Language & Species

Summary by:

 

Victoria Boccanfuso, Shawna Metcalfe, Amy Niwaa

Loyola Marymount University







Dr. Michael Mills

Evolutionary Psychology

October 14, 2000




 

Introduction

Over a few million years the concept of communication has evolved to such a specific state that we now posses the ability to intelligently speak and interpret thoughts and feelings as well as manipulate the thoughts and feelings of others through words. Language is a service possessed only by human beings. Its purpose however, that of communication, is an activity in which all species engage. In some way, all creatures communicate, not by words or facial expressions, but in their own way these creatures convey their desires and emotions to other members of their species. The type of communication facilitated is species specific, such as language to humans and sonar to dolphins. Many people may not relate the concept of human language to animals but it is merely a qualitative difference between the two species (Bickerton 1990). Evolutions do not result out of nothing, therefore human language had to evolve from some concept of communication. The Continuity Paradox explores the possibilities of the origin of language.

 

The Continuity Paradox

Derek Bickerton proposes a theory of continuity in studying the origin of language. Bickerton states that "evolutionary adaptations do not emerge out of the blue" and because every adaptation is a result of some evolution, novel elements are impossible (Bickerton 1990).

The Continuity Paradox follows that language resulted from the continuous process to perfect communication among species. While communication is a concept possessed by all creatures, quantitative, human beings are the first and only species to have developed their communication to such a specific level, qualitative.

Language began from the communication mechanisms of animals and the earliest Homo sapiens. As our brains expanded and evolved, our need for a more sophisticated type of communication became necessary. Since evolution is a series of antecedents, earlier events or adaptations that lead to the occurrence of an event, it seems that the obvious antecedent to language is animal communication (Bickerton 1990).

Formalism

In considering the paradox of Continuity, we must also consider the concept of formalism. Formalism refers to the formal structure language has developed in its quest for perfection throughout the years. For example, things such as grammar, syntax, and sentence structure.

With the concept of Formalism also comes the concept of Anti-Formalism. Antiformalists believe that it is pointless to study the formal functions of language when they do not affect how language is useful in society. This view creates the two imbalances between formalism and antiformalism in language.

One imbalance is, quite obviously, in what each believes. If asked why they focus on studying the formal structure of language as opposed to its purpose in social interaction or its psychological significance, a formalist might say that advancement in knowledge has focused on particular specific aspects (Bickerton 1990). In other words, the study of our own species and their habits of cognition are unnecessary in relation to the construction and grammar of the sentences we use to relay these cognitive outputs. On the other hand, if an antiformalist were asked why they choose not to focus on the formal structure of language but instead on its role in society and relationships, one might reply that it is pointless to study the structure of language and not how this structure helps humans to function in the society of which they are so much a part.

Another imbalance is that as a result of the formalist's disregard for the evolution of language, they have left that issue open to criticism of evolutionary theory. Thus, the antiformalists bear the weight of defending the reason and importance of the Continuity Paradox in the evolution of language.

 

Animal Communication

The concept of quantity versus quality is a distinction used by the author to describe the difference between human and animal adaptations. We are not so different from animals except in the extent of our evolutions. We have both evolved the mechanisms to obtain food and protection for our offspring and ourselves, we have acquired the means to provide for and support our families, and have gained respect in our societies as intelligent and capable individuals.

The major difference between human and animal communication is that animals have a fixed amount of topics upon which to exchange information and an equally fixed number of ways message components can be combined (Bickerton 1990).

One interesting point posed by Bickerton is that animal communication is holistic. In other words, it can communicate whole situations where as human language can explain only certain entities at once. Where an animal can express anger by a specific stance or raising of fur, a human has to actually say, "I am angry".

 

Representation

Bickerton states that everything a creature (human or animal) perceives is only a representation of the actual thing, it is in no way the reality of what is actually there. For example, we perceive everything in our environment using sensory mechanisms. Certain environmental cues excite certain cells that are programmed to recognize only those cues. Therefore what we see, or what is represented, are not what is actually there but what our brains are capable of relaying to our visual centers. In other words, language as a representation of what we see or feel is only accurate in our own minds because our perception is subjective.

