Evolutionary linguistics

A Blog for Internet Neutrality

Babel's Dawn - Tue, 11/21/2017 - 22:18

I try to keep my political opinions to myself on this blog, but I must speak up when the blog itself is under threat. It has been possible for me to maintain this blog (now in its 11th year) because the Internet infrastructure plays no favorites. Google, Facebook and Amazon are big but not so big that they block out access to all the tiny voices that the Internet makes possible.

Internet neutrality, simply put, forbids Internet Service Providers from favoring certain providers. In effect, it prevents the rich Internet sites from slowing down or blocking entirely the sites of other, less rich websites. In other words, a no-money site like this one can still find its audience. My audience is small but surprisingly loyal. Some people have been with me for years.

If you believe that small sites are a valuable part of the Internet, please  take the time to get a little informed and strive to make your voice heard in opposition to the proposed rule changes. The New York Times predicts there will be a huge lobbying effort both pro- and con- neutrality. The big money will be on the side of changing the Internet, but even in the age of Trump the little guy is not without hope of an even break. Let your voice be heard now, lest it be the last time your voice can be heard at all.

Chimpanzees Warning Calls -- How Close to Language?

Babel's Dawn - Fri, 11/17/2017 - 01:55

The New York Times has a story in today's Science section about chimpanzees changing their warning call if they think other chimps already know about the danger:

The significance of the finding, Dr. Crockford said, is that it challenges the view that only humans keep track of what others know and change their communication to match. “This experiment shows they are monitoring their audience,” she said of the chimps.

That part did not interest me much. Chimps are smart and know something of what their fellows think. This is the kind of finding that gets a reaction when the finder (and Times reporter) have no theory about what matters.

But I have a theory and something else in the story struck me as quite important:

...chimps that thought their fellows were unaware of the road hazard made more alert hoo calls. They also stayed longer to look back and forth from the snake to where they thought their companions were. That’s the way chimps try to show their friends where a danger is.

Why do I think that's a big deal? Because the chimpanzees are drawing attention to something.

It sounds like they are drawing attention to their own location rather than the snake itself. It is not quite joint-attention. The signaler focuses attention on another chimp and the listener looks at the signaler rather than trying to make out the snake. But they have a topic (a snake) and wouldn't have to change much to have a true speech triangle. Keep your eye on chimp behavior during warning signals.


Speech's Side Effects

Babel's Dawn - Mon, 11/13/2017 - 03:30

Language, at its core and as presented on this blog, is a tool for sharing joint attention in contemplation of a topic. By now it has other functions as well, but the definition I just offered is the sine qua non of the phenomenon. When language appeared, it suddenly became possible to discuss or at least report matters of mutual interest. Most definitions ignore the business about joint attention and say something like language is a tool for communicating with symbols. But I have  become persuaded that focusing on symbols misses language’s key feature, the harnessing of attention.Symbol-based theories of language origins look for the introduction of a words, but a better question asks how the human lineage managed to bring attention under control.

Attention itself is very old and reflexive. Animals do not control it; it controls them. Any of the senses can be startled and reflexively an animal directs attention to the surprise. Chimpanzees have figured out how to use that reflex. They have been observed slapping the ground and then, when a troop-mate turns its head, the slapper begs for food. Presumably, the apes of 6 million years ago did the same, but joint attention is something else. If a chimpanzee slapped the ground and then, upon catching another’s attention, pointed toward a third thing, perhaps a pineapple bush, we would have an example of harnessed attention producing joint attention. It turns out, however, that chimpanzees do not harness attention to point elsewhere. Their attention-claiming is very much a look-at-me-dammit kind of action. Joint attention is a double phenomenon. A person pays attention to something out there in the world, but is also is aware of the other attender.

Joint attention is more complicated than simply paying attention to the same thing. Two strangers can pay attention to the same thing just by standing at the corner and watching for the green light. Joint attention allows one person to say to another, “Boy, it is a long time coming,” and the listener replies, “Will it ever change?” In this case, their common attention of the light signal is complicated by their mutual awareness of the other’s focus on the same thing. That’s joint attention: focus on one thing along with shared awareness of each other.

