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Fifteen Years Is Enough

Babel's Dawn - Thu, 04/22/2021 - 00:40

The blog's author (Edmund Blair Bolles): Taken shortly before the pandemic when the whole world began to look a little queasy.

Sometimes random forces seem to gang up on you. Shortly, I must renew my site name, BabelsDawn.com and Google tells me that shortly after that they will cease offering the free subscriber service whereby over 100 fans receive the blog in their email. Neither one by itself is a big deal and I'm sure I could solve both problems with a tiny amount of effort. But I have been supporting this blog for 15 years and I'm about done.

When I started this blog I said I hoped it would become the site for news about the origin of speech. The statement made me laugh at its audacity. Was there even such a  thing as news about the origins of speech? It  turned out there was and for many years I posted something every week. (When I began I posted something every day, but that was crazy.)

I changed my mind about a number of things.

  • Before I began this blog I had no thoughts about the importance of attention, and now see it as critical to language and knowledge in general.
  • When  I began this blog I took the selfish gene theory for granted, but switched to a multi-level theory of selection. I'd never have been able to believe that there is a serious selective power favoring individuals who speak well, but I can see that a community would benefit if it could more successfully spread knowledge among its members. (See the history of colonialism.)
  • When I was about to start the 6th grade, I was struck by the impossibility of speech's beginning. It is handed down through the generations and cannot have begun with a founding generation holding a meeting to agree on a language. By the time I started this blog I had made a little progress, seeing biological solutions and now I can put my 11 year old's wonders aside.

One thing I have not changed my mind about is my emphasis on speech. Commenters have sometimes been fierce in proposing that I talk about language, and I often do, but my subject in the end is speech. Language is an abstraction; speech is a behavior. Speech traits could be selected; language  could not. For some while I benefitted from the active participation of an intelligent woman who was hard of hearing and used sign language. She was an active proponent of the hypothesis that language first appeared as signing. She may be right, but that still leaves us with the question of how the system changed from signs to sounds. By the way, I'm sure gestures have accompanied speech from the beginning, but gestures and signs are different things.

So how do I think speech began?

  • Long ago (perhaps 3+ million years ago) our ancestors began to use sounds, (babbling) as a way of interacting and bonding, to make up for the declining grooming opportunities as body hair thinned.
  • A little less than 2 million years ago, the Homo lineage began using specific sounds to draw attention to things in the environment.
  • Vocabulary grew. There were a couple of specific abilities that had to evolve in order to use modern language:
    • We had to be able to perceive subjects and objects (direct and indirect) at the same time so that we could express complete sentences. (I do not actually know that chimpanzees cannot do this, and would love to see the matter settled experimentally, I would not be surprised, however, to learn experiments find that chimpanzees can only follow part of an action (subject or object) at one time.)
    • We had to evolve the ability to think in metaphors, and thus think about the effects and actions of abstractions. Why do I think the capacity is biological? Because to this day some people are born without it, as part of a suite of difficulties with attention.

My plans are vague. Perhaps one day I will publish a book of selected posts. If you are interested in backposts  I have a completer hypertext file of the blog and can send you a copy if you contact me at blairbolles@gmail.com. 

Good day to you all.



Call for Papers: Protolang 7

A replicated typo - Tue, 02/16/2021 - 16:54

The 7th International Conference “Ways to Protolanguage” (http://www.protolang7.org/) is going to take place at the University of Düsseldorf and online from Sept 6 to Sept 8, 2021.

The thematic focus of Protolang is on delineating the socio-cultural, semiotic, symbolic, ecological, genetic, anatomical and neuro-cognitive requirements for evolving (proto)language. Sign use, tools, cooperative breeding, pointing, vocalisation, intersubjectivity, bodily mimesis, planning and navigation are among many examples of such possible factors through which hominins have gained a degree of specificity that is not found in other forms of animal communication and cognition. We aim at identifying the proximate and ultimate causes as well as the mechanisms by which these requirements evolved; evaluating the methodologies, research tools and simulation techniques; and enabling extended and vigorous exchange of ideas across disciplinary borders.

Keynote speakers of Protolang 7 and their main research areas:

  • Michel DeGraff (Massachusetts Institute of Technology)
    Linguistic theory, creole studies, language and education
  • Katja Liebal (Leipzig University)
    Human biology and primate cognition
  • Asifa Majid (University of York)
    Psychology of language and communication
  • Albert Newen (Ruhr University Bochum)
    Philosophy of mind
  • Cailin O’Connor (University of California Irvine)
    Philosophy of science and evolutionary game theory
  • Asli Ozyurek (Max-Planck-Institute for Psycholinguistics Nijmegen)
    Multimodal language processing

We invite scholars from linguistics, behavioral science, cognitive science and related disciplines to contribute experimental and theoretical research. Please submit abstracts of up to 500 words, excl. references, via easychair (https://easychair.org/conferences/?conf=protolang7). There are no speficic formatting guidelines for abstracts at this point, except that they should be fully anonymous.

  • Deadline for submission: February 28th 2021
  • Notification: March 2021

Multiple submissions: Any individual may submit up to two single-authored or first-authored abstracts. There are no limits for co-authored abstracts.

Note on Covid-19:
We are very much aware that it is currently far from clear whether Protolang 7 can take place as a physical conference. The current plan is a hybrid format with an online track and an on-site track, but we are prepared to make it a fully virtual conference if necessary.

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