 

The Fossils of Language

Bickerton argues that the only coherent argument for language origins is what has been described as "Fossilism". Fossilism is the belief that the reconstruction of human development is possible only through fossils that are left behind. Thus he says that since we have no relevant evidence(bones) from the prior existence of language we must then look for a sort of linguistic fossil. The equivalent of a linguistic fossil he argues is a living organism. These living organisms once studied will reveal how language emerged.

Bickerton uses several examples of living fossils' to help us understand where language emerged from. The first example is the fact that apes learning capacities were limited. They could learn associations between arbitrary elements and concepts but could never come up with the structure, or as many elements as the human language has. This suggested that apes are far from human attainment. He further ads that there must be a distinct linguistic code, with consistent properties, that can be found as a universal starting point of language; like the properties found in ape utterances. He sites the case of Gene a thirteen-year-old that was found after being imprisoned in a bathroom for her whole life. Gene after much coaching still could not develop the full capacity of language that regular thirteen-year-olds have. Bickerton states though that she had the same language capabilities as the apes, very simple utterances with very little structure. Next he sites pidgin languages, which are languages like "spanglish" where you use your native language and parts of the common language to try and make the common people understand you. This language' too is very primitive, using simple nouns and very little if any "a's", "the's" and so on. Lastly he talks about the type of language that one would use in a foreign country which is very slow, pronounced, and contains only key words. This is also the language that babies speak in all cultures. So he argues there is a thing called Protolanguage that is not fully innate, because to realize its existence you need some form of lexical input.

From Protolanguage to Language

Across various cultures, people spend about 20% of the time they are awake talking. This behavior consists of emitting highly structured streams of sounds, which are recognized as words, sentences, states of affairs, arguments, intentions. This is what we know as language. Once we understand the emergence of protolanguage, how can we form that into true language?

It has been argued that the development of language has been formed by two different views: the gradualist' view and the catastrophic' view. The gradualist' view seems to be supported by the bulk of fossil evidence whereas the catastrophic' view is supported by genetic evidence. Both views have obvious simplifications for the development of language: we cannot live without language.

The fact remains that Darwinian evolution is the only currently available, nonmiraculous explanation for the appearance of our most remarkable and useful ability, language. Language is an ability that some believe may be responsible for a complete experience of human consciousness.

There seems to be a direct transition from protolanguage to true language. And it has been also suggested that an intermediate interlanguage'any distinct linguistic mode between protolanguage to true languagedoes exist. This meaning that there is no apparent transition between the two. One such example is pidgin. Pidgin can change into Creole language, meaning from protolanguage to true language without any intermediate stage.

What happened in Hawaii, in regards to pidgin language, was a jump from protolanguage to language in a single generation. The language came from the languages of Hawaii's immigrants combined together and not from Hawaiian, the indigenous language; nor that of English, the politically dominant language. Knowing this fact argues that Creole languages form an unusually direct expression of a species-specific biological characteristic, a capacity to recreate language in the absence of any specific model from which the properties of language could be learned' in the ways we normally learn things.

There have been arguments against there being no interlanguage' from protolanguage to true language. One individual who argues that there is some form of interlanguage is David Premack. He proposed two possible interlanguages. His first' language suggests that words referred to the addresser and addressee would have a fixed order, but words that referred to other entities would drift freely in the sentence'. This suggests the assumption of fixed serial ordering. It doesn't make sense that one would have an easier time acquiring Premack's first' language than to acquire true language. The second' language Premack suggested would map thematic roles directly onto surface ordering. Subjects would always be Agents, direct objects would always be Patients, indirect objects would always be Goals, etcThe problem with this language is that no every sentence expresses every thematic role. It seems that it has been difficult to think of a possible interlanguage. Next, there is the possibility of the development of protolanguage. Protolanguage has shown over time a degree of development during its lifetime. It seems that protolanguage did develop a set of proto-grammatical items, that is, meaningful if somewhat abstract units that may have included some or all of the following: negators, question words, pronouns, relative-time markers, quantifiers, modal auxiliaries, and particles indicating location. Also, protolanguage has developed some thematic roles. The thematic structure seems deeply rooted in history, perhaps outside of language altogether. Protolanguage has formed grammatical ways of speaking. It was possible for our ancestors to attain what they needed. Thus this is evidence that these thematic roles in protolanguage preceded the emergence of true language. These thematic roles may even be used by language later to come. Although protolanguage has some developments of grammatical items and thematic roles, there is still so much missing from language. Language itself is immensely complex, multifaceted, and essentially a mysterious thing. It is far more complex than we can imagine. To find the answers to where language came from, we do need the help of other sciences like neurology, genetics, evolutionary biology, paleoanthropology, and linguistics. All those together can help in time figure out the workings of the human brain that makes us, humans, capable of language.

