Archive for Biology of language

On whether prairie dogs can talk

Ferris Jabr recently published in the New York Times Magazine an interesting article about the field research of Con Slobodchikoff, professor emeritus of biology at Northern Arizona University, on prairie dog alarm calls. The article title is “Can Prairie Dogs Talk?

It is an interesting question. People who have read my earlier posts on animal communication have been pressing me to say something about my reaction to it. In this post I will do that. I will not be able to cover all the implications and ramifications of the question, of course; for one interesting discussion that has already appeared in the blogosphere, see this piece by Edmund Blair Bolles. But I will try to be careful and scholarly, and in an unusual departure (disappointingly, perhaps, to those who relished my bitterly sarcastic remarks on cow naming behavior), I will attempt to be courteous. Nonetheless, I will provide a clear and explicit answer to Jabr’s question.

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Advances in birdsong modeling

Eve Armstrong and Henry Abarbanel, “Model of the songbird nucleus HVC as a network of central pattern generators“, Journal of neurophysiology, 2016:

We propose a functional architecture of the adult songbird nucleus HVC in which the core element is a “functional syllable unit” (FSU). In this model, HVC is organized into FSUs, each of which provides the basis for the production of one syllable in vocalization. Within each FSU, the inhibitory neuron population takes one of two operational states: (A) simultaneous firing wherein all inhibitory neurons fire simultaneously, and (B) competitive firing of the inhibitory neurons. Switching between these basic modes of activity is accomplished via changes in the synaptic strengths among the inhibitory neurons. The inhibitory neurons connect to excitatory projection neurons such that during state (A) the activity of projection neurons is suppressed, while during state (B) patterns of sequential firing of projection neurons can occur. The latter state is stabilized by feedback from the projection to the inhibitory neurons. Song composition for specific species is distinguished by the manner in which different FSUs are functionally connected to each other.

Ours is a computational model built with biophysically based neurons. We illustrate that many observations of HVC activity are explained by the dynamics of the proposed population of FSUs, and we identify aspects of the model that are currently testable experimentally. In addition, and standing apart from the core features of an FSU, we propose that the transition between modes may be governed by the biophysical mechanism of neuromodulation.

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Annals of Spectacularly Misleading Media

If you were scanning science-related stories in the mass media over the past 10 days or so, you saw some extraordinary news. A few examples:

Scientists discover a ‘universal human language’”.
The hidden sound patterns that could overturn years of linguistic theory” (“In a surprising new study, researchers have uncovered powerful associations between sounds and meanings across thousands of unrelated languages”).
Global human language? Scientists find links between sound and meaning” (“A new linguistic study suggests that biology could play a role in the invention of human languages”).
In world’s languages, scientists discover shared links between sound and meaning” (“Sifting through two-thirds of the world’s languages, scientists have discovered a strange pattern: Words with the same meanings in different languages often seem to share the same sounds”).
Words with same meanings in different languages often seem to share same sounds” (“After analyzing two-thirds of the languages worldwide, scientists have noticed an odd pattern. They have found that the words with same meaning in different languages often apparently have the same sounds”).
Unrelated Languages Often Use Same Sounds for Common Objects and Ideas, Research Finds“.
Researchers Find the Sounds We Build Words From Have Built-In Meanings“.

The trouble is, many of these reports are complete nonsense: no one “discovered a universal human language” or “overturned years of linguistic theory” or showed that “world languages have a common ancestor” or demonstrated that “the sounds we build words from have built-in meanings”. And other stories simply trumpet as news something that has been known, argued, or assumed for millennia: “biology could play a role in the invention of human language”, “words with the same meaning in different languages often have the same sounds”, etc.) There may be a story out there that soberly presents the actual content and significance of the research — but if so, I haven’t found it.

How did this happen? It seems to be the same old sad tale. Science writers, in search of sensational headlines and lacking adequate background to read and evaluate actual scientific papers, re-wrote wildly irresponsible press releases.  And as usual, it’s not clear how complicit the scientists were, but there’s little evidence that they tried very hard to tone down the hoopla.

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Ecology and phonology

Ian Maddieson and Christophe Coupé, “Human spoken language diversity and the acoustic adaptation hyothesis“, ASA 2015

Bioacousticians have argued that ecological feedback mechanisms contribute to shaping the acoustic signals of a variety of species and anthropogenic changes in soundscapes have been shown to generate modifications to the spectral envelope of bird songs. Several studies posit that part of the variation in sound structure across spoken human languages could likewise reflect adaptation to the local ecological conditions of their use. Specifically, environments in which higher frequencies are less faithfully transmitted (such as denser vegetation or higher ambient temperatures) may favor greater use of sounds characterized by lower frequencies. Such languages are viewed as “more sonorous”. This paper presents a variety of tests of this hypothesis.  

Data on segment inventories and syllable structure is taken from LAPSyD, a database on phonological patterns of a large worldwide sample of languages. Correlations are examined with measures of temperature, precipitation, vegetation, and geomorphology reflecting the mean values for the area in which each language is traditionally spoken. Major world languages, typically spoken across a range of environments, are excluded. Several comparisons show a correlation between ecological factors and the ratio of sonorant to obstruent segments in the languages examined offering support for the idea that acoustic adaptation applies to human languages.

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Modeling repetitive behavior

A recent conversation with Didier Demolin about animal vocalizations motivated me to return to a an issue discussed in “Finch linguistics“, 7/15/2011. (See also “Markov’s heart of darkness“, 7/18/2011, “Non-Markovian yawp“, 9/18/2011, and “The long get longer“, 12/4/2013.)

