The rapid rise of human language

Apr 15, 2015

Credit: Jose-Luis Olivares/MIT

By Science Daily

At some point, probably 50,000 to 100,000 years ago, humans began talking to one another in a uniquely complex form. It is easy to imagine this epochal change as cavemen grunting, or hunter-gatherers mumbling and pointing. But in a new paper, an MIT linguist contends that human language likely developed quite rapidly into a sophisticated system: Instead of mumbles and grunts, people deployed syntax and structures resembling the ones we use today.

“The hierarchical complexity found in present-day language is likely to have been present in human language since its emergence,” says Shigeru Miyagawa, Professor of Linguistics and the Kochi Prefecture-John Manjiro Professor in Japanese Language and Culture at MIT, and a co-author of the new paper on the subject.

To be clear, this is not a universally accepted claim: Many scholars believe that humans first started using a kind of “proto-language” — a rudimentary, primitive kind of communication with only a gradual development of words and syntax. But Miyagawa thinks this is not the case. Single words, he believes, bear traces of syntax showing that they must be descended from an older, syntax-laden system, rather than from simple, primal utterances.

“Since we can find syntax within words, there is no reason to consider them as ‘linguistic fossils’ of a prior, presyntax stage,” Miyagawa adds.

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85 comments on “The rapid rise of human language

  • If I were to formulate an hypothesis based on my very lacking knowledge of the subject matter, I’d say that proper nouns were the first to show up, then adjectives… Syntax seems an awfully powerful machinery to be indispensable to convey simple messages.

    Also, proper nouns and adjective can be mastered by other animals, which do not enjoy the power of human syntax.

    It’s also worth noting that syntax isn’t just an abstraction, but there is evidence that it has its own hardware.

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  • We have held up the study of language by sniffing at the communications of other species such as
    whales, dolphins, elephants, prairie dogs, gibbons, squid and cuttlefish. We have too narrow a definition of language.

    I had to laugh at his example of “nationalization” as an ancient root word. I doubt it was ever uttered until 200 years ago.

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  • Most or all birds have “expressive” (birdsong) plus, in the case of parrots and the like, can learn “lexical” (real world meanings) – and they learn it so easily (with human speech), I wonder if they don’t do it in the wild (as part of what we think is just birdsong) but we haven’t discovered it yet. Are then parrots linguistically on the verge of real language?

    I recommend Guy Deutscher’s The Unfolding of Language. It plausibly takes us from a “me Tarzan, you Jane” level of language to the most sophisticated constructs, which appear designed.
    Dumbed down into one sentence, the book says that language changes almost generation by generation with opposing forces of creation and destruction, building up words by “analogy” (like the recent construct nation-al-iz-ation) and breaking words down: if you trace words back far enough, they are probably just concrete nouns and/or simple verbs that have been repurposed, ground down, built up, repeatedly.

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  • proper nouns were the first to show up, then adjectives

    I haven’t read the paper yet but based on the summary above I think the author would probably disagree. The hypothesis here (btw, this isn’t a new hypothesis, Chomsky has described why he thinks this is the most probable way that language evolved) is that language evolved “all at once”. That is that a mutation enabled language more or less as we currently use it now. I’ve always wished that Dawkins and Chomsky could get into a debate on this because I think Dawkins would probably disagree.

    It’s also worth noting that syntax isn’t just an abstraction, but there is evidence that it has its own hardware.

    If you mean there are specific centers of the brain that seem to be more significant to processing language than other parts then I agree. Although even in those cases, humans often show remarkable resiliency and ability to adapt from serious brain damage and to recover much of the language capability.

    But if you mean by “specific hardware” something like specific types of neurons (e.g., something like mirror neurons are supposed to be responsible for empathy although that has been pretty strongly debunked in a recent book) then I’ve not heard of that and would be interested to know what specific “hardware” you are referring to.

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  • Are then parrots linguistically on the verge of real language?

    I have the enormous pleasure of having a pair of Australian Eastern Rosella’s nesting in the bird box in my 30 metre high Eucalyptus. 4 broods of three chicks in 7 years. This is a real life heaven. And they have language. When you sit quietly and observe, they chat. Sort of.

    When the hen is sitting on eggs, the male returns to the tree, utters the same chirp a few times. (I’m back) Slowly moves to the box opening, then changes to “Honey I’m home. I’ve got the dinner.” The female pops her head and and feeds from the male. They also have a “Call and Response” regime. “Where are you dear? I’m over in the wattle tree.” They have a challenge call. They have a “Piss off, this is my tree” call. They have a confrontation battle call when chasing off other pairs of Rosella’s. They “Natter” as they feed together. All unique calls. I can be out walking anywhere and I can hear the Rosella’s if they are nearby, and I know what they are doing. Language??

    Who needs religion.

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  • We have held up the study of language by sniffing at the communications of other species such as
    whales, dolphins, elephants, prairie dogs…

    Humans use language in a way that is unique to us as a species. There is all sorts of evidence for this. In fact it is one of the few things in the field of human behavior that actually has mathematical proof to support it. Chomsky’s initial work on language proved that there is a hierarchy of languages. Note, this is talking about language as a mathematical construct, like a Turing Machine or a Finite State Automata (FSA). Chomsky proved that human language can only be processed by a computational formalism with the power of a Turing machine, the most powerful of the hierarchy. He didn’t prove that other animals don’t have language in that sense but there is very strong empirical evidence that they don’t.

    For one thing you can construct FSAs (a less powerful formalism in the Chomsky hierarchy) that very successfully model virtually all forms of non-human communication, things like warning calls, threat displays, etc.

    For another during the 70’s there was a lot of work done by people trying to teach sign language to primates. The thought was that what prevents our nearest relatives from learning language was their inability to verbalize so if they were taught sign language they might learn that and demonstrate the same ability for syntax as humans. The evidence is overwhelming that these attempts failed. The primates learned many signs and how to construct basic word combinations like “want food now” but they never learned true grammar the way human language speakers do. And sign languages such as ASL do have grammar in the same rich sense as spoken human language, but none of the primates ever learned it. For a good overview of one example see Nim Chimpsky The Chimp Who Would be Human. The guy who led the research is quite up front that the project was a failure and that Nim did not learn grammar as he had hoped.

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  • I had to laugh at his example of “nationalization” as an ancient root word. I doubt it was ever uttered until 200 years ago.

    I didn’t get the impression it was meant as an “ancient root word” but simply as an example of a root word. BTW, the root word in this case is nation not nationalization. The problem is we have no examples of languages that were around at the very beginning since writing wasn’t invented until much later so any example we use will have to be from fairly recent (in an evolutionary time scale) languages.

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  • 9
    aroundtown says:

    I enjoyed your description and interaction of the Australian Eastern Rosella's, very cool. I have always loved animals and wondered about their language capabilities. Some have worked on it to verify the possibilities and they have had some success. One came to mind and I found a link about it that I will supply.

    As regards our language I have always wondered about the expediency element adopted by a need to warn of impending danger, you know, something like HEY THERE'S A CAVE BEAR BEHIND YOU, RUN!!!!!!!!!!

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  • 10
    aroundtown says:

    Mods, if you could remove the link in my first reply to David R Allen’s post and replace it with my other link attempting to correct the error that would be great, my second post could be deleted if you can. If it is not possible it may serve as an example of the religious condition of stealing or adding to actual scientific work to prop up their delusion. Sorry for the hassle.

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  • Just a few observations.

    I do believe that language as we use it now was a comparatively rapidly developed skill, if only because of the rich positive cultural feedback it would supply. I’ll not repeat it here but I believe the rapid appearance of old folk in the archeological record in the Aurignacian may reflect a new utility to the old. Its hard to imagine what this may be other than talking in a new and useful way.

    The genetic root of this change may lie in the recent understanding of the unique ability of humans to suffer from the psychosis of schizophrenia. Some of the unique changes in the human genome (identified as the Human Accelerated Regions) appear to find expression in the Pre Frontal Cortex and the management of the neurotransmitter GABA. We may imagine (perhaps courtesy of these very HARs) that an improved ability to form and control contingent connections between elements (the quality and rigor of our inferences perhaps) led us to retain, use and build on inferences that would otherwise have been disguarded. The risk to us has been the advent of a psychosis where wildly wrong hypotheses fail to be disguarded on the one hand or an obsessive and rigid literalism exclude us from the casual exchange of contingent and metaphorical inferences that we call culture.

    I am warming slowly to more of Chomsky. I am though frustrated in reading about x-bar and his later MP “project” that so little thought is given to the elements in play in language development (evolutionarily and in the child.) For instance, the coincident use of sound and gesture, the prepositional power of the hand etc. I think a grander. interdisciplinary project is needed before Chomsky’s “minimalist program” gets too Socratic.

    Red’s mention of “The Myth of Mirror Neurons” is timely. Mirror neurons aren’t the big actors in adult behaviour portrayed by empathy-lovers as the book properly demonstrates, but it fails to do a sufficient job in demoting the key role they probably play in the substantially unwired infant brain. Macaque brains he compares are a terrible analog for the “utterly unique in nature” huge, early infant brains with high levels a chaotic connections. Its a good book but use with caution. An awful lot of pertinent research is neglected. And the functional models proposed are sometimes unreasonably simple. (It was though nice the see how the barn owl stereophonic perception develops. What would have been nicer is to have its dependence on differing ephaptic couplings (crosstalk) between fibres as the enabling delay lines….it is in chickens at least. This is second order effects of brain structures co-opted to achieve important functions, though it rather plays against his theme of a more general computing ability)

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  • The complaint about MP might be unfair. It is an open ended projected perhaps to draw in more elements, but the seeds scattered by way of encouragement seem to me to be aiming for some narrow, essentialist formulations. I wish a little more empirical feedstock.

    Theory development (like much development) is the child’s christmas tree, from nothing it rapidly broadens out with elements then sharply narrows again as the elements are sorted and the good kept and integrated. The process continues down adding and simplifying again and again until done.

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  • 15
    Lorenzo says:

    That is that a mutation enabled language more or less as we currently use it now.

    Yes I know of Chomsky’s hypothesis and I substantially agree with him -his argument being “since the trademark of syntax is the production of infinite structures with finite elements, it cannot have come incrementally, but all at once”, very badly reworded by me, I’m afraid.

