Kenneally - Update II
Christine Kenneally The First Word
The search for the origins of language
Viking 2007


Are we humans really the only species that can speak? What about parrots? What about Kanzi, the signing bonobo? In the course of the past twenty years - reading books about animal communication - I came to doubt our status at the summit of "the Great Chain of Beeing" (Lovejoy).

Kenneally 9: There has been a collision of two completely different ways of seeing ourselves.
The first view, solidly anchored in popular linguistic theory, holds that language is a uniquely human phenomenon, distinct from the adaptions of all other organisms on the planet. Researchers of this tradition have searched for a „language organ“, a part of the brain devoted solely to linguistic skills. They have sought the roots of language in the fine grain of the human genome, maintaining, in some cases, that certain genes may exist for the sole purpose of encoding grammar. One evolutionary scenario in this view maintains that modern language exploded onto the planet with a big genetic bang, the result of a mutation that blessed us with the gift of tongues.

In the alternative view language is not a singular phenomenon or a specific thing. Rather, it is multidimensional - interdependent and interconnected with other human abilities and other cognitive tasks. Speech, for example, is crucial to language. And because we have a common ancestor, there is a strong family connection between our complex linguistic skills and the simple word and syntax skills that chimpanzees can acquire. Indeed, though our language system is unique, the progressive nature of language evolution also reveals an intimate relationship between our linguistic skills and the ability is of less closely related animals, like monkeys and parrots.
Language is accordingly a higher cognitive function - one that emerges from multiple sites and operations in the brain. In this view,
language is not a monolithic thing that we have; rather, it is this thing that we do. It arises from the coordination of many genetic settings; these are expressed as a set of physical, perceptual, and conceptual biases that underlie certain abilities and behaviours, all of which allows us to learn language.

We are not the only kind of living organism that can communicate. All animals can. All animals need to coordinate their behaviour, they need to be able to cooperate. This is what communication is all about. And in order to communicate animals must be able to think.

Kenneally 200
Despite the initial controversy connected with examining the mental life of nonhuman animals, once this research began it didn't take scholars long to discover that thinking is a widely spread characteristic of many forms of life. In addition, in many animals there is some lexical ability, a capacity of a simple, meaningful structure, elements of culture, and the ability to imitate and learn. In animals closely related to us, the rudimentary beginnings of vocal control are evident.

Kenneally 82: One fundamental idea shared by many researchers is that in order to evolve language you will first have to have something to say - as opposed to, for example, going about your life, developing language out of the blue, and then finding you have a lot to talk about. The search for the origin of language thus includes a search to uncover what ultimately was so worth relating that our ancestors began to ratchet up their communication skills in order to do so. In trying to work this problem out, it helps to know what kind of thought goes on in the heads of nonlinguistic creatures.
100: Many of the animals that demonstrate complicated thinking turn out to have a fair bit in common with us. Even though many of them are not that closely related to humans, they share many traits that seem as important as DNA. Hyenas, whales, elephants, baboons, and parrots all have long lives, extended periods of childhood, complicated systems of communication, and their societies are made up of individuals with distinct roles and relationships. Accounting for the connection between phenomena like individuality and cognition is a fairly recent development. In most studies of long-lived animals with elaborate social systems, the individual is extremely important because they have extremely varied experiences.

All mamals are highly social, they need to "know" eachother, they need to "evaluate" the behaviour of others. We inherited this capacity from the reptiles. Their brains evolved to judge the Good and the Bad, the pleasant and the unpleasant, they evolved emotions. Highly social creatures, mamals, evolved mirror neurons, a "Theory of Mind", a sense of fair play. We inherited our morality from them.

Kenneally 123: Human children learn to point at a very young age. Tomasello and his colleagues have videotaped many instances of children spontaneously pointing in a helpful manner. Tomasello first started to consider how much this kind of shared, co-operative attention mattered. The answer, he believes, is that humans are particularly co-operative in the way they communicate. Reciprocation is fundamental to the interactions of our species. Offering is not instinctive for humans, but is taught by parents to children, who learn it very easily. And crucially, we offer not only food and other objects but information and experiences as well. Children want you to look at what they are looking at and do emote in response. In many theories of evolution, human altruism is treated as an anomaly. But Tomasello thinks it is an evolutionary strategy that has served as incredibly well.

The question of how egoistic creatures (or genes) can learn to cooperate has troubled many social scientists for a century. Evolution is all about competition they thought. It is not! It is about both competition AND cooperation. Many anthropologists today assume that language evolution began millions of years ago with australopithecines living in tightly knit groups who started sharing food.
Such groups did survive only when the individual members could communicate. They not only learnt to share food, they also learnt to share moods, t
hey invented rituals (religion) to stay together. Looking back at the history of our becoming human, we can find the beginings of group communication, group thinking, in the nonverbal ritual storytelling of Lucy's group (Lucy in the sky with diamonds). To them shared, co-operative attention mattered.

