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These are excerpts from an interesting book I read today by Jean Aitchison, named The Seeds of Speech and it is a book about Language Origin and Evolution.

The book begins by discussing biological and social factors that may have contributed to the human language faculty. Then the book moves to discuss the search for language universals, which are features common to all languages, followed by constraints, which are the other side of the coin from universals.

By understanding these universals, one unlocks the ability to trivially manufacture new languages that are compatible with learning.


The mind is the master manufacturer

  • who divides the work to be executed into different processes.
  • modules in the mind
    • reasoning ability
    • spatial skills
    • language
    • etc.

The biological bush

  • ‘As for humans, we are unquestionably a pure product of a certain aridity’, it has been claimed (Coppens 1994: 69). After the catastrophe, our ape cousins were left in the lush and pleasant tree-terrain of the humid west. Our own ancestors were stranded in a relatively treeless savannah in the increasingly dry east, where they were forced to adapt, or die. An unfavourable climate forced a deprived species to live on its wits and, in the long run, develop language.

The requirements for development of language

social structure and intimate interaction

  • guessing and gossip, not grooming in groups: Gossip rather than grooming might have been promoted by several factors.

    ..language is an intimate type of interaction, better at close quarters than across vast spaces. But group size alone may not be particularly important, and bands of 150 may have occurred earlier, with no language development (Hyland 1993). The quality of the interactions matters more than overall numbers: the bleating of sheep might turn into language if herd-size alone was crucial.

    Spoken language leaves the hands free for other activities, perhaps important in open savannah where humans possibly lived at one time (chapter 5). Sounds can be heard in the dark, and messages can be transmitted rapidly.

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phatic expression
phatic communication
    [#linguistics]

    A phatic expression is communication which
    serves a social function, such as social
    pleasantries that don't seek or offer
    information of intrinsic value but can
    signal willingness to observe conventional
    local expectations for politeness.

man of many wiles / dogs may dissemble

T. H. Huxley
A man has no reason to be ashamed of having an ape for his grandfather. If there were an ancestor whom I should feel shame in recalling it would rather be a man … who … plunges into scientific questions with which he has no real acquaintance. only to obscure them by an aimless rhetoric, and distract the attention of his hearers from the real point at issue by eloquent digressions and skilled appeals to religious prejudice.

True deceit involves tactical deception. The extent of animal deception is only now becoming clear. But the deceit of dogs is not well-planned.: ‘Acts from the normal repertoire of the agent, deployed such that another individual is likely to misinterpret what the acts signify, to the advantage of the agent’ (R. W. Byrne and Whiten 1988, 1992: 612). Humans are very good at it. The ability to deceive is not necessarily a bad thing. This is a powerful skill, which may be used selfishly or unselfishly. To exercise it, it’s necessary to mentally ‘put oneself into another person’s shoes’.

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theory of mind
    Humans can do this: they can imagine
    alternative possible worlds, and treat others
    as if they had 'mental states'.

    Those who can represent the minds of others in
    their own minds are said to have a theory of
    mind, something possessed by all normal
    humans.

    Some can talk, but they have great difficulty
    in fully understanding other people.

    Animals who possess a theory of mind are good
    at social manipulation.

wile
    Devious or cunning stratagems employed in
    manipulating or persuading someone to do
    what one wants.
    "she didn't employ any feminine wiles to
    capture his attention"

dissemble
    Conceal or disguise one's true feelings or
    beliefs.
    "an honest, sincere person with no need to
    dissemble"

    Disguise or conceal (a feeling or
    intention).
    "she smiled, dissembling her true emotion"

mindblind
mindblindness
    A few unfortunates suffer from a puzzling
    deficit, an inability to understand
    another's point of view.

    This condition is sometimes referred to as
    'mindblindness', and it is a major symptom
    of autism.

    To 'mindblind' humans, the world is a
    confusing place which they never 'get the
    hang of'.

ruling the rules

As these examples show, constraints overlap with universals: if humans are prevented from going down alternative paths, they may be inevitably pushed in one particular direction, resulting in an apparent universal.

Universals and constraints overlap: they are opposite sides of the same coin.

Language contains two types of constraints: filters (real constraints) and preferences (pseudoconstraints). And these may work on at least two levels: that of general human abilities, and that of language.

  • The permitted patterns or rules of all languages constantly change, and new words are continually coming into use. Yet language never collapses: the rules do not spiral out of control. Each new generation of children can cope with learning their language. And, with a bit of effort, all humans can learn any other human language, though they are baffled when faced with the communication systems of other species. It’s an odd situation when it’s impossible to find more than a few broad language universals. Some principles must rule the rules. Language has ‘hidden secrets’, reins which keep it in check, and linguists are who try to find out what they are.

prohibitions vs preferences

  • Broadly speaking, constraints are of two types, filters and preferences. Filters close off certain possibilities absolutely. Such prohibitions are true constraints. Preferences, on the other hand, provide channels which are easy to flow along. They turn attention away from some non-preferred, though possible, routes. Such pseudoconstraints are often difficult to separate from prohibitions.

  • To summarize, universals and constraints overlap: they are opposite sides of the same coin. Language contains two types of constraints: filters (real constraints) and preferences (pseudoconstraints). And these may work on at least two levels: that of general human abilities, and that of language.

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generativity
    The use of finite resources to produce an
    infinite variety of sentences

    Language has the property of generativity.

language universal
    A feature common to all languages.

absolute linguistic universal
    A feature common to all languages.

    Rare, unless one takes an over-broad view
    of the word 'universal'.

    Even when apparently found, they differ in
    details from language to language.

Unweaving the rainbow: separating the strands

  • Language has some similarities to the rainbow. Both can be partially separated from their surroundings: the rainbow from the clouds, and language from a general ability to think (chapter 4). And both language and the rainbow appear to be made out of various strands. To a poet, chopping it all up might seem like pointless pedantry. But for linguists concerned with language, this is a necessity, even if the result is unromantic.

Aeschylus, Prometheus bound (fifth century BC)
  • My mother …predicted that
  • Future rulers would conquer and control
  • Not by strength, nor by violence,
  • But by cunning
Umberto Eco, Foucault’s pendulum
The real magicician isn’t the bleary-eyed guy who doesn’t understand a thing: it’s the scientist who has grasped the hidden secrets of the universe.

Alexander Pope, Essay on Man
  • Let earth unbalanc’d from her orbit fly,
  • Planets and suns run lawless thro' the sky;
  • Let ruling angels from their spheres be hurl’d,
  • Being on being wreck’d and world on world.

C. S. Lewis, Evolutionary hymn
  • Lead us, Evolution, lead us
  • Up the future’s endless stair;
  • Chop us, change us, prod us, weed us.
  • For stagnation is despair:
  • Groping, guessing, yet progressing,
  • Lead us nobody knows where.