    What I meant is that, before word became actual words, there might have been a phase when certain groups of phonemes indicated an object, like “bull”, to indicate a duck. The word “bull” doesn’t have any relation to the animal, except that we make a link between the phonemes and the animal.
    Also, there are those studies on higher primates, during which an attempt was made to teach gorillas or chimps human sign language (which, by the way, is a fully fledged language). They could master words, to an extent, and they can make the link between the phoneme and the object, but they can’t master phrase construction and, in general, syntax.
    In shorter terms, it seems to me that syntax isn’t required to call “bull” a bull, and it isn’t probably needed to say “red dot” to indicate a red dot, while it’s certainly needed to say “bull on red dot” -this latter is the exact sort of thing that chimps cannot master.

    An interesting meta-factoid: the original version of the above paragraph was about a red triangle, not a dot. But that was a very bad example, since tri-angle is a word of the kind found interesting by the author up there: it is composed, according to some non arbitrary rule. The word “three”, to indicate the number, and the word “angle”, though, are kinda basal, and look like they are arbitrary.

    The study seems, at least judging from what Science Daily says, to suggest that there’s syntax in word formation. And this I find absolutely believable, when it comes to complex word construction -if you wanna have a lot of fun with it, just play with some German words. But I’m not sure it’s needed at all level of word usage, because of what I said above.

    If you mean there are specific centers of the brain that seem to be more significant to processing language than other parts

    Yes, I meant that.

    Although even in those cases, humans often show remarkable resiliency and ability to adapt from serious brain damage and to recover much of the language capability.

    Yes, I read of a case study of an engineer who suffered damage (from a stroke?) to his Broca’s area, and after that he was still able to communicate and generally use language, only he was restricted in the number of subordinate phrases he could master -and not because of lack of memory. This is extremely interesting.
    I can give more details later, but at the moment I don’t have the source where I get the above fact from.

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  • The big development in language was the symbolical use of words to generate meaning and sense by the manipulation of these symbols internally within language itself. Syntax and vocabulary are historical contingencies.

    Animals can use the simple Augustine ” name tag” application of language by recognising the sound “ball” can be associated with an object, they can also use sounds to indicate danger, fear etcc, but what they cannot do is use,say, this sound “ball” to symbolically think about “balls”.

    The learning of vocabulary and syntax is merely the preparation for the use of language, the actual use of language is the manipulation of symbols to create mutually understood meanings. Language is a social tool.

    To seek the meanings of language in the origins of syntax is to mistake the bean counting for the beans.


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  • Syntax is contingent and not innate. The ability or capacity to learn and use language, like the ability to learn and follow any set of rules, is the process which is “innate”, not the specific ability to learn a specific ” universal” syntax..

    The search for a Proto – syntax is a search for a contingent historic moment, not a search for a universal principle.

    The origins of language are social, the purpose of language is social communication and it has evolved as such. The ability to learn and use language is part of our human capabilities, both physical and mental with specific brain areas processing language and specific physical features enabling us to articulate sounds. Numerous genetic changes over a long period contibute to these mental and physical capabilities. To think we need to search for a “language gene” is misguided, language is a complex mulifaceted evolutionary series of behaviours and aptitudes, not a single “thing” which mysteriously arose x years ago..

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  • 20
    Lorenzo says:

    Syntax is contingent and not innate.

    Chomsky strongly disagrees. And so do I, by the way.
    Syntax is a process that allow us to organize words in the phrase and phrases themselves in hierarchies which make them understandable. This is a different thing than grammar, which is specific to every language -but not arbitrary: there has been an experiment that demonstrated that, when taught arbitrary grammar rules which are not present in any known human language, brain activity associated with syntactical construction was inhibited. This is a pretty clear indication of a) what I was writing before and b) that syntax is really not contingent, but it’s structural to us -and really not arbitrary.

    The origins of language are social, the purpose of language is social communication and it has evolved as such.

    Do you have any evidence to substantiate your statement? What you are saying is equivalent to “the second finger, known as the index, has its origin in pointing, the purpose of the index is pointing and it has evolved as such”.
    Language has no more purpose than your index, or your foot. It has a scope of application: it turns out it is a brilliant meaning conveyor, but it’s not the only thing that can do that -not is the only thing that exhibit syntax. Take music, for example.

    Of course, I agree on the fact that language gives a significant advantage in a social structure: individuals who can master language better than others can use that as an advantage, and so they do. But to say that the whole process came into existence because of social behavior is… wrong: we are far from being the only social animals and, by the way, our societies aren’t even the most tightly organized: take leaf-cutter ants, or bees; they certainly don’t need to master syntax in order to accomplish what they do.

    To think we need to search for a “language gene” is misguided

    Did someone ever suggested that? I don’t recall.

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  • Lorenzo
    Apr 15, 2015 at 4:39 pm

    Also, proper nouns and adjective can be mastered by other animals, which do not enjoy the power of human syntax.

    Many mammals and birds, give alarm calls for predators – eagle, snake, tiger, human etc.

    Frequently they not only recognise the calls of their own species, but also the call of other species in their locality.
    Great tits use different alarm calls for different predators, according to a scientist in Japan.

    The researcher analysed the birds’ calls and found they made “jar” sounds for snakes and “chicka” sounds for crows and martens.

    This, he says, is the first demonstration birds can communicate vocally about the type of predator threatening them.

    Alarm calling, the giving of particular vocalizations in the face of
    impending danger, is a key antipredator strategy that has evolved
    in awide rangeof species (
    ). Alarmcall behaviour, as with
    all vocal communication, comprises three aspects: the delivery of
    calls with a specific set of acoustic features (call production); the
    use of calls in particular contexts (call usage); and the response to
    calls produced byothers (call responses). Although there is often an
    obvious selfish selection pressure on receivers to respond to alarm
    calls (they may be more likely to survive if they do), their
    production can appear altruistic: in giving a signal that enhances
    the likelihood of others escaping, callers may attract the attention
    of the predator themselves. Studies of alarm call behaviour have
    therefore proved invaluable for our understanding of such issues as
    kin selection, nepotism, reciprocal altruism and cooperation
    Sherman 1977; Hoogland 1996; Krams et al. 2006; Wheeler 2008
    Similarly, research into alarm calling has provided many insights
    into the cognitive processes underlying signal perception (
    stein 1999
    ) and the evolution of communication (
    Spinozzi 1996;
    Evans & Evans 2007
    ), including human language (
    Kuhl 1994;
    Werker & Yeung 2005
    Counterfeit alarm calls are also used by thrushes to avoid intraspecific competition. By sounding a bogus alarm call normally used to warn of aerial predators, they can frighten other birds away, allowing them to eat undisturbed.

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  • Lorenzo,

    Syntax is just part of the Grammar of a language, to speak a language you have to be able to conform to all the grammatical rules of the language. Syntax on its own cannot guarantee meaningful sentences, you can have syntactically valid sentences which are nonsense, to have meaning the sentence must adhere to all the grammatical conventions of a language, not just the syntactical.

    Syntax is not the language, it is part of what you have to know before you can use a language. Language is not an logical exercise in sentence generation, but an act of communication made possible by all participants understanding the conventions of the grammar, including syntax, of the language.

    Different languages have different syntax which suggests that syntax is contingent. If syntax is innate then what language is it in? If it is not in any language then what is this innateness an innateness of? If it is the ability to generate sentences then why do we have to learn syntax, or is it only the words we have to learn and the syntax bit comes naturally without learning? Do babies babble syntactically before they learn a language?.

    If it is merely the ability to produce sentences, then all you are saying is that we can produce sentences because we have the ability to produce sentences, which is not really saying anything.

    I find the whole concept a muddle, and not particular helpful or enlightening in any way.

    We learn syntax and grammar, just like we learn the rules of a game, the innate ability is our ability to learn and follow rules, especially when embedded in a social setting…

    And the fact that brain areas associated with syntax are inhibited when presented with a weird grammar is not surprising, as we are unable process this grammar syntactically, hence inhibition in the syntax brain area.

    <<<<The origins of language are social, the purpose of language is social communication and it has evolved as such.

    Do you have any evidence to substantiate your statement>>>>>>

    The evidence is simply that every time we use language we use it to communicate, it has no other purpose, and communication is always social, always to the other. Language is a social tool.

    A “private language” is an oxymoron, and even talking to oneself is a form of communication.

    Can you name any use of language which is not communication and hence social?

    If it did not arise from the social need to communicate what did it arise from? The need to exercise our innate syntax generator ? Or did we innately generate syntax and then did some caveman Einstein have the bright idea of using this syntax to communicate with each other?

    And all social animals, by definition, communicate. The fact they do not use human language is because they are not human, and is neither here or there, we do not communicate where the supermarket is by doing a little dance at the front door with our backsides orientated to the sun!

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  • 25
    Lorenzo says:

    Syntax on its own cannot guarantee meaningful sentences.

    Indeed. Syntax organizes, syntax does not produce meaning.

    Syntax is not the language, it is part of what you have to know before you can use a language.

    Syntax is a set of rules that you use to hierarchically organize phrases and thus their meaning -and it’s not necessary for communication at all. Albeit less efficient, you can convey meaning just by streaming words or group of words. Of course, you can’t write a Shakespeare’s play without syntax, but there’s a whole spectrum in between.
    Syntax is what characterize human language since, so far, we are the only one who use it.

    Do babies babble syntactically before they learn a language?

    I’m not sure about what your point is but: there has been an experiment involving a baby human and a baby chimp, to whom sign language was taught. Curiously, in the first stages of the learning, there was little if any difference in performance, up until the stage where they were experimenting with little clusters o words. Then the human baby shifted gear, and started organizing those words in a syntactically correct way.

    Something else you may consider is: babies cannot start from a blank paper when learning their language(s), because a) the rate at which they memorize the rules is crazy high and b) they do that with staggering precision: they make very less mistakes; specifically, a lot less than you’d expect from a “trial and error” procedure. There are plenty of studies on this particular aspect.

    The evidence is simply that every time we use language we use it to communicate, it has no other purpose, and communication is always social, always to the other. Language is a social tool.
    Can you name any use of language which is not communication and hence social?

    Your argument here is upside down: things don’t have an inherent purpose in nature -the fact that they seem to have it depends on the fact that you have a human brain, which categorizes reality in a certain manner. This created a lot of problems throughout history.
    Human language, like your mouth, has no definite inherent purpose. It turns out that it a very good social tool, so it is being used intensively for that as well: it makes the exchange of a message very efficient. But it’s not the only way, and societies exist without language in all life’s kingdoms: even bacteria communicate to take collective actions!

    A “private language” is an oxymoron, and even talking to oneself is a form of communication.

    No. To have communication you have, by default, have a subject which holds information unknown by a second subject and thus transmits it. The thought processes which involve the use of an internal language are not communication, because the sender of the message is also the receiver and, thus, no information is exchanged.
    That said, these processes are another very evident -and, some argue, even the main usage if time is considered- of language and syntax. This, by the way, doesn’t mean that every thought process is verbal: if you rotate a geometrical object in your mind, you’re not using words.

