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HD: More on Animal Language
Posted: 10 July 2012 03:26 AM   [ Ignore ]
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Overall a nice summary statement, but not much meat.

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Posted: 10 July 2012 10:59 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]
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The perplexing and probably unanswerable question, to me, about animal language is that if you extrapolate backwards in human evolution there would be a point at which our common ancestors had similar language skills to those described in the article. At some point “we” made the leap to real language. I suspect that along the way, millions of years, there were several such leaps. What would a dog or an ape have to do to exhibit real language?

My other question is, how the heck did Proto Indo-European develop with such amazing grammatical complexity? Were we linguistically smarter 5-30 K years ago? Or did it peak with Homer, Cicero, and the Beowulf poet? And then, you know, sort of glissando through Shakespeare and some others.

edit: Should include Sanskrit and the Bhagavad Gita poet(s), Aramaic, and many unknown early languages.

[ Edited: 10 July 2012 11:15 PM by Iron Pyrite ]
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Posted: 11 July 2012 07:26 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 2 ]
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My other question is, how the heck did Proto Indo-European develop with such amazing grammatical complexity?

In the first place, we don’t know how complex PIE was, because we don’t have any samples of it.  All we can do is extrapolate from the earliest attested IE languages (Greek, Sanskrit, Hittite, etc.); we can get the phonology and morphology (cases, tense forms, etc.) pretty well, but we really have no idea about the grammar in any larger sense.

In the second place, the ancient languages you refer to didn’t have “amazing grammatical complexity,” they were perfectly normal languages.  If you want amazing grammatical complexity, go look at some of the Caucasian languages; in Georgian, for example, a noun takes different cases depending on the tense of the verb it’s the subject of.  But that just seems amazing to us because our languages work differently.  The fact is that languages have not changed notably in terms of complexity, or anything else of structural importance (ignoring trivia like vocabulary), in their entire recorded history, which is not surprising because we only have a few thousand years worth of records.  If we could go back half a million years, we might see some interesting stuff.  (In other words, the earliest languages we have records of are not “early languages,” they’re just slightly earlier modern languages.)

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Posted: 17 July 2012 01:12 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 3 ]
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Perhaps I am misinterpreting your thoughts, Iron Pyrite, but I will point out that PIE was spoken some time in the range from 5000 to 7000 years ago, whereas it is generally thought that humans have had spoken languages for at least 60 000 years and possibly several hundreds thousand years.

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Posted: 17 July 2012 04:06 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 4 ]
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One should be careful when citing Homer, Cicero, the Beowulf poet, and Shakespeare as examples of linguistic complexity. These are all examples of elevated poetic or rhetorical styles. No one actually spoke that way in everyday speech. I’ve been reading Cicero this week, and that point really strikes home. (Although Cicero’s complexity is many syntactical. His grammar, in the narrow linguistic sense, is pretty normal.) The Vulgate Bible is probably a better example of everyday Roman speech, even though it comes several centuries later and isn’t technically Roman.

And Beowulf is pretty standard for Old English grammar. Again the syntax is more difficult than prose because of the constraints of meter and alliteration. But Old English prose can often be translated nearly word for word into modern English. Although since OE has a greater range of grammatical inflections, the syntax can be looser than in modern English.

[Edited to correct many proofreading errors that were the result of early-morning caffeine deprivation. --dw]

[ Edited: 17 July 2012 01:25 PM by Dave Wilton ]
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Posted: 17 July 2012 07:01 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 5 ]
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I will point out that PIE was spoken some time in the range from 5000 to 7000 years ago, whereas it is generally thought that humans have had spoken languages for at least 60 000 years and possibly several hundreds thousand years.

Like I said.

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Posted: 17 July 2012 07:14 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 6 ]
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OP

Perhaps I am misinterpreting your thoughts, Iron Pyrite, but I will point out that PIE was spoken some time in the range from 5000 to 7000 years ago, whereas it is generally thought that humans have had spoken languages for at least 60 000 years and possibly several hundreds thousand years.

