Evolutionary linguistics

Rejecting the Axioms of Olde

Babel's Dawn - Wed, 09/27/2017 - 23:19


When I began this blog, I assumed the big step in developing language was the creation of the first word. I took it for granted that this was accomplished by yoking a sound and a meaning together to give us something like chair. I no longer believe either of those things.

Today I believe that the big step towards language came when our ancestors were willing to share their knowledge, and that language began when we started pointing things out to one another.

The change in my thinking resulted from a doodle I created early in the blog’s history: the speech triangle. Its corners mark a speaker and a listener who focus joint attention on the third corner, a topic. It might seem that we could eliminate the topic and just have that as something shared by speaker and listener, but the role of joint attention forces listener and speaker to focus on the topic rather than each other. If you try to eliminate the topic and redirect attention to the speech itself, you get pointless remarks—e.g., this sentence is six words long—or paradoxes such as: This sentence is false. The way out of this jumble is to realize that language works by directing attention away from the fact of communication to some other topic out there in the universe or in imagination. The topic is a distinct part of the speech triangle.

Embrace of the speech triangle puts an end to a search for any relevance in communication and information theory. Claude Shannon’s information theory presents a pair, speaker and receiver, and proposes that the function of communications is for the speaker to control a receiver at a distance. There is no role for either meaning or topic in such a definition. The theory is enough to explain computer networks, heredity, and the hormonal, immune, and nervous systems, but it is not rich enough to tell us anything about language. Efforts to calculate the information content of a sentence mix oranges and apples.

The speech triangle also implies that generative grammarians are on a wrong track. Traditional approaches to language imposes no function on verbal interactions; hence, grammar is not asked to contribute to any task. The speech triangle, however, locks in a function. Speaker and listener are paying joint-attention to a topic. Words must be organized in a way that directs attention from one point to another so that the shifts becomes meaningful. Generative grammar’s search for an underlying, common set of rules has been oblivious to the universal task of shifting attention.

Another benefit of the speech triangle doodle is that it give us something to look for in other animals when we ponder whether they are using language. Take vervet monkeys. They make one warning cry if they see a snake and another cry if they see a leopard. Is that a precursor to language? Like symbols, the cries have arbitrary meanings, so it might seem a step toward language. On the other hand it is nothing like a discussion of a topic. One vervet yells the equivalent of leopard. Other monkeys look around and when they see the leopard join in making the same warning cry. Soon the trees are filled with the chaotic racket of the jungle. Signals, yes. Speech triangle, no. Elephants, crows, parrots, dolphins… there may be another hypersocial species somewhere that pays joint attention to a topic. Or maybe not. But at least we have something concrete to test.

Meanwhile, I have been forced to notice that chimpanzees do not have a speech triangle. I had always thought of chimps as a very social animal. They live in groups, know one another as individuals, engage in some cooperative activities, and (Jane Goodall discovered) keep up family bonds. The absence of a speech triangle draws attention, however, to something they lack. They do not share information. Back in the days when captive apes were taught sign language, they could tell humans of their needs and would sign something’s name when asked. But they did not volunteer non-manipulative information to humans and did not ask their fellow apes to do something like pass the salt. They do not even have white eyeballs, making it harder to see where they are looking. It turns out that for all their sociability, chimpanzees are not given to sharing what they know. So there you have something even more fundamental to language than the words themselves—the urge to blab one’s secrets.

This approach also reduces the importance of several other matters. Symbols, for example, become secondary. Sure, words are symbols, but that is less important than their role in directing attention.  

Again, this altered definition has radical implications.  Much of the archaeology of language has focused on symbols and many people argue that if there were no symbols there could be no language. There could be no Shakespeare; that’s for sure, but how about the ability to say while pointing, “carcass yonder.” Homo groups could have been using words to direct attention to concrete things for a million and more years before they ever got around to inventing names for airy nothings.

I am getting on in years now, past the age where many a whippersnapper says a person can embrace new ideas. So it is particularly refreshing to have found that I can still toss out long-held axioms and make use of unexpected ones. Join me in the fun,

Call for participation: IACS3 in Toronto

A replicated typo - Fri, 08/25/2017 - 13:30

Call for papers of IACS3 in Toronto is below, including research topics of experimental semiotics, speech and gesture and the evolution of language. And lots more, of course. Full call can be seen here: http://www.perceptualartifacts.org/iacs-2018/cfp.html

The International Association for Cognitive Semiotics in cooperation with OCAD University and Ryerson University is pleased to announce The Third Conference of the International Association for Cognitive Semiotics (IACS3 – 2018) July 13–15, 2018 Toronto, Ontario, Canada: iacs-2018.org

Plenary speakers confirmed (as of August 15, 2017)
  • John M. Kennedy • University of Toronto
  • Kalevi Kull • University of Tartu
  • Maxine Sheets-Johnstone • University of Oregon

This non-restrictive theme is intended to encourage the exploration of pre-linguistic and extra-linguistic modes of semiotic systems and meaning construal, as well as their intersection with linguistic processes.

