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From thought to language

Help Language and Human Cognition... Building Gab: Part One Building Gab: Part Two
DARWIN AND DEACON ON LOVE AND LANGUAGE Quoi, comment, pourquoi? Rhawn Joseph: NAKED NEURON (Plenum, 1993) The Language Instinct
Empirical Constraints for Universal Grammar Linguistically Grounded Language-Evolution Theory The Symbolic Species : The Co-Evolution of Language and the Brain by Terrence W. Deacon Book : William Calvin & Derek Bickerton: LINGUA EX MACHINA (MIT Press, 2000)
Derek BICKERTON, Language and Species The Quest For A Protolanguage The Syllabic Origin of Syntax: a Response to Bickerton on Language Origins I Think, Therefore I Am Not a Dog
THE BRAIN : « Folie à Deux » Quand nos ancêtres ont-ils pris la parole ? Séminaires du GDR Langage et Connexionnisme Short Reviews Other Books in the Field
Chronicles of Love and Resentment Thinking About Thought L'activité scientifique en tant que comportement naturel ancré sur le conflit cognitif INNATENESS, AUTONOMY, UNIVERSALITY? NEUROBIOLOGICAL APPROACHES TO LANGUAGE
William H. Calvin Steven Pinker: Evolution of the Mind Ian Tattersall : Dans le labyrinthe de l’évolution humaine Video : The Origin of the Human Mind: Insights from Brain Imaging and Evolution
Théorie linguistique et origine du langage
Terrence Deacon Pinker and the Brain
Original modules
History : Hominization, or The History of the Human Lineage Hominization, or The History of the Human Lineage
Tool : Chomsky's Universal Grammar   Chomsky's Universal Grammar

A Monthly Podcast On Cognitive Science

Semiotics (also known as semiology) is the study of signs and their meanings. Semioticians define a relationship between a perceptible element, known as the signifier, and the signified—the meaning given to this signifier within a code. Semioticians also distinguish between signs and indexes. For instance, smoke is an index of fire, and not a sign, because it is simply a natural consequence of the fire. A sign, in contrast, is something used intentionally to convey some meaning.

In addition to indexes, Charles Sander Peirce, one of the fathers of semiotics, defines two types of signs. Icons refer to the objects that they signify through the resemblance that they bear to them (for example, a photo or drawing of an object is an icon for that object). Symbols refer to the objects that they signify through cultural conventions (for example, scales as a symbol of justice).

It was long believed that Neanderthal man could not communicate verbally—that Neanderthals must have had some primitive form of language, but could not produce the complete range of sounds of human language. According to a hypothesis advanced by American linguist Philip Lieberman, Neanderthals’ larynxes had not yet descended so low as those of Homo sapiens, so they would have had a great deal of difficulty in pronouncing the three main vowels present in the majority of the world’s languages (ee as in “beet”, oo as “boot” and a as in “aha!”).

However, some authors argue that to speak a rudimentary language, one need not master all of the vowels, so long as the language has a sufficient number of consonants.

Moreover, recent research has raised questions about Lieberman’s hypothesis. Many researchers find it hard to believe that Neanderthals, who produced sophisticated tools, adorned their bodies with bracelets and necklaces, buried their dead, and produced works of art, had little or no ability to communicate verbally.

Some authors even believe that the skull on which Lieberman based his work was not truly representative of Neanderthal man. Contrary to his findings, reconstructions of other Neanderthal skulls have shown that their base would have allowed the existence of a vocal tract very similar to that of modern humans. For example, the discovery in 1989 of the 60 000-year-old skull of a male Neanderthal with a hyoid bone (the bone that supports the larynx) even led some researchers to say that he had probably been able to speak.

One thing is certain: Neanderthals disappeared about 28 000 years ago, leaving the Earth to their rivals, Homo sapiens sapiens, who had everything they needed to use an articulate symbolic language with elaborate syntax.

Link : Livre : Human Language and Our Reptilian Brain: the Subcortical Bases of Speech, Syntax, and Thought Link : Neanderthal's Gift Of Speech Link : Language and Speech Link : Homo neanderthalensis
Link : Homo sapiens (sapiens) Link : Homo neanderthalensis Link : L'extinction de l'homme de Néanderthal, pourquoi ? Link : How Much Like Us Were the Neandertals?
Research : Yves Coppens Link : Homo neanderthalensis Tool : The Human Vocal Apparatus

There are many theories about the origins of language, and the dates cited for its first appearance vary greatly from one author to another. They range from the time of Cro-Magnon man, about 40 000 years ago, to the time of Homo habilis, about 2 million years back. Another highly controversial issue is whether language emerged at several different locations in the world (the theory of polygenism) or at only one (the theory of monogenism).