    If it did not arise from the social need to communicate what did it arise from?

    This is a stupid argument, do you recognize that? Like “oh, there’s the need of this, so let’s make it evolve!”. This is not how things happen in the development of a species. The trait shows up and then it’s selected for, or against, or it’s neutral and hangs around or vanishes in accordance with how the genetic mood goes.
    Humans have been social a lot longer than they have been talking to each other: the fact that they are social provided a very favorable environment for those who, after millions of years of brain growth, found themselves able to use syntax and come up with a language (coming up with languages happens, by the way). That’s part of the how the thing stuck.

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  • Lorenzo
    Apr 17, 2015 at 8:40 am

    Syntax on its own cannot guarantee meaningful sentences.

    Indeed. Syntax organizes, syntax does not produce meaning.

    Syntax is not the language, it is part of what you have to know before you can use a language.

    Syntax is a set of rules that you use to hierarchically organize phrases and thus their meaning -and it’s not necessary for communication at all.

    Oh dear! – back to the dictionary again!!!

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  • Lorenzo,

    Despite my inherent stupidity I do have a tiny grasp on how evolution works!

    And Ok, to get rid of the teleologically tainted word “purpose” , I will clarify by saying Language IS communication.

    The overall behaviour giving selective advantage is social communication, the numerous separate traits ( position of voice box, length of tongue, specialised brain areas etc etc) which have facilitated communication have been selected leading to the evolutionary emergence of speech and language as we know it.

    Any language “explosion”, if there has been one, would have been primarily cultural as distinct from evolutionary. I.e once we have evolved the capability of language then the complexity of language itself can culturally exponentially grow .

    And the internal use of language is also communicative. Communication is the transmission of information. We can send and receive information internally and at different levels, communication is not restricted to that between two or more seperate individuals. Biosemiotics looks at this at even lower levels.. ( and no ontological implications are entailed, no little little homunculi are needed to “send and receive”, ) You are not aware of your language- thoughts until you have them, they in effect communicate themselves to you, you are aware of new information that you did not know before. Just as being aware of a pain in the foot is a result of a communication of information from your foot so when you have a language-thought new information has been generated and communicated, you are aware of something you were previously unaware of.

    Indeed the use of language is often referred to as “thinking out loud”, whilst language-thoughts have been shown to correlate with slight activity in the speech mechanisms and related brain areas.

    The whole usage of language is communicative, socially and internally,and that is why the traits that improve our language ability have been selected and fixed in the genome.

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  • It absolutely is NOT that. This author and all the people who take this approach such as Chomsky absolutely believe in evolution and that language has to be explained in a way that is consistent with other biological functions. In fact Chomsky was rather ground breaking in that he was one of the first linguists to really emphasize that language had to be viewed that way.

    What this is though, to over simplify is a “macro mutation” hypothesis, consistent with (and I’m loathe to say it because I think the guy was mostly full of crap) Stephen J. Gould. I.e, that unlike say the eye which we know came about as a result of many small mutations as do most changes, language came about, or at least there was one major step in the evolution of language that was a major “all at once” mutation that gave the “merge” capability described in the paper.

    BTW, the interesting thing about merge is that it is essentially set theory and that set theory can be used as a foundation both for all kinds of hierarchical structuring and planning and for (e.g. Bertrand Russell’s book Principia Mathematica) arithmetic. Essentially, Merge, by this hypothesis was the mutation that made complex thinking possible which differentiated humans from other animals. It is also why Chomsky believes that language (in the sense of merge) may not have originally been only or even primarily about communication but rather a way for individual humans to do better planning and make better decisions.

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  • It is also why Chomsky believes that language (in the sense of merge) may not have originally been only or even primarily about communication but rather a way for individual humans to do better planning and make better decisions.

    I think this is a hugely important point. It is a point I was going to post about just now (that language is also the stuff of thought) brought to mind, unsurprisingly as I was reading Pinker’s “The Stuff of Thought”, which I heartily recommend all round.

    It struck me though with merge that examples of it in action may have more prosaic functional underpinnings.

    The example of drink and water being merged into drink so that drink and drink water can be used identically in a phrase like, I like to drink….I like to drink water.

    How often would it have been when this merge function might have hinged on a simple lack of choice. Pre domesticated animals and pre Starbucks, the only choice of drink is water. Genes drive the phenotype with almost astonishing and subtle indirectness, a chemical gradient here and timed branching function there… Might something as subtle as a growing palette of objects and their choice have driven something like the merge function?

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  • Red Dog,

    What is absolutely not that?

    The whole of the original article? I do not see that it, or anybody’s comments say language did not evolve in a normal biological fashion, nor know of anyone, aside from theists, who believe otherwise. The matter under dispute is how it biologically evolved.

    Your point about language enabling better planning etc is very true. It enables the ordering of information, or to stretch my point enables us to order our thoughts to more effectively communicate and understand them, both to ourselves and others.

    And if the Merge approach is correct and it gives us the unique ability to have language that does not ,by itself, fully explain how language arose, A private language is impossible, so to be able to think in language some form of social language must already be there to enable you to think in it. Somewhat chicken and egg!


    Principia Mathematica , an attempt to describe a set of axioms and inference rules in symbolic logic from which all mathematical truths could in principle be proven, was acknowledged as a failure by Russell himself, and proved a failure mathematically by Godol, whose incompleteness theory also shows that Merge, as a theory of logic, must also rest on unprovable axioms or assumptions..

    As a way of doing linguistics Merge is fine, but is it the way we actually ” do” language? I fear it is far more fuzzy and messy than Merge thinks.

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  • Steven above said:

    Syntax is just part of the Grammar of a language, to speak a language you have to be able to conform to all the grammatical rules of the language. Syntax on its own cannot guarantee meaningful sentences

    That is true, and no one ever claimed otherwise, in fact several of Chomsky’s linguistic works use syntactically valid but meaningless sentences (e.g., Colorless green ideas sleep furiously) to make points about language.

    But syntax is what differentiates human language from languages used by other animals. It is what gives human language the ability to take a finite, in fact fairly small number of number of symbols and give them the capability for infinitely many valid and meaningful sentences.

    And all social animals, by definition, communicate. The fact they do not use human language is because they are not human, and is neither here or there, we do not communicate where the supermarket is by doing a little dance at the front door with our backsides orientated to the sun!

    If you mean human language is just another form of communication no different than what other animals do that is clearly contradicted by tons of scientific evidence. See my reply to Roedy’s comment up above. The things like the Chomsky hierarchy, the experiments trying to teach primates sign language, etc. all show that humans are unique when it comes to language. BTW, this is not meant to imply that humans are somehow “better” than other animals. No more than if I said certain Raptors such as falcons and hawks have a capability for vision that is uniquely stronger than any other animal I would be implying that hawks are “better” than other animals.

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  • Steven said above:

    If syntax is innate then what language is it in? If it is not in any language then what is this innateness an innateness of?

    What is innate is the capacity to learn language. There is overwhelming evidence for this:

    One bit of evidence for this is what is called the Poverty of Stimulus argument. If you look at how rapidly children learn language, as well as the kinds of mistakes they make (and don’t make) it is clear that they aren’t just doing general learning but rather are exercising some innate mechanism for learning language.

    Another strong point of evidence for innateness is the difference between how easily children of a certain age learn language and how difficult it is for most adults to pick up new languages. This doesn’t just apply to learning a first language either. There is a lot of evidence of children brought up in multi-lingual environments, e.g., children of parents who are on long term work assignments in a country that doesn’t speak their native language, who quickly learn the native language as well as the language of their parents where as the parents (even though it would often be to their advantage to do so) never really learn the native language.

    Another point of evidence is that despite surface differences there are amazing uniformities across all human languages ever discovered. For example in no language ever found has word order ever been an aspect of how you parse a sentence. When you think of it in theory there is no reason this could not be the case, e.g., to take a sentence and turn it into a question add “eh?” as the the third word. But it never happens. In fact some linguists in Italy did experiments where they invented a simple language where word order was a factor and they also invented a simple language that corresponded to the normal rules of grammar that all languages conform to (with certain principled variation, I’ll get to that in the next paragraph). What the researchers found was that when subjects learned the simple languages that corresponded to rules of grammar the language centers in their brain were (as would be expected) highly active. But when they learned the language where word order was a factor and otherwise did not conform to language grammar other areas of their brain, those used for general problem solving were the most active.

    Finally, there is linguistic evidence called “principles and parameters”. On the surface human languages differ greatly but when you examine them closely there is actually amazing uniformity. I mentioned the word order example already but there are even more compelling examples. For example “head directionality”, whether the head of a phrase precedes or follows its compliment. The evidence for innateness is that when you look at these various principles such as head directionality you find that human languages are very uniform. Not that they all do things the same but that they show a few levels of variation and what is more you can group the principles into various groups such that if a language treats a certain principle one way it will also treat other principles in that same group in a certain way. So another principle is how does the language treat “wh” words (who, what, where) when taking sentences and turning them into questions. Some languages such as English move the WH word to the front. Other languages such as Japanese do it differently. The fascinating result is that languages that do head directionality one way also treat WH sentences a certain way. I.e., if you know a language does head directionality in manner X then you know it treats WH sentences in manner A. And vice versa if it does head directionality in manner Y then it does WH in manner B. But you never get languages that do head directionality in manner X and WH in manner B.

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  • Red Dog,

    More or less agree, but other aspects of grammar, e.g phonology, semantics, morphology, pragmatics are all also significantly different to other animals, it is not just syntax.

    .And yes the way human language works is significantly different and seemingly unique in many respects, but there are also similarities.

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  • What is absolutely not that?

    I was replying to Urn’s comment where he said: “This smacks to me of “irreducible complexity” applied to language?” By irreducible complexity I took him or her to mean that the paper was implying that language couldn’t have happened via evolution, e.g., was a creationist point of view. That is what I meant it absolutely is not a creationist point of view.

    and proved a failure mathematically by Godol, whose incompleteness theory also shows that Merge, as a theory of logic, must also rest on unprovable axioms or assumptions..

    I don’t see that at all. Godol showed that no logical system that has meta-logical statements can be complete and consistent. What I was talking about was first order logic not meta-logic so I don’t see how your point applies. But even if it DID apply I wouldn’t find it very convincing. It would just mean that some innate capability that humans have isn’t completely logically consistent. Not a big surprise really, there are all kinds of examples from vision to common sense reasoning about things like physics where our innate ideas or processing break down in certain situations.

