Monday, September 29, 2008

No Internet

Unfortunately I don't have internet access here in Nottingham. Although the Hall of Residence I am in provides internet acess, my laptop seems to be only one unable to connect to the internet, no matter what I try or how often I call the helpline.
In addition, at the moment everything here is quite stressful and tiring, so that I have hardly the time and energy to read anything. Also, I'm not sure if I'll be able to afford Tomasello's new book (But check Edmund Blair Bolles' great first post about it)

I wasn't even able to register for any extraordinary seminars (but at least next year I'll have one on the philosophical implications of Darwinism and one about Darwinism and Creationism in America), so I'm not too enthusiastic about the whole situation at the moment.

The only thing I'm really looking forward to at the moment (apart from my laptop working again, but this hope i fear is illusory) is cognitive linguist Bregette Nerlich's inaugural talk on October 30.

I'll post again when I've settled better and have access to the internet at least on a regular basis.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Off to Nottingham

Tomorrow I'll be starting my year abroad at the University of Nottingham. Interestingly, the flight from Frankfurt Airport to London Heathrow will take only and hour and forty, but the coach travel to Notts will take 3 1/2 hours + the obligatory traffic jam on the M1. If nothing goes wrong, I'll have acess to the internet and will be able to post about Tomasello's arguments against innateness and other interesting (well, to me at least ;-) ) topics.

Wish me luck.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Social Cognition and Linguistic Innateness I

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Laughing Man of Complex Adaptive Systems has asked an interesting question regarding my post announcing that Michael Tomasello had published a new book on “The Origins of Human Communication:”

A point I don't get: How does this argument (Gricean maxims of cooperation evolved from general cooperative human structure) criticise Chomsky's innateness theory?”

He refers to the following passage from the book description:

“Challenging the Chomskian view that linguistic knowledge is innate, Tomasello proposes instead that the most fundamental aspects of uniquely human communication are biological adaptations for cooperative social interaction in general and that the purely linguistic dimensions of human communication are cultural conventions and constructions created by and passed along within particular cultural groups”

As Laughing Man rightly points out, the evolutionary priority of cooperative, social-communicative capacities to our capacity for linguistic communication is in principle compatible with an innatist position regarding language acquisition. A generativist more interested in interdisciplinary matters than Chomsky, as for example, Ray Jackendoff, would be sure to agree with the importance of social interaction for language acquisition.

However, Tomasello’s argument goes further than that. He claims that general skills of social interaction such as human intention-reading skills, along with primate pattern finding skills, are all what is needed for a child to be able to learn a language when placed in the right environment. I haven’t looked at Tomasello’s newest work, but in his previous books “The Cultural Origins of Human Cognition” (1999), and “Constructing A Language” (2003), he makes a strong case why we needn’t postulate a language-specific, innate “Universal Grammar” specifying the architecture and input conditions of a domain-specific language system.

In Contrast, here’s Ray Jackendoff’s opinion on the relationship between social cognition and an inbuilt specialized linguistic toolkit:

“Language acquisition of course rests on social skills such as theory of mind (rudimentary in chimpanzees) and understanding pointing (not found in chimpanzees), as well as on more general perceptual machinery such as attention. These provide scaffolding for language acquisition but do not themselves provide the material out of which knowledge of language is built. “

Language also relies on many other domain-general cognitive capacities, but

“what is special about language is the collection of mental structures it employs – phonology and syntax – and the interfaces between them and conceptual structure. The processing and acquisition of these structures may be accomplished by brain-general mechanisms of long-term memory, integration in working memory, learning (including statistically-based learning), and attention, and may rely as well on understanding of social interaction and theory of mind. But unless the specific unique building blocks for phonology, syntax, and their connection to concepts are present, language and language acquisition are not possible. It is these building blocks that constitute the narrow language faculty.” (Jackendoff 2007: 388f.)


Jackendoff, Ray (2007): Linguistics in Cognitive Science: The State of the Art, The Linguistic Review 24, 347-401.

Tomasello, Michael (1999): The Cultural Origins of Human Cognition. Cambridge, Massachusetts; London, England: Harvard University Press.

Tomasello, Michael (2003): Constructing A Language. A Usage-Based Approach. Cambridge, Massachusetts; London, England: Harvard University Press.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Tomasello - The Origins of Human Communication

I just noticed that Michael Tomasello’s new book „The Origins of Human Communication” is out. The book is based on his Jean Nicod Lectures, which were delivered in Paris in the Spring of 2006 (you can watch the videos here. although the quality isn’t great, the talks are still fun to watch because they feature a lot of videos of the experiments with non-human primates and human children done by Tomasello and his colleagues).

