The BBC on why we have language

« previous post | next post »

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.

[Update Tuesday morning: It was a little bit worrying to hear this morning's trailer on BBC Radio 4, which first announced that Chomsky has suggested our ability to talk is inborn, and then played a snippet about the FOXP2 gene and a snippet of Simon Kirby explaining that we could now watching language grow in the laboratory. Simon is not a proponent of Chomsky-style nativism; the whole point about the fascinating research of his group is that they have shown how properties of languages can evolve in response to pressures like learning bottlenecks (for a taste of the ideas, see this page). Popping in a piece of Simon after a reference to Noam suggests a worrying inability to tell who's claiming what… But as I say, the only way to find out will be to watch.]

Comments are closed.