Evolutionary linguistics

Deciphering a Metaphor

Babel's Dawn - Sun, 10/14/2018 - 17:21

I have been thinking about my last post and Hubert Haiber’s argument that “Natural languages have the properties they have because they reflect the properties which our language-learning and language-using human brain capacities can cope with.” ( See An anthropic principle in lieu of a “Universal Grammar) This principle might seem self-evident, even circular, but it is a direct challenge to the concept of an innate, universal grammar. Indeed, Haiber is attacking Chomsky’s innate (a.k.a. nativist) principle directly: “Nobody has ever been able to produce immediate and compelling evidence in favour of the strong nativist hypothesis.” Disagreeing with Chomsky is hardly news, and I would probably let the paper pass by if it weren’t for a second feature, the metaphor of grammar as a virus. ("On the level of cognitive structures, grammars are self-reproductive in the same way as a virus…”) Viruses need a host to multiply and so, goes the metaphor, do grammars.

Only, Haiber insists he is not speaking metaphorically. “A Grammar is--even literally--a cognitive virus programme. It reproduces itself, but it needs a host that provides a  replication environment, just as any virus does. Grammars ‘infect’ human brains as a result of language acquisition. The cognitive virus corresponding to the grammar of our mother tongue governs our language production behaviour.” But Haiber is confused. Is he talking about Grammar (as he specifies at the start of the quotation) or about language production behaviour (as he says at the end)? He thinks grammar can be a literal virus, so he starts talking about it, but at the end of the paragraph he describes language productions (utterances) going in and coming out. (“Children acquire their grammar on the basis of being exposed to language productions and they put it to use, Afterwards, their productions become part of the input for the next generation’s acquisition of grammar, and so on.”)

Haiber’s confusion over whether he is talking about language or grammar comes from his desire to be a reformer rather than a revolutionary. He hopes to replace the notion of an innate universal grammar with a learned mother tongue while leaving the rest of Chomsky in place. Sorry, professor. If utterances go in and utterances come out, it is utterances that are doing the evolving and, if that is so, Chomsky. who focuses exclusively on the non-utterances of internal language, collapses.

Is it so? Can we really talk about language as a virus? Yes, but only as a metaphor. Nonetheless, metaphors are extremely useful. You just have to be careful about where and  when they apply and you can never argue ‘since X is part of the metaphor, X is part of language. Since Y is not part of the metaphor, Y cannot be part of language.

One clear break in  the metaphor is the process of replication. Viruses use a cell but replicate themselves. Utterances do not literally replicate themselves, yet they do change over time.

Viruses evolve via natural selection. Do utterances? Happily, the metaphor holds in this instance. We can say the brain that perceives the utterance is the equivalent of the cell that supports the virus. The brain’s cognitive functions include memory and perception. To be a candidate for selection, the brain must be able to perceive at least part of an utterance and remember it. Anybody who has tried to learn a new language has noticed how hard it is to perceive the details of the sounds rushing by the ear. “They speak so fast,” is a common complaint about any population of native speakers whose words overwhelm the newcomer. Perceiving an utterance is not a simple task. So we have at least two features that can play a role in selection. Can a speaker perceive an utterance and remember it?

There is also a feature of language that has no counterpart in a virus (or any other biological product for that matter): the topic.  A conversation requires two or more people to pay attention to a shared topic. Without the topic and joint attention, language is impossible. This dramatic difference between language and evolving DNA strands explains many differences between a language and a virus. Viruses vary but only slightly, while language output varies greatly but not completely. We can produce never-before-uttered sentences, but the words are familiar. We can produce never-before-uttered words, but their syllables are familiar. We can produce never-before-uttered syllables, but their context had better be danged familiar. Utterances bear a family resemblance, suggesting they are part of a system, and utterances can be quite unusual, suggesting a creative or divine source for their content.

Haiber offers no hint as to how novel syntax structures (e,g,, phrases, clauses, sentences) emerge from utterances. I have been working for sometime on what I call attention-based syntax (see paper 1 and paper 2) and can therefore propose a way to use attention that has nothing to do with Haiber’s reliance on Chomskyan computations. Basically, a speaker uses language to direct attention from point to point, forming a gestalt (or whole). The  task of the listener is to follow the utterance from point to point, and the task of the speaker is to shape the utterance so that it leads from point to point.

To sum up: using a language as a listener requires an ability to perceive an utterance in detail, remembering what is being said, and following the topic from point to point. Meanwhile, speaking requires an ability to form an utterance in detail while directing the  topic from point to point. Selection of utterances thus depends on how much of an utterance a listener can perceive and how much can a speaker reproduce; how much of an utterance can a listener recognize and a speaker recall; how much of an utterance can a listener follow and how skilled is a speaker at directing a listener’s attention from point to point in a topic; and does a listener care enough to pay attention?

Is that all there is to language? It sounds too simple to credit. After all, the brain grew enormously over the past 2 million years. Was none of that an adaptation to language? I have thought so, but I may have been wrong.

Right now there are three competing theories: (1) language is entirely the product of cognitive operations (most famously supported by Chomsky, but there are many other versions of the idea); (2) language is the product of co-evolutionary adaptations by both the brain and language (most strikingly proposed by Terrence Deacon who has inspired many variations on his theme); and (3) language is entirely learned (most notoriously argued by B.F. Skinner who was beaten so badly that this very old idea has been recalled to life only by adopting radically different premises about how learning can proceed).

