Tuesday, April 1, 2008

evolang 08 (Wish I'd been there)

My fiancée and I finally managed to get back from her family, who were constantly tying to stuff us with food until we’d swell up like balloons. This also means that I have access to the internet again, so my withdrawal symptoms should be about to stop somewhere in the near future.

I handed in my term paper on the cognitive foundations of linguistic perspectivity today (and just discovered that I have a typo on the title page – ARGH) and am still working on my paper on “The Dynamics of Meaning Construal in The Maltese Falcon” (which I find is a much better title than, and which, as a Disclaimer, is partly stolen from an article by Raymond W. Gibbs).

As it seems I missed out on a lot of cool stuff (my newsreader told me that I had about 400 unread posts…) that took place while I was away.

Most notably and of special interest for this blog, the 7th biennial evolution of language conference (evolang 2008) was held in Barcelona from March 11-15. You can read about it on Babel’s Dawn as well as on the language evolution blog, whose authors both attended the conference (for which I envy them enormously … well, maybe I’ll manage to attend in 2010… or 2012… or… hmm. damn)

On the Language Evolution blog , there are three post on the conference.

The first focuses on the talks of Duane Rumbaugh, who, with a lot of examples from Kanzi, stressed the insightful and intelligent behavioral capacities of primates, Dave Leavens, who published extensively on pointing behavior in primates according to Chris, made a case for the importance of joint attention congruent with the Shared Intentionality-Hypothesis argued for by Michael Tomasello and his colleagues, and William Hopkins, who argued and presented evidence for hemispheral lateralization in non-human primates.

In the second post, he summarizes the talk of Gary Marcus, who presented some ideas of his new book “Kluge: The Haphazard Construction of The Human Mind”, arguing that language shouldn’t be seen as an almost optimal, Pinkeresque adaptation, or a perfect Chomskian System, but as a “a clumsy or inelegant solution to a problem. Think duct-tape, rubber bands, and MacGyver.”

In his post, Chris also writes about Susan Goldin-Meadow’s talk, who’s an expert on sign languages and the knowledge system directly connected to our gestures, which sometimes competes with our linguistically uttered beliefs. Goldin-Meadow made a case for the gesture-first, speech-later evolutionary scenario.

The last post on the conferences addresses the talks of Rudolf Botha, who often addresses problems of language evolution studies from a philosophy of science-perspective, and Friedemann Pulvermüller, a neurolinguist who has developed a quite extensive model of language capacities as implemented in the brain through a complex neural system of related cell assemblies (e.g. Pulvermüller 1999).

As Carl Zimmer observed, Edmund Blair Bolles’ of Babel's Dawn was “live-blogging” like crazy about the the conference, and is still summarizing its overall results.

There’s really a smorgasboard of summaries of a lot of talks of evolang08 on Babel’s Dawn now, including posts on:

  • Spanish anthropologist Camilo José Cela Conde’s talk, in which he apparently argued t-hat there is no way of getting to know how language really evolved and so we should, in a Wittgensteinian fashion, be silent on the subject
  • Simon Kirby’s talk. Kirby is a Reader in the Evolution of Language and Cognition at the University of Edinburgh, which is about the coolest academic title there is, if you ask me. Kirby focuses on computational models of language evolution and the importance of adaptive co-evolutionary processes of cultural transmission in the evolution of language.

(see also this post on the gestural abilities of non-human primates and the possibility that these capacities were the foundations for human language)

  • David Gil’s talk. Gil, who is an expert on grammatically ‘simple’ languages such as the Indeonesian language, which are just as fine for expressing yourself than more ‘complex’ languages, which, in Bolles’ words, implies that syntactic complexity should be seen “as the result of self-organization that is not adaptive but driven by system-internal forces”
  • Juan Uriagereka’s talk. Uriagerika is a syntactician from the Chomskyan camp who holds a position diametrically opposed to that of Gil, in that he argues that ‘syntactic thought’ is one of the most important features of human cognition, and that it is unlikey to have come about in a gradual way.
  • (See also this posts on other evolang08-participants who criticized Chomsky’s notion that recursion is a fundamental property language on computational ground, and instead saw recursion as some kind of “side-effect” of communicative processes)
  • and three post which summarize the overall results and implications of the conference: which seem to be
  1. It has become clear that linguistics in a Chomskyan vein have a hard time coming to grips with the facts of language evolution

