How Brains Think
Basic Books 1996
SYNTAX AS A FOUDATION OF INTELLIGENCE
It is hard to imagine how a creature without language would think, but one may suspect that a world without any kind of language would insome lvays resemble a world without money—a world in which actual commodities, rather than metal or paper symbols for the value of these,would have to be exchanged. How slow andcumbersome the simplest sale would be, and how impossible the more complex ones!Humans have some spectacular abilities, compared to our closest cousins among the surviving apes—even the apes that share much of our social intelligence, reassuring touches, and abilities to deceive. We have a syntactic language capable ofsupporting metaphor and analogical reasoning. We're alwavs planning ahead, imagining scenarios for the future, and then choosing in ways that take remote contingencies into account. We even have music and dance.
DEREK BICKERTON, Language and Species 1990
What were the steps in transforming a chimpanzee like creature into a nearly human one?That's a question which is really central to our humanity. There's no doubt that syntax is what human levels of intelligence are mostly about—that without syntax we would be little cleverer than chimpanzees. The neurologist Oliver Sacks's description of an eleven-year-old deaf boy, reared without sign language for his first ten years, shows what life is like without syntax:
Joseph saw, distinguished, categorized, used; he had no problems with perceptual categorization or generalization but he could not, it seemed, go much beyond this, holcabstract ideas in mind, reflect, play, plan. He seemed completely literal—unable to juggle images or hypotheses or possibilities, unable to enter an imaginative or figurative realm.... He seemed, like an animal, or an infant, to bestuck in the present, to be confined to literal and immediate perception, though made aware of this by a consciousness that no infant could have.
Similar cases also illustrate that any intrinsic aptitude for language must be developed by practice during early childhood. Joseph didn't have the opportunity to observe syntax in operation during his critical years of early childhood: he couldn't hear spoken language, nor he was ever exposed to the syntax of sign language. There is thought to be a bioprogram, sometimes called Universal Grammar. It is not the mental grammar itself (after all, each dialect has a different one) but rather the predisposition to discover grammars in one's surroundings —indeed, particular grammars, out of a much larger set of possible ones. To understand why humans are so intelligent, we need to understand how our ancestors remodeled the ape's symbolic repertoire and enhanced it by inventing syntax. Stones and bones are, unfortunately, about all that remain of our ancestors in the last four million years, not their higher intellectual abilities. Other species branched off along theway, but they are no longer around to test.
We have to go back six million years before there are living species with whom we shared a common ancestor: the nonhominid branch itself split about three million years ago into the chimpanzee and the much rarer bonobo (the "chimpanzee of the Pygmies"). If we want a glimpse at ancestral behaviors, the bonobos are our best chance. They share more behavioral similarities with humans and they're also much better subjects for studying language than the chimps that starred in the sixties and seventies .
Linguists have a bad habit of claiming that anything lacking syntax isn't language. That, ahem, is like saying that a Gregorian chant isn't music, merely because it lacks Bach's use ofthe contrapuntal techniques of stretto, parallel voice leading, and mirror inversions of themes. Since linguistics confines itself to "Bach and beyond," it has primarily fallen to the anthropologists, the ethologists, and the comparative psychologists to be the "musicologists," to grapple with the problem of what came before syntax. The linguists' traditional putdown of all such research ("It isn't really language, you know") is a curious category error, since the object of the research is to understand the antecedents of the powerful structuring that syntax provides. One occasionally gets some help from the well-known ontogeny-recapitulates- phylogeny crib, but human language is acquired so rapidly in early childhood that I suspect a stream-lining, one that thoroughlv obscures any original staging, rather as freeways tend to obliterate post roads.
The fast track starts in infants with the development of phoneme boundaries: prototypes become "magnets" that capture variants. Then there's a pronounced acquisitiveness for new words in the second year, for inferring patterns of words in the third (kids suddenly start to use past tense -ed and plural -s with consistency, a generalization that occurs without a lot of trial and error),and for narratives and fantasy by the fifth. It is fortunate for us that chimps and bonobos lack such fast-tracking, because it gives us a chance to see, in their development, the intermediate stages that were antecedent to our powerful syntax.
Vervet monkeys - chimpanzees: calls
Vervet monkeys in the wild use four different alarm calls, one for each of their typical predators. They also have other vocalizations to call the group together. Wild chimpanzees use about three dozen different vocalizations, each of them, like those of the vervets, meaningful in itself. A chimp's loud waa-barl is defiant, angry. A soft cough-bark is, surprisingly, a threat Wraaa mixes fear with curiosity ("Weird stuff, this!") and the soft huu signifies weirdness without hostility ("What is this stuff?").
If a waa-wraaa-huu is to mean something different than huu-wraaa- waa, the chimp would have to suspend judgment, ignoring the standard meanings of each call until the wholestring had been received and analyzed. This doesn't happen. Combinations are not used for special meanings.
Humans: phonemes - words - phrases - stories
Humans also have about three dozen units of vocalization, called phonemes—but they're all meaningless! Even most syllables like "ba" and "ga" are meaningless unless combined with other phonemes to make meaningful words, like "bat" or "galaxy." Somewhere along the line, our ancestors strippedmost speech sounds of their meaning. Only the combinationsof sounds now have meaning: we string together meaningless sounds to make meaningful words. That's not seen anywhere else in the animal kingdom. Furthermore, there are strings of strings—such as the wordphrases that make up this sentence—as if the principle were being repeated on yet another level of organization. Monkeys and apes may repeat an utterance to intensify its meaning (as do many human languages, such as Polynesian), but nonhumans in the wild don't (so far) string together different sounds to create entirely new meanings.