This blog has been pretty solidly on the side of theory #2, but now I want to consider #3 a bit. The idea of language as a kind of artificial virus that has been selected and replicated by the brain appeals to me, largely because I can see that, if  true, the fantastic freedom of language is readily explained. People can speak with strange accents and disobey many of the formal rules insisted upon in school and still be understood. How is that possible? Theory 1 sees the brain as a rule-based set of behaviors, and is hard put to explain why we can follow a great deal of rule-violating speech. Computers certainly cannot stray from the rules. Theory number 2 is a bit less fixed, but still has trouble with speech’s rhetorical freedom. Theory 3, however, tosses aside rules (although there are habits), so the freedom is far less of a problem.

Thus, even with #3’s dubious simplicity, I think I will give it a closer look. I may find some undeniable road block, but it seems worth investigating. Next post, let’s take a look at language acquisition and the poverty of the stimulus. That was the issue that ruined Skinner and gave Chomsky staying power. So I might as well face that one head on.

Notes toward a theory of the corpus, Part 1: History

A replicated typo - Thu, 09/27/2018 - 19:18

By corpus I mean a collection of texts. The texts can be of any kind, but I am interested in literature, so I’m interested in literary texts. What can we infer from a corpus of literary texts? In particular, what can we infer about history?

Well, to some extent, it depends on the corpus, no? I’m interested in an answer which is fairly general in some ways, in other ways not. The best thing to do is to pick an example and go from there.

The example I have in mind is the 3300 or so 19th century Anglophone novels that Matthew Jockers examined in Macroanalysis(2013 – so long ago, but it almost seems like yesterday). Of course, Jockers has already made plenty of inferences from that corpus. Let’s just accept them all more or less at face value. I’m after something different.

I’m thinking about the nature of historical process. Jockers’ final study, the one about influence, tells us something about that process, more than Jockers seems to realize. I think it tells us that cultural evolution is a force in human history, but I don’t intend to make that argument here. Rather, my purpose is to argue that Jockers has created evidence that can be brought to bear on that kind of assertion. The purpose of this post is to indicate why I believe that.

A direction in a 600 dimension space

In his final study Jockers produced the following figure (I’ve superimposed the arrow):

Each node in that graph represents a single novel. The image is a 2D projection of a roughly 600 dimensional space, one dimension for each of the 600 features Jockers has identified for each novel. The length of each edge is proportional to the distance between the two nodes. Jockers has eliminated all edges above a certain relatively small value (as I recall he doesn’t tell us the cut off point). Thus two nodes are connected only if they are relatively close to one another, where Jockers takes closeness to indicate that the author of the more recent novel was influenced by the author of more distant one.

Each node in that graph represents a single novel. The image is a 2D projection of a roughly 600 dimensional space, one dimension for each of the 600 features Jockers has identified for each novel. The length of each edge is proportional to the distance between the two nodes. Jockers has eliminated all edges above a certain relatively small value (as I recall he doesn’t tell us the cut off point). Thus two nodes are connected only if they are relatively close to one another, where Jockers takes closeness to indicate that the author of the more recent novel was influenced by the author of more distant one.

You may or may not find that to be a reasonable assumption, but let’s set it aside. What interests me is the fact that the novels in this are in rough temporal order, from 1800 at the left (gray) to 1900 at the right (purple). Where did that order come from? There were no dates in 600D description of each novel. As far as I can tell, that must be a product of the historical process that produced those texts. That process must therefore have a temporal direction.

I’ve spent a fair amount of effort explicitly arguing that point [1], but don’t want to reprise that argument here. For the purposes of this piece, assume that that argument is at least a reasonable one to make.

What is that direction? I don’t have a name for it, but that’s what the arrow in the image indicates. One might call it Progress, especially with Hegel looking over your shoulder. And I admit to a bias in favor of progress, though I have no use for the notion of some ultimate telostoward which history tends. But saying that direction is progress is a gesture without substantial intellectual content because it doesn’t engage with the terms in which that 600D space is constructed. What are those terms? Some of them are topics of the sort identified in topic analysis, e.g. American slavery, beauty and affection, dreams and thoughts, Greek and Egyptian gods, knaves rogues and asses, life history, machines and industry, misery and despair, scenes of natural beauty, and so on [3]. Others are stylistic features, such as the frequency of specific words, e.g. the, heart, would, me, lady, which are the first five words in a list Jockers has in the “Style” chapter of Macroanalysis(p. 94).

In a post back in 2014 I suggested that Jockers’ image depicts the Geistof 19th century Anglo-American literary culture [2]. That’s what interests me, the possibility that we’re looking at a 21st century operationalization of an idea from 19th century German idealism. Here’s what the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy has to say about Hegel’s conception of history [4]:

In a sense Hegel’s phenomenology is a study of phenomena (although this is not a realm he would contrast with that of noumena) and Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit is likewise to be regarded as a type of propaedeutic to philosophy rather than an exercise in or work of philosophy. It is meant to function as an induction or education of the reader to the standpoint of purely conceptual thought from which philosophy can be done. As such, its structure has been compared to that of a Bildungsroman (educational novel), having an abstractly conceived protagonist—the bearer of an evolving series of so-called shapes of consciousness or the inhabitant of a series of successive phenomenal worlds—whose progress and set-backs the reader follows and learns from. Or at least this is how the work sets out: in the later sections the earlier series of shapes of consciousness becomes replaced with what seem more like configurations of human social life, and the work comes to look more like an account of interlinked forms of social existence and thought within which participants in such forms of social life conceive of themselves and the world. Hegel constructs a series of such shapes that maps onto the history of western European civilization from the Greeks to his own time.

