Monday, August 29, 2005

Two Good Resources on Language Evolution

One of the central topics in Tomasello's The Cultural Origins of Human Cognition is language -- how it evolved, how it develops ontogenetically, and how it enhances our cognitive abilities. But Tomasello discusses language at a fairly high level (e.g., syntax, semantics, and pragmatics). For spoken language to have evolved (biologically or culturally), several changes in the morphology of our vocal tracts had to take place. In addition, speech must be designed to take advantage of certain properties of our auditory systems, some of which may have evolved since the evolutionary lines of humans and other primates diverged. So, in order to really understand the language faculty, and how it evolved, you have to understand speech production and speech perception. With that in mind, here are two good papers on the internet.

The first is a book chapter titled "What Are the Uniquely Human Components of the Language Faculty?" by Marc Hauser and Tecumseh Fitch. Yes, that Hauser and Fitch. But this chapter isn't about the recursion hypothesis. It's a nice historical review of the speech production and perception literature. Unfortunately, since it's a book chapter, the scanned version doesn't include the references, but if they cite something that you think you'd like to read, and you can't find the full reference, let me know, and I will find it for you.

The second source, which is cited by Hauser and Fitch, is a Behavioral and Brain Sciences paper by Peter MacNeilage titled "The Frame/Content Theory of Evolution of Speech Production." It's mostly about speech production, as the title suggests, and contains a lot of great info on the physical aspects of speech, along with a theory about how these and neural organization influenced the evolution of language.

14 comments:

me said...
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Anonymous said...

everything you write is so sensible


except when you're talking about chomsky.


oof.

Chris said...

This is secretly a post about Chomsky, because MacNeilage is one of the most anti-Chomsky linguists studying the evolution of language, and his theory directly contrasts with "language faculty" or Universal Grammar theories.

By the way, have you read Jackendoff's Foundations of Language? Now that's some Chomskyan linguistics that I can get into.

brainsci001 said...

Im not sure that 'in order to really understand the language faculty, and how it evolved, you have to understand speech production and speech perception'- I suppose it all comes down to what your definition of language is (i.e. what is the fundamental *core* that must be accounted for in order to use the term language). (See Botha's 'Unraveling the Evolution of Language') Anyhow, I like to use this article in my course, not the greatest, but touches on the issues- Language evolution:
consensus and controversies
Morten H. Christiansen and Simon Kirby

Chris said...

Well, the language faculty had to evolve or co-evolve with the morphology available for speech, and it had to evolve in a way that would take advantage of our perceptual capabilities. MacNeilage, of course, argues that the structure of language evolved largely out of the physical nature of speech.

brainsci001 said...

Well I study auditory word recognition- so Im sympathetic, but it reminds me of the comments in response to Pinker and Bloom's BBS article- no one agreed on what language was (implicitly at least in terms of what they thought an evolutionary 'theory' of language neccessarily must account for). If you take accounts that argue the speech faculty came rather late to the game (with fundamental 'linguistic' abilities already in place) then you may disagree with your emphasis on speech. But since I dont, I agree with you! (How's that for deciding Im arguing for something I dont believe).

Chris said...

Hah! You're right, it depends on your perspective. Of course, it would make sense that much of the language faculty evolved before speech, because that would drive the evolution of the mophology of the vocal tract. Too bad we can't get fossils to speak, so we could actually test this sort of thing directly.

brainsci001 said...

....but then, that would be science! Seriously, I waver often, and violently, between total captivation and complete repulsion over the literature on the evolution of language. Have you read Rudolf Botha's `Unravelling The Evolution of Language'? More destroying going on than building in it, however, to my mind, the book articulately lays out logical problems with current sexy (read: Pinker & Bloom, Wilkens & Wakefield) theories of language 'evolution'. I believe the book stems from a series of articles he wrote for Language & Communication (1997a, 1997b, 1998a, 1998b). There is also this online article by Botha.

brainsci001 said...

actually I misread your post.. I thought you were wishing that cognitive processes fossilized in some way. It would help limit all this excessive theorizing.

Chris said...

I haven't read Botha's book, but I have read some of his work. I've followed the debate as closely as I can, given that it's not even remotely related to my own work.

I actually have a theory about why some researchers are so interested in, and driven to discover, how language evolved. I've thought about posting about it, but it would probably be of interest to me, and somebody coming from google two years from now. The gist is that I think people are interested in language evolution not because it buys them any knowledge about language itself, because in most cases all of the content of the theory of language evolution comes from theories of language that are already around. Instead, I think people are interested in the evolution of language because a good account of evolution looks good for one's theory of how language works.

Chris said...

Yeah, that's what I do wish. Speaking fossils would give us language data, in addition to data about their anatomy.

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