HD: Podcast on Evolution of Language
Posted: 26 July 2013 01:20 PM   [ Ignore ]
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Worth a listen for those who want a high-level overview and wish to hear Chomsky explain his ideas for a lay audience.

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Posted: 26 July 2013 05:54 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]
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His explanation of UG in this interview seems somewhat weak.

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Posted: 26 July 2013 06:59 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 2 ]
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So something developed, obviously evolved by definition, that’s what evolution is, but it’s a language capacity. But what do we know about it? What we know with high confidence is that ever since our ancestors began to depart East Africa, which is usually dated to roughly 60000 years ago, since that time where humans have proliferated all over the world, there has been no detectable evolution of the language capacity. What that means is that if you say take a child from an Amazonian tribe that hasn’t had other contact for, you know, tens of thousands of years and you bring it to say Boston as an infant it’ll speak just like my grandchildren and conversely. The evidence for that is pretty overwhelming, so there’s good reason to believe that the language capacity has not evolved, which is not too surprising, 60000 years isn’t a long time ago. That’s what we know with a high level of confidence.

This is reasonable. The date is a bit fuzzy with plenty of authors suggesting most recent common group ancestry is earlier than 100000 years BP but the general point is sound.

“But we can speculate with a fair level of confidence is that if you go back not very much farther, maybe 50 or 100 thousand years, there’s no evidence that there was any language capacity at all so it looks as though some, during that window, which is a tiny window from an evolutionary point of view it’s a, you know, it’s a flick of an eye something happened, something emerged which led to cognitively modern Homo sapiens. Anatomically modern hominids and you can call them Homo sapiens if you like existed long before, maybe hundreds of thousands of years before, but there seems to have been some cognitive breakthrough roughly a hundred a thousand years ago or maybe less which shows up in the archaeological record with, in many ways, evidence of complex social structures of complex symbolism, notations for annotating the astronomical events, complicated burial practices all sorts of things which are generally assumed plausibly to be associated with the emergence of language. That’s about all we know. Anything beyond that is fairy tales that people invent. Well if you look at that closely you can make some proposals as to what kind of an event would have taken place, presumably some, might be quite small, reorganisation of the neural system which yielded the fundamental properties of language that we know, can reasonably take to be the core of universal grammar in the technical sense that I mentioned, not the sense that’s often used, and there’s a fair amount of work on what that might have been and how it could have developed and so on, kind of, again in a flick of an eye, a sudden emergence.

It’s not correct that the archaeological evidence supports this idea of a sudden emergence of complex behaviours: there’s been an increase of complexity in artefacts over the last 300000 years or so but this gradual increase in complexity continued after the diaspora. The archaeoligical and palaeontological evidence is compatible with a much earlier origin of language and a very gradual increase in language capacity.

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Posted: 26 July 2013 09:52 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 3 ]
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Yeah, the explanation for UG here is pretty high level. There’s not much to disagree with, unless you want to take the path that language has no genetic component, that it’s all cultural.

there’s been an increase of complexity in artefacts over the last 300000 years or so but this gradual increase in complexity continued after the diaspora. The archaeoligical and palaeontological evidence is compatible with a much earlier origin of language and a very gradual increase in language capacity.

Complexity in artifacts is not dependent on language alone. Other factors like finding the optimal social organizations and simply discovering new technologies can take time as well. A sudden emergence of the biological capacity for language, followed by an explosion in social organization and technologies, and then followed by a long period of slow development in the latter is also consistent.

But for me the strongest evidence for a biological component to language is infant development. The methods of and capacity for language acquisition in children strongly point to it being an innate capacity. Also, the comparative difficulty that adults have in learning new languages points to a neurological capacity rather than a cultural one.

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Posted: 27 July 2013 01:34 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 4 ]
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A sudden emergence of the biological capacity for language, followed by an explosion in social organization and technologies, and then followed by a long period of slow development in the latter is also consistent.

Yes it is.

Basically there is huge uncertainty about the timeline of the development of the capacity for language, and on the other hand Chomsky is saying that there is a fair level of confidence that it was, in his words, “a sudden emergence”.