Now, I am not proposing that Jockers’ has operationalized that conception, those “so-called shapes of consciousness”, in any way that could be used to buttress or refute Hegel’s philosophy of history – which, after all, posited a final end to history. But I am suggesting that can we reasonably interpret that image as depicting a (single) historical phenomenon, perhaps even something like an animating ‘force’, albeit one requiring a thoroughly material account. Whatever it is, it is as abstract as the Hegelian Geist.

How could that be?

Let’s spell out some fairly obvious things about the material underpinning, if you will, of the phenomena represented in that image. Each node represents a novel published in the 19th century, either in Ireland, England, or the United States. There are roughly 3300 novels, which implies something on the order 3300 people, the authors of those novels. Of course, some authors produced more than one text in the corpus, and some texts had more than one author. Moreover, those authors worked with editors, each of whom read the book. And the editors reported to publishers who had to authorize publication, and so on. So lets say we have on the order of 10,000 individuals more or less associated with creation of those 3300 books.

Each book necessarily is an expression of those 10,000 minds. The expression is direct in the case of authors, but not-so-direct in the case of the others. Yet they wouldn’t have been involved with the book unless it somehow answered to or reflected something in their minds, even if it was only a commercial hunch about what would sell. And then we have the readers who (more or less necessarily) see or seek something of themselves in the books they read.

Note however that the fact of publication represents a commercial judgment about the viability of a given title in the marketplace. Editors and publishers, authors too, are aware of that marketplace and take that into account in their decisions. Thus independently of the actual post-publication readership of a book, the decision to publish represents a studied judgment about the taste and desires of the current literary marketplace.

Some books will have had relatively few readers, on the order of 100s or at most 1000s; while others had many readers, tens or hundreds of thousands, maybe even millions in some cases. And these readings, with their associated readers, may have happened within a year or two of publication or may have been spread out over decades or more. Yet the books register in the corpus only once, the year of initial publication [4]. The corpus thus does not accurately represent the presence of those novels in the minds of 19th century readers.

Nor, for that matter, does that corpus represent either the entire 19th century production of Anglophone novels or a representative sample of that production. It’s a convenience sample. It’s what Jockers could cobble together in a reasonable amount of time.

Nonetheless I’m going to say that it represents the (collective) consciousness, perhaps mind if you will, of the 19th century Anglophone reading public. It is by no means a complete representation of the consciousness/mind of that public, but it’s not a mere chimera either. Perhaps a visual analogy will help.

This is a photograph of a high-end apartment building in Lower Manhattan, 8 Spruce Street. For what it’s worth, the building was designed by the “starchitect” Frank Gehry:

The arrow I’ve imposed on Jockers’ graph is a diagonal in the 600D space whose dimensions are defined by those features and so its direction must specified in terms that are commensurate with such features. Would I like to have an intelligible interpretation of that direction? Sure. But let’s leave that aside. We’ve got an abstract space in which we can represent the characteristics of novels (Daniel Dennett might call this a design space) and we’ve got a vector in that space, a direction.What’s that direction about? What is it about texts that is changing as we move along that vector? I don’t know. Can I speculate? Sure. But not here and now. What’s important now is that that vector exists. We can think about it without having to know exactly what it is.

Is that a complete representation of 8 Spruce Street? Of course not. I note that the building is partially hidden by clouds and by another building. It represents the building as it appeared from a certain point of view at a certain time on a certain day, no more, no less. And, of course, it tells us nothing about the building’s interior, much less about those who live there.

If we are going to use that photograph to draw conclusions about that building, we are going to have to be careful. It will only support limited inferences. But it WILL support SOME inferences.

And so it is with Jockers’ snapshot of 19th century Anglo-American fiction. What conclusions can we draw from it? I’ve already drawn one conclusion, that that fiction unfolds or evolves along a certain (as yet uncharacterized) direction in the feature or design space of novelistic possibility. But what determines novelistic possibility?

What is spirit?

The human mind, obviously, the human mind.

Evolutionary psychologists, represented in literary studies by Joseph Carroll and his legion of literary Darwinists (among others), would have us believe that the basic parameters of the human mind are given in biology. Certainly, biology is important, essential, even foundational. But not even Carroll himself believes that biology is all. Biology is shaped by (local) culture.

I’m attracted by the analogy of a board game, such as chess. Biology provides the basic rules of the game, the pieces and their moves, the game board, and the rules of play. Culture provides the tactics and strategy of games play. Those biological rules are thus quite open-ended, leaving many degrees of freedom for cultural elaboration and variation.