    Principia Mathematica was acknowledged as a failure by Russell himself

    Russell acknowledged that it was a failure to achieve his lofty goal which I can’t remember off the top of my head but the general idea that number theory can be derived from set theory is I think fairly well accepted.

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  • It is not clear that there is an innate capacity just to learn language as distinct from a general capability to learn, otherwise everyone would be in agreement which they are not.

    Is there also an innate specific chess learning capacity?

    The Poverty of Stimulus argument has been strongly disputed by many, and is not generally accepted nowadays.. Aside from that, Its use to prove specific innate language capacity is circular, as it would be true only if language was innate.

    The fact that children learn language easy that adults is explained by the plasticity of the child brain, language can be more easily ” burned” into their brain. The fact that general learning areas are activated when language with a unusual grammar can be explained by the fact the language areas “trained” in a specific grammar simple could not parse or recognise this grammar, so it became a general learning problem . If you reversed the grammars would you get the same result.?

    The fact that their are underlying uniformities can be explained simply by the fact certain varieties of grammar are more “productive” or less complicated or easy to learn, or in Dawkinspeak by meme selection . Underlying similarities can be explained by recourse to the concepts of embodied cognition. The fact that there are underlying similarities can be explained by postulating all languages arose from one original proto- language. The fact of underlying similarities is to be expected as all languages serve the same function so we would expect them to have evolved similar methods i.e convergent evolution.

    Correlations can be picked out of any mass of data. Correlations do not prove a common underlying cause.

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  • I’m especially impressed with inputs from Lorenzo and Red Dog (even though the big dog did bite me a while back) for the empirical evidence they, Et. Al., marshaled in support of the linguistic theories of Noam Chomsky and by extension to his latter-day colleagues at M.I.T.

    Steve seems bent on proving that “language is not innate” because human societies have developed thousands of different languages over millenia; and, I’ll be damned if parents haven’t had to teach it to every one of their pink babies. Therefore, he reasons, linguistic behavior must be contingent on random social developments and chance learning. The obstacle to accepting this line of reasoning is the inconvenient fact that every child ever born has spoken a language about eight months out of the womb (please no silly “wolf-boy” exceptions. I know, I know.) That’s a hell of a lot of nurture but it’s equally a hell of a lot of nature. “A general capacity for language” is a pretty light counterweight to the universal manifestation of language among homo Sapiens.

    An unnecessary confusion arises when we confuse “communication” with “language.” Language implies communication but communication does not always imply language. Your dog, your parrot, your ape (however bright) or your dolphin do not talk to you because they do not have the ability to acquire or use language within “the hierarchical complexity” of syntax, diction-semantics and grammar.

    Without trying to paraphrase the persuasive evidence presented on the thread, or impersonate an evolutionary biologist, language is the metaphorically miraculous manifestation of evolved neurological complexity in the human species far ahead of whatever’s in second place in the rest of the animal kingdom.
    Language working through anatomical features -vocal chords, supple tongues, or even nimble fingers in the case of silent signing, emerges from higher brain function.

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  • Melvin,

    Not quite, Steve is trying to show that ” the abilities to learn languages are innate” and these are part of general abilities which allows us to learn and follow any rule based system , and that these are not just specific to language. It is not language itself that is innate, it is the various abilities to have a language that are innate. A slight but meaningful difference . Language is not one thing, but a family of abilities.

    As far as I can see all the evidence also supports this interpretation as well.

    Wolfboy would indeed support my interpretation., and is not so easily dismissed. A private language is impossible.

    It is the ability to “Merge” which allows us to use syntax, and this “Merge” ability enables us to do other things aside from language. Syntax could not give rise to “Merge” as Syntax is dependent on the ability to “Merge”. It is the ability to “merge” which is innate, not the ability to have syntax , which is only one expression of the ability to Merge. The abilities to perform something must be present before one can do the performance.

    None of this denies the role language plays in ” seperating” humans from other animals “communications”

    “Communication” and “Merge” are innate, not language. It is the abilities which enable language and the need to communicate which are inherent, language arises socially from these.

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  • 39
    Lorenzo says:

    It is not clear that there is an innate capacity just to learn language as distinct from a general capability to learn […] Is there also an innate specific chess learning capacity?

    Perhaps it’s not clear to you, but that doesn’t make it unclear in general. There are typical behavioral traits whose learning is hardwired -don’t forget: human children are born with the brain still in formation, otherwise they wouldn’t fit in the birth canal.
    As for “is it a distinct ability than the general learning/plasticity”, the answer is a very big fat yes. The observation that children do begin to babble and pick up a language instinctively and invariably dates back to, guess who, Darwin.

    Also, there’s the very gruesome experiment carried out by Frederik the second in the 13th century, whose aim was to know whether German was the “natural” language of humans. They basically put some children into a room and nobody was allowed to have any interaction with them, except giving them food -and, I guess, cleaning them. The important bit is that everybody had to behave as they were completely devoid of language.
    The children, they all died. Like: stone dead. Even though they were properly fed and looked after in every respect, except interactive stimuli.

    On the same line of evidence, there are adults in Peru(?) who lost both parents and, during the window when language is learned -which is very specific, by the way, like 1.5 to 3 years if I don’t remember incorrectly- were substantially isolated and never learned a language. Now they have no language, nor the ability to learn one. Their linguistic skill is comparable if not identical to that exhibited by higher primates to whom a sign language was taught during already plentifully quoted experiments.
    Also, their ability to engage in certain thought processes seems to be impaired -since, for obvious reasons, they don’t speak to themselves.

    Now, I know for sure that you don’t suffer any damage whatsoever by not learning chess. Or Quantum Mechanics. Or higher Maths…

    The Poverty of Stimulus argument has been strongly disputed by many, and is not generally accepted nowadays

    Still, as far as I know, it’s still the best theory. Also, children don’t take several hundreds hours of classes from their parents to pick up a language, with the explaining of grammar, syntax and semiotics: they just listen to the noises produced by people around them, isolate them from the background, split a continuous stream of sounds into words and understand and master how those words are organized in a structure of phrases.
    To verify that neural plasticity isn’t sufficient, on its own, to explain the amazing ability of every single human to pick up one or more languages just by listening to them, try to imagine this: learning and mastering differential calculus just by listening random conversations about it. No taking notes, no nothing: just listening.

    The word impossible springs to mind. But if you have a theory substantiated by experiments at hand, please explain it!

    otherwise everyone would be in agreement which they are not.

    What kind of argument is that? I’m sure not everybody on this planet agrees that the Earth is round and circles the Sun, but that doesn’t make the Earth any flatter or stiller. It just makes some people badly wrong.

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  • Lorenzo,

    Thanks for video but I am aware of Chomsky’s arguments. It is just that I and many others, from cognitive scientists to Wittgenstein, disagree with the conclusions he draws from the evidence. (And yes I am aware that Wittgenstein was before Chomsky’s theories!)

    We disagee to agree!

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  • A stand alone “poverty of stimulus” argument for an unassisted Universal Grammar is surely now dead, replaced by a potentially highly assisted and weaker one.

    parents offer the child a series of variation sets by repeating utterances with small changes, leading to changes in the syntactical structure but not the content. For example (taken from Brodsky et al., 2007, p. 2):

    You got to push them to school.
    Push them.
    Push them to school.
    Take them to school.
    You got to take them to school.

    Such variations would be ideal for the childs word and syntax acquisition process. And indeed, Kntay and Slobin (1996) found that they make up 20 % of child-directed speech in Turkish. In an analysis of childrens speech, it was found that there is a high correlation with parents variation sets and subsequent language and syntax use in children (Brodsky et al. , 2007). In a quantitative analysis of motherese, Brodsky et al. (2007) were able to construct an algorithm capable of acquiring a relatively high-coverage of generative grammar. Such probabilistic models achieve 54 % precision on Mandarin and 63 % on English,

    This kind of evidence, and there is plenty of it, overcomes the usual objections to feral child and gross neglect examples, as distorting of a much wider set of neural developments resulting from heavy cortisol disturbance, rendering language acquisition a second order effect only.

    What we are coming to, with a refined understanding of the genotype driven phenotype, is an improved sense of combined, more subtle yet simple, factors creating seemingly robust attributes.

    Amongst the missing ingredients we need to add in is an understanding of how a class of mid duration inferences (thoughts, speech) were allowed to come into being, that could sufficiently be set aside to be replaced by subsequent others. Setting aside doesn’t involve a complete forgetting but it does involve a memory process of essentialising with tags. One hypothesis for the creation of conscious thoughts is that of unconscious mutations tested for memorability (and possibly other attributes). If they have the quality of memorability they are potentially salient and fit for conscious display. By this the attributes of memorability are (at least in part) the attributes of the generator we are seeking. This may allow us a better sneak view from the neural level up.

    This is why the insights into the very recent evolution around GABA use in the PFC are exciting and may contribute here. Your point about the unique infant brain and its generation of post natal brain matter (as we now know, the associative corteces in particular) is surely a key factor in a cultural hard wiring opportunity, if only because we might imagine a sudden and timely enriching in our ability to generate (albeit subconcious) very many more metaphorical type hypotheses to be tested.

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  • Lorenzo,

    Not sure at all of your children in a room, not learning language did not kill them!

    The Peruvian children did not suffer any “damage”, they just did not learn language which resulted in their brains physically developing differently to people who have learnt language. In effect there brains were the same as humans before language was invented. In fact this tends to show the language areas of the brain develop by learning language, and are not innate.

    And you can eventually learn differential calculus just by listening to conversations about it as long as those conversations also include the other mathematical knowledge necessary to understand it. ( in fact I learnt it simply listening to my tutor,, although of course his speech was structured, ), just as you can eventually learn noughts and crosses, chess, the rules of golf by observation and inference. This does not logically mean we have a specific innate chess learning ability etc just to enable us to play chess etc.

    And you are right, neural platicity does not fully explain our language abilities, but it does not logically follow from that that we have Specific innate language capabilities. General innate capabilities can also perfectly well explain these capabilities, and all and every example (not proof) you might care to give such as babies babbling and picking up language can also be explained just as well, if not better, by appeal to various general innate abilities.

    The question is not whether language involves innate capabilities, which everyone agrees, but whether these capabilities are uniquely specific to language or whether they are just general abilities which combine to produce language..

    The poverty of stimulus argument is very widely disputed and not generally accepted. See Phil’s post for examples of a far more nuanced and evidence based approach.

    Chomsky’s primarily purely computational approach to language is being replaced both by more biologically based and culturally based approaches which offer far more explanatory value and are more evidence based than the computional based idea that we have a simple specific magic innate inbuilt language generator.