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Posted: 27 July 2013 05:41 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 5 ]
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Chomsky is a True Believer, and like all such he sees the evidence through the lens of his belief.  I don’t think any evidence whatever could shake the faith of him or his disciples.

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Posted: 27 July 2013 09:02 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 6 ]
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....“If thou canst believe, all things are possible to him that believeth”

There is an ancient Hebrew saying, ashrei hama’amin—“happy is the one who believes”.

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Posted: 28 July 2013 12:06 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 7 ]
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To paraphrase Chomsky, there is no evolution of language, there is evolution of human capacity for language.

Listening to Chomsky, I don’t find him objectionable. He has a nice, calm, soothing voice. He is good at stating pleasant generalities that are pretty much common-sensical but sound very good in his dressed up language. Yeah, language doesn’t evolve on its own. Well, language doesn’t exist on its own. Computers don’t evolve. Only human capacity for producing them evolves. Whatever. It’s his straw man arguments that are so maddening. Of course there is a biological element to language. No one disputes that. It just makes him sound so revolutionary to be tilting at windmills of his own creation.

In this instance, Chomsky adopts some seemingly speculative conclusions about the sudden emergence of language about 60-100K years ago (as others here have pointed out). He says there is no evidence for complex language previous to this based on fossil records. Is there evidence of NO complex language? I rather doubt it. Chomsky avoids the obvious recourse of consulting with geneticists to see if we can retrace the history of language development through the genome. Well, he’s not a geneticist and why bother asking questions of new technology? Again, there’s a lot in Chomsky’s statements I fully agree with: The sky is blue, water is wet, most people like flowers and puppy dogs.

If Con Slobodchikoff from the same broadcast is right about prairie dogs, here, then we might do some re-thinking about the origins of language. These small-brained animals are choosing their words carefully, according to his research.

We humans didn’t just wake up one day speaking in complete sentences. I guess it had to evolve, whatever “it” might be.

[ Edited: 28 July 2013 12:47 AM by Iron Pyrite ]
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Posted: 28 July 2013 07:33 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 8 ]
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There are those who dispute that language has a biological component, or at least one that is unique to language and not part of a general capacity for complex and flexible behavior. I think they’re wrong, but they do exist, so Chomsky isn’t entirely creating a strawong man. But the criticisms of Chomsky’s theories are more sophisticated than he makes them out to be. So in that sense, he is tilting at straw men. In particular, I question his certainty about the sudden emergence of language some 60,000 years ago. He might be right, but as far as I can see, there is no strong evidence to support his claim. And there are a lot more details about UG that have been called into question that he does not go into during this podcast.

Also, I question the certainty with which Slobodchikoff classifies the prairie dog alarm system as “language.” Certainly, it is a very sophisticated system of signaling, but language is a lot more than that. For one thing, there doesn’t seem to be any verbs. Can the prairie dogs express information other than type and description of predator, such as direction and distance to the predator? How much do the “dialects” differ among groups of prairie dogs of the same species? (He says in the videos that Iron Pyrite linked to that it does not appear that different species of prairie dogs can understand one another.) Do prairie dogs of one group exhibit the same response behavior when played recordings of alarm calls from another group? When presented with novel “predators” (like black oval shapes), do different groups repeat similar calls, or does each group invent its own vocabulary on the fly? (If it’s on the fly, it would be less sophisticated. They wouldn’t seem to have a system of adjectives, just a vocabulary of fixed signals.) Can they express futurity, or discuss past predators? It is possible that prairie dogs can do these things, but there is no strong evidence that they can. So unless further evidence comes forth I would not call what prairie dogs do “language.”

[ Edited: 29 July 2013 12:26 PM by Dave Wilton ]
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Posted: 29 July 2013 04:44 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 9 ]
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Chomsky isn’t entirely creating a strong man

That’s one of the better eggcorns I’ve seen lately!

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Posted: 29 July 2013 12:27 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 10 ]
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It’s not really an eggcorn, just a typo resulting from jet lag and no coffee. (I’m in Dublin at the moment.)

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Posted: 30 July 2013 05:50 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 11 ]
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Yeah, I figured it was something like that.

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