What determines those variations? Marxists of all stripes tell us material conditions, modes of production. Sure, why not? But those are hardly simple matters. And beyond that we have happenstance. Things are done this way because at some time and place someone decided to do it for whatever reason and, somehow, it caught on.

I mean, who knows? Biological, material conditions and modes of production, happenstance, what else? At the moment it really doesn’t matter, not for my argument. Biology creates a space of possibilities and culture plays in that space.Think of it like this:

On the left I have indicated the various biological and cultural factors acting on the readers (note that writers are necessarily readers of their own texts) while the various features of literary works are on the right. The important part of the diagram is the middle block, the reader’s mind/brain. What is important is that the biological and cultural factors do not map on to text features in a simple manner. Each text feature is subject to multiple influencing factors, both biological and cultural.

Each person lives through the interaction of cultural and biological factors. Biological traits are inherited from one generation to another as are most of the cultural ones. It’s very difficult for the apple to fall far from the tree, if you will. Evolution: descent with modification. And that’s what we see in Jockers’ figure, the gradual evolution of the 19th century Anglo-American Geistas it expresses itself in the novel. There’s nothing fundamentally mysterious or immaterial about this, though we certainly don’t understand the process. Those books are material objects. The people who produce them and read them are material beings, their brains in particular. How those brains work, we don’t know, though we’re learning more everyday.

In the realm of the aesthetic

I would like to conclude by considering a passage from one of Edward Said’s last essays, “Globalizing Literary Study,” published in 2001 in PMLA[6]. He says:

I myself have no doubt, for instance, that an autonomous aesthetic realm exists, yet how it exists in relation to history, politics, social structures, and the like, is really difficult to specify. Questions and doubts about all these other relations have eroded the formerly perdurable national and aesthetic frameworks, limits, and boundaries almost completely. The notion neither of author, nor of work, nor of nation is as dependable as it once was, and for that matter the role of imagination, which used to be a central one, along with that of identity has undergone a Copernical transformation in the common understanding of it.

I believe that the most interesting way of thinking about that vector in the 600 dimensional “design space” of the 19th century Anglophone novel is to consider the possibility that it is evidence for the existence of that autonomous aesthetic realm [7]. THAT’s why I want to be very careful in thinking about just what a corpus is, what it implies.

In principle the previous diagram takes full account of all the various factors of historical particularity (at the upper left). But it also includes our underlying biological characteristics (lower left). Our engagement with texts must necessarily reflect both realms. That’s where we find the autonomous aesthetic realm, in the tension between biology and culture. Those texts are not fully subsumed by either realm, but emerge through living in both.

I take the fact those 3300 19th century Anglophone novels seem to unfold along a single dimension in design space as evidence of the fundamental integrity and autonomy of the historical process that underlies those texts. That’s what Jockers has shown, even if he hasn’t interpreted his evidence in those terms. How do we then get from a demonstration that historical process is a forcein human history? Couldn’t we think of those novels as epiphenomenal reflections of that process, in the way that some philosophers think of consciousness as an epiphenomenal effect biological processes in the brain?Of course we could think in those terms. Which is to say that thinking of that process – which I think of as a cultural evolutionary one – as itself a force in historyrequires an argument, one that I’ve not provided here. Nor do I intend to. Rather I simply want to indicate that such an argument is now in play. That’s what’s at stake in thinking carefully about a long-term historical corpus of literary texts. We thinking about the nature of history.


[1] See William Benzon, On the Direction of Cultural Evolution: Lessons from the 19th Century Anglophone Novel, Working Paper, April 2015, pp. 31, https://www.academia.edu/12112568/On_the_Direction_of_Cultural_Evolution_Lessons_from_the_19th_Century_Anglophone_Novel.

[2] William Benzon, Reading Macroanalysis 7.1: Visualizing the Geist of 19th Century Anglo-American Literary Culture, New Savanna (blog), August 22, 2014, accessed September 25, 2018, https://new-savanna.blogspot.com/2014/08/reading-macroanalysis-71-visualizing.html.

[3] Jockers identified 500 topics in his analysis and he has created a website where you can examine each of them, http://www.matthewjockers.net/macroanalysisbook/macro-themes/.

[4] Redding, Paul, “Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2018 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2018/entries/hegel/>.

[5] I’m assuming this. I don’t know how Jockers handled the issue of multiple printings and different editions.

[6] Edward W. Said, “Globalizing Literary Study”, PMLA116(1), 2001: 64-68.

[7] I first advanced this idea at the end of my 2006 theoretical and methodological paper, Literary Morphology: Nine Propositions in a Naturalist Theory of Form, PsyArt: An Online Journal for the Psychological Study of the Arts,August 2006, Article 060608, https://www.academia.edu/235110/Literary_Morphology_Nine_Propositions_in_a_Naturalist_Theory_of_Form.

The Germ of Language

Babel's Dawn - Sun, 09/23/2018 - 14:11

Louis Pasteur (1822-1895)

Let’s begin with a ridiculous  question: there are many possible grammars, most of which are too complicated for humans  to speak, and yet all the thousands of grammars used by humans just happen to be grammars  that we can learn to speak, and learn quite readily. How did that improbable truth come about?