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  • 43
    Lorenzo says:

    Thanks, this is interesting.

    Also, I need to correct an expression of my previous comment: the poverty of stimulus is more a fact than a theory, the theory behind it is the generative grammar.

    Cold you please link, or give me more precise coordinats, where to find the document you’re quoting from?


    The correlation between the variety of the stimulus is interesting, indeed, because it stresses the fact that a stimulus must be present to trigger the mechanism: language does not arise in complete silence(?).

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  • 44
    Lorenzo says:

    Talk is cheap, show us the facts.


    The poverty of stimulus argument is very widely disputed and not generally accepted. See Phil’s post for examples of a far more nuanced and evidence based approach.

    Point of order: Phil’s comment is not (interesting because it is) nuanced, it’s documented. It’s a very different matter.

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  • language does not arise in complete silence

    lol and true

    Yep, sorry. I neglected this link Useful, if only as a good collection of evidence.

    The organising principles that appear to form a Universal Grammar I suspect will constitue a variety of elements that bubble up from the likes of Hebbian learning (and “unlearning” given the chaotically pre-wired infant brain), memory formation processes, the unique counter-inferential training of human infants, maybe even mediated by mirror neurons creating the temporary patch from adult to infant brain on the matter of mouth, lips gesture, expression, and the very restricted world of the infant and stone age student, and as their worlds expand the adhoc management contributing to a structure, and all under-girded with the physical and bodily roots of metaphor.

    The ability to see efficiently and extract visual information is highly dependent on an building of the neural apparatus needed during the process of early (and “fuzzy”) seeing. Cochlear implants are mostly useless unless implanted in the young. Later implants are horrible buzzy twanging things. Connections formed (and broken!) are driven by an empirical “doing” of the thing in the brain-rewiring period of early life.

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  • ” the abilities to learn languages are innate” and these are part of general abilities which allows us to learn and follow any rule based system , and that these are not just specific to language. It is not language itself that is innate, it is the various abilities to have a language that are innate.

    The phrase “general abilities to learn and follow any rule based system” is so vague and abstract that it fails to establish an empirical referent. Nearly all animals demonstrate “general [cognitive] abilities to learn, etc.” so you could be making an observation about chimps or wolves. In relation to the human species, “including language” picks out a species-specific ability and behavior not shared with other animals. There is a confusion -a going back and forth between “general abilities” and a “species-specific ability” which cannot be reconciled intelligibly.

    The reader is stuck trying to interpret “generally” what you mean. I gather that you’re trying to say that the human brain evolved to learn a potential panoply of complex rule based systems of which language, however socially useful, was only one. You never identify compelling examples of non-linguistic rule based systems which developed, independent of language in human societies. During a range of time in our evolutionary story our brains reached a critical mass wired with “general and various abilities” to learn and follow rule based systems including language. We chose contingently to learn language because, out of all the “rule based systems” available to us, language contingently proved especially useful for social communication and meeting a plethora of needs. The absurd implication is that homo Sapiens could have chosen not to have acquired language and contingently relied on non-linguistic rule-based systems exclusively. If you stay confined within the parameters of elective “general ability” to explain language, you are blocked by a truism that shuts down down further research into the specific phenomena. At every turn where linguists investigate the structure, entomology and shared properties of language, you can dismiss any and all findings at your discretion with “aw, it’s all pseudo-science -language is a by-product of “general and various” abilities that developed in our brains and happened by random choices, barks and noises, to get distilled into meaningful communication. Move on you charlatans. Nothing more to see here.

    You’re absolutely right. You’re just not saying anything helpful beyond a silly, impotent truism.

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  • Melvin,

    To say that language is just another example of our general cognitive abilities is not to deny the findings of science, it is not to deny we have a seemingly unique ability, seemingly distinct from that of other animals, to generate syntax. It is only to deny this ability is a specific innate language capacity, or Universal Grammar, totally distinct and in addition to our other cognitive abilities. To deny aspects of Chomsky’s theories is not to deny science, his conclusions are disputed by many. See the paper cited by Phil and others by me. These objections are all empirically based. Are all these people charlatans and idiots like myself?

    Neither am I denying linguistics can provide a formal logical but idealised model of sentence generation, but that does not prove the existence of a innate mechanism simply just for this purpose.

    Perhaps you can tell me the actual biological mechanisms of how our universal grammar generator work? . You can tell us the output, provide a theoretical idealised model, but can give no indication of what biological or neurological processes and mechanisms are involved, or indeed any empirical evidence that any such processes are taking place. ( to infer it exists from its output is just that, an inference without any further evidential backup) Your innate grammar generator is a black box, and you have no neurological or biological explanation, or any empirical explanation at all, for what is happening inside.

    And at best all it gives is an explanation for syntax, which is not an explanation of language as a whole, and syntax is in fact meaningless and useless without all the other aspects of grammar. Your innate generator provides no explanation for meaning at all, which seems to me a fairly important part of language.

    Language acquisition by learning on the other hand can be explained by neuroscience. The papers cited by me and Phil show that language acquisition by learning is empirically possible, and we have neurological explanations for learning. An innate grammar generator is not a empirical or logical necessity , and there is no explanation of how it physically works. Which to choose?

    And my whole point is that language is not contingent. To say we contingently choose to follow the rules of language, or even think that is a possibility, is absurd. Language , as distinct from the ability to have language or generate syntax, is a social construct, private language is an oxymoron. We have invented language over time as a tool or expression of social communication, just like we invented reading and writing language is not a biological thing like a extra foot or making sounds, it is cultural.. The fact that language can also be internalised to “better order” our thinking is a huge added bonus.

    Language did not arise from a random and contingent selection of barks and sounds, we used our intelligence over time to construct and invent it, just like we invent anything else. It is the universal grammar generator which would in fact generate a cacophony of perfectly logically related but totally meaningless sounds.

    Genes which improve our linguistic and communicative abilities are selected.

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  • Having just read quite a lot about the various ape language studies, though rigorous in its formulations the Nim Chimpsky effort was very narrow and really rather horrible, a Skinnerian nightmare, in fact. The learning environment presupposed education as a simple conditioning task and-

    Fouts argues, based on his own experiments, that pure conditioning can lead to the use of language as a method mainly of getting rewards rather than of raising communication abilities.

    Whilst I don’t propose that apes, for instance, are in any sense syntax or grammar users, the fact that they use language in emotional, humorous, neological (? newly coining through Merge), and “meta” ways (talking about language), use it amongst themselves and teach it to their own children, shows a lesser leap to human levels than might be supposed. Rather it shows a great deal of language function was in place ready for this (these) extra ingredient(s) that added a logical precision and a generative capacity.

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  • 52
    Lorenzo says:

    See? It wasn’t difficult to produce the facts. Of course, it would have been appreciated if you used them as references instead of dumping them like you did, but, anyhow, thanks -for some of them, which are genuinely interesting, opposed to some othes which are hogwash, like reference #7.

    Admittedly, I skipped reference #4, a 42 pages document without an abstract: at the moment, I don’t have enough time to read it. Also, reference #8 is pretty useless, being a review of a book.
    Reference #9 will be read in the morning, because it has somewhat a wider scope but looks interesting.

    The one I really enjoyed was #1: it is a competent article and puts forward a farly well developed model. They themselves reckognize, thought, that their ideal learner has to be tested in order to assess how much like a child it is. My biggest doubt is concerning the memory such a learner must have in order to function as dscribed -and this objection might suffer from personal bias, since I have a really bad memory.
    Also, and it’s very curious to note this fact, they argue solely against the PoS argument, not the innatism of language: indeed, the competing grammars in the models are predetermined -innate, sort of, to the model. This point is different from what you seem to sponsor here, which is a purely empirical learning model for language.
    To test for this, you should allow your model to start substantially blank and come up with the correct grammar given what comes in -they call it the corpus, let’s just use that term. Something that can be seen as a precursor of this is found in #2, but that work is both similar to #1, which has a more interesting model, and doesn’t really test for grammars, but for the ability to tell apart correct phrases and wrong phrases given a corpus and a neural network (the device mimicking the biological object, not a real brain)… Which is a lot less groundbreaking than it sounds, IMHO.

    Still, the uniformity if syntax in human languages has to be explained as well and this is rather hard in a purely empirical approach to language learning.

    Anyhow, thanks for #1: interesting read.

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  • Grammar and syntax are properties of language, not of the brain functions.. Chomsky directly analyses language use, at no stage does he directly analyse the workings of the brain or even attempt to do so. From an formalised analysis of language use ( and primarily just one language) to then jump to the conclusion that this is how the brain itself works, without mention of any empirical process the brain uses to do all this, is rather a leap.

    Language rules are rules of language not rules of how the brain works. We have the ability to follow language rules just as we have the ability to follow, for example, the rules of chess.

    Language is a social construct, the language “explosion” was a social and cultural explosion, akin to the invention of farming, not a genetic explosion.


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  • Lorenzo,


    I deliberately choose only papers dealing with poverty of stimulus. You can google papers disputing other parts of nativism.

    The Wikipedia article on “language acquisition” give a brief general outline of the different approaches to language which, if you so wish, you can then further explore. . Chomsky’s is not the only bar in town!

    On the more general side Wittgenstein’s “Philosophical Investigations” explores the varied and different social uses of language, and also explores the notions of rule following, both in cryptic detail.

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  • You are happy. Yes. No.


    Are you happy?

    Rephrasing, or body language expecting a response, as happens in motherese, may solve these tough infant problems of comprehension with great speed. Just once per novel linguistic device should do it. Only linguist philosophers insist they be blindfolded

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  • Miyagawa’s integration hypothesis is connected intellectually to the work of other MIT scholars, such as Noam Chomsky, who have contended that human languages are universally connected and derive from our capacity for using syntax. In forming, this school of thought holds, languages have blended expressive and lexical layers through a system Chomsky has called “Merge.”

    If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound? I believe we’ve reached the stage of semantic equivocation which involves saying pretty much the same thing in different ways…then arguing about it.

    I for one found the article had more explanatory power than Steve’s arguments from anti-Chomsky sources. Of course we concur that language is a social construct/invention formed through cooperation and consensus among members of a speech community over time to facilitate social communication. Of course we concur that the members of this speech community also necessarily belong to the species homo Sapiens whose brains (and other anatomical features) evolved the unique ability to acquire and use language. When we reverse the sentences the holistic concept does not change but the-chicken-or-the-egg quibbling gets launched into insufferable extremes.