I think I was just trying to leave a wide enough window open to allow for my general ignorance. My main point was that there has to have been a long development in human linguistic ability, starting more or less at zero and leading up to the modern era. This seems necessarily true, that is, if you accept that evolution itself is true. ;-)The second question is, have we peaked grammatically? Obviously, the latter question can only be answered if one has an agreed upon definition of grammatical complexity, which is likely to be a little more controversial. It’s my own opinion that a large vocabulary doesn’t equate to a complex grammar in terms of types of intelligence. But, if you accept that much of today’s language is “simpler” grammatically, it’s quite possible we are turning our brainpower to other, more demanding areas in a more complex world.

Anticipating some objections to so many cliches, I simply would point out that human being 50K years ago did not have product development anywhere near the scale we do today. The animal whose name you learned as a child had the same name when you grew old. Nature didn’t invent new species every year.

Dave

One should be careful when citing Homer, Cicero, the Beowulf poet, and Shakespeare as examples of linguistic complexity. These are all examples of elevated poetic or rhetorical styles. No one actually spoke that way in everyday speech.

Good point. But lots of people could understand the poetry. I remember reading somewhere about Tecumseh giving a speech in Algonquian which reached such lofty heights of language that the interpreter could not translate it. (Either because he was an English speaker and couldn’t understand it or because he was an Algonquian speaker and lacked the English equivalents.) Clearly there was a marked difference in registers in his language between ordinary and, for lack of a better word, poetic. Similarly, you could say I don’t speak baseball or physics very fluently.

LH

In the second place, the ancient languages you refer to didn’t have “amazing grammatical complexity,” they were perfectly normal languages.  If you want amazing grammatical complexity, go look at some of the Caucasian languages; in Georgian, for example, a noun takes different cases depending on the tense of the verb it’s the subject of.  But that just seems amazing to us because our languages work differently. 

Yeah, I hear you. It’s good to remember that “amazing” is where you find it, and sometimes depends on one’s preconceptions. Part of my query, though, is whether modern English is more flexible and adaptable than many “older” forms. If so, what’s the reason? I supposose ultimately my point is that modern English is complex, but in a fundamentally different way.

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Posted: 17 July 2012 09:10 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 7 ]
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You are confusing a number of different things.  In the first place, and this is your main problem, you are looking at the historical development of language through the lens of evolution, which is entirely irrelevant.  Of course evolution is in some way responsible, even if indirectly, for humans developing a linguistic capability in the first place, but that was perhaps half a million years ago.  The fact that English-speakers used to say “bead” for what they now call “prayer” has as little to do with evolution as the fact that people who used to wear suspenders now wear belts.  Language changes continuously, for reasons that are only now being elucidated thanks to sociolinguists like Labov, but these changes have nothing to do with the fundamental nature of language.  I repeat, there have been no overall developments in complexity, or anything else having to do with the nature of language, since the earliest records, which is natural, since they only go back a few thousand years.  You are barking up the wrong tree when you fixate on evolution.

But, if you accept that much of today’s language is “simpler” grammatically

No, it’s not.

I suppose ultimately my point is that modern English is complex, but in a fundamentally different way.

I’m pretty sure you’re wrong, but you’ll have to explain what you mean in more detail.

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Posted: 17 July 2012 01:22 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 8 ]
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But, if you accept that much of today’s language is “simpler” grammatically

I won’t speak for language in general. But English is indeed simpler in the narrow terms of inflectional grammar. But the reduction of grammatical forms has come with an increase in the complexity of syntax. (Plus, although it’s not related to grammar, English spelling is more complex and more disconnected from pronunciation than most European languages.) Overall, English is probably just as complex now as it was a thousand years ago.

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Posted: 17 July 2012 07:57 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 9 ]
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On the other hand, the total number of English words has increased dramatically. Admittedly, most people still only know a few thousand of them.

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Posted: 17 July 2012 08:14 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 10 ]
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BTW ... I’m always somewhat puzzled by the view that the change in shape of the larynx in later hominids was necessary for the development of language (presented as evidence that early hominids did not have language).

