Tag Archives: UG

Some Links #19: The Reality of a Universal Language Faculty?

I noticed it’s almost been a month since I last posted some links. What this means is that many of the links I planned on posting are terribly out of date and these last few days I haven’t really had the time to keep abreast of the latest developments in the blogosphere (new course + presentation at Edinburgh + current cold = a lethargic Wintz). I’m hoping next week will be a bit nicer to me.

The reality of a universal language faculty? Melodye offers up a thorough post on the whole Universal Grammar hypothesis, mostly drawing from the BBS issue dedicated Evans & Levinson (2009)’s paper on the myth of language universals, and why it is a weak position to take. Key paragraph:

When we get to language, then, it need not be surprising that many human languages have evolved similar means of efficiently communicating information. From an evolutionary perspective, this would simply suggest that various languages have, over time, ‘converged’ on many of the same solutions.  This is made even more plausible by the fact that every competent human speaker, regardless of language spoken, shares roughly the same physical and cognitive machinery, which dictates a shared set of drives, instincts, and sensory faculties, and a certain range of temperaments, response-patterns, learning facilities and so on.  In large part, we also share fairly similar environments — indeed, the languages that linguists have found hardest to document are typically those of societies at the farthest remove from our own (take the Piraha as a case in point).

My own position on the matter is fairly straightforward enough: I don’t think the UG perspective is useful. One attempt by Pinker and Bloom (1990) argued that this language module, in all its apparent complexity, could not have arisen by any other means than via natural selection – as did the eye and many other complex biological systems. Whilst I agree with the sentiment that natural selection, and more broadly, evolution, is a vital tool in discerning the origins of language, I think Pinker & Bloom initially overlooked the significance of cultural evolutionary and developmental processes. If anything, I think the debate surrounding UG has held back the field in some instances, even if some of the more intellectually vibrant research emerged as a product of arguing against its existence. This is not to say I don’t think our capacity for language has been honed via natural selection. It was probably a very powerful pressure in shaping the evolutionary trajectory of our cognitive capacities. What you won’t find, however, is a strongly constrained language acquisition device dedicated to the processing of arbitrary, domain-specific linguistic properties, such as X-bar theory and case marking.

Babel’s Dawn Turns Four. In the two and half years I’ve been reading Babel’s Dawn it has served as a port for informative articles, some fascinating ideas and, lest we forget, some great writing on the evolution of language. Edmund Blair Bolles highlights the blog’s fourth anniversary by referring to another, very important, birthday:

This blog’s fourth anniversary has rolled around. More notably, the 20th anniversary of Steven Pinker and Paul Bloom‘s famous paper, “Natural Language and Natural Selection,” seems to be upon us. Like it or quarrel with it, Pinker-Bloom broke the dam that had barricaded serious inquiry since 1866 when the Paris Linguistic Society banned all papers on language’s beginnings. The Journal of Evolutionary Psychology is marking the Pinker-Bloom anniversary by devoting its December issue to the evolution of language. The introductory editorial, by Thomas Scott-Phillips, summarizes language origins in terms of interest to the evolutionary psychologist, making the editorial a handy guide to the differences between evolutionary psychology and evolutionary linguistics.

Hopefully I’ll have a post on Pinker and Bloom’s original paper, and how the field has developed over these last twenty years, at some point in the next couple of weeks. I think it’s historical importance will, to echo Bolles, be its value in opening up the field: with the questions of language origins and evolution turning into something worthy of serious intellectual investigation.

Other Links

Hypnosis reaches the parts brain scans and neurosurgery cannot.

Are Humans Still Evolving? (Part Two is here).

The Limits of Science.

On Language — Learning Language in Chunks.

Farmers, foragers, and us.

Tweet This.

On Music and The Brain.

Why I spoofed science journalism, and how to fix in.

The adaptive space of complexity.

Some Links #13: Universal Grammar Haters

Universal Grammar haters. Mark Lieberman takes umbrage with claims that Ewa Dabrowska’s recent work challenges the concept of a biologically evolved substrate for language. Put simply: it doesn’t. What their experiments suggest is that there are considerable differences in native language attainment. As some of you will probably know, I’m not necessarily a big fan of most UG conceptions, however, there are plenty of papers that directly deal with such issues. Dabrowska’s not being one of them. In Lieberman’s own words:

In support of this view, let me offer another analogy. Suppose we find that deaf people are somewhat more likely than hearing people to remember the individual facial characteristics of a stranger they pass on the street. This would be an interesting result, but would we spin it to the world as a challenge to the widely-held theory that there’s an evolutionary substrate for the development of human face-recognition abilities?