Among the theorists of monogenism, two major schools of thought can be distinguished. The first, influenced by Chomskyian theories in the broad sense (follow the Tool module to the left), starts from the premise that the human species as we know it arose from an unlikely genetic mutation that occurred about 100 000 years ago, in which certain of the brain’s circuits were reorganized. This reorganization would have given rise to the human “language instinct”, thus paving the way for the explosive growth in all the cognitive abilities that the powerful communication tool of language provides. In this view, language is an innate component of human life, which is why it should be possible to identify and describe a “universal grammar”, and why it is so hard to imagine an intermediate form of language that could function without all the grammatical structures found in languages today.

This view of the origins of language has been criticized as anti-evolutionist, but several renowned scholars of evolution have lent it their support. Paleoanthropologist Ian Tattersall, for example, writes that Homo sapiens sapiens “is not simply an improved version of its ancestors—it’s a new concept, qualitatively distinct from them”. For Tattersall and many other scientists, the mechanism that gave rise to language involved the relatively sudden combination of pre-existing elements that had not been selected specifically to produce this attribute but that, together, made it possible. Such a mechanism is thought to have come into play many times in the course of evolution; the paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould calls it exaptation, and the features that result from it, such as language, he calls “spandrels ”.

Like Noam Chomsky, Gould also believes that human language is so different from anything else in the animal kingdom that he does not see how it could have developed from ancestral cries or gestures, but he can imagine its having emerged as a side effect of the explosive growth of human cognitive abilities.

The second major school of monogenism posits a concept of the evolution of Homo sapiens in which language developed from cognitive faculties that were already well established. In this view, the birth of language was triggered not by a random mutation, but simply by the availability of an increasingly powerful cognitive tool. Bit by bit, those groups of hominids who developed an articulate language that let them discuss past and imaginary events would thereby have supplanted those groups that as yet had only a proto-language.

This second school of monogenism is identified with the linguist Steven Pinker, who believes that language may very well have been the target that evolution was aiming for. He argues that the brain has a general capacity for language—a concept often associated with connectionist theory in cognitive science. Pinker invokes the Baldwin effect, for example, as a major evolutionary force that could have led to modern language (see box below). The ability to learn language would therefore have become a target of natural selection, thus permitting the selection of language-acquisition devices that were genetically pre-wired into the brain’s circuits.

The Tower of Babel (1604), by Abel Grimmer (1570-1619).

According to the Biblical story of the Tower of Babel, everyone originally spoke the same language, but then God changed things so that everyone spoke different languages. As a result, the tower, which was supposed to reach to the heavens, was never completed, because the people building it could no longer understand one another.

This theory of monogenism also implies intermediate forms of language that eventually led to our own. For example, Derek Bickerton, a linguist renowned for his work on the evolution of language, suggests that human language abilities evolved in two stages. In the first, humans would have used a proto-language of symbolic representations that took the concrete form of vocal and/or gestural signs. This stage might have lasted nearly 2 million years. Then, about 50 000 years ago, humans would have developed a more formal syntax that let them exchange ideas with significantly more precision and clarity. With syntax, people could not only label things (“leopard print”, “danger”, etc.), but also join several labels together to express even more meaning (“When you see a leopard print, watch out!”).

Thus, if symbolic representations, already present in the proto-languages, made the construction of the first mental models of reality possible, it was the emergence of syntax that gave human language the great richness that it has today. To give some idea of how the transition from symbolic representations to syntax may have occurred, Bickerton cites the example of the pidgin languages of the colonial period. These rudimentary languages were developed by people of different cultural origins who needed to communicate (see box below). Though the pidgin languages themselves had no grammar at all, when they were learned by a second generation, they became what are known as creoles: new, grammatical languages derived from multiple mother tongues.