Language & Species

I.                    Introduction

A.    Over a few million years the concept of communication has evolved to such a specific state that we now posses the ability to intelligently speak and interpret thoughts and feelings as well as manipulate the thoughts and feelings of others through words.

B.     Language is a service possessed only by human beings. Its purpose however, that of communication, is an activity in which all species engage.

 

II.                 The Continuity Paradox

A.    The Continuity Paradox follows that language resulted from the continuous process to perfect communication among species.

B.     Language began from the communication mechanisms of animals and the earliest Homo sapiens. As our brains expanded and evolved, our need for a more sophisticated type of communication became necessary.

III.               Formalism

A.    Formalism refers to the formal structure language has developed in its quest for perfection throughout the years.

B.     Antiformalists believe that it is pointless to study the formal functions of language when they do not affect how language is useful in society.

IV.              Fossils of Language

A.    Living organisms hold the evidence for the emergence of language.

B.     4 main groups were looked at: trained apes, children under two, adults deprived of language in early years, and speakers of pidgen.

V.                 Protolanguage

A.    Protolanguage was found to be the connecting point between all 4 groups looked at, thus foundation of language.

B.     Protolanguage is not fully innate and does require minimal training, but it is there in all the groups looked at.

VI.              Protolanguage to Language

A. What we know as language' and the progression of protolanguage to true language.

B.     Why we cannot live without language.

VII. Interface of Language A.Is there a direct transition or is there an interlanguage'?

B.Pidgin: a single generation jump to language; and where it originated from

VIII.         Interlanguage

A.Premack: first' language and second' language

B.Development of protolanguage

C.Figuring out where language came from

Critical Review Points

I.                    Two interesting and informative points made by the author

A.    All species communicate but humans are the only species to do so through language

 

B. Creole languages form an unusually direct expression of a species-specific biological characteristic, a capacity to recreate language in the absence of any specific model from which the properties of language could be learned' in the ways we normally learn things.

 

 

II.                 Two arguments proposed by the author which the panel thought to be weak

A.    Formal structure and antiformal views of language are separate and unrelated

 

B. If there has been languages formed without interlanguage', then why does Bickerton still think that there may be an interlanguage during the protolanguage to true language stage?

 

III.               Two remaining questions

 

A. Why does Bickerton suggest that language evolved from animal communication then, later on, propose that it could not possibly have?

 

B. Because language is so complex, will we ever find out where exactly language came from?

Bibliography

Bickerton, Derek. Lqanguage & Species.Chicago: The University of Chicago Press,1990.


Language & Species

        Over a few million years the concept of communication has evolved to such a specific state that we now posses the ability to intelligently speak and interpret thoughts and feelings as well as manipulate the thoughts and feelings of others through words.

 

        The Continuity Paradox follows that language resulted from the continuous process to perfect communication among species.

 

        Formalism refers to the formal structure language has developed in its quest for perfection throughout the years.

 

        Antiformalists believe that it is pointless to study the formal functions of language when they do not affect how language is useful in society.

 

        Living organisms hold the evidence for the emergence of language.

 

        4 main groups were looked at: trained apes, children under two, adults deprived of language in early years, and speakers of pidgen.

 

        Protolanguage was found to be the connecting point between all 4 groups looked at, thus foundation of language

 

        Protolanguage is not fully innate and does require minimal training, but it is there in all the groups looked at.

 

        Pidgin: a single generation jump to language; and where it originated from

 

        Figuring out where language came from