Joint attention might have begun with a sound and a pointer. Ork and point toward a rival band of hunters on the horizon; ork and point toward vultures circling and landing off toward the horizon. Ork may have been just an attention getter, but once attention was combined with pointing, language became inevitable, assuming our ancestors had world enough and time. The cooperative benefits were just too great for evolution to ignore. But what happened to make our ancestors willing to share attention?

If speech is a side effect of joint attention, speech has several astonishing side effects of its own. First, talkers live much more of a conscious life than non-verbal species. Attention requires awareness. An animal is startled by a sound or a movement or odor and focuses attention on it, becoming aware of sensations and perceptions. Awareness is a total mystery, but I see no reason to suppose that an elephant at attention is any less aware than a human. However, humans have become such chatterboxes, paying joint attention to one thing after another, that we live in our consciousness much more than any other animal type does. Sure we have plenty of unconscious reflexes and associations shaping our behavior as well, but we can have conscious purposes too. Apes, especially orangutans, are clever and surely have conscious purposes at times, but human civilization is amazingly shaped by conscious purposes. Many people attribute these talents to language, but computers can use language (in a way) but they process it purely on the symbolic level; joint attention has no role in computer processing. Meanwhile, people use language to direct their attention and have prolonged conscious experiences. It is the joint-attention part of language, not the symbolic part, that keeps us conscious, allowing us to have novel purposes, pleasures, and powers.

Conscious attention has another strange side effect. It moves us out of the here and now. All the world’s other animals live in the moment. Their senses alert them to their present condition. From time to time they focus attention on something, but that is to understand the present more clearly. Suppose for some random neurological reason a chimpanzee’s brain flashes a picture of its mother’s face. Maybe some smell or sound has called up an association. The chimpanzee may be surprised but the moment passes and the chimpanzee is right back in the here and now. Now let’s suppose that an aged human is suddenly reminded of his mother. He has a name for the unexpected image (mother) and may use that term to start recalling other things about his mother. Suddenly thirty seconds have gone by in which the human was engaged with the past instead of the now. Is that good? Many would say no, but it is part of being human and has created a strange fact about human societies everywhere. They are engaged in a world very much of their own making. Every human community is full of symbols, laws, and beliefs that must be learned by its members. Is that good? Romantics say no, but it does not matter. We cannot escape living in a cultural world as well as the physical one. Today’s world is full of stories, religions, dramas, entertainments, concerts, and rituals that take us out of the immediate setting around us. We have harnessed attention and focused it on a something other than the physical present.

Breaking with the present also allows us to harness our thoughts. Thinking in language means directing our attention from one thing to another without losing the thread. When I was 11 years old, for example, I lived in Paris and  thought about how I had learned English from my parents while my schoolmates had learned French from  theirs. It was a random observation, but I was able to imagine back to the stone age when cave men first came up with language. I then imagined the Neanderthals meeting to agree on what to call things. My head jerked as I realized such a gathering was impossible without language already existing. Attention kept me focused on a topic long enough to imagine a series of incidents and understand something new. That kind of ability to have and recognize unexpected ideas is probably not confined to the Homo line, but language certainly makes it a lot easier to stay conscious and imagine a series of related associations until, pop, we think of something unexpected. I am pretty sure that every so often a chimpanzee has a good idea, but it is likely more difficult to push their imagination without having a reliable means of harnessing attention.

And then when the chimpanzee has a good idea, so what? Maybe the smart chimp benefits, but chimpanzeedom as a whole is none the wiser. Meanwhile, among the bipeds, another side effect of language is that we can have second-hand knowledge. By now, very little of what any of us knows is what we figured out for ourselves. The Royal Society was founded by scientists determined to take no man’s word for anything, but the scientific learning they promoted is probably the greatest, most hard-sought collection of second-hand knowing in history. That’s what makes science so powerful. People in many settings, with many varied points of curiosity set out not just to learn things but to share their discoveries. At this point, it does not matter whether the average chimp is as smart as the average human. The great stockpile of intellectual capital made possible by sharing our knowledge of every topic long ago outpaced whatever advantage apes might once have had in brains and brawn.