    “Grammar and syntax are properties of language, not of the brain functions.” If we observe how syntax and grammar coherently combined with semantic elements share common rules for generating an infinite number of meaningful sentences across language boundaries, then isn’t it reasonable to “infer” that the human brain has generated the syntax, the grammar and the rules that bind them together? Is language the by product of general cognitive abilities or can we open up the skull and observe a specific language ability floating like a rubber ducky in a bath tub? Because no such investigation is possible today the conversation grinds to a halt, just as analytic philosophers balk when “consciousness” (of pain or the beauty of sunset) is “reduced” to the grey meat loaf inside the cranium. The argument spins its wheels until we find an intelligible pragmatic way of asking the question using fresh language that backs us out of the dead end and gets us on the road again.

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  • And indeed new and fresh ways of looking at this problem, not confined to a computational paradigm, abound. The difference of opinion althhough semantically confusing is not entirely semantic.

    As for the chicken and egg paradox as eggs evolved before chickens the egg came first!

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  • Phil,

    Yes, apt point about linguists conducting experiments with the participents blindfolded, building the confirmation bias into the experiment!

    Embodied cognition does not compute!

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  • I’m laughing, Steve, because when I wrote that, I intended that the linguists wished to blindfold themselves. This might just be an example of a linguistic problem easily solved or a linguistic problem that discovers a) it is not a problem at all or b) it is usefully revealing of a broader truth…..

    Cogniton is not only embodied but I believe it is “situated”. The leak is multichannel.

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  • 60
    Lorenzo says:

    You can google papers disputing other parts of nativism.

    I guess you can also find a shed load of material disproving the color yellow, but that doesn’t mean that yellow isn’t a color. Abundance does not guarantee correctness. What really matters is quality: one good article is worth more than a thousand crappy ones… by that line of thinking, your post up there would have been just as effective on me if it contained only the first two references. Perhaps more, because #7 is a real buzz killer.

    Actually, to some level, you yourself provided me with a strong argument for nativism, at least to a certain degree. And I’m gonna write about it in a way that comes in handy with another point I want to make:
    I think I stop here because I don’t want to give you, or myself, an headache. The point I wanted to make is: syntax is only a bit of the things a child has to figure out from scratch in a purely empirical outlook: she has to a) separate a human voice from the background, clear it from the noise we interject here and there in order to give ourselves a break to think about what we wanna say and, finally, successfully categorize the words into all of their roles.
    That coupled to the fact, that you reported first, that humans have specific adaptations outside of the brain in order to sustain the kind of complex language production that we use makes a purely empirical argument very not likely indeed.

    Also, and I continue to stress that, the paper #1 does not reduce a set of arbitrary grammars to one most likely one, but a very definite space into one of its basis vectors (?). And that argument applies only to individuals that have no problem parsing the actual stream of incoming sounds into words whose role in the phrase should be more unambiguous than not.
    Also, as the authors themselves note, further research is needed to determine if a ideal, Bayesian learner is actually a precise model for a child listening to a language and learning from it. There’s evidence that lab rats are better than us at being Bayesian…


    In conclusion, a note: I’m not trying to put forward a berserk view in which language magically arose and suddenly humans began talking to each other in sonnets instead of grunting and spitting. What I’m arguing for, and you can see up there in this very discussion where I got the idea from, is that you have troubles explaining some traits of syntax with gradual, continuous change. The point made by Chomsky is that such a view isn’t even necessary, because continuous, smooth change isn’t really how evolution works. Because selective pressure is non constant and mutations don’t always alter the appearance of an individual in a subtle manner.
    Besides, the step from no syntax at all to fully fledged human syntax might not be such a big deal, in terms of hardware.

    Also, in a staggeringly brief period, around 75-50 kY ago, you have a surge in artifact and abstract art production by humans -and that’s where the second “sapiens” to our species’ name is usually added. At a certain point, it may be, our brains hit a critical mass, where a little mutation could mean a great difference in cognitive complexity. And that cognitive complexity turned out to be evolutionary gold.

    There’s also an interesting theory that explain our brains not in terms of usefulness of the adaptation (there are a lot of other animals in the African Savannah that did not feel the need of evolving a huge blob of cerebral matter, so it cannot be that necessary, can it?) but in terms of sexual selection.

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  • 61
    Lorenzo says:

    Hi Phil, sorry if I didn’t answer here for a while. I was busy below.

    I appreciate the review article you posted: I’ll be studying it in a future I hope it will be near enough.
    In the mean time, the first paper linked by Steve is rather interesting and provides some reasonable motivations to reevaluate the PoS argument.

    Anyhow, I’d be really surprised if our brain would just behave like a Bayesian statistician with a blank piece of paper when it comes to learning a language: it’s something that happens soon, happens fast, seems physically localized and has a window-like time span in which it can happen and take roots deep enough. Plus, we have evolutionary legacies elsewhere when it comes to complex language production.

    In general, I’m more incline to consider language as an anatomical feature rather than a crafted tool intended for a specific use. And there seems to be plenty of evidence to support the first view.

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  • Lorenzo,

    I think a Bayesian approach is more fruitful than a purely computational paradigm, anyway leaving aside nativsm as an issue in itself and returning to the subject of the article, the ” language explosion”.

    I think my point about the subject of the article, the language and cultural explosion, is that it was just that, a cultural explosion, similar to the invention of farming, involving the invention or honing of language itself as a purely social and cultural artefact.

    What evidence do you have for any genetic involvement at all in any of this?
    And why do you think genetic changes are necessary to explain this explosion?

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  • 63
    Lorenzo says:

    What evidence do you have for any genetic involvement at all in any of this?

    For starters, chimps don’t talk even if you teach them how to. Not like humans, anyway. But they master cluster of words, thus it’s not really a sheer lack of memory. It must be a lack of brain power then, and the genes involved in the development of the human brain are among the most different from chimps -and, actually, from the rest of our fellow vertebrates.
    Also, other animals with sizable brains don’t talk, and they have:
    1)The capability to connect phonemes with meaning.
    2)The ability to ommunicate, in rather a complex way.
    3)The ability to store large amount of data in their memory -some best us at intuitive number recognition, too.
    Examples of these fellas are elephants and killer whales, but they aren’t the only ones out there. Prairie dogs have a staggeringly sophisticated communication system, for example.

    This is an example of what leads me, and not only me, to consider that there’s more going on rather than sheer computing power and neural plasticity at work here. Namely: a brain laid out in such a fashion that picking up and using a complex language such as ours is possible with ease.

    Furthermore, unlike agriculture or driving a car or inventing the wheel or writing their language, children instinctively begin to talk, much like they begin to walk. Arguably, the pull towards a language is even stronger than the pull towards walking: blind children have to be actively taught to walk, while deaf children pick up sign language the same way they pick up phonetic ones. Now, if you want to argue that the erect position and bipedal walking are just another one of our proud inventions and not anatomical features coded in our DNA, be my guest… but let me wear my funny hat before going on.
    Further-even-more, it’s hard to maintain that some adaptations (which you yourself brought up) came into being because a complex language was invented, but it had to evolve. Likely, in close parallel or subsequently -even though this temporal schedule is very arguable.

    And why do you think genetic changes are necessary to explain this explosion?

    Because close cousins like Neanderthals never achieved the said explosion, despite having a human brain even bigger than us double Sapienses, for example? And the argument “well, they never knew about it” is ridiculous, since we shared Europe with them long enough to pick up 1-4% of their genetic material. And, if you’re able to talk or broadly communicate how S.Sapiens do, you really have a lot easier time passing on memes like “how to make a nice necklace out of the gut of a bunny and a shell” than passing on genes.

    The serendipitous invention and then transmission by power of example really doesn’t hold up: there is a full array of behaviors and cultural constructs that genetic really are not. Most notably and pertinently written language, as I mentioned above. Why is it that we don’t begin writing as autonomously as we pick up an interactive language (verbal or sign)? If language is a serendipitous invention and its learning is just as any other learning, you should expect comparable scenarios for spoken and written language: after all, they both seem to serve the same “purpose”. Except that written languages are extremely rare(1), are a very recent invention (like, one order of magnitude more recent) and do not benefit of a fast and automated way of learning like spoken/sing language do.

    (1)Ideographic languages have been invented a few times in history, like… as many as you can count with one only hand or the likes, and alphabetical written language has been invented only freakin’ once. This is a very different landscape than what you find for interactive languages, my dear. Or agriculture. Or math. Or Quantum Mechanics. Or how to weave a sweater efficiently. Or… and so on.

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  • I agree with the 75-50kyr time frame. I don’t believe parsing phonemes belongs in this period in any way (muuuuuuuuuch earlier) just as many animals reify some of what they see successfully. Distinguishing things from backgrounds is a venerable trick.

    I personally don’t subscribe to a strong single channel Bayesian process in the daily acquisition of language by individuals. I do though think the job is indeed a multichannel one of face, gesture an context reading making the Bayesian task more compact generating a near enough solution suitable for training refinement. Coining though is a tougher problem.

    I have no problem that a series of cultural inventions of, say, identifiable intonations at this time could play a significant role in securing in a large group the qualifying of utterances into the functional separation of observations, imperatives and questions. These can then go on to further evolve into more robust structures e.g. the latter adopting (spuriously) phrasal inversion, say. I have no problem with the prepositional hand gesture becoming associated with individual utterances that come to support its meaning and the sequencing of its use. Just as our phenotype is built sequentially from seemingly simple pressures, the substrate of the half built language (and three quarters) will govern also how the rest unfolds. I have no doubt there were competing grammatical coinings along the way but their efficiency in facilitating multichannel and/or Bayesian access to subsequent generations would have resolved these choices. How memory works and thus the stickiness of the grammatical trick is entirely driven by the very particular neural processes we share. This is where Chomsky lies, but it is not right to imagine it as some do a great generator of grammar, but rather a cultural evolutionary path of grammatical least resistance. This is, perhaps, where the final piece of the genetics contribution (perhaps the GABA use changes in the PFC) could have lower lowered that resistance the final notch, in the retention of enough mid duration hypotheses or an enhanced Bayesian retrieval or an enhanced associative identificaion of a particular grammar type.

    I am still reading Andreas Wagner’s “Arrival of the Fittest”. His revelation is the huge number of similarly performing solutions to a particular evolutionary pressure that exist across the entire set of possible solutions and that those alternate solutions lie as meshes across the space. I’m starting to see how his essentially topological approach may apply here.

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  • The Fox2p gene, about a half million years old, and commonly misnamed as the language gene, is not specific to language , but have been shown to be ” general domain” in that it helps any learned experience become a habit.

    The slight real evidence indicates language is part of our general learning abilities, not a specific innate ability.