“The Jean Nicod Lectures are delivered annually in Paris by a leading philosopher of mind or philosophically oriented cognitive scientist” and have featured, among others, Jerry Fodor, Donald Davidson, John Searle, Dan Dennett, and Ray Jackendoff.

(It’s interesting to see that the prizes were often given to people who are known to have the exact opposite stance than a previous prize winner. There have been controversies, for example, between Searle and Davidson, and between Dennett and Fodor – see for example here. So one could say that there seems to be some kind of attempt of establishing an equilibrium in regards of who is awarded the prize. So after someone from the nativist/generativist/formalist camp has received the prize a couple of years ago, it was time for an enemy of this position.
But there are various reasons to doubt this line of reasoning: firstly, my argument was intended mostly as a joke, secondly there are a lot of prize winners who cannot be clearly be put into camps that are diametrically opposed to one another (of course, in fact almost nobody can), and my controversy-examples are very bad, given that Davidson and Fodor seem to have a gripe with about practically everyone in the cognitive sciences, philosophy of mind, and other related disciplines.

But most importantly, Michael Tomasello is a great scientist whose works is absolutely fantastic, and he definitely deserves all the prizes he can get. /end of rambling)

Here’s the description over at The MIT Press site:

„Human communication is grounded in fundamentally cooperative, even shared, intentions. In this original and provocative account of the evolutionary origins of human communication, Michael Tomasello connects the fundamentally cooperative structure of human communication (initially discovered by Paul Grice) to the especially cooperative structure of human (as opposed to other primate) social interaction.

Tomasello argues that human cooperative communication rests on a psychological infrastructure of shared intentionality (joint attention, common ground), evolved originally for collaboration and culture more generally. The basic motives of the infrastructure are helping and sharing: humans communicate to request help, inform others of things helpfully, and share attitudes as a way of bonding within the cultural group. These cooperative motives each
created different functional pressures for conventionalizing grammatical constructions. Requesting help in the immediate you-and-me and here-and-now, for example, required very little grammar, but informing and sharing required increasingly complex grammatical devices.

Drawing on empirical research into gestural and vocal communication by great apes and human infants (much of it conducted by his own research team), Tomasello argues further that humans' cooperative communication emerged first in the natural gestures of pointing and pantomiming. Conventional communication, first gestural and then vocal, evolved only after humans already possessed these natural gestures and their shared intentionality infrastructure along with skills of cultural learning for creating and passing along jointly understood communicative conventions. Challenging the Chomskian view that linguistic knowledge is innate, Tomasello proposes instead that the most fundamental aspects of uniquely human communication are biological adaptations for cooperative social interaction in general and that the purely linguistic dimensions of human communication are cultural conventions and constructions created by and passed along within particular cultural groups.“
I’m really looking forward to read his book. At the MIT Press site you can download the first chapter (here). I’ll have a look at it and maybe I’ll post about it later.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Some Interesting Links

Over at Language Log, there are two very interesting post regarding the evolution of language by Mark Liberman.
One regards the work of John Hawks on the evolution of hearing-related genes. Liberman quotes from an article about Hawks' work:

"It all points to the evolutionary sensitivity of at least one part of the human language system in the post–Stone Age world, Hawks reported in April in Columbus at the annual meeting of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists. Language depends not just on a vocal tract capable of making certain speech sounds but on ears designed to hear particular sound frequencies, as well as on a variety of other brain and body features. Relatively recently in evolutionary history, genetic revisions within populations have upgraded ear structures needed for discerning what other people say, he proposes.
“It takes a long time for a biologically complex system like language to evolve,” Hawks says. “We’re still genetically adapting to language.”
His findings challenge the influential idea that the way humans now talk emerged full-blown about 50,000 years ago thanks to a single genetic mutation that improved vocal articulation. Hawks’ results instead play into a growing appreciation that rapid population growth toward the end of the Stone Age, followed by the rise of agriculture and village life around 10,000 years ago, triggered cultural changes that prompted genetic accommodation"