Kenneally 13: Why does language evolution matter? Because the story of language evolution underlies every other story that has ever existed and every story that ever will. Without this one tale, there are simply no such things as beginnings, middles, and ends. Only because the evolutionary plot unfolded in the way it did to we have fables, and parables, tragedies, farces, and thrillers, numerous reports, urban legends, and embarrassing anecdotes from childhood. The ultimate goal of this book is to present fragments from
an epic about an animal that evolved, started talking, started talking about the fact that it was talking, and then paused briefly before asking itself how it started talking in the first place.

Humans are storytelling animals. They need to know "Who did what to whom?" and and they needed a medium to share that knowledge. We find the starting ground of language evolution in the social world of our ancestors . It was not a "genetic Big Bang", it was a "social Big Bang" and it led to a "cognitive Big Bang".

Kenneally 106: A new generation of experimenters has begun to engage in earnest with the ways language, ideas, and thinking may interact. Gary Lupyan believes that language may shape cognition: „The idea that language affects thought has a great deal of intuitive support. We feel that we think in language and think differently in different languages. Languages around the world vary to an enormous degree, and so it would seem people speaking these languages ought to categorise and think about the world differently. Language seems to embed itself in so many aspects of our everyday cognition that
we must start considering how language has altered the functioning of cognitive mechanisms we share with other animals“.

We inherited our capacity to think "rationally" from our intelligent primate ancestors. But it was only when "Homo" evolved language, that human groups and their culture started growing at a faster pace. ,

Kövecses 335: We can take culture to be a large set of meanings shared by a group of people. To be a member of a culture means to have the ability to make meaning with other people. This requires for people to have the organ of meaning making, the brain, the cognitive processes of meaning making, the body that makes linguistic and nonlinguistic signs meaningful and that imbues with meaning all objects and events that are not signs themselves (e.g. a tree that we conceptualize as being vertical and tall), and the physical and social environment in which the brain and the body jointly involved. On this view, particular cultures consist of the particular meaning making processes that a group of people employs and the particular sets of meanings produced by them, in other words, a particular conceptual system.

Meaning making is "sign-reading". We share that capacity with all other creatures who have brains that can interpret what goes on in the outside world.
All such animals live in a world of signs (semiosphere). Human language capacity involved the invention of "symbols" in addion to "icons" and "indexes".


Kenneally 168: In his book „The Symbolic Species“ Terrence Deacon proposes that various platforms of understanding are necessary for an animal to use utterances symbolically. He invokes three types of reference described by Charles Peirce – iconic reference, indexical reference, and symbolic reference.
Crucially, these distinctions are not inherent in any object or event in the world, but rather the descriptions of the kinds of interpretations that can be made about objects or events. Icons (or making an iconic interpretation) are the simplest type of reference. If an object is iconic, there is a similarity between it and something else. Landscape paintings, Deacon points out, are iconic of the landscape they depict. Indexes are a step more complicated than icons because they are built from iconic relationships. With an indexical interpretation, there is some kind of correlation, often causal, between an object or an event and something else. A skunk smell may indicate that the skunk is nearby. „Most forms of animal communication“, writes Deacon, „have this quality, from pheromonal odors (that indicate an animal's physiological state or proximity) to alarm calls (that indicate the presence of a dangerous predater). A symbol, in turn, is more complicated than an index, because it involves some kind of convention or system that guides the way we link one thing to another. Complicated reference is thus created by layering simpler forms of reference together. Much animal communication makes extensive use of iconic and indexical reference, but only human language is rooted in the unusual and complicated relationships that exist with symbolic reference. The jump to symbolic reference from indexical reference is not straightforward, argues Deacon. Symbols do not exist by themselves; they exist only in the context of other symbols and, crucially, in the relationships between them.

The words of our languages are symbols. They do not refer to "things", they refer to other words. "Dans la langue il n'y a que des différences", said Ferdinand de Saussure.

Words - the "lexicon" - are to me the core of language. I studied semantics. For most linguists of the past fifty years, however, the core of language was "syntax" - grammar. They studied language structure, and since no animal communication system appeared to have grammar, they refused to talk about "language evolution". The rules of grammar could not have evolved, the grammar module seemed to have come into existence out of the blue.

