Archive for Evolution of language

Huh?

Mark Dingemanse,  Francisco Torreira, and N.J. Enfield, “Is ‘Huh?’ a universal word? Conversational infrastructure and the convergent evolution of linguistic items", PLOS ONE 2013:

A word like Huh?–used as a repair initiator when, for example, one has not clearly heard what someone just said– is found in roughly the same form and function in spoken languages across the globe. We investigate it in naturally occurring conversations in ten languages and present evidence and arguments for two distinct claims: that Huh? is universal, and that it is a word. In support of the first, we show that the similarities in form and function of this interjection across languages are much greater than expected by chance. In support of the second claim we show that it is a lexical, conventionalised form that has to be learnt, unlike grunts or emotional cries. We discuss possible reasons for the cross-linguistic similarity and propose an account in terms of convergent evolution. Huh? is a universal word not because it is innate but because it is shaped by selective pressures in an interactional environment that all languages share: that of other-initiated repair. Our proposal enhances evolutionary models of language change by suggesting that conversational infrastructure can drive the convergent cultural evolution of linguistic items.

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (69)

Dolphins using personal names, again

As we have frequently noted here on Language Log, science stories on the BBC News website are (how to put this politely?) not always of prize-winning standard with respect to originality, timeliness, reliability, or attention to the relevant literature. In fact some of them show signs of being written by kids in junior high school. Way back in 2006 Mark Liberman commented on a BBC News story about the notion that dolphins have and use "names" for each other. He expressed skepticism, but the BBC forged ahead without paying any heed, and today, more than seven years later, we learn from the same BBC site once again that Dolphins 'call each other by name'. Yes, it's the same story, citing the same academic at the University of St Andrews, Dr Vincent Janik. (Mark's link in 2006 was unfortunately to a Google search on {Janik, dolphins}, which today brings up the current stories rather than the ones he was commenting on then.) And you don't need to leave the BBC page to see that the story contradicts itself.

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments off

Gene/culture co-evolution

Recommended reading: Simon Fisher and Matt Ridley, "Culture, Genes, and the Human Revolution", Science 24 May 2013. (Another version is here.)

A common assumption is that the emergence of behaviorally modern humans after 200,000 years ago required—and followed—a specific biological change triggered by one or more genetic mutations. [...]

This prevailing logic in the field may put the cart before the horse. The discovery of any genetic mutation that coincided with the “human revolution” (6) must take care to distinguish cause from effect. Supposedly momentous changes in our genome may sometimes be a consequence of cultural innovation.

In certain cases this is obvious. Lactase-persistence mutations did not trigger dairy farming; they spread as an evolutionary response to dairy consumption. The higher alcohol tolerance of Europeans relative to Asians did not prompt, but followed, greater alcohol consumption in Europe. [...]

Under the culture-driven view, many critical genomic alterations that facilitated spoken language, for example, might have spread through our ancestors after this trait emerged. That is, prior behavioral changes of the species provide a permissive environment in which the functionally relevant genomic changes accumulate. The selective advantage of a genetic change that increased language proficiency would likely be greatest in a population that was already using language.

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (22)

Lexical loops

David Levary Jean-Pierre Eckmann, Elisha Moses, and Tsvi Tlusty, "Loops and Self-Reference in the Construction of Dictionaries", Phys. Rev. X 2, 031018 (2012):

ABSTRACT: Dictionaries link a given word to a set of alternative words (the definition) which in turn point to further descendants. Iterating through definitions in this way, one typically finds that definitions loop back upon themselves. We demonstrate that such definitional loops are created in order to introduce new concepts into a language. In contrast to the expectations for a random lexical network, in graphs of the dictionary, meaningful loops are quite short, although they are often linked to form larger, strongly connected components. These components are found to represent distinct semantic ideas. This observation can be quantified by a singular value decomposition, which uncovers a set of conceptual relationships arising in the global structure of the dictionary. Finally, we use etymological data to show that elements of loops tend to be added to the English lexicon simultaneously and incorporate our results into a simple model for language evolution that falls within the “rich-get-richer” class of network growth.

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (22)

Caesar and the power of No

I sometimes make my way to the multiplex to see and report to you on important films that bear on language-related matters. (Sometimes unsuccessfully. You may recall my glowing account of The Oxford Murders back in 2008. I do hope the director hasn't got out of hell yet.) Back in June I tried to report to you on a special advance showing of a documentary about a chimpanzee sign-language training experiment, Project Nim, but couldn't get in. I had forgotten to allow for the fact that it was part of the Edinburgh Film Festival and (typical of the intellectual enthusiasm of this city) the place was thronged. Not a ticket to be had for love or money. (I will try to catch Project Nim soon; it is on wider release in the UK as from today.) But last night I had a significant success in that I managed to actually get in through the doors (vital prerequisite for really informed movie review) for a screening of one of the most important recent films on primatology research.

