Wednesday, December 06, 2006

How Did Language Evolve? -- II

In my last blog, I noted that efforts to teach primates human language demonstrate that we are unable to teach them human or comparable languages or they are unable to learn them beyond what a 2 or, perhaps, a 3 year old human can learn. This research clearly adds no support to the view that human communication is somehow directly linked to advances in primate communication before we split off from the other primates, which was the contention that got me thinking about this issue..

In order to understand the evolution of language it will be useful to step back and take a look at what it is we ultimately want to account for. In the simplest of cases, I, as a speaker will have some goal I wish to achieve -- inform someone of something I believe they need or may want to know, or request information from them, or request them to do something, or invite them to join with me in doing something, or make a bet with them, among many other possible things. What I say will reflect my goals, the relationship I have with my addressee, background knowledge I believe we share that is salient and relevant to my achieving my goal, and aspects of the immediate context that are salient and relevant to my achieving my goal. There are surely other considerations. At the very least, human communication is a very complex business.

If I want you to give me a ride home from work and I am your supervisor, then I will go about this in much different way than if you were my supervisor. If we are personally close that fact will affect how I go about this. My knowledge of when you usually leave work would be relevant. My knowledge of how much you would have to drive out of your way to give me this ride would be relevant. If I have never made a request like this of you and don't know where you live exactly, I will likely approach this quite indirectly, perhaps saying something like "When are you leaving work today?," or "Do you live anywhere near Green Street and Elm Street?," expecting or hoping you can infer my goal from what I say. The former is so indirect the point might be missed. The latter will usually be inferred to be the start of a ride request. Utterances like these get at your ability to give me a ride home (our wanting to leave at much the same time) and your willingness to do so (you will likely not want to drive me home if this will add a great deal to your driving time.) And, in general for any goal I may have in addressing you, there will be conditions that must be satisfied before I can achieve my goal and what I say will reflect the nature of these conditions and how I want to go about addressing them. The linguistic choices I make will reflect social concerns as well, for I would want to avoid endangering our relationship by burdening you or disrespecting you.

The failure to understand the complexity of human communication and how language fits in in our efforts to communicate with each other lies at the heart of the failure of syntacticians to understand what syntax is about. The machine that drives communication is pragmatics and syntax must be as much about how how social choices influence the syntax and morphology of utterances ("Would you mind giving me a ride home tonight?" vs. Please give me a ride home tonight," both of which have different conventional meanings but can be used to achieve the same goal) as well as conventional meaning, but most remarkably the utterances we find in actual communication rather than the made up sentences syntacticians focus on can be quite ungrammatical by any normal linguistic standard.

In my blog on The Use of Simplification in Scientific Research, I describe a ride request in which the notion of a ride is never referred to directly, a request for a ride is never made directly, and the rejection of this request is never made directly. If you were to listen to this conversation (which I did in Italy of all places at a conference) you would find it quite unremarkable. On the other hand, a transcript of this conversation would drive any conventional syntactician crazy for the critical utterances are highly elliptical and hence ungrammatical by most standards.

In my book on Speech Acts and Conversational Interaction, now out in paper back but sill very expensive (go to your library if you want to read it), I cite a telephone conversation that, after a greetings sequence, begins with a "Guess what?" followed by the reply, "What?," as is normal, followed by
My car is stalled...and I'm up in the Glen...
followed by the addressee offering up an unhelpful utterance of "Oh", followed by the caller saying
And I don't know if its possible ... but see ... I haveta open up the bank in Brentwood.
The sequences of periods indicate pauses. I have omitted audible breathing noises.

The first of these examples is grammatical if you ignore the pause. The second is wildly ungrammatical. But, the addressee immediately grasps the meaning (significance) of what is said and replies and does so in an equally elliptical and ungrammatical way that is also perfectly clear in meaning (significance). As I said earlier, this conversation sounds perfectly normal despite bing highly elliptical and officially "ungrammatical."

Collapsing what the caller says that bears directly on the ride request into just one long sequence, we have (with the elided material put in in bold face):
My car is stalled...and I'm up in the Glen...And I don't know if its possible for you to pick me up and give me a ride to my bank but see I need for you to pick me up and give me a ride to my bank because I haveta open up the bank in Brentwood.
In my book, I show how seeing conversation as driven by pragmatics, not semantics, facilitates an account of how we understand such elliptical utterances. The basic idea is that the elided material addresses the conditions on a ride request being successful and is recoverable by the listener's understanding of the structure of ride requests.

Clearly, some inferencing was required by both parties for them to understand each other's highly elliptical utterances, which is to say, that speaking and thinking and hearing and thinking are so intimately intertwined that we cannot seriously discuss the evolution of language without also considering the evolution of cognition. Put somewhat differently, any account of the evolution of language must be embedded in an account of the evolution of communication and both must be embedded in an account of the evolution of cognition. To study the evolution of language as if it were some free-standing human acquisition would be a serious mistake in my view. When simplifying scientific problems to make them easier to understand one may oversimplify them to the point that one cannot make any real progress at all.

So, to account for the evolution of language we have three problems at the very least. They are
1. We must account for the development of the physiological abilities required for speaking and for what I will call "linguistic hearing," i.e, our ability to discriminate linguistic sounds from other sounds, something that happens at a very early age.
2. We must account for the cognitive abilities required to learn and use languages.
3. We must account for the development of any language specific abilities that are independent of our other cognitive abilities.
By 3 I mean to refer to the development of language-specific 'language centers" in the brain among other things.