All of these side effects of language—consciousness, life beyond the present moment, thinking, and shared knowledge—have transformed our existence far more than would have been possible if we just processed symbols while an irrelevant awareness looked on. Just as startling may be that these side effects seem to be free or mostly free from the chains of Darwinian logic that rule the rest of the biological world. Language-based communities are far more able to cooperate and prosper than are the non-verbal societies of gorillas, chimpanzees and bonobos. That Darwinian edge allowed the Homo line to spread far and wide, but the other side effects—consciousness, life in an imaginary world of culture and thought, and the amassing of second-hand knowledge—all seem to have just come along for the ride without Darwinian selection voting on whether it is good or not to have those features. Of course, in the end we may fry ourselves in an intolerably hot climate or blow ourselves to bits in a series of nuclear explosions. Then Darwinian logic will have the last laugh. In the meantime, however, it seems to be sitting on its hands.

Language's First Use

Babel's Dawn - Sat, 10/28/2017 - 21:23

Why do people talk? That is the central question of this blog: what was the purpose of the utterance, the first time somebody said something? I have been taking it for granted that the first intention was informative, as in enemy or carcass thataway. But other ambitions are possible. Maybe language began with a curse or a prayer. I seem to recall reading in Stephen Pinker that cursing uses a different part of the brain, so perhaps we can toss that purpose aside. But was the first utterance a prayer?

That doesn’t look impossible. Imagine Homo earlymus on a vast, grassy plain surrounded by barking hyenas. It looks like a good time for a prayer. But prayers require a concept of at least a higher power, and such a concept seems unlikely to arise without there already being a language with which to work out the notion of some kind of power to pray to. It seems a secondary reason to speak, that is a reason to be discovered by a person already endowed with speech.

Actually, it seems like a tertiary reason. You have language (for whatever purpose) and then you develop the ability to work or reason out such things as there must be a god of the hyenas, and then you start praying  to said god to call off his earthly manifestations. But if prayer is too advanced a reason for using language, we cannot assume our ancestor trapped on  the African savanna was forced into silence. He/She might have cried out with some sort of magical purpose – say abracadabra and the hyenas will leave. Yet even that seems a bit too advanced for the first use of language. Ancestors surrounded by yelping hyenas may have cried in despair or shrieked in horror, but these sorts of emotional ejaculations are too primitive to be called language. It’s more of a joke than anything else to propose that the first linguistic utterance was Oh no!

Magic, by the way, may have led to the whole range of speech acts in which people do accomplish effects by using words as in marrying someone or promising to do something. I don’t think I can rule out on first principles that the first word wasn’t something like Selah or something similar said to seal a new relationship.

Another use of language that requires pre-existing speech is signaling attention. One person may be telling a story (using language to amuse) while a listener periodically says un hunh or wow or I see. These interjections are socially important, but by definition require speech to have already existed before they were introduced into human communications.

Some people have suggested, tongue a bit in cheek, that language began as a method of deceiving others. Ogg said carcass thataway, when really it was t’otherway so Ogg could have the whole feast to his greedy self. The argument against deception as the original purpose is that language would never have survived if it had been lies from the beginning. For it to become an essential part of our lives, it had to be useful so that we kept language even as we recognized speech meant we would be surrounded by liars. This same argument can be used to dismiss a variety of anti-social purposes behind speech. Donald Trump often uses language to confuse people and situations, but if the first speaker had been a prehistoric Trump, language would have died aborning.

Trump also uses language to splinter a group, as happened in his announcement of his candidacy, when he denounced Mexican immigrants, costing him the support of one group but winning the support of anti-immigrant voters. Might the first word have been the prehistoric equivalent of wetback? It ousted one group while increasing the solidarity of another.

Language does not have to divide if it is to solidify. Many politicians are able to increase solidarity without splintering. The finest example is probably Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, which does a splendid job of giving friends of the Union cause some principles to rally around yet the speech never attacks the Confederacy head on. But Lincoln’s use of language was quite sophisticated and depended upon earlier language. It seems unlikely that the first words were so independently noble. A more ordinary way of increasing solidarity is through social customs such as saying thank you or hello. I can't rule out Thanks as the first word, though if it was, it took a second reason for people to realize how useful language could be.

Other possible first uses might be as a command such as go with finger pointed toward the horizon, or as a request this time with the finger pointed toward a table top while the pointer utters salt. These kinds of usages, however, remind me of the old bow-wow theories of language origins that got the inquiry into such ill repute to begin with. It’s not that these usages are impossible, although they are impossible to prove/disprove, but they offer no clue as to how language got from such an unpromising start to the wonder that it is today.