Presumably everybody can see immediately that only learnable grammars will be used and passed down through the generations, so of course we all use learnable grammars. There is, however, a hidden assumption in this explanation. Grammar itself must have been selected to fit the human cognitive environment. It could not be an innate. If it were somehow imposed on humans from the outside, the odds that the grammar built into our brain would be usable would indeed be so small as to be miraculous.

I have begun this report so strangely, in response to a paper that has been posted on the internet by Hubert Haider and  titled An anthropic principle in lieu of a “Universal Grammar”. The ‘anthropic principle’ of the title is a proposed answer to the question that there are many conceivable universes where the arbitrary values of fundamental constants in physics are different, and in most of  these universes people are impossible. How did the improbable come about so that, of all the possible universes, we got one in which human life is also possible?

At this point it is tempting to soar off on a tangent about the anthropic principle and the nature of the universe, but frankly I consider Dr. Haider’s introduction of the anthropic principle a red herring. In his notes, Haider says he had worked out his evolutionary argument and then a friend suggested it related to some outré ideas among physicists. I think on close reading,  the ideas are fundamentally different and so I’m skipping the physics tangent.

Haider’s basic idea builds on Michael Arbib’s notion of  the language-ready brain and Terrence Deacon’s notion of the co-evolution of language and brain, only Haider comes at  them from a different angle. Arbib’s language-ready brain is ready to generate  speech according to rules while Haider sees the brain as ready to host language as a kind of parasite that adapts ever more precisely to the brain’s operations. Deacon’s co-evolution involves a brain adapting to language and vice versa, whereas Haider focuses almost exclusively on the language adapting to the brain part. The difference between the older notions and the newer one is ultimately as stark as the  difference between Louis Pasteur and the naturalist doctors who preceded him.

The naturalist sees language as a thing generated by the body, and thus, as Chomsky has directly stated, is a kind of organ that grows and  becomes part of us. Like any other bodily organ, it can be studied by itself and found to possess all kinds of properties and structures. Meanwhile, the Pasteurite sees language as a kind of germ that enters the body and takes over some part of it. The evolutionary history of naturalist language studies the evolution of the organ. The Pasteurite’s evolutionary history explores how the germ changes in order to survive and grow.

One might object that Pasteur’s germs are real and have an existence of their own, while language has no separate existence, but is that so? Language is truly shared by contemporaries and through generations. Language can be preserved in writing and even recovered, as the Mayan, Egyptian and Linear B languages were recovered. This argument may seem more confounding than persuasive. Darn it; we surely know that language has no separate existence apart from the speakers, listeners, and readers who use it. Talk of germs merely muddies the water.

Perhaps we can gain a little ground by specifying what kind of germ language is. It is a virus and like any virus it can only come to life when it enters a host. Once stirred, to life it goes about its own tasks and has an identity separate from its host. We are used to thinking of viruses as bad things, but that is a prejudice. I would not be surprised to learn that there are helpful viruses, and it seems certain that the future will bring doctors who  can cure disease through the introduction of artificial viruses built for medical purposes.

So let’s say that—language is an artificial virus introduced by people for their own communicative needs, but once introduced it took on a life of its own and over many thousands of years has evolved quite a  bit.

One benefit of this approach is that it immediately frees the theorist from having to find selective advantages for humans who introduce a change in language. What is the selective advantage for people who add adverbs to speech? There seems no explanation more convincing than a just-so story. But flip it around. From the virus's point of view and adverb may just be a mutation that adapts itself to the human cognitive system and survives. Just-so stories go out the window.

So the virus concept could actually be helpful in thinking about language origins and development. In future posts I will explore this idea to see how far it can take us before collapsing under the weight of its own metaphor.

Color term salience and cultural evolution

A replicated typo - Sat, 09/08/2018 - 18:25

David G. Hays, Enid Margolis, Raoul Naroll, Dale Revere Perkins, Color Term Salience. American Anthropologist, 74:1107-1121, 1972. DOI: 10.1525/aa.1972.74.5.02a00050

Abstract: Eleven focal colors are named by basic color terms in many languages. The most salient colors (black, white, and perhaps red) are named in all languages; the least salient of the set are named in fewer languages. Salience correlates with earliness of introduction, as measured by a scale of social evolution; with brevity of expression, as measured by phonemic length of basic color terms; with frequency of use, as measured by frequency of basic color terms in literary languages; and with frequency of mention in ethnographic literature. None of these correlations are established in the pioneer study of Berlin and Kay (1969), a study whose defects are well exposed by Durbin (1972) and Wescott (1970). The first two were documented respectively in Naroll (1970) and Durbin (1972); the last two are documented here. These four correlations independently support the Berlin-Kay color salience theory. They furnish a sound basis for further research on color term salience in particular and indeed on salience phenomena in general. We speculate that salience may be an important general principle of cultural evolution.

Consider this finding: “Salience correlates with earliness of introduction, as measured by a scale of social evolution”. What that means is that less complex societies (as measured by one of the standard indexes, Marsh’s socially complexity scale) have fewer basic color terms than more complex ones. Why?

The Measurement of Cultural Evolution in the Non-Literate World

A replicated typo - Sat, 09/08/2018 - 18:11

At the time he died in 1995 my teacher, David G. Hays, The Measurement of Cultural Evolution in the Non-Literate World, had just completed a review and synthesis of cross-cultural work on cultural complexity. His widow, Janet Hays, undertook to publish the book in CD-ROM form. A couple months before she died last year Janet gave me permission to distribute the book in whatever way that seemed appropriate.