Yes, I went to see Rise of the Planet of the Apes. A rare chance to see a depiction of the actual emergence of language in a new primate species in real time. I promise that very little of the plot will be spoiled if you read on.

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments off

Demagouge (v.)

Comments (20)

Not OK.

OK mapIn this week's online BBC News magazine, Alan Metcalf reprises his recent book OK: The Improbable Story of America's Greatest Word. I haven't read the book, but Prof. Metcalf is an established scholar as well as a successful popularist, and I have every reason to think that the book is well worth reading. Still, I have a little semantic problem with the article.

The article mostly discusses the history of OK, saying that its widespread circulation probably dates back to an unfunny joke in an 1839 article in the Boston Morning Post. Fair enough: he and the OED agree on this point. Then he goes on:

But what makes OK so useful that we incorporate it into so many conversations?

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (39)

Monkey business?

Carolyn Y. Johnson, "Author on leave after Harvard inquiry", Boston Globe 8/10'/2010:

Harvard University psychologist Marc Hauser — a well-known scientist and author of the book “Moral Minds’’ — is taking a year-long leave after a lengthy internal investigation found evidence of scientific misconduct in his laboratory.

The findings have resulted in the retraction of an influential study that he led. “MH accepts responsibility for the error,’’ says the retraction of the study on whether monkeys learn rules, which was published in 2002 in the journal Cognition.

Two other journals say they have been notified of concerns in papers on which Hauser is listed as one of the main authors.

It is unusual for a scientist as prominent as Hauser — a popular professor and eloquent communicator of science whose work has often been featured on television and in newspapers — to be named in an investigation of scientific misconduct. His research focuses on the evolutionary roots of the human mind.

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (24)

More on why we talk

Thanks to Andrew Freer for pointing out to me that the BBC has published an article in connection with its Horizon documentary about "unlocking the mysteries of speech" (they have the usual tendency to confuse talk about language and talk about speech). Simon Kirby remarked to me this morning about the documentary (which I have not seen: Barbara and I do not have TV set):

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (26)

The BBC on why we have language

For Language Log readers able to get BBC television broadcasts, at this BBC page you will find details of a Horizon documentary on BBC 2 TV, scheduled for tomorrow (Tuesday) night, about why humans talk and where linguistic ability came from, with footage not only of the Grand Old Man of linguistics, Noam Chomsky, who thinks it just sort of came about by some sort of genetic miracle, but also of Edinburgh's Simon Kirby (believed to be the only Professor of Language Evolution in the world) and Hannah Cornish, who demonstrate an experiment showing that particular features of language (notably a variety of compositionality) can be experimentally induced to evolve in a single afternoon. No one here in Edinburgh has seen the program or knows whether it will sensibly convey the content of the research that Simon and Hannah have done (they are understandably nervous, knowing that by Wednesday morning their TV careers will have begun, but not knowing whether they are going to be famous for science or comedy or tragedy). All of us await with mingled anticipation and trepidation. But the only way to find out will be to watch.

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments off

He possessed names for all of them in his head

You have to see this cute article by Giles Turnbull. It's about the deep-seatedness of children's need to have names for all the things they deal with — and the lack of any necessity for there to be pre-existing names in the language they happen to have learned.

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (47)

Ask LL: parents' beliefs or infants' abilities?

Andrew Clegg asks "Is this true?"


Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (83)

More on FOXP2

Shalom Lappin has pointed out to me that an authoritative, accessible, and eloquent account of genotype-phenotype relations in general, and the case of FOXP2 in particular, can be found in Simon Fisher, "Tangled webs: Tracing the connections between genes and cognition", Cognition 101(2): 270-297, September 2006.

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments

Mice with the "language gene" stay mum

Now they've done it — spliced human FOXP2, often called the "language gene", into some mice in Leipzig.  This won't give the mice anything new to say, but many people were certainly expecting them to start producing and analyzing more complex sound patterns.  Thus Juan Uriagereka ("The Evolution of Language", Seed Magazine, 9/25/2007):

Chimps, and our other close relatives the apes, certainly have the hardware for some basic forms of meaning [...]. What they don’t have is a way to externalize their thoughts. I’d wager that chimps just lack the parser that FoxP2 regulates.

Uriagereka suggested that "Because of the similarities in brain structure and in the syntax of their song, finches must also have this parser", created by the songbird version of Foxp2. If this bold conjecture were true — that certain alleles of this particular gene create a "parser" in the brain — then the mice recently gifted with a "humanized" form of foxp2 should exhibit some striking abilities, such as recursively-structured squeaks.

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (14)