2 October 2009

Imagining the birth of language

One of the blogs I ususally follow is Babel's Dawn, published by Edmund Blair Bolles. Babel's Dawn focuses on a linguistic topic that has received considerable attention in the last couple of decades, and that I find quite interesting: the origins of human speech. In his blog, Mr Bolles discusses the main trends in this field of research and makes his own proposals. He is not a 'professional' linguist or a university professor specialised in the subject. However, his posts are on the cutting edge. Quite interestingly, he attends international conferences on language origins, as a 'freelance' linguist. I like this kind of things; I am convinced that something as complex and profound as the study of language origins involves something more than linguistic academia, and ousider views are probably quite ncecessary too. He was at the 2008 Evolang Conference in Barcelona and has recently attended the Ways to Protolanguage Conference in Torun (Poland), publishing a series of interesting posts about the most remarkable proposals made in both events. In the last post about the Torun Conference he focused on the concept of proto-language, which was one of the most debated issues in that conference. I have just posted a comment in that post. In fact, what I wrote in that comment is an idea that I was planning to develop as a post in my blog. But finally, as you can see, it is written in the form of a post comment, i.e. in a more dialectical form. You can read it here.

And here's an excerpt from my comment:

I think language must have started with a few nouns and a few imperatives, and little more. The increase in vocabulary, in both the nominal and verbal sides of language, and the development of more varied ways of expressing notions such as time and space, must have put human language in a critical position: how can you possibly handle an ever increasing number of nomina and verba and of linguistic variabiblity? Can you just memorise the whole set, or is it not just easier if you do what humans have always done: use logic? I think 'grammar' is just a logical response to the increase in size of human language. There's nothing special about recursion or parameters; they are examples of a human response to a given problem. Grammar as we imagine it (or the 'true language' that some linguists talk about) is an additional tool, a necessary solution that makes language (a communicative tool in itself) apt for social use: rather than having an unlimited number of nouns, verbs and functions, humans have implemented a series of patterns using analogy and logic.


Mariana Soffer said...

Very interesting post, I never thought about it, what I did thought about is the expansion of english, here it is:
But english is changing fast too. There is no area of the culture that collision's more intensely than that, for the web has changed English more radically than any invention since paper, and much faster. According to Paul Payack, who runs the Global Language Monitor, there are currently 988,974 words in the English language, with thousands more emerging every month. By his calculation, English will adopt its one millionth word in late November. To put that statistic another way, for every French word, there are now ten in English.

and you can also check the rest:

great thought really!

Jesús Sanchis said...

Hello Mariana, thanks for your comments and for the link.

Nowadays we are used to concepts such as 'nouns', 'adjectives', 'verbs', and in any case we use these categories in our everyday speech, so that a combination noun + adjective, for example, is something that we take for granted. Very probably however, in the beginnings of human language these abstractiions, or these combinatory mechanisms, were far from being established. Maybe the vocabulary corpus then consisted of distinctive units with meanings such as 'red stone' or 'grey sky', or vebal units like 'sit next to me' or 'look at the bird'. If the number of units is relatively small, it is easy to remember them and use them; however, with an increasing number of units, it is a far better idea to implement some kind of analytical procedure, e.g. recursion, with more abstract entities such as 'nouns' and 'adjectives' differentiated from each other.

I think that the step from just storing language units to organizing these units in a more economic and functional way was a result of the application of human logic, rather than the consequence of a supposed inborn linguistic mechanism. It is our capacity for abstraction that created grammar, in the same way as it allowed us to control fire or to make tools.

JoseAngel said...

A very plausible account of the origin and evolution of grammar, I should say. It would also suggest that the "complex" grammar of primitive languages would be a grammar in the making, not readily distinguishable from non-grammar. The evolution and standardization of language would lead to a simplification of some basic patterns and the development of complex syntactic and discursive forms made possible by the existence of a coherent grammar.

Jesús Sanchis said...

I'm glad that you like my little 'theory', JoseAngel.

I'm not sure about the concept of 'non-grammar'. Where is the dividing line between 'grammar' and 'non-grammar'? It's like one of these profound questions which are impossible to answer. But there is still an ongoing debate about these concepts, especially among American linguists. They write hundreds or thousands of pages about such concepts as Universal Grammar or the LAD, but I find the whole thing (Chomskyan linguistics) quite useless. Chomsky's main concern is with standard languages, which are the result of a process that you have described very accurately in your comment.

One of Chomsky's 'brilliant' concepts is the 'Language Acquisition Device'. Following the example, I would propose other devices: the Bicycle-Riding Learning Device, the Chess-Playing Learning Device,... Why not?

In my opinion, language derives from the same type of logic from which other human skills derive. At some point in our 'evolution' as a species there was a mutation allowing the rich vocal possibilities of modern humans, and these new possibilities were developed by an already complex brain, with a capacity for abstraction and logical thought.