2. The idea that the co-evolutionary relationship of language and brain is one of the most important factors in the evolution of language has moved to the center stage

3. “Language’s controlling element is semantics, not syntax.”

phew. Given that the conference seems to be covered so well by Babel’s Dawn and Language Evolution, I wonder if there’s any need for the book anymore... (Just kidding!) Enjoy!

As there’s still so much interesting stuff left, I’ll post a bit more about cool language evolution research tomorrow.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for the links, and congratulations on a great post. On my blog there'll be more posts on Evolang soon...
Just commenting on the issue of anti Chomsky feelings in the language evolution camp and this debate overwhether the chomskian programme is going to be killed off by language evolution.
I think it's better to think of it as an expansion of the narrow focus of linguistics, that in turn has fed back to affect the assumptions that linguistics has sometimes made. I really hope it's not becoming an 'us' versus 'them'.
There is definately a lot of anti-chomskian feelings in these academic circles, but this isn't the same as trying to tear down the programme. It all depends what we mean by 'chomskian programme' If we mean it in its broadest sense - the concept of linguistic innateness (as opposed to Skinnerian conditioning), then I think you will find a degree of shared thinking (with people like Pullman and Bickerton). With only the idea of grammatical innateness really being under attack. You won't find many major language evolution figures arguing against language innateness, only offering different accounts of the emergence of linguistic form.
In the narrow sense then it is strictly anti-chomskian, because it fundamentally disagrees with what language is and how it works. If alternative processes can account for the structure and nature of language then a lot of the (simplistic) assumptions about cognition, culture and mind made by linguistics must be questioned.

But if we set Chomsky, the man and his ideas, apart from the chomskian paradigm which he started, then I think we can see a lot of crossover. The programme has to acknowledge these new discoveries and the importance of an interdisciplinary approach. If it can't deal with this new evidence then it will self destruct.
Equally, I'm not really a classical linguist, but I think its dangerous to just assume we can't learn anything from classic lingusitics.

Michael said...

Thanks for your very enlightening post, I feel I’m am with you on a lot of these topics.
I myself feel sometimes drawn to nativist ideas (in a weaker sense), because they seem to make things a lot easier. I’m definitely with you that classic linguistic research should inform interdisciplinary approaches to language and vice versa.
You’re absolutely right in stating that almost everyone agrees that there must be some kind of innateness, and the real question is on which form it takes. Chomsky himself said something on the lines that strong cases for nativism are attacked by about anyone, without ever anyone defending them.
I even think it is congruent with a Chomskian approach to account for many principles not in terms of innateness but in terms of self-emergent structures in the sense of the work of people like Simon Kirby and others. Take Ray Jackendoff, for example, who though he is opposed to Chomsky, can be seen as committed to the general generativist enterprise. In his book Foundations of Language he states that only those parts that cannot be explained otherwise are to be accounted for by UG. As he states: “everyone will have to endure some discomfort
and give a little”(xiii). This general approach seems to be compatible with that of many people interested in the study of language evolution.
I think what gets most people going about Chomsky is his apparent immunity to all sorts of criticism and empirical data. I’m not sure that he’s as bad as he’s often made out to be, but the problems are definitely there. Moreover, I think that Chomsky really has recognized that there are problems with some generativist ideas, hence the Minimalist Program, which not only tries for ‘explanatory adequacy’ i.e. that the theory fits the linguistic data, but also for ‘explanatory adequacy’, i.e. that it is psychologically and biologically plausible. Reducing the load of what should be innate, and leaving room for overarching emergent principles tom explaining many features of language to me seems a step in the right direction and so maybe both approaches are compatible in a way after all.

Looking forward to reading your next posts,