No one has yet explained how our ancestors got over the hump of replacing one-sound/one-meaning with a sequential combinatorial system of meaningless phonemes, but it's probably one of the most important transitions that happened during ape-to-human evolution.
Animal communicative ability is very impressive, but is it language? The term language is used rather loosely bymost people. First of all, it refers to a particular dialect such asEnglish, Frisian, and Dutch (and the German of a thousand years ago, from which each was derived— and, further back, proto-Indo-European). But language also designates the overarching category of communication systems that are especially elaborate. Bee researchers use language to describe what they see their subjects doing, and chimpanzee researchers do the same. At what point do animal symbolic repertoires become humanlike language? The answer isn't obvious.
Webster's Collegiate Dictionaly offers "a systematic means of communicating ideas or feelings by use of conventionalized signs, sounds, gestures, or marks having understood meanings" as one definition of language.That would encompass the foregoing examples. Sue Savage-Rumbaugh suggests that the essence of language is "the ability to tell another individual something he or she did not already know," which, of course, means that the receiving individual is going to have to use some Piagetian guessing-right intelligence in constructing a meaning.
But humanlike language? Linguists will immediately say "No, there are rules!" They will start talking about the rules implied by mental grammar and questioning whether or not these rules are found in any of the nonhuman examples. That some animals such as Kanzi can make use of word order to disambiguate requests does not impress them. The linguist Ray Jackendoff is more diplomatic than most, but has the same bottom line:
A lot of people have taken the issue to be whether the apes have language or not, citing definitions and counter-definitions to support their position. I think this is a silly dispute, often driven by an interest either in reducing the distance between people and animals or in maintaining this distance at all costs. In an attempt to be less doctrinaire, let's ask: do the apes succeed in communicating? Undoubtedly yes. It even looks as if they succeed in communicating symbolically, which is pretty impressive. But, going beyond that, it does not look as though they are capable of constructing a mental grammar that regiments the symbols coherently. (Again, a matter of degree—maybe there is a little, but nothing near human capacity.) In short, Universal Grammar, or even something remotely like it, appears to beexclusively human.
What, if anything, does this dispute about True Language have to do with intelligence? Judging by what the linguists have discovered about mental structures and the ape-languageresearchers have discovered about bonobos inventing rules—quite a lot. Let us start simple.
Subject - object
Some utterances are so simple that fancy rules aren’t needed to sort out the elements of the message—most requests such as"banana" and "give" in either sequence get across the message. Simple association suffices. But suppose there are two nouns in a sentence with one verb: how do we associate "dog boy bite" in any order? Not much mental grammar is needed,as boys usually don't bite dogs. But "boy girl touch" is ambiguous without some rule to help you decide which noun is the actor and which is the acted upon.
A simple convention can decide this, such as the subject-verb-object order (SVO) of most declarative sentences in English ("The dog bit the boy") or the SOV of Japanese. In short word phrases, this boils down to the first noun being the actor—a rule that Kanzi probably has absorbed from the way that Savage-Rumbaugh usually phrases requests, such as "Touch the ball to the banana." You can also tag the words in a phrase in order to designate their role as subject or object, either with conventionali nflections or by utilizing special forms called case markings—as when we say "he" to communicate that the person is the subject of the sentence, but "him" when he is the object of the verb or preposition. English once had lots of case markings, such as "ye" for subject and "you" for object, but they now survive mostly in the personal pronouns and in"who"/"whom.". In highly inflected languages, such markings are extensively used, making wordorder a minor consideration in identifying the role a word is intended to play in constructing the mental model of relationships.
For us to be able to speak and understand novel sentences, we have to store in our heads not just the words of our language but also the patterns of sentences possible in our language. These patterns, in turn, describe not just patterns of words but also patterns of patterns.
Linguists refer to these patterns as the rules of language stored in memorv, they refer to the complete collection of rules as the mental grammar of the language, or grammar for short. Ray Jackendoff Patterns of the Mind 1994
Simpler ways of generating word collections, such as pidgins (or my tourist German), are what the linguist Derek Bickerton calls protolanguage. They don't utilize much in the way of mental rules. The word association ("boy dog bite") carries the message, perhaps with some aid from customary word order such as SVO. Linguists would probably classify the ape language achievements, both comprehension and production, as protolanguage.
Children learn a mental grammar by listening to a language (deaf children by observing sign langllage). They are acquisitive of associations as well as new words, and one fancy set of associations constitutes the mental grammar of a particular language. Starting at about eighteen months of age, children start to figure out the local rules and eventually begin using them in their own sentences. They may not be able to describe the parts of speech, or diagram a sentence, but their "languagemachine" seems to know all about such matters after a year's experience.
This biological tendency to discover and imitate order is sostrong that deaf playmates may invent their own sign language ("home sign") with inflections, if they aren't properly exposed to one they can model. Bickerton showed that the children of immigrants invent a new language—a creole—out of the pidgin protolanguage they hear their parents speaking. A pidgin is what traders, tourists, and "guest workers" (and, in the old days, slaves) use to communicate when they don't share a real language. There's usually a lot of gesturing, and it takes a long time to say a little, because of all those circumlocutions.
In a proper language with lots of rules (that mental grammar), you can pack a lot of meaning into a short sentence. Creoles are indeed proper languages: the children of pidgin speakers take the vocabulary they hear and create some rulesfor it—a mental grammar. The rules aren't necessarily any of those they know from simultaneously learning their parents'native languages. And so a new language emerges, from the mouths of children, as they quickly describe who did what to whom.
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