Over the years this blog has reported a fair amount about the collaboration of Morten H. Christiansen and Nick Chater, a pair of enterprising researchers determined to challenge the Cartesian theories of Chomsky et al. Let me summarize a few old posts:
Here’s a puzzle for you: Study the four sentences below and provide a rule that explains (a) why the first 3 are correct while the last one (marked with an *) is incorrect, and (b) why sometimes the reflexive pronoun (ending in –self/-selves) appears before its referent (underlined) and sometimes after:
Pete shot himself in the foot.
Speaking for himself at last, John proposed to Priscilla.
The picture of himself on the post office wall disturbed John quite a bit.
*Joan told me herself hates chocolate.
Shouldn’t that first sentence be as easy to explain as Pete shot Joe in the foot?
Maybe so, but generative grammarians have had a heck of a time accounting for reflexives. They have developed a whole line of explanation, known as binding theory, to regulate reflexives and other usages, called anaphora, in which a pronoun or noun phrase always refers to another noun in the same sentence.
Inquiring into language’s origins can seem like a quixotic adventure, but it does bump you into the heart of the classical humanist question of what makes a human human. Two issues in particular stand out:
How much of language is cultural and how much inborn? This is a variant on the widespread dispute about nature or nurture, but it provides a specific focus. It does not seem unreasonable to think the question might have an answer.
Why is language so different from other animal communications? Animal signals are nothing like sentences, either in semantics, syntax, or vocabulary. Other animals do not discuss topics together. They do not construct a body of lore that can be useful at some later date. They cannot call the dead to mind by the simple expedient of speaking a name. Yet, how can we square the differences being so great with the Darwinian premise that species do not evolve powers they do not need to survive? A prey animal needs to evolve the ability to outrun its predators by only a little bit. No need to run at 100 miles per hour when the fastest predator can only go 50.
I cannot imagine anybody who reads this blog not enjoying Gaston Dorren’s book Lingo: Around Europe in 60 Languages. Yes, sixty languages are a lot to cover, but each one is discussed quite briefly, making only one or two points about the language before moving on. The text takes less than 300 pages, so each language gets the equivalent of a blog post’s worth of discussion. You won’t learn Basque this way, but you will learn that Basque does not have subjects and objects (although speakers can still distinguish between the doer and the doee). The book is full of interesting nuggets doled out in witty prose. Most of the chapters end with an example of a word the language has given English speakers: e.g, avalanche comes (via France) from the only language native to Switzerland, Romansh. There are also sample words from the languages, reminding all readers of the richness of tongues. For instance, the German Gönnen means “the exact opposite of envy,” giving English speakers a word to wish for, while the Portuguese have a term, pesamenteira, for a person who comes to a funeral for the free food.
I have recently plowed through the new book by Berwick & Chomsky summarizing their long held views of language. One point they never tire of mentioning is what they call language’s Basic Property, complete with capital letters: “language is a finite computational system yielding an infinity of expressions.” For the moment, I’m going to accept that claim, because the important thing to notice is not whether the definition is true or false but that it is ridiculous.
Let’s list a few other “computational systems” that have the same property:
Vision is a finite computational system yielding an infinity of images.
A biological cell is a finite computational system yielding an infinity of organisms.
The equation X = n+1 is a finite computational system yielding an infinity of numbers.
If you attended any of Chomsky's recent presentations on language, you probably heard him joke about the pile of books on the origin of language despite the fact that almost nothing is known about the subject. So I was surprised to see that 2016 has begun with the launching of a book about the evolution of language (Why Only Us: language and evolution) written by Robert Berwick and Noam Chomsky. Fans of generative grammar need not worry, however, for nothing has changed and there is nothing new here.
I noticed an obituary in the NY Times for John Holm, an expert on Pidgins and Creoles. During the past 40 years creole languages have been reconsidered. They were long considered gibberish forms of languages used by slaves and their descendants. Now they are generally viewed as true languages, the invention of people born into a world without access to a mother tongue. As such, they are of particular interest to this blog because they offer proof that languages are a natural by-product of living in a human community. Even if you kidnap people, carry them across the ocean, and force them to live with people who share no common language, a true language with grammatical rules will appear amongst the descendants of the kidnapped. Like the emergence of sign languages, creoles are a testament to human nature. John Holm was one of the leaders of the movement to reconsider creoles.
The Oxford University Press has announced a new Journal of Language Evolution. Its editors are Dan Dediu and Bart de Boer, two investigators notable for both the seriousness of their research and original thinking. They describe their intentions here. I'm wishing them the best of luck.
I was the kind of kid who hit upon questions rather than answers. One time, I was thinking about how French kids learned French from their parents and American kids learned English. That process went back to the cavemen, but who did the cavemen learn language from?