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  • No one on this blog has tried to imagine the human condition over the last 50,000 years without language. Here is one scenario depicting how we might live today had we remained non-linguistic homo Sapiens.

    The mechanistic explanations offered for assorted “purposes” for language ring hollow when we contemplate the barrenness of our existence, and the unimaginable otherness that would transform our species into something semi-human.

    Imagine what it would mean to have general cognitive abilities without the ability to acquire and use language. Without syntax, our vocalizations would never rise to the level of language. There would be simple “communication,” sounds would point to discrete objects, warnings, and commands. We would probably learn how to make fire, simple shelters, clothing – organize groups for hunting and gathering, migration, fight or flight. But no, it’s almost impossible to imagine where the impassible barrier to more complex behavior would fall. Making pottery? forging metals? developing mathematics beyond memorizing a limited collection of discrete objects?

    Any practice developed from our general (non-linguistic) human cognitive abilities minus language would have to be transmitted through the wobbly fragile training of physical demonstration from generation to generation reinforced at best with a few lexical grunts. Infant/childhood mortality over 50% would force the species periodically to the precipice of extinction as maturation requirements matched to the prolonged process of demonstration “education” would retard transmission and adaptation. Calamities that decimated small groups -wars, epidemics, starvation, exposure to extreme weather- could wipe out a critical mass of the demonstrator class and send tribes back to square one having to learn just about everything over from scratch.

    Our non-linguistic companions would sit around campfires staring at each other or into space. Perhaps silent, perhaps grunting, looking at each other contingently feeling hostile, frustrated, lethargic or lustful, some women sowing; some men chipping out a stone axe or making a spear while children looked on learning in mute observation. Since everyone would be limited to “acting out” in lieu of verbal expression, fights would break out, women would be “raped” on impulse, while the assemblage would erupt in a cacophony of yelping, screaming creatures running into the forest or mesmerized by the melee.

    No one would make an argument, articulate rules beyond operant conditioning physically enforced in the moment. Memories would be limited and without capacity to express them shrivel to reflexive associations. Awareness would atrophy to concentrate on on present stimuli. No storytelling, no……

    I speculate that Chomsky’s inference that the ability to acquire and use language to navigate and manipulate the environment consistent with uniquely and increasingly complex human interests and purposes, identifies language ability as “innately” foundational to the pragmatic development of our “other general” cognitive abilities.”: human languages are universally connected and derive from our capacity for using syntax The philosopher Richard Rorty confirmed, “awareness is a linguistic affair.” Weighing the risks of exaggeration against rhetorical affect, I speculate that the language is not just the learned manifestation of one cognitive ability among many other “general abilitiies.” Language is human cognition.

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  • Our non-linguistic ancestors would sit around campfires staring at each other or into space. Perhaps silent, perhaps grunting, looking at each other contingently feeling hostile, frustrated, lethargic or lustful, some women sowing; some men chipping out a stone axe or making a spear while children looked on learning in mute observation. Since everyone would be limited to “acting out” in lieu of verbal expression, fights would break out, women would be “raped” on impulse, while the assemblage would erupt in a cacophony of yelping, screaming creatures running into the forest or mesmerized by the melee.

    I must say I find this crass and self serving.

    A troop of bonobos would be more communicative and insightful than this. They would have their ethics and their culture.

    Rich language against simple is the point at issue, not language versus no language.

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  • Do not understand your point at all.

    What on earth has your Planet of the Apes scenario got to do with what we are discussing. It is a question of how language is acquired and came into being, not a question of language verses non-language.

    To imply , as you seem to do ,otherwise I do not see why you make the point, that to say language is a learnt social construct etc somehow how deprives us of our humanity and that language must be nativistic for us to be truly human strikes me as bizarrely religious in tone.

    Cognition is the set of all mental proccesses and abilities which give rise to knowledge, to say language is our only way of gaining knowledge is senseless.To say cognition arises from language or that awareness is linguistic is indeed empty and exaggerated rhetoric.

    The gratuitous insult to our primate cousins I will leave for them to respond to.

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  • Phil: A troop of bonobos would be more communicative and insightful than this. They would have their ethics and their culture. Rich language against simple is the point at issue, not language versus no language.

    Bonobos could indeed be communicative but they could not communicate with human language as analyzed comprehensively by Chomsky. Bonobos can communicate simple warnings, commands, threats (like other animals) with vocalizations as well as designate simple objects in their immediately perceived environment. But that’s about it. Hoots and grunts can have associations that bear “communicative” resemblance to “language use,” without meeting the criteria for human language. “Ethics” and “culture” are commendatory terms that have conceptual meaning to humans because they are in our language. They mean nothing to non-linguistic animals. ( The ‘fight scene” in my comment was not intended to trigger offense over an invidious comparison between the civility of humans and apes.)

    Steve: It is a question of how language is acquired and came into being, not a question of language verses non-language.

    (For the recode, I’ve read critiques of Chomsky that have captivated Steve. These critiques raise questions demanding further inquiry. I’m inclined to find Chomsky’s theories compelling for the time being)

    We’re all commenting as laypersons on the thread. I believe Steve has maintained that our brains evolved to a point where they reached a critical mass of “general cognitive abilities” species-specific to homo Sapiens. Collectively those abilities combined to actualize the ability to acquire and use language presumably under selective pressure to facilitate social communication helpful in promoting the discovery, direction, and organization of practices which proved adaptive for survival. The invention, once collectively developed by consensus of a speech community, had to be taught to children to ensure generational transmission and dynamic potential. Grammar and semantics are properties of language necessarily invented along with other features. There is no cognitive structure called “syntax” in the brain which distinctly generates language, a specific cerebral cognitive ability that humans have evolved for language.

    I cannot pronounce Steve “wrong,” I can only point out what I perceive as weaknesses in this theory. All (“higher”) animals have “general cognitive abilities,” but only homo Sapiens have the species-specific ability for language formation. There is an immediate unresolved tension between “general” and “specific.”
    The tension may be relieved by the stipulation that “general cognitive abilities” lie along an intelligence spectrum with humans far ahead of the 2nd place animal.

    We’re still not out of the woods. If our brain evolved an array of general cognitive abilities of which the invention of language was just one of many, could it not be contingently possible that our species could have been prevented by other evolved traits from inventing language. Steve’s argument implies yes. We could have evolved a tongue, vocal cords, larynx similar to those of a dog that prevented speech. Signing could have been out of the question if our digits and arms lacked definition and mobility.

    Concluding briefly. We cannot understand language intelligibly as a contingent invention. Language is not an aid to to cognition, it embodies our species specific cognition. Without language, we’d exhibit a range of cognitive behavior and skills just like any other animal. But without language we would be devoid of human cognition, self-consciousness, and achievements. There is a “black box” in a specific (not “general”) network of neurological complexity that made language possible in our social environment. When language gradually emerged, we know not exactly when in the fog of 50,000 to 1000,000 years ago, then human cognition began to emerge into what today we somewhat smugly call “HIGHER INTELLIGENCE.

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  • “Ethics” and “culture” are commendatory terms that have conceptual meaning to humans because they are in our language. They mean nothing to non-linguistic animals.

    They certainly have a culture that would contain a moral code that could be outraged. They have a clear sense of unfair treatment towards others as Frans De Wals documents in “The Age of Empathy”. The point about cultures is not that they are self consciously identified but that there exists a possibility of cultural heritage of learned only behaviours that can permeate a group. “Ethics” was a late night misuse. Sorry. I intended moral behaviours. They do not negotiate abstractions but rather specifics…The point being that the propensities of cultures and morals exist awaiting release into a greater cognitive generality. Your scenario denied that these roots already exist but that they are dependent on rich language and abstracted thought for their creation. This entirely overplays what language is achieving at this point (Though its achievemnets are massive enough.) Animal language brought slow steady benefits. As the ape language experiments showed, early stone age folk might have had quite reasonably functional language before the mooted explosion of syntactic devices. Your scenario is not what we know could have existed and is inconsistent with primatology and the archeological record.

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  • Melvin,

    Your précis of my views was far more coherent than mine!

    And yes a corollary is that we could have been prevented from developing language by other contingent traits such as having dog larynxes, Another corollary being that the abilities to “do” language can be present without language having been greatly developed, the only “language” gene we know is half a million years old, and that there is no necessity for genetic changes to explain the “cultural explosion” happening at the specific time it did.

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  • I confess to misunderstandings due to taking polarizing positions out of stubbornness. I concede that I’ve been tone deaf to many of the reasonable -sometimes indisputable- views you’ve presented. There have been semantic differences-without-distinctions that lead to circular enervating discourse but also substantive differences in the way we see language evolving. I’ll try to take a less confrontational course.

    No one knows when or how language evolved neurologically over a period of 200,000 years . Our fossilized distant ancestors left behind only skeletal remains without any soft tissue evidence to examine. We can infer from stone tools and more pertinently from artifacts such as cave paintings or patterned slashes on rocks when our ancestors started to think with “symbols.”

    There is compelling evidence for pre-linguistic or quasi-linguistic behavior in humans and our primate cousins. Chimp brains (for example) share features for language development that are similar to human brains. The range of communication behavior and cognitive learning in apes and other “intelligent” animals has been demonstrated and remains very remarkable. The scientist-trainers of Coco the gorilla and of a selected bonobo argue ardently that these animals have the ability to acquire and use language. Skeptics in the field counter that these amazing animals are not using language in a human way. Associations with simple objects and three word “sentences” expressed in vocalizations or sign language are devoid of syntax, robust linguistic structure or content and at their most clever level usually require a trainer to be present to elicit and perhaps “coach” the behavior.

    I would concede that animal vocalizations and cognitive manipulations demonstrate an awareness of “other minds” and a valid inference that “language” in a metaphorical sense is at play. Animals communicate with limited behavioral resemblances to human language but they do not “talk,” hold or convey concepts. It is a fallacy to attribute language to a screeching chimp who attacks another chimp with the observation that he is saying “get away from my food,” “keep your paws off my mate,” or “keep your place in the social hieraarchy.” the chimp is reacting partly from instinct, partly from reflex and, yes, significantly from cognitively learned behavior through social interactions. But he is not “saying or thinking” anything in a human sense. The cute attributions consist of words in our language not in a “chimp language” which does not exist beyond our metaphorical linguistic constructs.

    When we propose scenarios about how language evolved exclusively in humans, we should recognize that none of them can correspond to what actually happened in our evolutionary history. They are rough guesses informed by current scientific controversies- claims and counter claims- based on sparse inconclusive and disparate evidence. Our explanations must defer to “philosophical” debate where we try to define terms and make coherent sense of a sequence of events with missing gaps that challenge coherence and consensus.