Another important scholar of the origins of language, anthropologist Terrence Deacon, takes exception to the primacy of grammar, believing instead that the essential feature of language is its use of symbols. According to Deacon, the so-called symbols that some authors say animals use are actually only indexes (see sidebar). He says that people who try to teach language to chimpanzees always ensure that the things designated by the words or icons being taught are present in the animal’s environment, which makes these words or icons mere indexes. Deacon associates this inferior level of language, based on signs and icons, with that used by children in their earliest years. In contrast, says Deacon, articulate adult language depends on the specificity of the symbols, which in turn depends on the logical connections that each symbol in a language has with the others. For Deacon, it is this network of relationships, far more than the mere occurrence of arbitrary signs, that characterizes the symbols used by human beings.

Deacon therefore thinks that we must try to understand the evolution of language not in terms of innate grammatical functions, but rather in terms of the manipulation of symbols and of relationships among symbols. There is certainly a human predisposition for language, but this predisposition would be the result of the co-evolution of the brain and of language. What is innate, according to Deacon, is a set of mental abilities that give us certain natural tendencies, which are expressed in the same universal language structures. Thus Deacon offers a different concept from Chomsky, who associates the origins of universal grammar with a language-specific innovation in the brain.

Deacon sees this co-evolution of the brain and language as being rooted in the complexity of humans’ social lives, which involved not only a high degree of co-operation between the men and women of a community to acquire resources, but also exclusive monogamous relationships to ensure proper care for very young children who were greatly dependent on adults. This highly explosive mixture is not found in any other species (the great apes, for example, gather their food individually). To ensure the stability of the group, rituals and restrictions were required: in other words, abstractions that could be comprehended only if the individuals involved could understand and use symbols.

A pidgin is a language created spontaneously from a mixture of several languages, so that the people who speak them can communicate. The people who develop a pidgin language agree on a limited vocabulary and employ only a rudimentary grammar. For example, in Franco-Vietnamese pidgin, this results in sentences such as “Moi faim. Moi tasse. Lui aver permission repos. Demain moi retour campagne.” [Me hunger. Me lie down. He have permission rest. Tomorrow me return country.]

The first documented pidgin, the Lingua Franca, was used by Mediterranean merchants in the Middle Ages. Another well known pidgin was developed from a mixture of Chinese, English, and Portuguese to facilitate trade in Canton, China during the 18th and 19th centuries. Another classic example is the pidgin developed by slaves in the Caribbean, whose cultural origins were too diverse for their own languages to survive after their forced transplantation.

Children who grow up together and learn a pidgin tend to spontaneously impose a lexical structure on it to create a creole: a true language whose vocabulary comes from other languages. But this does not happen with all pidgins, and some are lost or become obsolete.

According to researchers such as Derek Bickerton, people who find themselves in the particular circumstances described above revert to an older form of communication, what Bickerton calls a proto-language, of which pidgin would be the modern manifestation.

Link : Encyclopedia: Pidgin Link : Nicaraguan Sign Language Link : Creoles and Pidgins

In 1896, American psychologist James Mark Baldwin proposed an evolutionary mechanism that soon came to be known as the “Baldwin effect”. It is a process whereby a behaviour that originally had to be learned can eventually become innate, that is, fixed in the genetic programming of the species concerned. The effectiveness of the learning plays a key role in the Baldwin effect, which distinguishes it from Lamarckian inheritance of acquired characteristics.

The idea behind the Baldwin effect is that individuals who are able to learn a given kind of behaviour more effectively may over the course of their lives acquire advantages that individuals whose brains are less plastic will not. Natural selection will therefore tend to favour those who always learn faster until, at some point in evolution, the behaviour will no longer need to be learned at all: it will have become instinctive.

It should be noted that the Baldwin effect assumes that the environment remains relatively stable, because if it changed too much, there would be no selection against plasticity, which would become an important adaptive factor. But if the environment remains stable for a long time, natural selection may favour a mutation that makes the behaviour innate and hence more robust and efficient.

The Baldwin effect, as an evolutionary mechanism that targets learning abilities, has been successfully simulated with many computer programs. Many scientists believe that it may have played a decisive role in the evolution of language.

Link : The Baldwin Effect: Introduction Link : The Evolution of Phenotypic Plasticity Through the Baldwin Effect Link : Book Review : Evolution and Learning: The Baldwin Effect Reconsidered Link : Can the Baldwin effect really explain the evolution of the LAD? Link : Lamarckian inheritance Research : Jean-Baptiste de Lamarck Tool Module : Qu'est-ce que l'évolution? Tool Module : La sélection naturelle de Darwin   Link : Evolution, Learning, and Instinct: 100 Years of the Baldwin Effect Link : Inné et acquis : les réponses d'Henri Atlan

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