark Lieberman over at Language Log discusses geographical patterns of linguistic variation and recent analyses of facebook networks in the US. Put succinctly: they don’t line up very well. He also asks some interesting questions about the role facebook might play as a proxy for communication patterns.

How best to learn R. R is an invaluable statistical package. If, like me, you find yourself being dropped in at the deep end, then things can seem slightly confusing in an environment that is far less user friendly than, say, SPSS. All the important stuff is in the comments section of the post, but you should take some time out to have a general poke around Statistical Modelling, Causal Inference and Social Science.

Are Scottish People Living Dangerously? The short answer: Yes. Barking Up The Wrong Tree links to a study claiming that “Almost the entire adult population of Scotland (97.5%) are likely to be either cigarette smokers, heavy drinkers, physically inactive, overweight or have a poor diet.”

The Sun Gone Crazy? Apparently, for the past two years there’s been a prolonged absence in sunspots. But as Adam Frank mentions, “The magnetic activity of stars like sun, which is the root cause of the sunspot cycle, is still poorly understood even after decades of intense study.  It’s more than an academic concern”.

Three Questions for Michael Tomasello. A cool little interview with the chimpanzee, linguistic and cooperation guru, Michael Tomasello, over at cognition and culture.

Recent Abstracts #1

In an effort to update this blog regularly, I’ve decided to take the lazy route and post up a list of abstracts. This will only happen once a week, but it’s a useful resource (for me at least), and will usually be an indicator of what articles I’m going to write about in the near future.

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Broca's Area and Hierarchical Structure Building

Considering I devoted two blog posts (pt.1 & pt.2) to Broca’s area and its role in processing hierarchically organised sequences, I’m happy report the following from a Talking Brains post on Disentangling syntax and intelligibility:

Hierarchical structure building can be achieved without Broca’s area involvement.

I’ve only just finished reading the post and, despite having some thoughts on the topic, I’m going to read the actual paper in question (Disentangling syntax and intelligibility in auditory language comprehension) before commenting. Especially since the authors, Friederici et al, don’t seem to arrive at the same conclusions as the bloggers over at Talking Brains. Still, as far as I can tell, this is only looking at syntactic information within speech, and doesn’t really tell us anything about the processing of hierarchically organised sequences in other linguistic (e.g. written language) and non-linguistic (e.g. tool manufacturing) domains.

Here’s the abstract for the paper in question:

Studies of the neural basis of spoken language comprehension typically focus on aspects of auditory processing by varying signal intelligibility, or on higher-level aspects of language processing such as syntax. Most studies in either of these threads of language research report brain activation including peaks in the superior temporal gyrus (STG) and/or the superior temporal sulcus (STS), but it is not clear why these areas are recruited in functionally different studies. The current fMRI study aims to disentangle the functional neuroanatomy of intelligibility and syntax in an orthogonal design. The data substantiate functional dissociations between STS and STG in the left and right hemispheres: first, manipulations of speech intelligibility yield bilateral mid-anterior STS peak activation, whereas syntactic phrase structure violations elicit strongly left-lateralized mid STG and posterior STS activation. Second, ROI analyses indicate all interactions of speech intelligibility and syntactic correctness to be located in the left frontal and temporal cortex, while the observed right-hemispheric activations reflect less specific responses to intelligibility and syntax. Our data demonstrate that the mid-to-anterior STS activation is associated with increasing speech intelligibility, while the mid-to-posterior STG/STS is more sensitive to syntactic information within the speech.

The arcuate fasciculus within the dual stream model pt.2

ResearchBlogging.org3.1 What is the dual stream model?

Given these separate anatomical accounts, attributing a function(s) to the arcuate is not clear cut, and any current account is far from the authoritative statement on the matter. Nonetheless, a vast majority of literature does place the arcuate as part of the dual stream model[1] of speech processing, although its exact role within these neural networks is still being disputed – and largely depends on which anatomical account you prescribe to.

The basic assumption of dual stream accounts is that phonological networks interact with both conceptual-semantic and motor-articulatory systems, leading to a distinction between the neural networks that process this speech information. These separate interactions are summarised under two processing streams: the dorsal stream and the ventral stream (Hickok and Poeppel, 2007). Connecting phonological networks with conceptual-semantic systems, using structures in the superior and middle portions of the temporal lobe, is the ventral stream. Meanwhile, the dorsal stream is linked via structures in the posterior frontal lobe to the posterior temporal lobe and parietal operculum, which connects phonological networks with motor-articulatory systems (ibid).

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