Cognitive Semiotics investigates the nature of meaning, the role of consciousness, the unique cognitive features of human beings, the interaction of nature and nurture in development, and the interplay of biological and cultural evolution in phylogeny. To better answer such questions, cognitive semiotics integrates methods and theories developed in the human, social, and cognitive sciences.

The International Association for Cognitive Semiotics (IACS, founded 2013) aims at establishing cognitive semiotics as a trans-disciplinary study of meaning. More information on the International Association for Cognitive Semiotics can be found at http://iacs.dk

The IACS conference series seeks to gather together scholars and scientists in semiotics, linguistics, philosophy, cognitive science, psychology and related fields, who wish to share their research on meaning and contribute the interdisciplinary dialogue.

Topics of the conference include (but are not limited to):

  • Biological and cultural evolution of human cognitive specificity
  • Cognitive linguistics and phenomenology
  • Communication across cultural barriers
  • Cross-species comparative semiotics
  • Evolutionary perspectives on altruism
  • Experimental semiotics
  • Iconicity in language and other semiotic resources
  • Intersubjectivity and mimesis in evolution and development
  • Multimodality
  • Narrativity across different media
  • Semantic typology and linguistic relativity
  • Semiosis (sense-making) in social interaction
  • Semiotic and cognitive development in children
  • Sign use and cognition
  • Signs, affordances, and other meanings
  • Speech and gesture
  • The comparative semiotics of iconicity and indexicality
  • The evolution of language

We invite abstract submissions for theme sessions, oral presentations and posters. Please select your chosen format along with your submission. Format types and guidelines are here:  http://www.perceptualartifacts.org/iacs-2018/cfp.html

Important Dates Deadline for submission of theme sessions: 15 Nov 2017 Deadline for abstract submission (oral presentations, posters): 05 Dec 2017 Notification of acceptance (oral presentations, posters): 15 Feb 2018 Last date for early registration: 05 May 2018

Usage context and overspecification

A replicated typo - Wed, 07/26/2017 - 22:57

A new issue of the Journal of Language Evolution has just appeared, including a paper by Peeter Tinits, Jonas Nölle, and myself on the influence of usage context on the emergence of overspecification. (It has actually been published online already a couple of weeks ago, and an earlier version of it was included in last year’s Evolang proceedings.) Some of the volunteers who participated in our experiment have actually been recruited via Replicated Typo – thanks to everyone who helped us out! Without you, this study wouldn’t have been possible.

I hope that I’ll find time to write a bit more about this paper in the near future, especially about its development, which might itself qualify as an interesting example of cultural evolution. Even though the paper just reports on a tiny experimental case study, adressing a fairly specific phenomenon, we discovered, in the process of writing, that each of the three authors had quite different ideas of how language works, which made the write-up process much more challenging than expected (but arguably also more interesting).

For now, however, I’ll just link to the paper and quote our abstract:

This article investigates the influence of contextual pressures on the evolution of overspecification, i.e. the degree to which communicatively irrelevant meaning dimensions are specified, in an iterated learning setup. To this end, we combine two lines of research: In artificial language learning studies, it has been shown that (miniature) languages adapt to their contexts of use. In experimental pragmatics, it has been shown that referential overspecification in natural language is more likely to occur in contexts in which the communicatively relevant feature dimensions are harder to discern. We test whether similar functional pressures can promote the cumulative growth of referential overspecification in iterated artificial language learning. Participants were trained on an artificial language which they then used to refer to objects. The output of each participant was used as input for the next participant. The initial language was designed such that it did not show any overspecification, but it allowed for overspecification to emerge in 16 out of 32 usage contexts. Between conditions, we manipulated the referential context in which the target items appear, so that the relative visuospatial complexity of the scene would make the communicatively relevant feature dimensions more difficult to discern in one of them. The artificial languages became overspecified more quickly and to a significantly higher degree in this condition, indicating that the trend toward overspecification was stronger in these contexts, as suggested by experimental pragmatics research. These results add further support to the hypothesis that linguistic conventions can be partly determined by usage context and shows that experimental pragmatics can be fruitfully combined with artificial language learning to offer valuable insights into the mechanisms involved in the evolution of linguistic phenomena.

In addition to our article, there’s also a number of other papers in the new JoLE issue that are well worth a read, including another Iterated Learning paper by Clay Beckner, Janet Pierrehumbert, and Jennifer Hay, who have conducted a follow-up on the seminal Kirby, Cornish & Smith (2008) study. Apart from presenting highly relevant findings, they also make some very interesting methodological points.

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