    Based on the background narrative available to us, here is what I share as the likely scenario: Homo Sapiens first came on the scene tentatively about 200,000 years ago. These creatures were called “archaic homo Sapiens” because their species evolution was so recently tied to variants of homo erectus. Their tool-making did not diverge much from that of homo erectus for tens of thousands of years. We don’t know much about the evolution of the homo Sapien frontal lobe where cognitive abilities form. Archaeologists pad the evolution of language, allowing a time range of about 50.000 years to 100,000 years. Enjoying greater consensus are evidence based findings that what we call “modern homo Sapiens” emerged about 50,000 years ago with general cognitive abilities that made language possible. No one can determine any precise dating.

    Drawing on the background story and the provisional ambiguous science, here is the “philosophical” case I’m inclined to accept: Our direct non-human, and, for tens of thousand of years, our human ancestors evolved larger and larger brain capacity generating complex neurological networks that enhanced cognitive capacities and produced remarkable achievements in comparison to their nearest primate cousins or all other animals. The ancestral human brain did not evolve the specific ability to acquire and use language until recently ( probably between 50,000 and 70,000 years ago.) Until that time human cognition, though remarkable in relation to other animals, had reached a ceiling where people could build fires and simple shelters, fashion clothing and projectile hunting weapons. They would have formed collective arrangements for hunting and gathering, raising young, maintaining social order and solidarity while protecting or expanding tiny “territories” established for these purposes. Had they remained “frozen” at non-linguistic cognition, there would have been little of what we call “progress,” the accumulation and transmission of successively more complex ways of navigating and manipulating the natural or social environment.

    Basically this is why I believe language likely emerged through an evolutionary process of specific “higher brain” activity. I understand the analogy of language to “invention” or “social construct” because of the necessary requirement for grammar, diction, semantics to emerge in a social environment and to take on contingent features of a specific “set of choices made by consensus” within a specific speech community. Thousands of diverse languages suggest that different groups of people saw a need for a “tool or aid” to facilitate social communication and serve other utilitarian needs more effectively and therefore put their heads together to figure out how they could construct a language to accomplish these purposes. Surely no child was born speaking an “innate” language. Every child has to learn “the social communication construct.” End of argument? I don’t believe so.

    “Invention” implies hands working on external objects to produce a composite external object for a purpose – a stone axe or a space shuttle. That’s not how language could be said to be “invented.” Vocalizations -hoots, grunts- are certainly external “objects” but they are not shaped into language which is external to the organic functioning of a human brain.

    A salient issue still hanging is whether “language” is “innate” or “learned.” We all agree it is not one or the other but both. The disagreement is one of emphasis that leads to intemperate rhetoric on opposing sides. My own view is that language cannot be reduced to the product of general cognitive abilities, inventing a tool forged for purposes of social communication or accomplishing other tasks. Language is an indispensable form of human cognition, species specific to homo Sapiens. I suspect therefore that language is innate, genetic, universal in “modern homo Sapiens” though reliant on social “learning” for expression and in spite of intriguing exceptions -severely disabled or isolated cases. Apes and dogs certainly demonstrate cognitive abilities but functioning without language- ‘”real language” – they are acting without “awareness” in the human linguistic sense. There would be no “merge” of expressive and lexical components necessary to comprehend or act much beyond the limitations of the immediate context. As we describe, narrate or “explain” in the only way we can using language: “They have no way of understanding the world.”


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  • I think you still mischaracterise the language capacities that were probably available pre-Aurignacian (as I believe) or at least before 75k as per this piece. Names and verbs are fully manageable to the higher primate. Prepositions are available mostly through gesture. But, we are surmising that the wealth of syntactic devices, that verb tenses, abstraction and metaphor, the subjunctive(!), words connoting feelings, all exploded into the culture perhaps in a partially mutually interdependent way because of an extra mental gizmo or capability. With this we acquired the mental prosthetic of an analytic and generative thinking tool, that more than anything, developed the capacity to put two ideas together and ask “What if?”.

    The gizmo I proposed is not a fully formed stand alone grammar generator, but I suggested, better seen as an enhanced capacity for memorability of certain forms (e.g phrasal invertion as a short cut to the interrogative, rather than the earlier clunk of listing alternatives say. Apes and parrots fully understand the interogative) or an enhanced ability to use Bayesian means or multichannel Bayesian means to make these syntactic devices well enough accessible thus becoming the learnable ones when young. This is merely proposing how a seemingly modest genetic change (if it is that) might suddenly use existing processes of memory or inference generation to become the key to unlock a syntactic generator within. (I have gone out on another limb and suggested that one of the particular aspects of rich speech and thought is the explosion in the number or very existence of the tentative and disposable inferences/hypotheses needed for rich language and thought and it might be the creation or increased ability to support this with a new capacity for mid term memory, syntactic form being driven by possibly preexisting memorisable/retreivable formats.) My task is to get people to imagine a more realistic bit of neural usage when explaining a “grammar centre” and more akin to all other such processes which are scattered throughout the brain, the bits of which are multifunction and where a small missing piece (retrospectively speaking) may create profound change.

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  • Melvin,

    Now you précis both our views far more coherently than I!

    Only one last nitpick, language, as distinct for the abilities to do language, exists independently of any one human so it can be said to be invented or constructed. The fact that it is at the same time also internal to everybody is one of the reasons it is the most significant “invention” ever.

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  • Lorenzo,

    The Poverty of Stimulus argument does nothing to prove or disprove any innate theory of language. If it is true what it does disprove is Chomsky’s initial hypotheses of how we acquire language. If it is not true it just shows we acquire language in different ways. Chomsky, faced with emperical evidence that his initial theory was wrong, fudged the issue by postulating a innate black box universal grammar generator, thereby allowing his original theory, which has been empirically disproved, to “stand”.

    Children do not learn a syntax or a grammar, they learn how to use a language ( in a myriad of ways) and the knowledge of syntax and grammar is baggage which comes along with having acquired the language.

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  • 77
    Lorenzo says:

    I’ll explain my sentiments toward your obstinate statement of your own theory with the following video:

    And by doing so I mean that, until you find some new stuff to talk about, I’m done replying to you.
    Please read more carefully my latest comment in this very thread.

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  • And that is not funny either, it is not even childish. If you have any videos of cats doing funny things I would be amused by them.

    And it is not “my” theory, I am merely a parrot.

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  • Thats more like it.

    Cat fleas often congregate round the eyes, and the parrot had a pretty good look, so maybe it was just doing Its mate a favour and picking off a couple of fleas

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  • Phil, thank you for your informed reasoning about the process by which we might have developed language use. Steve complements the intelligent discussion. Because we have no access to brain specimens from our prehuman and homo Sapiens ancestors we have to make inferences from neurological structures evident in living brains or those preserved from fresh cadavers. More likely we spike our imaginations with stories inferred from paltry ambiguous fossils discovered in archaeological digs.

    I framed my speculations within time ranges which are also speculative. Discoveries of stone arrow tips in South Africa dating from 64,000 years ago implied the likely use of some kind of “sophisticated” yet limited language necessary for the invention of the bow and arrow. Complimentary discoveries of spear heads sculpted from obsidian tentatively dated from about 285,000 years ago have given rise to the theory that our species is 85,000 to 100,000 years older than the previous estimation of 200,000 years. The contention is highly controversial because of dating methods and the fossil record, Multi-part spears could have been crafted by related homo erectus variants and may not have involved precise robust language.

    Herein lies our mutual agreement with differing qualifications. Prehuman species and archaic homo Sapiens surely evolved the ability to acquire and use language through stages of complexity over tens of thousands of years. If the controversial 300,000 year dating for the emergence of humans proves valid, language could have been employed in human societies for between 200,000 and 250,000 years before the “explosion” of modern homo Sapiens language development and cognitive abilities around 50,000 years ago.

    My inclination is to “believe” evidence for the relatively “rapid” development of modern syntax, grammar, and semantic vocabulary. If we came on the scene -let’s split a difference- 250,000 years ago, why did the limitations of the proto-languages or quasi-languages remain fairly static for 130,000 to 150,000 years? Advances in technology beyond stone tools, stone-tipped projectile weapons, simple shelters, fire making and animal-hide clothing would have been more numerous and complex if language had developed principally from social cooperation over such a prolonged period of time.

    I believe neurological limitations probably confined human inventiveness, migration and accomplishments within such a narrow range. Here we get into the shadowy morass of language acquisition -when, where, how- over opaque millennia. Language, no matter how simple or “rich,” functions as a species-specific form of cognition. When -and I stress we don’t know when- a language-specific network of genes evolved to form a critical mass of neurological complexity, then complex , dynamic, generative language appeared gradually over some tens of thousands of years and literally “defined” our humanity with words. I’ve never denied the diverse communicative behavior of higher primates (and other “intelligent” animals), their effective social organization, and “moral values,” always comprehended, of course, in our language. Nonetheless the stipulated necessary components for human language as a separate cognitive ability for manipulating the environment are not active in the animal brain. Whether relying on the spoken word, the written word, the signed word, or the symbolic word, we humans generate language reflexively to describe, narrate and “explain” every object and the ever finer relational properties between every object in the world; and cumulatively to understand the world holistically in a way that is uniquely human. It may be reductionist to say that language is cognition but I believe it is accurate to say that modern homo Sapiens require language for human cognition unique to the wondrous and awful ways we have manipulated, mastered and altered the planet’s environment.

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  • Melvin,

    I think that at some stage, maybe not in the too distant future, genetics will be able to provide an answe, or tell us we have been all asking the wrong questions..

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  • Phil: I could only read a brief summary. The Stuff of Thought sounds provocative.

    From Wikipedia: Pinker argues that language provides a window into human nature, and that “analyzing language can reveal what people are thinking and feeling.” He asserts that language must do two things:
    convey a message to an audience, and
    negotiate the social relationship between the speaker and the audience.

    Pinker’s approach from the discipline of experimental psychology leads his writing into something closer to “philosophy of mind and language” than to empirical findings pinpointed by genetic or neurological investigation, which Steve calls for, in order to provide a hard-science explanation of how language acquisition and practice work. The Chomsky school at MIT, if I may call it that, believes that linguistic analysis has identified the structure and generative function common to “universal” human language and used reverse engineering from that analysis to make claims about the “innate” human mind.

    I look forward to new insights from all these sources. As laypersons the current welter of claims and counter-claims about linguistic phenomena limits our speculations to informed philosophical ruminations.

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  • Phil,

    Please, don’t get me started on Pinker! At least Chomsky’s purely formal linguistic work has rigour and is scientific, is all I will say about Pinker.

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