Kenneally 154: It may be that before our ancestors became adept at understanding and producing the complications of modern grammar, they learned to compute social relationships just like the baboon understanding of social rank - and their combination. Seyfarth stresses that this language of thought is not the same as human language, but he adds that it is adaptive in its own right and as a possible foundation for something that might turn into language.

Kenneally
164… In contemporary syntax there are two main approaches to accounting for all the structural rules that human languages use to build meaning: the Chomskyan approach and the „parallel architecture“ approach.

In the Comskyan approach, the list of words in the language - its lexicon - and the syntactic rules that arrange those words are treated as separate entities. The syntactic rules are considered the core computational device with which most of language is generated. Accordingly, people still talk about universal grammar, or UG, as a language specific set of rules or parameters belonging to a language-specific mental mechanism.

Ray Jackendoff calls this kind of approach „syntactocentrism“, meaning that syntax is regarded as the fundamental element of language.
In contrast, he says, „in a number of different quarters, another approach has been emerging in distinction to Chomsky’s“. In this view of accounting for structuring language, words and phrases are as important as the rules that combine them, and the idea of pure syntax is downplayed.

Instead of being objects, words are best thought of as interfaces. A word lies at the intersection of a number of systems - the sound of the word (phonology), syntactic structure (the structure that the word can licence or appear in), and meaning (some of which may be specific to language, and some of which may be a more general kind of meaning). The more general component of the word's meaning may have some equivalents to the common cognitive platform that humans share with other species.

Kenneally 165: It is significant that Jackendoff now proposes that
it's time to move away from the pure focus on syntactic structure and the idea of syntactic core to language. Rather than think of syntax as a set of computational algorithms, Jackendoff and Pinker call it a „sophisticated accounting system“ for tracking the various layers of relationship and meaning that can be encoded into speech and then decoded by a listener. To their mind syntax is „a solution to the basic problem of language“, which is that meaning is multidimensional but can be expressed only and linear fashion, because speech unfolds sequentially, as does writing. This way of looking at language and syntax is more consistent with the idea of language evolution and the view of evolution as a „tinkerer“.

Boe: Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis; Verbal language - Body language
Coevolution of brain and communication - Systemstheory:
language and cognition
language and communication
autopoetic systems, Medium Sinn – Medium Sprache
What is language? The definitions evolve – logos – Gods Word – energeia – Universal Grammar -
nature – nurture, evolution of ideas – Ideenevolution (Luhmann)
culture – society – communication – the individual – the psyche - consciousness

Summing up: We now can "know", that is we are able to describe, that language evolution did not begin with us humans. We inherited "preadaptions" from as far back in evolutionary time as the lizards. Emotional evaluation systems in brains are necessary to build up "cognitive" nerve networks.
All mamals coordinate their behaviour with brains processing "information", they can read signs, they can think about "others in their group", they learn to communicate. Humans develop brains that are capable of reading symbols, they learn to "read time", they can "imagine virtual worlds" and - with the evolution of the language medium of communication - they start building up "culture", knowledge shared by groups.

In the course of only the last 100 generations this shared group knowledge mushroomed into "science" - physical (natural) science and cultural science (Geisteswissenschaften). In the past two hundred years a science of language started growing and in just the last twenty years a science of language evolution became possible.

What seems to me the most important "fact" is that facts are no longer facts. Presentday scientist know that their facts are not eternal truths but possible ways of description and that every scientific description will make new descriptions possible.


Looking forward:

Kenneally 226 Computer Modeling: Reasearchers like Simon Kirby at the University of Edinburgh look at the way in which language is a product of culture as well as biology, asking not just how it evolved but how it might have evolved itself.
Imagine if you could watch this process unfold from the dawn of humanity, watch the first speakers speak and the first listeners listen, and see how meaning and structure develop, overtime, words proliferate and begin to emerge. This grand view of the history of language is a little like what Kirby seeks in his research. His speciality is computer modeling of the evolution of language.
Kenneally 8: Some proponents of this perspective think of language itself as an organism, one that evolves to suit its own needs. (memetics - Kenneally 226)

Jerome A.Feldman From Molecule to Metaphor
A Neural Theory of Language
Feldman7:
The Embodied mind
Human language and thought are crucially shaped by the properties of our bodies and the structure of our physical and social environment. Language and thought are not best studied as formal mathematics and logic, but as adaptions that enable creatures like us to thrive in a wide range of situations.
Our systems of abstract and metaphorical thought and language arise from everyday experiences and the basic neural learning mechanism.
Grammar consists of neural circuitry pairing embodied concepts with sound or sign. Grammar is not a separate faculty, but depends on embodied conceptual and phonological systems.

Unsolved problems in linguistics (Wiki)


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