I have decided to make the book available at my Academia.edu page, but I am open to other suggestions. The book consists of a PDF of the text, an XLSX file of the data, and a PDF of a brief Read Me document, as follows:

The Measurement of Cultural Evolution in the Non-Literate World (PDF): https://www.academia.edu/37163326/The_Measurement_of_Cultural_Evolution_in_the_Non-Literate_World

Bounds (XLSL), spreadsheet for the book: https://www.academia.edu/37163325/BOUNDS.xlsx

About the book (PDF): https://www.academia.edu/37163327/About_the_book

* * * * *


David G. Hays

Whether there can be a science of human life was a question in the air of the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences in 1954, where Raoul Naroll and I met. After forty years, the question has been answered only in part. In his last book, The Moral Order, Naroll began to sum up his life’s work on the human condition. That book convinced me, for the first time, that some of the findings of social science have the same kind of validity as findings in physics or biology. Naroll planned more books, but they will not be written.

As a science, anthropology needs methods of measurement that can be applied across all cultures. Of the qualities of culture that need measurement, evolutionary variation stands out. Naroll had already begun work on his Index of Social Development when he came to the Center in 1954, and published it in 1956. Other scales were published in the next few years by anthropologists and sociologists. Nevertheless, some anthropologists still assert that evolution is unmeasurable.

In ethnography, sociology, and archeology, the study of social and cultural evolution continues, and controversies abound. The welfare of groups within industrial countries, and the welfare of all the world outside the industrial sphere, depends on a clear understanding of evolution. The measurement of cultural evolution is an urgent practical matter as well as a necessity for theory builders.

Naroll’s next book would have been called Painful Progress. That evolution is progressive was his credo, and he believed that he could justify that belief, as he wanted to justify all his beliefs, by presenting the right numbers in the right analytic framework. The history of humanity on Earth is full of pain, far more pain than historians generally admit in their books for general readers. Naroll believed that progress is the compensation we receive for the pain we cannot escape. Today the concept of progress is under attack. In other places, I offer an argument in support of Naroll’s position, but here I deal only in the technical issues of measurement. Whether there is progress, decline, or neither in cultural evolution may be argued, but only after accurate measurement reveals the facts.

The story of cultural evolution is the story of human history, most of it unwritten; a full treatment of the subject is, roughly speaking, a complete textbook of anthropology. Naroll might have put a full treatment in Painful Progress, but that is not my intention here. The present book is a tract in methodology: What are the traits and variables that indicate the level of any culture? How can measures of individual qualities be combined into a single measure of cultural evolution? Answering these questions is the body of the present work. Although I was inspired by Naroll’s work, as was the whole field, I draw on a wide range of sources for concepts and data. In appendices, I review Naroll’s improvements in technique: How to determine the extent of a single “culture,” how to take into account the similarity of neighboring cultures, how to draw a sample of cultures, how to control for variations in the quality of the data that the anthropologist can draw on in making comparisons, and how to justify the inference of historical change from the study of groups known each only at a single date. Where others have gone beyond him, and where my views differ from his, I take note.

Anthropology has been, mostly, the study of the non-literate world. In a long collaboration with William L. Benzon, I have written about the evolution of culture on up to the present day. We find qualitative differences that make it seem natural to me to limit the scope of this book to the customary scope of anthropology. Several of the sources that I draw on included in their samples such cultures as Athens and Rome, or Bulgarian peasants; even a few industrial cultures turn up. To deal properly with evolution after the invention of writing would require the introduction of additional variables; in the end, this is a book about the non-literate world. In Chapter 20, I show some of the deleterious effects of mingling literate and nonliterate cultures in the same study, as Naroll and others have done. The design of scales to measure cultural evolution in literate cultures remains a task for the future.

Every culture is a natural experiment. The experimenters are the bearers of the culture; they cannot know in advance what the outcome will be, just as we today cannot be sure of the effects of our own inventions, technological or social. That some experiments produce situations in which further evolutionary steps can be taken, and some do not, tells us nothing about the intelligence or merit of the experimenters. A culture of high evolutionary level is a valuable possession, but does not prove inherent worth. The study of cultural evolution is altogether compatible with the belief “that all men [and women] are created equal.”

The most important point to remember in the study of cultural evolution is perhaps this: That the evolution of culture is absolutely not predicated on the evolution of biological traits. The minds of culture bearers must certainly be different at different evolutionary levels, as they are different across cultures of the same level. But the brains of all humanity are biologically similar, as best we know, over all Earth and over 25,000 to 250,000 years. No racist conclusions can be drawn from cultural-evolutionary facts. Indeed, the methods of measurement that I describe here would be nonsensical if the variations observed were biological; human uniformity is the working premiss of the art.

The principal contribution of this book is, I should suppose, the collection of profiles in Appendix F. In my judgment, these profiles are more informative than any of the scales on which they are constructed. Research on the correlates of cultural evolution should be more valid if it uses these profiles to estimate the level of each unit (culture, society) studied. Students beginning to read about cultures other than their own can orient themselves by examining the profile of each culture they encounter: The general level, and the differences among such aspects as governance (the polity), social stratification (class), and expressive culture (religion), will help in the interpretation of ethnographic writings.