At this point, I believe we can conclude that accounting for the evolution of language will likely prove to be impossible since we can infer little from the communicative abilities of our primate cousins and will likely be unable to infer much about the structure of our brains from the fossil record. That's why I have always backed away from the issue. But even if we are going to be unable to answer the question constituting the title of this blog, it may be useful to understand why.

One thing is pretty clear, I believe, and that is that in the course of the evolution of language, it only makes sense to assume that mutations that favored linguistic hearing or making linguistic sounds or learning languages or using languages will tend to have survived and that over time some highly specialized perceptual and sound production and linguistic-cum-cognitive abilities would have evolved. A demonstration of this would help us to understand why studying other primates is a waste of time if it is done by way of trying to understand the development of human communication.

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Blogger IbaDaiRon said...

Since the fossil record is unlikely, as you point out, to provide us with any definitive answers, work in this area will always be highly speculative in character. It's still worthwhile and interesting, though, in my opinion.

After developing a theory of the cognitive and communicative capabilities of our earliest common ancestor (based on comparisons of those of modern humans and primates and other relevant mammals), we can begin to speculate on the nature of those of the intermediate steps which led to us.

The "ride negotiation" examples are fascinating but only relevant in some ways to modern human language. We need also to come up with scenarios for the intermediates and try to determine which aspects are shared and how far back they go. (E.g., I imagine that relative social standing in the group has always been a factor in human communication.)

(Sorry...a bit scattered.)

10:24 AM

Blogger The Language Guy said...

The question is how far back does "modern human language" go? I suspect it goes back at least as far as prehistorical times even though rides, perhaps, didn't exist. What we can be sure of is that social relations did as well as exploitation of shared background knowledge and contextual information and thus that communication was pragmatically driven from a long, long time ago.

There are pecking orders in all sorts of animal species -- I really hate what my chickens when I had them did to each other to establish dominance -- and we can imagine that pecking orders were respected linguistically among prehistoric humans.

Maybe I don't respect the "animal kingdom" enough. I suppose PETA will come after me for abusing animals verbally.

10:44 AM

Blogger concerned citizen said...

Going back to what you said before about audio voices & language going together:
L>T, without vocal cords there would never have been language.

And this:
We must account for the development of the physiological abilities required for speaking and for what I will call "linguistic hearing," i.e, our ability to discriminate linguistic sounds from other sounds, something that happens at a very early age.

And also hanging out at blogs of Autisic people who are non-speaking & thinking about their descriptions of how words sometimes sound, etc...

& studying linguistics on my own

Working all this together, I think I'm finally getting it!

Awesome post. Thanks so much for being patient

12:55 PM

Blogger Ripple said...

We seem to have all evolved from the same ancestors that lived a few million years ago. But I think language evolved when our self-awareness evolved. Apes don't have a self-awareness like we do until we teach them certain self-awareness tools. They do not think about their own mortality like we do.

P.S. I'm glad that old troll doesn't visit here.

4:35 PM

Blogger Mrs. Geezerette said...

LG, what do you think of the research work Dr. Irene Pepperberg is doing with African Grey Parrots in connection with cognition and language?

For anyone who is interested, here is the website for the Alex Foundation and Dr. Pepperberg's work. http://www.alexfoundation.org/index2.htm

1:03 PM

Blogger The Language Guy said...

Thanks for the tip. I took a look at a review of her work and from it surmise that she has managed to demonstrate certain limited cognitive skills -- the ability to demonstrate same-different, larger-smaller, for instance -- and she claims, but I have not yet seen the evidence that acquiring some rudimentary language skills facilitates cognitive development. We should be very surprised were "lower life forms" for lack of a better term not to demonstrate cognitive development (I want to see this demonstration but haven't found any literature yet). What is interesting is she isn't using Pavlovian conditioning as was done with early pigeon studies back in the 40's or so. There is no question in my mind that cognitive development is presupposed by language learning and would be exhibited very early in the evolutionary ladder.

7:57 AM

Blogger IbaDaiRon said...

I downloaded the PDFs in the office yesterday but didn't have time to read them and so can't comment on her work directly.

It did occur to me as I watched the video, however, that we may be more likely to attribute intelligence behind responses when those responses are given in a form interpretable as human language.

The video only shows "correct" responses, so it represents little in the way of real evidence. I was made especially curious (suspicious?) by the scene in which the bird is "talking" about the larger, green key yet grabs the smaller, white(?) one in its beak; I was struck by the seeming disconnect in this. The smaller key was being held closer to the bird.... (There was similar odd behavior when the bird was indicating the number of blue cubes on the tray; actions which looked—to this human observer at least—completely random and unrelated to the communicative task being performed. But who can say what's going on in the mind of a bird, right?)

(You wouldn't believe the trouble I had posting this one. Ended up switching over to Beta. Google imperialism...feh!)

6:11 AM

Blogger Ripple said...

How does language assimilate itsself in this new global community in the future? That is another question. Do you speak Spanglish? Maybe you oughta.

3:19 AM

Blogger The Language Guy said...

As for Spanglish, I favor the learning of English and Spanish. S;English is a non-written pidgin or creoie and there are many versions.

The solution to the international language situation will evolve with no help from anyone. English dominates in academics and diplomacy now but there could be a time when Chinese does or both English and Chinese do. But regional languages/dialects will live forever, more or less.

10:59 AM

Blogger concerned citizen said...

Was that last paragraph deliberately ambiguous?

10:37 PM

Blogger concerned citizen said...

I mean the comment paragraph.

10:38 PM

Blogger The Language Guy said...

Its not ambiguous. Regional dialects will live forever but in diplomacy and academics and surely some other areas, only a few languages will dominate. There is no contradiction or ambiguity in saying that. Regional languages will live forever because they are seen as critical to people's identity.

8:30 AM


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