Monday, December 13, 2010

More on language and its origins…

Language is a very interesting and complex subject, and finding its true origins is something that we can only guess at. It is a field that is ever changing and growing to accommodate our new technologies and ways of life.  It is, as Christine Kenneally describes it, “Language is the real information highway, the fist virtual world.  Language is the worldwide web and everyone is logged on.”  Through this blog we have tried to outline what we know about the origins of language to the best of our ability.  However, this is such a controversial and widely hypothesized topic that we are only able to scratch the surface.  There is much more information available on the topic and since we have run out of time we will leave you with some further reading on the subject.  Here is a list of three books that elaborate more on the subject…

By: Christine Kenneally

By: Boris Mitrofanovich VelichkovskiÄ­, and Duane M. Rumbaugh

By: John H. McWhorter

Happy Reading!

Friday, December 10, 2010

Noam Chomsky’s View: On the Evolution of Language

            Noam Chomsky is commonly known as the father of modern linguistics. He has heavily influenced what we understand linguistics to be and he has made contributions as a philosopher and cognitive scientist. Noam Chomsky is one of the most influential scientists of modern and has given us a much better understanding of the human condition. His main contributions as a linguistic have been his theories of generative grammar and Chomsky hierarchy. With all of these contributions to language, his theory on the evolution of language is quite limited.
With regards to the evolution of language, Chomsky has not given much importance to the development of language. Mostly because he cannot imagine how the evolution of language came about. An example of Chomsky’s belief can be seen in the following quote:
Perhaps at some time hundreds of thousands of years ago, some small change took place; some mutation took place in the cells of pre-human organisms. And for reasons of physics, which are not yet understood, that led to the representation in the mind/brain of the mechanisms of discrete infinity, the basic concept of language and also of the number system. Perhaps that was the origin of human language. (Chomsky 1988, 183)
This is the common belief of Chomsky when it comes to the evolution of language. For the most part he is indifferent to the various theories presented on the evolution of language and to the importance of understanding it.  His ending sentence, “Perhaps that was the origin of human language” is a clear example of his apathy to the subject. For a man who has theories on almost everything (not just language) it is interesting that he is yet to formulate a strong theory for the evolution of language. His claim is that if language came to us by some random small mutation in our cells then that would not do much for understanding of language in the first place. Chomsky cannot see where the Darwinism component of natural selection would have occurred to give humans this common form of language.
We must take Chomsky’s point of view with a grain of salt, just because he does not have a strong theory about the evolution of language does not mean that learning it is not important. The difficulty of understanding the evolution of language should not be an indictment on its’ important rather it could be more of an indictment of our own intelligence. The evolution of language is complicated and still one of the great mysteries of the world. It may have been a random mutation without any clear advantages, but we still do not know. To better understand ourselves we must continue develop theories and research the evolution of language, because language is what separates us from other animals.
Chomsky, Noam 1988. Language and Problems of Knowledge: The Managua Lectures. Cambridge, Mass. / London, England: MIT Press (Current Studies in Linguistics Series 16).

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Communication Versus Language

We often see animals communicate with other animals; at least with the same species by making different kinds of noises that superficially resemble language. The bird songs, monkey alarms and honey bee dances are some of the examples that show animal characteristics resemble human beings learning of language but still, these characteristics do not prove that animals have languages.  Even if these parallels are considered as language, no non-human species have the cognitive ability to put these facets of language into an arranged rule generated system. The sounds that animals make are not equivalent to words and are far different if compared to nouns, verbs and sentences that make up human languages. The question is then what is language?  Are languages just forms of communication or do they have more to it? Human beings use many gestures in order to communicate but those gestures are not considered as language therefore, languages have more characteristics other than just to communicate. In the book called ‘The Symbolic Species,’ Terrence W. Deacon explains why the communication system used by the animals is not language and why there is no such thing as a simple language.