Tom Wolfe wrote a book a year or so ago in which he had the unusual suggestion that language began as a way of improving one’s memory, and there is no doubt that naming aids in one’s memory. If you want to describe the route from New York City to Boston, it helps if you have names to remind you of the places in between. But that explanation is based on the out of date belief that language is naming. It is more than that. When Adam named the giraffe a giraffe he still needed verbs to tell us something about the giraffe and prepositions to locate it. When trying to understand where language came from, it is best to recall what language does in the first place.

So where does  that leave us? Promising first uses may have been to inform, or to perform a speech act, or to splinter a group. The other uses seem to depend on language already existing, or point to dead ends.


Note: I have put in bold-underline the various uses I see for language: inform/deceive; amuse/confuse; pray/curse; increase solidarity/splinter a group; perform magic; perform a speech act; give names; signal attention; request; work or reason out a notion; emotional ejaculation; command. What have I left out?

CfP: New Directions in Language Evolution Research

A replicated typo - Sun, 10/22/2017 - 15:01
Panorama of Tallinn from the sea (Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ATallinnPan.jpg, by Terker, CC-BY-SA 3.0)

Jonas Nölle, Peeter Tinits and I are going to submit a workshop proposal to next year’s Annual Meeting of the Societas Linguistica Europaea (SLE), which will be held in Tallinn from August 29th to September 1st, 2018. We thought this would be a nice opportunity to bring evolutionary linguistics to SLE – and a also a good opportunity to discuss novel and innovative approaches to language evolution in a condensed workshop setting.

Please note that there will be – as usual at SLE – a three-step selection process:

Step 1: You submit a 300-word abstract to us (the organizers: newdir.langev@gmail.com) by November 10th. We then select up to 12 papers that we include in our workshop proposal. As we want the “New directions” in our title to be more than a shallow phrase, we will base our selection as much as possible on the innovativeness of the abstracts we receive. If we’re unable to consider your paper for the workshop, there’s still the option to submit to the general session.

Step 2: Our workshop proposal is then reviewed by the scientific committee, and we’ll receive a notification of acceptance or rejection by December 15th. Good news: If you’ve submitted an abstract, there’s nothing for you to do at this point except for keeping your fingers crossed.

Step 3: If the workshop is accepted, we will ask you to submit a 500-word abstract via the conference submission system, which will be peer-reviewed like any general session paper. Notifications of acceptance or rejection can be expected in March 2018.

We’re looking forward to your contributions, and regardless of the outcome of our proposal, we hope to see many of you in Tallinn!

Here’s our CfP, which will also appear on Linguist List and on the official SLE2018 website soon:

Research on language evolution is undoubtedly among the fastest-growing topics in linguistics. This is not a coincidence: While scholars have always been interested in the origins and evolution of language, it is only now that many questions can be addressed empirically drawing on a wealth of data and a multitude of methodological approaches developed in the different disciplines that try to find answers to what has been called “the hardest problem in science” (Christiansen & Kirby 2003). Importantly, any theory of how language may have emerged requires a solid understanding of how language and other communication systems work. As such, the questions in language evolution research are manifold and interface in multiple ways with key open questions in historical and theoretical linguistics: What exactly makes human language unique compared to animal communication systems?  How do cognition, communication and transmission shape grammar? Which factors can explain linguistic diversity? How and why do languages change? To what extent is the structure of language(s) shaped by extra-linguistic, environmental factors?

Over the last 20 years or so, evolutionary linguistics has set out to find answers to these and many more questions. As, e.g., Dediu & De Boer (2016) have noted, the field of language evolution research is currently coming of age, and it has developed a rich toolkit of widely-adopted methods both for comparative research, which investigates the commonalities and differences between human language and animal communication systems, and for studying the cumulative cultural evolution of sign systems in experimental settings, including both computational and behavioral approaches (see e.g. Tallerman & Gibson 2012; Fitch 2017). In addition, large-scale typological studies have gained importance in recent research on language evolution (e.g. Evans 2010).