In addition, methodological review demonstrates a number of shortcomings in prior work that require remedy. Some aspects of culture have been measured with adequate precision for some units, but no aspect has been measured adequately for all the units that will be drawn in future samples, and some aspects have not been measured adequately at all. Chapter 23 contains some suggestions.

CfP: Construal and language dynamics (ICLC-15 workshop proposal)

A replicated typo - Tue, 08/07/2018 - 11:56

What do we mean when we talk about the “cognitive foundations” of language or the “cognitive principles” behind linguistic phenomena? And how can we tap into the cognitive underpinnings of language? These questions lie at the heart of a workshop that Michael Pleyer and I are going to propose for the next International Cognitive Linguistics Conference. Here’s our Call for Papers:

Construal and language dynamics: Interdisciplinary and cross-linguistic perspectives on linguistic conceptualization
– Workshop proposal for the 15th International Cognitive Linguistics Conference, Nishinomiya, Japan, August 6–11, 2019 –

Stefan Hartmann, University of Bamberg
Michael Pleyer, University of Koblenz-Landau

The concept of construal has become a key notion in many theories within the broader framework of Cognitive Linguistics. It lies at the heart of Langacker’s (1987, 1991, 2008) Cognitive Grammar, but it also plays a key role in Croft’s (2012) account of verbal argument structure as well as in the emerging framework of experimental semantics (Bergen 2012; Matlock & Winter 2015). Indirectly it also figures in Talmy’s (2000) theory of cognitive semantics, especially in his “imaging systems” approach (see e.g. Verhagen 2007).

According to Langacker (2015: 120), “[c]onstrual is our ability to conceive and portray the same situation in alternate ways.” From the perspective of Cognitive Grammar, an expression’s meaning consists of conceptual content – which can, in principle, be captured in truth-conditional terms – and its construal, which encompasses aspects such as perspective, specificity, prominence, and dynamicity. Croft & Cruse (2004) summarize the construal operations proposed in previous research, arriving at more than 20 linguistic construal operations that are seen as instances of general cognitive processes.

Given the “quantitative turn” in Cognitive Linguistics (e.g. Janda 2013), the question arises how the theoretical concepts proposed in the foundational works of the framework can be empirically tested and how they can be refined on the basis of empirical findings. Much work in the domains of experimental linguistics and corpus linguistics has established a research cycle whereby hypotheses are generated on the basis of theoretical concepts from Cognitive Linguistics, such as construal operations, and then tested using behavioral and/or corpus-linguistic methods (see e.g. Hilpert 2008; Matlock 2010; Schönefeld 2011; Matlock et al. 2012; Krawczak & Glynn forthc., among many others).

Arguably one of the most important testing grounds for theories of linguistic construal is the domain of language dynamics. Recent years have seen increasing convergence between Cognitive-Linguistic theories on the one hand and theories conceiving of language as a complex adaptive system on the other (Beckner et al. 2009; Frank & Gontier 2010; Fusaroli & Tylén 2012; Pleyer 2017). In this framework, language can be understood as a dynamic system unfolding on the timescales of individual learning, socio-cultural transmission, and biological evolution (Kirby 2012, Enfield 2014). Linguistic construal operations can be seen as important factors shaping the structure of language both on a historical timescale and in ontogenetic development (e.g. Pleyer & Winters 2014).

Empirical studies of language acquisition, language change, and language variation can therefore help us understand the nature of linguistic construal operations and can also contribute to refining theories of linguistic construal. Interdisciplinary and cross-linguistic perspectives can prove particularly insightful in this regard. Findings from cognitive science and developmental psychology can contribute substantially to our understanding of the cognitive principles behind language dynamics. Cross-linguistic comparison can, on the one hand, lead to the discovery of striking similarities across languages that might point to shared underlying cognitive principles (e.g. common pathways of grammaticalization, see e.g. Bybee et al. 1994, or similarities in the domain of metaphorical construal, see Taylor 2003: 140), but it can also safeguard against premature generalizations from findings obtained in one single language to human cognition at large (see e.g. Goschler 2017).

For our proposed workshop, we invite contributions that explicitly connect theoretical approaches to linguistic construal operations with empirical evidence from e.g. corpus linguistics, experimental studies, or typological research. In line with the cross-linguistic outlook of the main conference, we are particularly interested in papers that compare linguistic construals across different languages. Also, we would like to include interdisciplinary perspectives from the behavioural and cognitive sciences.

The topics that can be addressed in the workshop include, but are not limited to,

  • the role of construal operations such as perspectivation and specificity in language production and processing;
  • the acquisition and diachronic change of linguistic categories;
  • the question of whether individual construal operations that have been proposed in the literature are cognitively realistic (see e.g. Broccias & Hollmann 2007) and whether they can be tested empirically;
  • the refinement of construal-related concepts such as “salience” or “prominence” based on empirical findings (see e.g. Schmid & Günther 2016);
  • the relationship between linguistic construal operations and domain-general cognitive processes;
  • the relationship between empirical observations and the conclusions we draw from them about the organization of the human mind, including the viability of concepts such as the “corpus-to-cognition” principle (see e.g. Arppe et al. 2010) or the mapping of behavioral findings to cognitive processes.

