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]

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