Explore how six college students use the language of physical anthropology to study the human origins of language.

20 April 2011

From the Desk of MIT Linguistics Professor Noam Chomsky: Theories on the Origins of Language

From Steven Pinker’s The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language (print source)
Chapter 4: “How Language Works”
There are two facts related to the human ability of conveying and understanding sentences or messages. Pinker describes this ability as the “essence of language instinct: language conveys news." The first method to understanding is “the arbitrariness of the sign.” This means that we understand the sound of the word and the meaning together as one. For example, we pair the word “dog’ with its meaning even though the word itself does not bark or walk like a dog. The second method behind the language instinct was developed by Humboldt and Chomsky. Together they captured the idea that “language makes infinite use in finite media.” Because of this we can decode the order of the words to formulate thoughts. Chomsky called this idea generative grammar, which allows humans to communicate with meaningful understanding (Pinker 75).

The fact that we have grammatical rules and an order to our language does not necessarily mean the sentences always makes sense. Chomsky’s example can be recognized as grammatically correct in terms of syntax, but it is understood only as nonsense: “Colorless green ideas sleep furiously” (Pinker 79) -- SEE ABOVE DIAGRAM.

Chomsky’s theories became famous during the 1960s. Most notable was his “deep structure” idea that referred to hidden and meaningful concepts. Over time it developed into the deep structure of poems and myths. Although the abstract and deep structure ideas have become a major part of our language today, Chomsky and other linguists believe that humans do not need the complicated “deep structure” (Pinker 114). Overall, Chomsky and Pinker believe grammar has a logic of its own and cannot be tied down by psychologists’ ideas, which usually argue that grammar responds to speech muscles and the mental commands that interact with the mind and the muscles. They both believe that learning complicated syntax is not caused by learning itself.

Chomsky’s “principles and parameters” theory posits a guideline (i.e., “super-rule”) for the way a given phrase must look in order for a human to understand. This “principle” become usable only if the phrase exists in a language-specific setting dependent on order. Chomsky argues for the universality and innateness of these super-rules, whose learning consists only of developing an understanding for the culturally constructed syntactical order (Pinker 104). Pinker writes, “The details of syntax have figured prominently in the history of psychology, because they are a case where complexity in the mind is not caused by learning; learning is caused by complexity in the mind” (Pinker 118).

From MIT World: “The Biology of the Language Faculty: Its Perfection, Past and Future” 
Noam Chomsky Lecture (October 2007):

In this video lecture, Chomsky shares some of his thoughts on the biology behind human language. He explores two main components of a language system that has biological roots. The first is what is termed Universal Grammar, and from there comes the growth and learning approaches of an individual. Although a Universal Grammar has been considered controversial, Chomsky argues that the alternative would have to be something as silly as “magic.” There has to be a reason why his “granddaughter picked out part of her environment as language-related, and almost reflexively developed a language while her pet kitten, a chimp or songbird - exposed to exactly the same data - didn’t take the first step and couldn’t conceivably take the second.” Chomsky talks further about a third factor of linguistics involving research that has found that around 50 to 100 thousand years ago, humans had a large leap forward in their cognitive capabilities. This most likely was related to the emergence of language, which we know takes a highly functioning brain. Chomsky’s argument is that in an abrupt change such as this, the materialization as something as near perfect as a Universal Grammar would be possible. This has come to be termed the strong minimalist thesis (SMT). Chomsky links this to the idea of transformational grammar, saying, “A simple form of transformational grammar is just the optimal system, and if you don’t have it, you’d have to have an argument as to why you don’t.”

From YouTube: “Language and the Mind Revisited: The Biolinguistic Turn”
Noam Chomsky Lecture (July 2003):

In a lecture given at the University of California-Berkeley, Noam Chomsky discusses his innateness hypothesis and how it differentiates humans from animals. This hypothesis has been interpreted in various ways by different linguists and refuted by many as well. The basic argument of the hypothesis is that all humans already have some language faculty at birth. From the moment their life begins, every human already knows something about language and is capable of learning more about it. In this lecture, Chomsky notes that there is no one definition of the innateness hypothesis, but many. He explains that the first language a person learns (I languages) is learned in a different way from any language that may be acquired later on in life; animals do not have this ability, thereby distinguishing human language from any other form of communication used by animals.