Seems completely arse-about to me. You only need a few phonemes to have a complete language (Praha has ten, right?) Even a damned dirty ape would have the ability to make enough different sounds (if somehow they had a brain capable of language). Obviously it wouldn’t sound like the speed of a modern human.

Heck, I reckon humans could make enough sounds just using the mouth (different kinds of clicks and sibilants) without using the larynx at all (ie unvoiced) to make a complete language. The hurdle in language isn’t the development of a sufficiently complex throat: it’s the development of a sufficiently complex brain.

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Posted: 18 July 2012 03:21 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 11 ]
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On the other hand, the total number of English words has increased dramatically. Admittedly, most people still only know a few thousand of them.

Or more accurately, the recorded catalog of English words has increased dramatically. We’ve just gotten better at creating dictionaries and including slang and dialect terms in them. I don’t think there’s any evidence that the actual number of words in use at any given time has changed substantially.

Heck, I reckon humans could make enough sounds just using the mouth (different kinds of clicks and sibilants) without using the larynx at all (ie unvoiced) to make a complete language. The hurdle in language isn’t the development of a sufficiently complex throat: it’s the development of a sufficiently complex brain.

An apt summary.

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Posted: 18 July 2012 05:51 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 12 ]
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Heck, I reckon humans could make enough sounds just using the mouth (different kinds of clicks and sibilants) without using the larynx at all (ie unvoiced) to make a complete language. The hurdle in language isn’t the development of a sufficiently complex throat: it’s the development of a sufficiently complex brain.

OP-

It makes sense. But what it implies to me is that the complex brain + language became the driving force behind physical evolution. I have no problem with that. In fact, it works pretty well. However, there must be a reason why the physical changes took place. If homo sapiens were “satisfied” with clicks and sibilants, there wouldn’t have been any advantage to mutations that favored increased articulation.

LH-

I’m not sure what the resistance is to analyzing language through the lens of evolution.

OK, physical evolution is slow and requires genetic modification over generations. It is tied to actual, physical changes or mutations. Language is highly fluid. Nevertheless, evolution is defined more or less as change that adapts successfully to environmental pressures and is increased or repeated over generations via reproduction. Not all change is evolution, though all evolution is based on change, or mutation. Language changes all the time, but only the successful mutations stick. Furthermore, evolution is not necessarily progress, though I guess for our purposes, evidence from the last 3 or 4 billion years makes us tend to think so.

Animals and plants are currently in the process of evolving. We have no idea what the next 100K years will bring. Language is adapting right before our eyes and I’m calling that evolution. My invitation was simply to consider whether changes in language have any relation to changes in our way of thinking. I happen to think that dropping inflections in favor of vocabulary and syntax constitutes significant and substantive change.

Once again, I don’t think language sprang forth fully formed from our brains like Athena from Zeus’s forehead. There was necessarily a process of evolution over hundreds of thousands of years, as I interpret the information we have at hand.

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Posted: 18 July 2012 08:16 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 13 ]
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I’m not sure what the resistance is to analyzing language through the lens of evolution.

Because it makes no sense and does not help understand anything.

Language is adapting right before our eyes and I’m calling that evolution.

You are wrong.

I happen to think that dropping inflections in favor of vocabulary and syntax constitutes significant and substantive change.

You are wrong.  But you are clearly wedded to your incorrect view, so I won’t waste any more time discussing it with you.

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Posted: 18 July 2012 09:03 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 14 ]
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Well, now that I’ve read the Wikipedia Origin of language article I’d say my speculations are about as useless and ludicrous as those of the professionals.

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Posted: 18 July 2012 11:09 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 15 ]
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Language is adapting right before our eyes and I’m calling that evolution.

You are wrong.

I would agree that it’s important not to confuse biological evolution with linguistic evolution, but I don’t see any reasonable basis for your statement there, LH.

ev·o·lu·tion
   [ev-uh-loo-shuhn or, especially Brit., ee-vuh-]
noun
1.
any process of formation or growth; development: the evolution of a language; the evolution of the airplane.

-dictionary.com

The term is used by linguists to refer to language change, see e.g. here.

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