The point is this: In modeling the structure of simple repetitive behavior, considerations from (traditional) formal language theory can obscure rather than clarify the issues. These threats to insight include the levels of the Chomsky-Schützenberger hierarchy, the “recursion” controversy, and so on.

What follows is an attempt at a simple illustrated explanation.

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No dawn for ape-language theory

As you know, I serve Language Log as occasional film reviewer. I reported on Rise of the Planet of the Apes when it came out (see “Caesar and the power of No“, August 14, 2011). So I naturally went to see the sequel, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, to report on the way the franchise was developing its view of how apes evolve language. Well, forgive me if this seems pedantic, but the film is supposed to be science fiction, and I have to say that the linguistic science is crap.

I left the cinema half stunned by the visual effects (which are absolutely terrific — worth the price of admission) and half deafened by the soundtrack and Michael Giacchino’s bombastic score, but thoroughly disappointed at the inconsistent muddle of the way apes’ linguistic powers were portrayed.

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Ideas and actions

I recently read through Marc Hauser et al., “The Mystery of Language Evolution“, Frontiers in Psychology 2014, which expresses a strongly skeptical view on every aspect of the topic, including this one:

[S]tudies of nonhuman animals provide virtually no relevant parallels to human linguistic communication, and none to the underlying biological capacity.

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Real fry

You’ll search Google News in vain for stories about most technical terms in phonetics — no recent coverage of lenition, for example — but “vocal fry” has been prominent in the popular press for several years. Despite all the coverage, many people seem to be unclear about what it is and where it comes from — so today I thought I’d spend a few minutes on the phenomenon from a phonetician’s perspective.

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A note on those wiring diagrams

The paper that Geoff referred to a bit earlier today is Madhura Ingalhalikar et al., “Sex differences in the structural connectome of the human brain“, PNAS 2013. It features a very impressive graphic showing sex differences in connectivity of regions within the brain, indicating a pattern where males (top row in the figure) “had greater within-hemispheric connectivity, as well as enhanced modularity and transitivity”, whereas “between-hemispheric connectivity and cross-module participation predominated in females” (bottom row in the figure). This is argued to suggest that “male brains are structured to facilitate connectivity between perception and coordinated action, whereas female brains are designed to facilitate communication between analytical and intuitive processing modes”.

Geoff linked to a letter from Rae Langton and John Dupré, which argues that “if the mind is the brain, any mental difference will be a brain difference”, and that “training up half of humanity one way, half another” will inevitably create mental differences, which will correspond to brain differences, so that it’s a mistake to see these results as necessarily a “deterministic fairy tale” about evolutionary biology, rather than a consequence of contemporary cultural differences.

This is all true, but I wonder whether something even simpler might be going on.

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Speech rhythms and brain rhythms

[Warning: More than usually geeky…]

During the past decade or two, there’s been a growing body of work arguing for a special connection between endogenous brain rhythms and timing patterns in speech. Thus Anne-Lise Giraud & David Poeppel, “Cortical oscillations and speech processing: emerging computational principles and operations“, Nature Neuroscience 2012:

Neuronal oscillations are ubiquitous in the brain and may contribute to cognition in several ways: for example, by segregating information and organizing spike timing. Recent data show that delta, theta and gamma oscillations are specifically engaged by the multi-timescale, quasi-rhythmic properties of speech and can track its dynamics. We argue that they are foundational in speech and language processing, ‘packaging’ incoming information into units of the appropriate temporal granularity. Such stimulus-brain alignment arguably results from auditory and motor tuning throughout the evolution of speech and language and constitutes a natural model system allowing auditory research to make a unique contribution to the issue of how neural oscillatory activity affects human cognition.

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Marmoset conversation

This is a guest post by Margaret Wilson.

Turn-taking is fundamental to human conversation, so the question of whether it occurs in other social animals is extremely interesting. A new paper on turn-taking in marmoset monkeys (Takahashi et al., “Coupled Oscillator Dynamics of Vocal Turn-Taking in Monkeys“, Current Biology, 2013) is to be applauded for tackling this issue.

Unfortunately, though, it is not clear that their data demonstrate turn-taking in any sophisticated sense: specifically (and this is the sense embraced by the authors), entrainment of timing mechanisms between two individuals to regulate the passing of the turn. They begin by asking, “Is this a simple call-and-response (‘‘antiphonal’’) behavior seen in numerous species, or is it a sustained temporal coordination of vocal exchanges as in human conversation?” They conclude that they have shown the latter, but, on my reading, all their data is compatible with simple call-and-response. What seems to be going on is that the authors have failed to appreciate just how weird human turn-taking is.

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Sex and FOXP2: Preservation of endangered stereotypes

Last week, when I discussed the return of the zombie meme about women talking three times more than men (“An invented statistic returns“, 2/22/2013),  I promised to come back to the real scientific results in the paper whose public relations campaign unleased that extraordinary outburst of mass-media pseudoscience.

The paper was J. Michael Bowers, Miguel Perez-Pouchoulen, N. Shalon Edwards, and Margaret M. McCarthy, “Foxp2 Mediates Sex Differences in Ultrasonic Vocalization by Rat Pups and Directs Order of Maternal Retrieval“, The Journal of Neuroscience, February 20, 2013, As the title indicates, the paper is mostly about baby rats; and the reader is hereby warned that the following discussion may be longer than you’re going to be willing to sit through. I’m afraid, though, that if you care about what this paper said and what it means, you’re going to have to put in some time, here or elsewhere.

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