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Selected Books by Edmund Blair Bolles

  • Galileo's Commandment: 2500 Years of Great Science Writing
  • The Ice Finders: How a Poet, a Professor, and a Politician Discovered the Ice Age
  • Einstein Defiant: Genius vs Genius in the Quantum Revolution

« Surviving on the Border | Main | Preserving Meaning »



"Obviously, when the syntax of a critical distinction has to be named, drift has gone too far." Drift or no drift, languages vary in which morphological categories they mark grammatically (vs marking it lexically which is what the French leader was doing). Some languages get along just fine without any grammatical plural marking at all. In certain Native American languages, you mark on the verb how certain you are about the action you are discussing. In English, we can't do that except to say "I heard.., I saw..., I think..."

But in regards to your general point, there is no reason that biological conservation can't be behind linguistic change. If it is true that a single set of genetically-programmed principles is behind all the variation of the modern languages of the world, there is no reason it can't be behind all the variation of the states of a single language over time. Just as biology places the constraints on how much languages can vary, it can place constraints on how much languages can change.


I hope readers noticed this clause buried in the middle of the second paragraph, for it states the faith on which this comment rests: “If it is true that a single set of genetically-programmed principles is behind all the variation of the modern languages of the world,” IF IT IS TRUE…

Programmers will notice the basic problem with this doctrine: you don’t program principles, you program procedures. If X, then do Y, Else do Z. I’d like to see the procedures for constraining the transition from Old English to Modern English while also constraining the transition from Sanskrit to Urdu.


It cannot possibly be denied that a single set of genetic endowments makes the acquisition of any human language possible, and that therefore all linguistic variation is constrained by that endowment. The only thing that can be argued about is how much of linguistic variation (synchronic or diachronic) is constrained by that genetic endowment (no one would claim it is 100%) and how much is due to cultural influence or random, unconstrained change. Clearly both nature and nurture play a role.

But acquisition IS genetically- endowed. We cannot NOT learn language, as I think you have acknowledged. So why do we need a mechanism other than acquisition for guaranteeing that language doesn't become meaningless over time? Could one acquire a meaningless language? Could there be a meaningless language? The notion seems incoherent to me, so maybe I'm missing something.


“The only thing that can be argued about is how much of linguistic variation (synchronic or diachronic) is constrained by that genetic endowment (no one would claim it is 100%) and how much is due to cultural influence or random, unconstrained change.”

To put that in terms of this blog: how much of the origin of speech reflects biological evolution and how much reflects cultural evolution?

We will see where the blog takes us, but at this point my suspicions are that biology was fundamental in giving us the machinery for producing speech and almost irrelevant to the content of the speech, i.e., the meaning of what we have to say. I’m not entirely alone in this opinion. For example, the linguist Derek Bickerton writes, “The most crucial thing to grasp about the emergence of symbolic representation is that it must have been primarily a cultural rather than a biological  event.” Bickerton says that it could arise culturally because “the minimal necessary biological equipment was already in place.” I don’t always agree with Bickerton, but at this point we do seem to share common ground.

As a thought experiment: try to imagine what would happen if (a) vervets found themselves in a setting where their innate vocalizations were no longer appropriate to their circumstances, or if (b) a computer programmed to converse in one setting was required to converse in quite a different setting.


Bickerton could be right, but that just removes the question to another domain: how did we get the machinery in the first place? What adaptionist pressures (if we are sticking with an adaptionist account) led to its development? If not for speech (and I am sympathetic here), then for what?

If that's your view, then you aren't far from Chomsky, Hauser & Fitch who clearly stated that they think the basic machinery of language (for them recursion) may have evolved for a purpose other than speech.

BLOGGER: Of course your questions ("how did we get..." etc) are the issues the blog tries to explore.


I'd actually like to suggest that the fundamental evolved characteristic of human cultural learning is replication fidelity, paralleling the mechanisms for genetic replication fidelity in cells. The basic mechanism for copying fidelity of cultural behaviours is scaffolded learning, which is the process by which infants acquire language from their caregivers. It seems likely that this capacity developed early in the evolution of Homo, as it could explain the appearance and extreme conservatism of the Olduwan and Acheulian tool traditions (1m years each with next to no variation).

Another relevant point is that language strata vary at different rates. Articulation can change very rapidly, in generations, as soundings can change without affecting meaning. Lexicogrammar (vocab and syntax) takes longer, centuries to millenia, as words and their patterns directly encode meanings. Discourse semantic patterns seem to be most persistent, perhaps for tens of millenia, as they most directly interface with the ecosocial contexts for which language is adapted. Indeed discourse semantic patterns only seem to change significantly in response to radical ecosocial changes, such as the European colonisation and industrialisation of the last few centuries, in which modern written modes have evolved, in science and adminstrative fields. In contrast, spoken languages of all cultures seem to mean in basically very similar ways, with myriad peripheral variations that tend to attract the attention of linguists.

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