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  #41  
Old February 12th, 2011, 11:45 pm
Quickquill  Female.gif Quickquill is offline
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Re: On Linguistics

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Originally Posted by Pox Voldius View Post
It's possible.

They've found that Homo neanderthalensis had the same version of FOXP2 as Homo sapiens (FOXP2 = gene associated with language skills), and the most recent common ancestor there is some 600,000-800,000 years back, IIRC. So language could be hundreds of thousands of years old, which is long enough for one language (or maybe some almost-languages) to have evolved into several language families that bear little resemblance to each other, I think.
That's interesting. I always suspected that spoken language goes back much further than some people think. Actually, that's the only problem I have with Jean Auel's books ("Clan of the Cave Bear" ...). I never understood on what she based the supposition that Neanderthals couldn't vocalize much more than chimps or gorillas and relied on body language and sign language instead.


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  #42  
Old March 19th, 2011, 10:01 am
canismajoris  Male.gif canismajoris is offline
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Re: On Linguistics

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That's interesting. I always suspected that spoken language goes back much further than some people think. Actually, that's the only problem I have with Jean Auel's books ("Clan of the Cave Bear" ...). I never understood on what she based the supposition that Neanderthals couldn't vocalize much more than chimps or gorillas and relied on body language and sign language instead.
As for why it was long assumed that language was inaccessible to Neanderthals, I'm not sure. Rather than an evaluation of their brain capacities, I had long heard that they lacked the physical characteristics (assumed to be) required for human-like spoken language, having to do with tongues and vocal cords and whatnot.

But I would like to point out that sign languages today are fully-developed linguistic systems like any other, and they are neither precursors to nor imitations of existing languages. If we suppose for a moment that the Neanderthals did use sign language (I have no idea how it may have been employed in those books), they would have done so with every bit as much innovation and expressiveness as their brains would permit, in other words, likely just as much as we do. So to equate reliance on sign language as a necessary disadvantage or to compare it to animal communication seems a bit hasty.


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  #43  
Old March 22nd, 2011, 5:39 pm
Quickquill  Female.gif Quickquill is offline
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Re: On Linguistics

Oh, Auel made the point that the Neanderthal language was just as expressive as spoken language. But for some reason, she postulated in her "Clan of the Cave Bear " series that they didn't vocalize. I know she did a great deal of research before she wrote the books, but I don't know on what basis it was assumed that Neanderthals couldn't speak. Considering that the necessary anatomy is soft tissue that would not have been preserved, why was it assumed it was that different from our own?

While many small relatively helpless creatures don't vocalize very much, most mammals are capable of a range of vocalizations. And monkeys are notoriously noisy. I see no reason why genus homo as a whole wouldn't have been equally vocal from the start. I see no reason why vocal language should be a late development in our evolution.

I suspect that it will eventually be recognized that language, whether verbal or visual, is present in most of the animal kingdom as well. Already, bee "dance" is being recognized as a kind of language. And anybody who has ever lived with a dog knows that they understand language, and actually use a kind of Morse code of barks to send messages over distances. ( The "Midnight Bark" of the "101 Dalmations" was an observed phenomenon. Not something the author made up out of whole cloth. The author used it well to further the story though.) Talking birds, like mynas and parrots sometimes use human language in such an appropriate way that people wonder if they actually understand the proper context for it's use. And what about whale song? Supposedly it changes every year or so. Isn't that an indication that it carries some kind of complex message?



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  #44  
Old March 26th, 2011, 10:21 pm
canismajoris  Male.gif canismajoris is offline
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Re: On Linguistics

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Originally Posted by Quickquill View Post
Oh, Auel made the point that the Neanderthal language was just as expressive as spoken language. But for some reason, she postulated in her "Clan of the Cave Bear " series that they didn't vocalize. I know she did a great deal of research before she wrote the books, but I don't know on what basis it was assumed that Neanderthals couldn't speak. Considering that the necessary anatomy is soft tissue that would not have been preserved, why was it assumed it was that different from our own?
Well as for that I'm not sure either. Given that it's a work of fiction, I wouldn't read too much into it. I have heard that theory before, but it was based (if I remember correctly, which I might not) that cranial structure and other physical features indicated that oral speech was less likely to have been useful. Whether that's true or not, they certainly must have communicated in some way. To me, the notion that a human or human-like civilization communicated with signs and body language is a much more interesting one, so maybe that's why the author went with it. Also, I just took a peek at a plot summary, and it seems like a central theme is the differences and similarities among the two species, so it's not a surprising choice to give the Neanderthals a markedly different way of communicating.