Please send a short abstract (max. 1 page excl. references) and a ~100-word summary to construal.iclc15@gmail.com by August 31st, 2018 September 10th, 2018. We will inform all potential contributors in early September whether your paper can be included in our workshop proposal. If we are unable to accommodate your submission, you can of course submit it to the general session of the conference. The same applies if our workshop proposal as a whole is rejected.



Arppe, Antti, Gaëtanelle Gilquin, Dylan Glynn, Martin Hilpert & Arne Zeschel. 2010. Cognitive Corpus Linguistics: Five Points of Debate on Current Theory and Methodology. Corpora 5(1). 1–27.

Beckner, Clay, Richard Blythe, Joan Bybee, Morten H. Christiansen, William Croft, Nick C. Ellis, John Holland, Jinyun Ke, Diane Larsen-Freeman & Tom Schoenemann. 2009. Language is a Complex Adaptive System: Position Paper. Language Learning 59 Suppl. 1. 1–26.

Bergen, Benjamin K. 2012. Louder than Words: The New Science of How the Mind Makes Meaning. New York: Basic Books.

Broccias, Cristiano & Willem B. Hollmann. 2007. Do we need Summary and Sequential Scanning in (Cognitive) Grammar? Cognitive Linguistics 18. 487–522.

Bybee, Joan L., Revere Perkins & William Pagliuca. 1994. The Evolution of Grammar: Tense, Aspect, and Modality in the Languages of the World. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Croft, William & Alan Cruse. 2004. Cognitive Linguistics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Enfield, N.J. 2014. Natural causes of language: frames, biases, and cultural transmission. (Conceptual Foundations of Language Science 1). Berlin: Language Science Press.

Frank, Roslyn M. & Nathalie Gontier. 2010. On Constructing a Research Model for Historical Cognitive Linguistics (HCL): Some Theoretical Considerations. In Margaret E. Winters, Heli Tissari & Kathryn Allan (eds.), Historical Cognitive Linguistics, 31–69. (Cognitive Linguistics Research 47). Berlin, New York: De Gruyter.

Fusaroli, Riccardo & Kristian Tylén. 2012. Carving language for social coordination: A dynamical approach. Interaction Studies 13(1). 103–124.

Goschler, Juliana. 2017. A contrastive view on the cognitive motivation of linguistic patterns: Concord in English and German. In Stefan Hartmann (ed.), Yearbook of the German Cognitive Linguistics Association 2017, 119–128.

Hilpert, Martin. 2008. New evidence against the modularity of grammar: Constructions, collocations, and speech perception. Cognitive Linguistics 19(3). 491–511.

Janda, Laura (ed.). 2013. Cognitive Linguistics: The Quantitative Turn. Berlin, New York: De Gruyter.

Kirby, Simon. 2012. Language is an Adaptive System: The Role of Cultural Evolution in the Origins of Structure. In Maggie Tallerman & Kathleen R. Gibson (eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Language Evolution, 589–604. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Krawczak, Karolina & Dylan Glynn. forthc. Operationalising construal. Of / about prepositional profiling for cognition and communication predicates. In C. M. Bretones Callejas & Chris Sinha (eds.), Construals in language and thought. What shapes what? Amsterdam, Philadelphia: John Benjamins.

Langacker, Ronald W. 1987. Foundations of Cognitive Grammar. Vol. 1: Theoretical Prerequisites. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Langacker, Ronald W. 1991. Foundations of Cognitive Grammar. Vol. 2: Descriptive Application. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Langacker, Ronald W. 2008. Cognitive Grammar: A Basic Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Langacker, Ronald W. 2015. Construal. In Ewa Dąbrowska & Dagmar Divjak (eds.), Handbook of Cognitive Linguistics, 120–142. Berlin, New York: De Gruyter.

Matlock, Teenie. 2010. Abstract Motion is No Longer Abstract. Language and Cognition 2(2). 243–260.

Matlock, Teenie, David Sparks, Justin L. Matthews, Jeremy Hunter & Stephanie Huette. 2012. Smashing New Results on Aspectual Framing: How People Talk about Car Accidents. Studies in Language 36(3). 700–721.

Matlock, Teenie & Bodo Winter. 2015. Experimental Semantics. In Bernd Heine & Heiko Narrog (eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Linguistic Analysis, 771–790. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Pleyer, Michael & James Winters. 2014. Integrating Cognitive Linguistics and Language Evolution Research. Theoria et Historia Scientiarum 11. 19–43.

Schmid, Hans-Jörg & Franziska Günther. 2016. Toward a Unified Socio-Cognitive Framework for Salience in Language. Frontiers in Psychology 7. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2016.01110 (31 March, 2018).

Schönefeld, Doris (ed.). 2011. Converging evidence: methodological and theoretical issues for linguistic research. (Human Cognitive Processing 33). Amsterdam, Philadelphia: John Benjamins.

Talmy, Leonard. 2000. Toward a Cognitive Semantics. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Taylor, John R. 2003. Linguistic Categorization. 3rd ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Verhagen, Arie. 2007. Construal and Perspectivization. In Dirk Geeraerts & Hubert Cuyckens (eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Cognitive Linguistics, 48–81. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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