The author breaks down the book to three sections: the first part of the book talks about the nature of language, and the reasons why it is virtually confined to human beings. The second part of the book is about the brain, the uniqueness about the human brain that corresponds with the unique problems posed by language. The third part of the book talks about the co evolution of human brain and language. In the book, language is explained as an outward expression of an unusual mode of thought that help people to organize memories and ideas, shape thoughts and grasp the physical world in a better way.  The author mentions that the symbolic thoughts do not come innately but, grow by internalizing the symbolic process that underlies language. Grammar differentiates language from other forms communication that resembles language.

Deacon references Noam Chomsky’s argument that the ability of children to acquire the grammar of their first language and the ability of adults effortlessly to use this grammar can only be explained if we assume that all the grammars are variations of a single generic “Universal Grammar,” and that all human brains come with a built in language organ that comes with a language blue print. Language did not replace our other forms of communication as the non linguistic forms of communication co-evolved with language. This is proved by the fact that innate calls and gestures of other primates co-exist with human language.
Other aspects that prove language is exclusively for human beings is our exceptionally large brain and differently designed vocal tract. Our vocal tract beside chewing, breathing and swallowing can also make a wide variety of sounds that help humans to speak. Researches were conducted to evaluate how fast chimps pick up languages as they are human being’s closest primate but they master in communication with only a number of sign. In contrast, a human baby of age two or three pick up language very fast and this happens without any formal teaching. This proves that learning language is an innate part of human beings. The left part of human brain deals with language and the neuronal mechanism dealing with it is very different from the part of brain with general intelligence.   In an uncommon type of impairment called Specific Language Impairment, affected people have problems in grasping language whereas the other forms of cognition are normal. The opposite happens in spina bifida where the affected people have mental retardation yet they are fluent in language. The example of these two disorders shows that language is handled by human brain in a very unique way.
Work cited
The Symbolic Species by Terrence W. Deacon

Thursday, December 2, 2010

How Many Languages Are There?

The top nine widely spread languages are Mandarin (Chinese), Arabic, Spanish, English, Portuguese, Bengali, Hindi/Urdu, Russian and Japanese but there is no certainty to the exact number of languages that exist in this world.  Linguists give a figure from 3,000 to 10,000. The reason there is such a diverse range is that language is under constant change and many languages died and evolved over that period of time. Language is under constant change because it is transmitted to generations by learning. Every generation learn language from a different peer and see people interacting differently.           
Over the time, many languages died for example a language named Trumai. This language grew in Lower Culuene River of Brazil. In 1962, an epidemic influenza hit that place and by the end of that influenza the number of Trumai speakers drastically fell and became less than ten people and the language eventually died down. This example explains how some languages with very few speakers die after its speakers die. It is surprising to see how fast some languages can die for instance in Amazonia, the tribal language was superseded by the western language so that the tribal people can communicate better with the outside world. The new generation accepted and learned the new language fast and the tribal languages died as the earlier generation tribal people died. According to the record of the nineteenth century there were 1000 native Amazonian Indian languages and now, only 200 of those languages are ‘alive.’ Even today, all the languages in this world are not discovered. In the isolated places like Amazonia, Central Africa, New Guinea there are various tribal languages that are not discovered because linguistic studies is not yet completed in all parts of the world.  It is a common assumption that people living in the same location speak their known language or dialect but there can be no guarantee of that unless it is investigated because even the languages that sound and seem similar can be different.
Language and dialect:
         A language can have many versions like English has American, UK, Australian, New Zealand version and they have distinct dialects. These different versions of English have differences in spelling and pronunciation but there is no dispute that it is one language, English. There are no differences in the written form of English. But other factors like politics, ethics, religion and culture can differentiate languages in spite of their many similarities. For instance, Urdu and Hindi are very similar but still they are considered as different languages. For some cases, the opposite occurs. Languages that are completely different are considered the same language because of politics, history, and culture. For example the hundred of dialects of Chinese can be categorized into eight groups but they share the same written version. So there are different versions of Chinese, but they are still considered the same language.                                                           
After considering all these above reasons, it is not possible to give an exact count to the number of languages in the world. According to Ethnologue there are over 37,000 languages of which approximately 6,500 are living languages. The International Encyclopedia of Linguistics states that there are approximately 6600 languages that include the 300 extinct languages. So, some of the linguists have agreed that there are 6000 to 7000 living languages but there are many confusions and contradictions to how many total number of languages, both ‘dead’ and ‘alive’ existed in this world.
Work cited:
You tube clips:

Thursday, October 28, 2010

The Language of Children and Apes

Learning a language and how to use it is a very complex task, one that children seem to be born to do.  They are able to become fairly competent in their respective native languages by the age of four.  How do they do this, and is this trait found in other species?  The answer to these questions can not only give us incite on child development but it can also help to shed light on the evolution of language. 
Most linguists agree that children are able to learn language because they are born into an environment that encourages it and with an innate mechanism that predisposes them to it.  Most children are able to acquire language by the time they are four.  When they reach six months they are already capable of distinguishing between sounds differences that are present in their native language.  They prime their vocal chords and speech apparatus by cooing and babbling and by eight months their babbles start to simulate real words.  By the time they are ten to twelve months of age they start to say their first words, are combining words from 18 to 42 months of age, and display an understanding of word order and grammar, even if it is presented in overgeneralizations.  It has also been seen in deaf children who try to communicate through sign language to one another that if there is no set grammatical pattern present, they will create one themselves.
While some of these steps may seem trivial they are very important to the child’s development in language.  It is also important that the children learn in a specific time frame, within the critical period.  It has been seen that children who do not learn to speak and rules of grammar before the age of ten have I much harder time learning the language and are less likely to master it at the same level as other children their age who learned earlier.  One example of this can be seen in feral children and more specifically in Genie.  She was discovered at the age of thirteen, in her home locked in a room tied to a potty chair. She had never been socialized and did not even know how to walk.  Researchers tried to help her learn but even after years of work she was never able to reach the same level of competence as other people her age were normally at.
Humans seem to be built to talk.  We are provided with the larynx and the pharynx in the throat, the proper anatomical structures, and specialized areas in the brain that allow us to speak.  In contrast, when looking at other animals, none of them seem to have developed the same ability to communicate through language, although some have come close.  Many scientists have worked with some of our closest relatives, chimpanzees and bonobos to try and understand their ability for language.  One famous case of this was that of Kanzi the bonobo and his trainer Sue Savage-Rumbaugh.  She taught him how to communicate by using words through a lexigram geometric symbol system.  Kanzi started to learn how to use the lexigram symbols when he was little as Sue was attempting to teach his mother through an operant conditioning system.  She realized that Kanzi was learning the symbols by observing her work with his mother without needing to be rewarded.  Sue decided to switch her tactics and to teach Kanzi through immersing him in language.  Kanzi was able to learn over 200 lexigram symbols and was able to combine the symbols with gestures to communicate more complex messages.  While Kanzi was able to learn a large vocabulary and to understand simple sentences even with multiple subjects he was never able to learn grammar.
By looking at the process that children go through to learn language and seeing the difference between their ability to learn language and that of the apes we can see that the mechanisms for speech, both the metal capacity and the physical attributes, evolved in humans at some point after we split from our common ancestor so many years ago.  We can get a better understanding of how are brains have evolved to produce the ability to speak and why other animals can’t.  We can see that our brains most likely evolved to include grammar as an innate characteristic after we were able to have a vocabulary and use signs to try and communicate what we want or how we feel. 

Sources and other readings:
Speaking Bonobo
Symbolic Cross-Modal Transfer
Salient Speech Sound Differences
Language Comprehension in Ape and Child
Gray, P. (2010). Psychology (6th ed., pp. 397-432). New York: Worth Publishers.
Some videos to check out:

Thursday, October 7, 2010


Language is one of of the major factors that make us distinctively different from animals. There is not much evidence on the evolution of our complex language, however in relatively recent scientific history strides have been made. In 2001 the gene FOXP2 was identified by geneticist Anthony Monaco’s group at Oxford University, in collaboration with cognitive neuroscientist Faraneh Vargha-Khadem and colleagues at the Institute of Child Health in London (Balter). This is the first of many genes that gave humans the ability of speech. The FOXP2 gene appears 200,000 years ago, at the same time that modern humans emerged. Further solidifing that this gene and changes to this gene have had direct influence on the development of language for humans. This implies that the FOXP2 helped to make human culture possible. The FOXP2 is not the only gene that is involved with human language, but it is the first one to be discovered. Scientist Wolfgang Enard expresses that there could be from 10 to 10,000 other genes involved with human speech and language(BBC). Presently mutations of the FOXP2 gene cause speech and language disabilities. This is how the gene was discovered by analyzing the KE family who portray many of these speech and language disabilities. The actual identity of this family is not known but they have been used for these scientific purposes. Scientists later on found the gene encodes a protein with 715 amino acids. Our common ancestor mice have only 3 changes in the amino acid sequence. There are also only two changes in the sequence between chimpanzees and humans. Consequently the two changes in the sequence that occurred between chimpanzees and humans are much more significant than the change from mice to chimp. Since mice and chimp have relatively similar speech capabilities.

The diagram above illustrates the differences in the sequencing of the amino acids.
The discovery of FOXP2 was exciting and is continously debated on the overall importance of the gene. There have been claims that it is the gene of language or the gene of grammar, both of which are fantastical claims. The evolution of language relies on much more than the mutation of one gene, but that does not make the discovery any less important. It gives scientists a starting point to explore more possiblities and create new hypotheses on the evolution of language. 

Youtube Clip

'Speech Gene' Tied to Modern Humans

First language gene discovered

FOXP2 and the Evolution of Language

Thursday, September 23, 2010

An Introduction to the Origin of Language

The origin of language is a difficult subject to study because there are no records of the first signs of speech, nor is there anything such as fossils to help in the study of speech and how it first came about.  The only thing that can be done is to hypothesize.  One such hypothesis, is presented to us by Greg Urban, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania.  He proposes the idea that language originated through the use of metasignaling, which is comprised of signals that can have dual meanings based on the context; these first signals began more as cries rather than distinguishable words.  He also focuses on the advantage that humans have which predisposes them to be more qualified to speak.  This advantage is the connection between the motor area of the neocortex and the larynx. The control over the larynx is vital to the production of syllables and then to the formation of language.  Primates, the closest ancestors to humans, lack this connection and therefore cannot form syllables the way that humans are able to.  Urban also hypothesizes that the origins of language come from communications of sound between mother and child, and for language to proliferate and continue it must be between adults as well.  These sounds would then evolve into signals that might be used to communicate without disturbing daily activities.  It is also very useful in signaling for danger and passing on useful information such as what is edible and what is not.  This ability to communicate without having to halt productivity, and being able to alert others of danger would be advantageous and therefore selected for survival.  This would lead to greater control over the larynx and other vocal instruments by way of the neocortex.  Urban state, “Selective pressure would favor individuals who could not only control their own larynx and vocal apparatus in the service of strategic reasoning but also interpret the vocal signals emitted by others through reasoning about them.  The net effect would be individuals primed to invent and interoperate new vocalizations.”  This new form of communication would be advantageous to humans and therefore selection would favor those who were able to produce and interoperate signals, which would continue to promote the connection of the neocortex and the larynx.  Once this connection is made and the process is started then the formation of new signals can begin.  The formation of new signals is done by altering existing signals so that they are still recognizable, but still obviously different from the original.  Henceforth, it is argued that language was determined by culture.
Along with many hypotheses on this subject there are also many focused on the reasons for the development of language.  In Roy D’Andrade’s article, “Cultural Darwinism and Language”, he discusses five main assumptions used to explain this phenomenon.  The first assumption is, “that language is not a unified entity but, rather, consists of a multifunctional variety of perceptual, and behavioral processes and structures.”  Second, a multitude of functions that the human language provides, like communication, are shared with other species and not confined to humans alone.  The last three functions are chiefly confined to humans and are called the representative function, the commissive function, and finally the declarative function.  The representative function represents the declarative sentence that communicates information about something that may or may not be present. The commissive function represents the obligation or promise to do something, and the declarative function is where the person talking generates some variety of symbolic condition.  Not all of these functions came about at once but were added as needed and helped to shape language as we know it.