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While many small relatively helpless creatures don't vocalize very much, most mammals are capable of a range of vocalizations. And monkeys are notoriously noisy. I see no reason why genus homo as a whole wouldn't have been equally vocal from the start. I see no reason why vocal language should be a late development in our evolution.
I'm inclined to agree... but I would to emphasize the distinction between vocalization and language. I can vocalize all sorts of things that aren't language, and a deaf person can use language without vocalizing anything, so the two are definitely not synonymous. I think looking at your examples in this light will demonstrate the difference between using language and merely mimicking some aspects of it.

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I suspect that it will eventually be recognized that language, whether verbal or visual, is present in most of the animal kingdom as well. Already, bee "dance" is being recognized as a kind of language. And anybody who has ever lived with a dog knows that they understand language, and actually use a kind of Morse code of barks to send messages over distances. ( The "Midnight Bark" of the "101 Dalmations" was an observed phenomenon. Not something the author made up out of whole cloth. The author used it well to further the story though.)
While those are interesting phenomena, I do not believe they are language, which is a pretty specific and narrowly-defined ability. I don't mean to be dismissive at all, and I've read some pretty interesting research, but the way linguists define what language is, no animal comes close.

For example, a dog may learn to associate particular sounds with people and behaviors, but that is much different from understanding language. I speak to my dog quite a bit, and I'm quite sure he has no idea what I'm saying. If I say "up" or "out" or "sit" with a certain tone he knows what I expect him to do, because I've trained him to respond to those sounds. But I can get pretty much identical results by saying different words like "cup" or "pout" or "fit," because they sound rather like the commands he knows. Likewise, if I happen to use a synonym for "up," ("Dog, ascend!") he has no idea. That's because it's not the meaning that he knows, just the sound and the response I've trained him to produce.

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Talking birds, like mynas and parrots sometimes use human language in such an appropriate way that people wonder if they actually understand the proper context for it's use. And what about whale song? Supposedly it changes every year or so. Isn't that an indication that it carries some kind of complex message?
But such birds do not use language any more than a tape recorder uses language. Being able to reproduce sounds is only one small aspect of linguistic competence (and as I've pointed out is not even a necessary one), and as far as I know a mynah bird has never demonstrated the ability to understand what it is saying. It would be just as comfortable imitating the sound of a telephone ring as it would the sentence "I'm going to eat the mynah bird for Thanksgiving." If it could use our language, I'm sure a mynah bird would be quite alarmed by such a sentence, but something tells me this is not the case.


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  #45  
Old April 7th, 2011, 11:24 pm
Quickquill  Female.gif Quickquill is offline
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Re: On Linguistics

Just because you haven't bothered to teach your dog to understand a more varied vocabulary doesn't mean that he's incapable of it. Mine understands commands in at least three languages. These commands are given by different people, with different inflections and different intonations and different gestures. But he still understands them. Inter-species communication is a tricky thing because each specie has it's own mode of communicating which is peculiar to it, and suited to it's particular capabilities. These communications can be quite elaborately expressive within the specie while being inaccessible to other species that lack the necessary sensory apparatus. That does not disqualify them from being "languages". It's the height of hubris to think that only human style spoken language is worthy of the name.