Remote control neurons. I remember reading about optogenetics awhile back. It’s a clever technique that enables neural manipulation through the use of light-activated channels and enzymes. Kevin Mitchell over at GNXP classic refers to a new approach where neurons are activated using a radio frequency magnetic field. The obvious advantage to this new approach being fairly straight-forward: magnetic-fields pass through brains far more easily than light. It means the new approach is a lot less invasive, without the need to insert micro-optical fibres or light-emitting diodes. Cool stuff.

Motor imagery enhances object recognition. Neurophilosophy has an article about a study showing that motor simulations may enhance the recognition of tools:

According to these results, then, the simple action of squeezing the ball not only slowed down the participants’ naming of tools, but also slightly reduced their accuracy in naming them correctly. This occured, the authors say, because squeezing the ball involves the same motor circuits needed for generating the simulation, so it interferes with the brain’s ability to generate the mental image of reaching out and grasping the tool. This in turn slows identification of the tools, because their functionality is an integral component of our conceptualization of them. There is other evidence that  parallel motor simulations can interfere with movements, and with each other: when reaching for a pencil, people have a larger grip aperture if a hammer is also present than if the pencil is by itself.

On the Origin of Science Writers. If you fancy yourself as a science writer, then Ed Yong, of Not Exactly Rocket Science, wants to read your story. As expected, he’s got a fairly large response (97 comments at the time of writing), which includes some of my favourite science journalists and bloggers. It’s already a useful resource, full of fascinating stories and bits of advice, from a diverse source of individuals.

Some thoughts about science blog aggregation. Although it’s still hanging about, many people, including myself, are looking for an alternative to the ScienceBlogs network. Dave Munger points to Friendfeed as one potential solution, with him setting up a feed for all the Anthropology posts coming in from Research Blogging. Also, in the comments Christina Pikas mentioned Nature Blogs, which, I’m ashamed to say, I haven’t come across before.

Some Links #7

Deconstructing Chomsky — Rewriting the innate rules of grammar. Andrew Caines over at the Naked Scientist has a good, layman’s article on Chomsky’s conception of UG and Dan Everett’s recent book Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes: Life and Language in the Amazonian Jungle. It’s quite a good introduction for anyone who is open to the possibility that  psycholinguistics doesn’t end with Chomsky (or Pinker for that matter).

New developments in AI. An in-depth article on artificial intelligence over at .CSV. I’m only half-way through the article, but I thought it was worth mention as, the first half at least, is pretty good. H/T: Mind Hacks.

Many English Speakers cannot understand basic grammar. Apparently, “Research into grammar by academics at Northumbria University suggests that a significant proportion of native English speakers are unable to understand some basic sentences”. Language Log and John Hawks have both picked up on the story. Once the paper is released I’ll probably write an in-depth post at GNXP.

Birth Months of World Cup Players. A short, but interesting, post over at GNXP debunking the relevance of your birth month in regards to sporting achievement. I never thought there was any controversy over the issue… But it turns out I was wrong.

Mathematical Formula Predicts Clear Favorite for FIFA World Cup. Keeping with the football theme, and apparently this formula predicts a Spanish victory. The psychic Octopus appears to think so too. I disagree. Go Netherlands!

How many Zombies do you know? Applied Statistics links to yet another Zombie-inspired study.

Dr Evan Harris. Not a link to a particular article, but it’s just nice to see Dr Evan Harris back writing his blog after being defeated in the recent UK elections.

PepsiCo has been expelled. For those of you who don’t know what this headline’s about, don’t worry, it was all just a very bad dream.

Current Issues in Language Evolution

As part of my assessment this term I’m to write four mock peer-reviewed items for a module called Current Issues in Language Evolution. It’s a great module run by Simon Kirby, examining some of the best food for thought in the field. Alone this is an interesting endeavour, after all we’re right in the middle of a language evolution renaissance, however, even cooler are the lectures, where students get to do their own presentations on a particular paper. I already did my presentation at the start of this term, on Dediu and Ladd’s paper, which went rather well, even if one of my slip ups did not go unnoticed (hint: always label the graphs). So, over the next few weeks, in amongst additional posts covering some of the presentations in class, I’ll hopefully be writing articles on these four five papers:

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