Thursday, December 18, 2008

Merry Christmas, etc.

I really wanted to finish my next post about Tomasello’s newest book before I went home over the Christmas break but I just didn’t get round to it.
Anyway, I’ll start posting again at the end of the second week of January and I really hope I’ll have more time to blog regularly.

For the German readers: Here is a nice little report on work done by linguistis at the Max-Planck-Institute for evolutionary anthropology on the identification of and research into African click languages:

Link: Phonetiklabor - Die Sprachen mit dem besonderen Klick

And here's an interesting/weird/funny self-experiment combining music, electrodes, and neurology:

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Belated Birthday Wishes & Free Will

Well, that angle give the sentence "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to forget about your birthday" a whole new meaning doesn't it?

Anyway, Happy Birthday Noam Chomsky!

He turned 80 two days ago and he's still very much alive and kicking, at least judging from this furious rebuttal of Margaret Boden's portrayal of him from last year.

Hat tip: Bremer Sprachblog

There's also a cool episode featuring Will Wilkinson and Paul Bloom.

Hat tip: Gene Expression

Monday, December 1, 2008

Michael Tomasello - The Origins of Human Communication (summary pt. 1)

A pretty long time ago – before I went to Nottingham for my year abroad – I announced that I would write some more about Michael Tomasello's new (2008) book The Origins of Human Communication.

Although I haven't finished the book yet, and I don't know if I can really contribute something not already covered in Edmund Blair Bolles' interesting multi-part book review over at Babel's Dawn (see here, here, here, and here), I thought I'd still give it a go and see how it turns out.

I hope the next few posts will at some point intersect with a post about Tomasello's arguments against linguistic innateness and his view of language acquisition (e.g. Tomasello 2003), which I have been meaning to write for ages.

Tomasello's main interest in this book is to flesh out “the social-cognitive and social-motivational infrastructure” (2) that enables modern human communication. He also tries to present a plausible evolutionary scenario of how we arrived at this point.

His hypothesis is that “the first uniquely human forms of communication were pointing and pantomiming.” (2)

Social Cognition

In a close analysis of pointing and pantomiming in infancy Tomasello arrives at the conclusion that they already embody
“most of the uniquely human forms of social cognition and motivation required” (2) for full-blown linguistic communication. They are thus perfect candidates for “the critical transition points in the evolution of human communication” (2)
The reason why Tomasello sees pointing as the primordial form of human communication is the following:

Imagine we are walking to the library and I point out some bicycles leaned against the wall to you. Without “context” this would be entirely meaningless. However, if we share some kind of “common ground”, some kind of previous knowledge or past experience the otherwise empty gesture suddenly can be 'filled' with a variety of meanings. “By itself, pointing means nothing," but if we both have knowledge of the fact that one of the bikes is your ex-boyfriend's, with whom you just had a nasty break-up, or if one of the bikes was the one stolen to you some days ago, you are suddenly able to interpret my gesture in a meaningful way. You are thus able to answer to the question.
“what is his intention in directing my attention in this way?” (4)
This example leads Tomasello to the conclusion that
“The ability to create common conceptual ground— joint attention, shared experience, common cultural knowledge—is an absolutely critical dimension of all human communication.” (5).
This enables a richness of meaning and reference all other forms of primate communication lack.

Social Motivation

As Tomasello remarks the second important and unique aspect is the prosocial motivation of the pointing example. In this example and in dozens of other examples from early infancy on, there is no ulterior motive to somebody pointing other than to simply being helpful and cooperative. Apes on the other hand, usually don't point in natural contexts, and they never point cooperatively just to inform somebody of something.

In contrast, there is evidence of infants as young as 12 months pointing for others just to share attention or inform them of something.
Here's one of the examples Tomasello (2008: 114f.) mentions, which is taken from a study by Carptenter et al. (in prep.)
"At age 13.5 months, while Mom is looking for a missing refrigerator magnet, L points to a basket of fruit where it is (hidden under the fruit). Gloss: Attend to the basket of fruit; it’s there."
Another example particularly fitting for this season is reported by Tomasello (2008: 114):
“At age 13 months, J watches as Dad arranges the Christmas tree; when Grandpa enters the room J points to tree for him and vocalizes. Gloss: Attend to the Christmas tree; isn’t it great?”
These cooperative capacities form the ability often called “shared intentionality.”

In general,
"shared intentionality is what is necessary for engaging in uniquely human forms of collaborative activity in which a plural subject “we” is involved: joint goals, joint intentions, mutual knowledge, shared beliefs—all in the context of various cooperative motives” (6f.)
The key aspect of human communication is thus that it is
“a fundamentally cooperative enterprise, operating most naturally and smoothly within the context of (1) mutually assumed common conceptual ground, and (2) mutually assumed cooperative communicative motives.” (6)
Following these assumptions, Tomasello then sets out to identify “the species-unique features of human communication and their ontogenetic and phylogenetic roots.” (11)

I'll write more about this in my next post.


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

Tomasello, Michael (2008): The Origins of Human Communication. Cambridge, MA; London, England: MIT Press.