One of the biggest controversies to emerge so far at the Evolang conference in Barcelona concerns the eternal split that arises in any inquiry into the humanities, biology or culture. Does language reflect biology or culture? Plainly, the answer is both, and nobody pretends otherwise, but which is the rider in the saddle and which the tame horse?
The classic position of generative linguistics sets biology in the saddle, controlling the horse. Their position is that everything determinative about language, its structure and possibilities, is built into the brain and controlled through the mechanisms of biological heredity. But that line is feeling defensive today, as illustrated in the presentation this noon (Thursday, March 14, 2008) titled, “After all, a ‘Leap’ is Necessary for the Emergence of Recursion in Human Language.” That after all tells you exactly how beleaguered and defiant the old guard is feeling today
In one presentation Masayuki Ike-Uche he argued that a leap, i.e., some transformation of human biology was required. His face sagged when someone asked what he thought that leap was. Some kind of genetic mutation, but he offered nothing concrete about what that mutation might be or how it might have altered the brain’s makeup.
Meanwhile, in the same hall, prior to the defense of the recursive leap came a series of younger speakers taking a different perspective. First came David Gil’s presentation (see: Complex Grammar has a Simple Solution) in which he argued that the grammatical complexity we see is not really necessary for most of our communications, and that the complexity has a purely cultural history. (Later, Gil told this blogger that he began his career as an orthodox, generative linguist but he then rebelled against that position.)
Gil was followed by a computer modeler, Mike Dowman, who spoke about protolanguage. In Ike-Uchi’s talk, protolanguage had been included in a diagram of the evolution of the language faculty, but it was one more moment on the biological pathway to full, recursive language. But Dow argued that protolanguage can come in many forms, and can itself evolve, even without any syntactic rules. He also argued that the basic concepts that protolanguage is assumed to express are themselves culturally derived. Thus, for English speakers, the word brother seems to express a basic concept, but the Japanese have a single word for older brother, so that might seem a basic concept too. Germans commonly use a single word to represent brothers and sisters together. Thus even at the “atomic” level of primitive concepts, different cultures have different primitives. Culture appears to be riding, sending the horse in directions it never thought of.
Also present in the series was Ljiljana Progovac who argued that “half a clause” is better than none. Her work has previously been discussed on this blog (see: Fossilized Syntax) and straddles the biology/culture issue by proposing a midpoint that uses “small clauses” of the “case closed” variety to express a complex idea without requiring full syntax. These clauses can be combined into small sentences, e.g., card laid, card played, that express a full thought without benefit of full grammar. Her work does not rule out the notion that when it finally did appear in speech, recursion, was the product of a biological leap, but it undermines the notion that language absolutely depends on a narrowly defined language faculty that permits recursion.
Ultimately, the unsatisfactory nature of the notion of a narrow, language faculty that explains all is likely to be the lasting result of the sorts of quarrels heard today. The biology/culture quarrel never gets anywhere; in the end it seems like disputing an optical illusion. Is the box jutting out or jutting in? But if protolanguage, simple language, and small-clause language can all exist in the human world and yet not be found in the world of primates, we have to wonder why. We need a more profound explanation to account for the singularity of human speech than the evolution of recursive powers. Why don’t chimps at least use a protolanguage, or a small clause?
Note: After writing this post, a chap suggested to me that the Narrow Language Faculty could have been fully developed on its side, but the externalization as speech took a long time to evolve. So a protolanguage speaker may have been a full syntax thinker. I'm not sure that this idea makes evolutionary sense, but I cannot dismiss it a priori, so I pass it along.