The goal of this workshop is to discuss innovative theoretical and methodological approaches that go beyond the current state of the art by proposing and empirically testing new hypotheses, by developing new or refining existing methods for the study of language evolution, and/or by reinterpreting the available evidence in the light of innovative theoretical frameworks. In this vein, we aim at bringing together researchers from multiple disciplines and theoretical backgrounds to discuss the latest developments in language evolution research. Topics include, but are not limited to,

  • experimental approaches investigating the emergence and/or development of sign systems in frameworks such as experimental semiotics (e.g. Galantucci & Garrod 2010) or artificial language learning (e.g. Kirby et al. 2014);
  • empirical research on non-human communication systems as well as comparative research on animal cognition with respect to its relevance for the evolution of cognitive prerequisites for fully-fledged human language (Kirby 2017);
  • approaches using computational modelling and robotics (Steels 2011) in order to investigate problems like the grounding of symbol systems in non-symbolic representations (Harnad 1990), the emergence of the particular features that make human language unique (Kirby 2017, Smith 2014), or the question to what extent these features are domain-specific, i.e. evolved by natural selection for a specifically linguistic function (Culbertson & Kirby 2016);
  • research that explicitly combines expertise from multiple different disciplines, e.g. typology and neurolinguistics (Bickel et al. 2015); genomics, archaeology, and linguistics (Pakendorf 2014, Theofanopoulou et al. 2017); comparative biology and philosophy of language (Moore 2016); and many more.

If you are interested in participating in the workshop, please send an abstract (c. 300 words) to the organizers (newdir.langev@gmail.com) by November 10th. We will let you know by November 15th if your paper is eligible for the proposed workshop. If our workshop proposal is accepted, you will be required to submit an anonymous abstract of ca. 500 words via the SLE submission system by January 15th. If our proposal is not accepted or if we cannot accommodate your paper in the workshop, you can still submit your abstract as a general session paper.


Bickel, Balthasar, Alena Witzlack-Makarevich, Kamal K. Choudhary, Matthias Schlesewsky & Ina Bornkessel-Schlesewsky. 2015. The Neurophysiology of Language Processing Shapes the Evolution of Grammar: Evidence from Case Marking. PLOS ONE 10(8). e0132819.

Christiansen, Morten H. & Simon Kirby. 2003. Language Evolution: The Hardest Problem in Science. In Morten H. Christiansen & Simon Kirby (eds.), Language Evolution, 1–15. (Oxford Studies in the Evolution of Language 3). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Culbertson, Jennifer & Simon Kirby. 2016. Simplicity and Specificity in Language: Domain-General Biases Have Domain-Specific Effects. Frontiers in Psychology 6. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2015.01964.

Dediu, Dan & Bart de Boer. 2016. Language evolution needs its own journal. Journal of Language Evolution 1(1). 1–6.

Evans, Nicholas. 2010. Language diversity as a tool for understanding cultural evolution. In Peter J. Richerson & Morten H. Christiansen (eds.), Cultural Evolution : Society, Technology, Language, and Religion, 233–268. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Fitch, W. Tecumseh. 2017. Empirical approaches to the study of language evolution. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review 24(1). 3–33.

Galantucci, Bruno & Simon Garrod. 2010. Experimental Semiotics: A new approach for studying the emergence and the evolution of human communication. Interaction Studies 11(1). 1–13.

Harnad, Stevan. 1990. The symbol grounding problem. Physica D 42. 335–346.

Kirby, Simon, Tom Griffiths & Kenny Smith. 2014. Iterated Learning and the Evolution of Language. Current Opinion in Neurobiology 28. 108–114.

Kirby, Simon. 2017. Culture and biology in the origins of linguistic structure. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review 24(1). 118–137.

Moore, Richard. 2016. Meaning and ostension in great ape gestural communication. Animal Cognition 19(1). 223–231.

Pakendorf, Brigitte. 2014. Coevolution of languages and genes. Current Opinion in Genetics & Development 29. 39–44.

Smith, Andrew D.M. 2014. Models of language evolution and change: Language evolution and change. Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Cognitive Science 5(3). 281–293.

Steels, Luc. 2011. Modeling the Cultural Evolution of Language. Physics of Life Reviews 8. 339–356.

Tallerman, Maggie & Kathleen R. Gibson (eds.). 2012. The Oxford Handbook of Language Evolution. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Theofanopoulou, Constantina, Simone Gastaldon, Thomas O’Rourke, Bridget D. Samuels, Angela Messner, Pedro Tiago Martins, Francesco Delogu, Saleh Alamri & Cedric Boeckx. 2017. Self-domestication in Homo sapiens: Insights from comparative genomics. PLOS ONE 12(10). e0185306.

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