As Liberman observes, these findings are in accordance with the work of Dan Dediu and Robert Ladd. They foundthat there is a correlation between two versions of a gene (ASPM/ASPM-D and MCPH/MCPH-D, respectively) and whether people speak a tonal or a non-tona languagel. This and other considerations led them and others to conclude that there may be a range of small genetic biases that, together with cultural transmission, play an important role in language acquisition and evolution. (see for example here, here, here, and here)

Just as Dediu and Ladd propose that the main motor of selection for ASPM and MCPH probably wasn't language-related but some other function, Liberman speculates that the hearing related-genes Hawks identified may be involved in musical perception.
This all looks very interesting, but at the moment Hawk doesn't "have a lot else to say right now, because the work is still underway." (But check out this post about the relation between language and genetics)

In another post, Liberman anticipates the reaction to "a recent paper about cohesion in human/ape conversation"

Here's the abstract:
"Ape language research has primarily focused on specific isolated language features. In contrast, in research into human language, traditions such as conversational analysis and discourse analysis propose to study language as actual discourse. Consequently, repetitions are seen as accomplishing various discursive and pragmatic functions in human conversations, while in apes, repetitions are seen as rote imitations and as proof that apes do not exhibit language. Tools from discourse analysis are applied in this study to a conversation between a language-competent bonobo, Pan paniscus and a human. The hypothesis is that the bonobo may exhibit even larger linguistic competency in ordinary conversation than in controlled experimental settings. Despite her limited productive means, the bonobo Panbanisha competently engages in co-constructing the conversational turns. She uses shared knowledge and repetitions to achieve compliance with a request. This reveals a knowledge about socio-linguistic interactions which goes beyond the pure informational content of words."
I don't have access to the paper, but thankfully Liberman has reproduced the transcript of the conversation. Reading the transcript, I asked myself how much of a given linguistic utterance Panbanisha actually understood, given that her reaction could also be explained by appealing to standardized reactions to certain words/sounds. This is supported by the fact that at first glance, it seems that her communicative and interactional behavior can also be sufficiently explained if we only assume that she just reacted to the few words/sounds that were spoken hard or emphasized.

I must say that at first glance, Panbanisha's pragmatic competence also doesn't look all that impressive.
Stephen C. Levinson (2006) of the Max-Planck-Institue for Psycholinguistics in Nijmegen, Netherlands, has proposed a human "interaction engine," a kind of core system including the universal principles of all human linguistic interactions across all cultures. Here are some of its universal properties:

"(1) Responses are to actions/intentions, not to behaviors (unlike e.g. the defensive reaction of a snake to someone who passes too close by). […]

(2) In interaction, a simulation of the other’s simulation of oneself is also involved. […]

(3) Although human interaction is dominated by the use of language, language does not actually code the crucial actions being performed – these are nearly always inferred, or indirectly conveyed. […]

(4) Interaction is by and large cooperative. […]

(5) Interaction is characterized by action-chains and sequences […] governed not by rule but by expectations. […]

(6) Interaction is characterized by the reciprocity of roles (e.g. speaker-addressee, giver-taker), and typically by an alternation of roles over time, yielding a turn-taking structure […]

(7) Interaction takes place within a (constantly modulating) participation structure (specifying who is participating, and in what role), which in turn presumes ratified mutual access […].

(8) Interaction is characterized by expectation of close timing – an action produced in an interactive context (say a hand wave) sets up an expectation for an immediate response.

(9) Face-to-face interaction is characterized by multi-modal signal streams – visual, auditory, haptic at the receiving end, and kinesic, vocal and motor /tactile at the producing end. […]

(10) Interaction appears to have detailed universal properties, even if little work has actually been done to establish this. What we do know is that for a wide range of features, from turn-taking, adjacency pairs (as in question-answer sequences), greetings, and repairs of interactional hitches and misunderstandings, the languages and cultural systems which have been studied reflect very similar, in some cases eerily similar, subsystems. "
It would be interesting to look which of these features also exist in Panbanisha's "enculturated bonobo interaction engine," but I have the impression that there is a gap in the interactional capacities of even very young human infants and Panbanisha. Judging from the transcript, I'm very skeptical of the claim that Panbanisha "competently engages in co-constructing the conversational turns." To me, it rather looks as if the human interactans are imposing a conversational structure on her and are assigning her a conversational roles she has to fulfil.
Thus I am not sure if Levinson's point (6),"the reciprocity of roles (e.g. speaker-addressee, giver-taker), and typically by an alternation of roles over time, yielding a turn-taking structure" really can be found in this conversational transcript. In fact I doubt it. I probably would have to look at the video to really be able to say something. But in general it seems as if participating in an imposed role-governed interactional structure isn't that much of a cognitive and pragmatic feat:

I'm really looking forward to Liberman's discussion of the issue

P.S: On a funnier note:

"Evolutionists Flock To Darwin-Shaped Wall Stain"
A steady stream of devoted evolutionists continued to gather in this small Tennessee town today to witness what many believe is an image of Charles Darwin—author of The Origin Of Species and founder of the modern evolutionary movement—made manifest on a concrete wall in downtown Dayton.
[hat tip: Evil Under the Sun, HENRY]

Monday, September 1, 2008

Thomas Hobbes on the Evolution of Language

During my research for my term paper on Friedrich Nietzsche’s theory of the evolution of language and consciousness I came across a very interesting German book on the debate about the origin of language in the 18th century by Cordula Neis (2003), who has also written an article on the topic in the 14 Volume Elsevier Encyclopaedia of Language and Linguistics (Neis 2006). In 1769 the Berlin Academy of Science issued a prize contest regarding the origin of language:

"After a long internal discussion, the Academy invited scholars from across Europe to submit their essays on the origin of language. As language was considered an essential component of the natural constitution of man, it was required to reveal how man might have invented it and whether he might have been able to create it on his own." (Neis 2006: 100)
"By announcing the prize topic as being the origin of language in 1769, the Berlin Academy endeavored to find a persuasive solution that defended the possibility of human invention. Scholars considered the question as highly important, 31 essays were submitted to the Academy, an unusually high number of entries." (Neis 2006: 101)

The German philosopher Johann Gottfried Herder won the contest, and as a result, was the only contributor whose name was made public so that most of the authors of the manuscripts are still unknown. Of the 31 anonymous contributions, only 24 still exist, but all reviews of the judges are still there. Still, posthumous identification is made extremely hard by the fact that contributions were sent in in three different languages (German, French, and Latin. Two contributions were even written in what Neis calls “Fantasy-French:” Due to the fact that French was maybe the most prestigious language at that time, the authors apparently felt obliged to sent in papers in French even if they couldn’t really speak the language…). Apart from that, sloppy 18th century handwriting is extremely hard to read (for me: absolutely impossible to read).:

Nevertheless, there are a lot of topics common to all the manuscripts, for example explicit or implicit references to the influential philosophers Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) (to whom I’ll maybe come back in a later post) and Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679). Hobbes is especially well known for his view of man as being “homo homini lupus” (man is the wolf of man) and his book “Leviathan” in which he argues that only if everybody adheres to a social contract and submits most of his freedom to the state can the natural “bellum omnium contra omnes” (the war of all against all) be stopped. Anyway, even though Hobbes was a man of his time and thus was a creationist who believed that “the first author of speech was God himself, that instructed Adam how to name such creatures as He presented to his sight,” some of his thoughts on the topic of language evolution/origin/function are really interesting. Hobbes speculates that Adam couldn’t possibly have invented all words, especially as all speech was confounded after the Tower of Babel incident.

For Hobbes, language is adaptive in that it is shaped by what speakers and hearers need to communicate about:
“And being hereby forced to disperse themselves into several parts of the world, it must needs be that the diversity of tongues that now is, proceeded by degrees from them in such manner as need, the mother of all inventions, taught them, and in tract of time grew everywhere more copious. “
But what I find most interesting is Hobbes’ view of the function of language:
“The general use of speech is to transfer our mental discourse into verbal, or the train of our thoughts into a train of words, and that for two commodities; whereof one is the registering of the consequences of our thoughts, which being apt to slip out of our memory and put us to a new labour, may again be recalled by such words as they were marked by. So that the first use of names is to serve for marks or notes of remembrance. Another is when many use the same words to signify, by their connexion and order one to another, what they conceive or think of each matter; and also what they desire, fear, or have any other passion for. And for this use they are called signs”

Neis, Cordula (2003) Anthropologie im Sprachdenken des 18. Jahrhunderts ‑ Die Berliner Preisfrage nach dem Ursprung der Sprache (1771). New York: de Gruyter.

Neis, Cordula (2006): Origin of Language Debate. in: Encyclopedia of Language and Linguistics (ELL). Ed. By Keith Brown (Editor-in-Chief). Second edition. Oxford. Elsevier.