05 April 2011

Ding-Dong, Pooh-Pooh, Bow-Wow and Ta-Ta: An Overview of Different Theories on Language Origins

Some believe that language is a divine gift given to humans by God, while others argue that language is simply the product of many years of natural selection. Either way, at some point in evolution, humans developed the ability to speak. But how did it all start? How did humans first discover their ability to speak and begin to formulate the first language? Conceived by linguists, a number of “invention hypotheses” explain the possible ways in which language first originated in humans. The following are explanations of a few examples of hypotheses:

From the desk of Western Washington University professor Edward Vadja: “Linguistics 201: The Origin of Language”:
Four Imitation Hypotheses:
1. DING-DONG: The “ding-dong” hypothesis bases the origins of language on onomatopoeia. This idea states that language began when humans started naming objects after a relevant sound that was already involved in their everyday life. Examples include words such as “boom,” “crash,” and “oink.”

These represent the sounds of certain objects, but it is unclear how to provide onomatopoeia for silent objects such as a rock. It also does not consider abstract ideas like love or justice, as there are no sounds for these words. Also, this hypothesis does not supply words for grammar or abstract items in the English language, so it is not hard to imagine that these types of words are unusual and rare in most languages. Onomatopoeia is such a small part of linguistics and varies greatly from language to language.  Because of these limitations it is considered a limited hypothesis.

2. POOH-POOH: The basis for the “pooh-pooh” hypothesis holds true to the involuntary nature of human speech. Through emotional response, language and speech would have developed in tandem with human interaction and primitive emotional reactions. Such sounds as “wa wa wa” or “ha ha ha,” commonly used to denoted crying or pain and happiness or laughter, respectively, would then develop into a more unique and case-specific series of sounds in association with other emotions and interactions (Vadja).

The problem with this hypothesis, however, is that exclamations, such as the emotional responses that one might associate with these “pooh-pooh” phrases, are in fact dependent on language instead of a basis through which language can be created. For instance, the essence of emotional response for pain is “ouch” in English, “oi” in Russian and “eee” in Cherokee (Vadja). If there was a generalized emotional response that all people made independently of each other, then perhaps there would be some legitimacy to the argument. But those noises that we all do make based on the stimuli of sneezes or hiccups cannot demonstrate a common linguistic nature between peoples.

3. BOW-WOW: The “bow wow” hypothesis is the most popular but perhaps the most far-fetched hypothesis of them all. Basically, it is the idea that human language and vocabulary originated as a form of imitation. It is said that language came from the imitation of animal sounds.

The problem that arises in this hypothesis is that a lot of words that describe animal sounds in different languages are similiar. For instance, in English a pig makes the sound “oink-oink.” In Russian the sound is translated as “hyru-hyru” and in Chinese the sound is translated as “oh-ee-oh-ee.” As one can see, these words represent the sound of a single animal in different languages. The sound and pronunciation of these words are not similar. The overall idea is that one’s language determines how one interprets a sound, and since we have may languages, one cannot prove that human vocabulary comes from them.

4. TA-TA: As commonly seen in primates, hand gestures and body movement are important aspects of interaction and cooperation within societies. Originally hypothesized by Charles Darwin, though not necessarily supported by him, the “ta-ta” hypothesis states that language and the development of sound was generated to support the hand gestures and movements of the individual. So as to better demonstrate the meaning behind the gestures, these sounds progressed into more and more distinct words or combinations of sounds inevitably leading to speech patterns.

Although plausible like many of the other hypothesis, the cultural roots of varying hand gestures suggests that this is most likely not the reason behind language. Where in some places nodding means “yes,” in others nodding means the opposite. Such distinct cultural differences implies that this is not a sound hypothesis.

From the desk of Princeton linguistics professor Maggie Browning: “What is generative grammar?”
First theorized by Noam Chomsky, generative grammar is a field of linguistics that involves the functioning of rules and laws of grammar. The four sub-fields that comprise generative grammar include: phonology (the study of how languages sound), morphology (the study of how words are formed and what they mean), syntax (the study of the structure of sentences), and semantics (the study of linguistic meaning). This theory holds that a “language faculty” has run throughout humankind, and that every human is born with the ability to learn or create a language, which therefore points to similarities in all human language forms.

This theory allows linguists to separate the inherited aspects of grammar from the ones influenced by culture, surroundings or other outside factors. By observing all of the commonalities within the various languages across the world, anthropologists gain a unique insight into the interplay of language and the way cultures evolve.

From YouTube: “Chomsky LAD”:
This video explains Chomsky’s idea of the Language Acquisition Device (LAD), which proposes that all humans are born with an innate ability to learn and understand the structures of language.

Relevant Links:
“The Origins of Language”: http://webspace.ship.edu/cgboer/langorigins.html 
     Dr. C. George Boeree’s list of 10 differing theories on the origins of language
“Overview of modern theories of language origins”:
     Includes “yakkety-yak,” “noddy” and “looky-look” theories

What is generative grammar?” (Maggie Browning)