Archive for Evolution of language

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?

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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.

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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):

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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.

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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.

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Ask LL: parents' beliefs or infants' abilities?

Andrew Clegg asks "Is this true?"

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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.

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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.

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