Wednesday, September 28, 2011

4th Birthday!

Today marks the 4th Birthday of this Blog, and although I haven't managed to post anything in quite a while, I thought I'd use this happy occasion to point out some interesting links:

First, James Hurford's sequel to his 2007 "The Origins of Meaning" has finally been published:
With, 808 pages "The Origins of Grammar"is twice as long as his 2007 volume and consists of three parts. To quote from the book description:

"The book is divided into three parts. In the first the author surveys the syntactic structures evident in the communicative behaviour of animals, such as birds and whales, and discusses how vocabularies of learned symbols could have evolved and the effects this had on human thought. In the second he considers how far the evolution of grammar depended on biological or cultural factors. In the third and final part he describes the probable route by which the human language faculty and languages evolved from simple beginnings to their present complex state."

An almost 100-page-long sample chapter, dealing with the question whether non-human animals have syntax, can be found here. In this chapter, Hurford analyses the structure of whale song, bird song, and primate calls, and comes to the conclusion that:
"No non-human has any semantically compositional syntax, where the form of the syntactic combination determines how the meanings of the parts combine to make the meaning of the whole."

Second, in the first part of a 5-part documentary series on language, Stephen Fry explores the evolution of language. Although there are some minor quibbles (e.g. Stephen Fry stating that language arose from primates grunts about 50,000 years ago, and him speculating that "it really is" language that makes us different from other primates without anyone to back him up), it's a thoroughly enjoyable documentary featuring interviews with people like Steven Pinker, and Michael Tomasello and Wolfgang Enard (of FOXP2-fame) at the Max-Planck-Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology.

Update: Sean of Replicated Typo points to a pretty detailed (and pretty harsh) critique over at badlinguistics