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  #46  
Old April 9th, 2011, 6:58 pm
canismajoris  Male.gif canismajoris is offline
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Re: On Linguistics

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Just because you haven't bothered to teach your dog to understand a more varied vocabulary doesn't mean that he's incapable of it. Mine understands commands in at least three languages. These commands are given by different people, with different inflections and different intonations and different gestures. But he still understands them.
What I was attempting to explain is that the animal learns sounds, not meanings--I can't simply paraphrase a command and expect the same result. It has nothing whatsoever to do with how many commands I teach the dog, because the mechanism will always be the same. As fascinating as your dog may be, what you've described is still just conditioned response to a limited set of sounds. Moreover, dogs are evolved to get along with us, and have at times been specifically bred for this purpose. But none of their behaviors necessarily requires them to use or understand language, and especially not ours.

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Inter-species communication is a tricky thing because each specie has it's own mode of communicating which is peculiar to it, and suited to it's particular capabilities. These communications can be quite elaborately expressive within the specie while being inaccessible to other species that lack the necessary sensory apparatus.
Tell me then, if you may, how would a bird explain what a credit default swap is? I can (attempt to) make up an infinite variety of sentences to express anything that could ever possibly occur to me, and a bird can't.

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That does not disqualify them from being "languages". It's the height of hubris to think that only human style spoken language is worthy of the name.
I don't really agree with your facts or your sentiments. It's not about worthiness, it's about criteria of competence and performance that have been developed scientifically (among other things). Much of what you're referring to is actually disqualified. Language is a set of phenomena that can be measured and defined, not a set of feelings that you may have about your dog. I don't think human language is in its own class because I want to feel special, I think so because, well, for example, we're sitting here using computers to discuss it.


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  #47  
Old April 10th, 2011, 9:06 pm
Quickquill  Female.gif Quickquill is offline
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Re: On Linguistics

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Tell me then, if you may, how would a bird explain what a credit default swap is? I can (attempt to) make up an infinite variety of sentences to express anything that could ever possibly occur to me, and a bird can't.


I don't really agree with your facts or your sentiments. It's not about worthiness, it's about criteria of competence and performance that have been developed scientifically (among other things). Much of what you're referring to is actually disqualified. Language is a set of phenomena that can be measured and defined, not a set of feelings that you may have about your dog. I don't think human language is in its own class because I want to feel special, I think so because, well, for example, we're sitting here using computers to discuss it.
A credit default swap is a particularly human cultural artifact, not even found in some human cultures, so I would not expect it to interest a bird regardless of it's linguistic capabilities. How are we supposed to recognize and communicate with extraterrestrial intelligent creatures if we can't even recognize and communicate with other terrestrial creatures that have some degree of intelligence?

Again, a computer is a peculiarly human artifact. Don't confuse technology with intelligence, or with linguistic capability. The richness of human language is not dependent on technology, but rather on the human urge to talk about our experiences and our world. This is a very basic human instinct. and I'll bet it's a lot older than scientists have allowed themselves to admit. I'll bet it is a basic aspect of genus Homo that will eventually be traced all the way back to Australopithecus. Or at least to Homo Erectus. After all, both of them also made fairly complex tools, and had the beginnings of technology. Maybe you don't consider a spear to be a complex tool, but it requires fabrication; and the techniques of chipping stone tools and forming clay pots, are early technologies.

While Human speech is not dependent on technology, it can give rise to technology and to it's spread as well as to other cultural expressions like storytelling and music. On the other hand, ants are pretty good builders, and have a high degree of social organization. No doubt they have some means of communicating complex messages. Does our lack of comprehension indicate a lack of intelligence? Or a lack of sensory input?



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  #48  
Old April 12th, 2011, 4:26 am
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Re: On Linguistics

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A credit default swap is a particularly human cultural artifact, not even found in some human cultures, so I would not expect it to interest a bird regardless of it's linguistic capabilities.
I can discuss things that aren't human cultural artifacts, so why can't a bird discuss things that aren't avian cultural artifacts? I wonder whether a bird can discuss it, not whether it would find it an interesting subject.

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How are we supposed to recognize and communicate with extraterrestrial intelligent creatures if we can't even recognize and communicate with other terrestrial creatures that have some degree of intelligence?
Linguistic competence varies noticeably among humans based on intelligence and other factors, so that might answer your question. I'm not suggesting that animals can't communicate, but I see a big difference between communicating and using language.

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Again, a computer is a peculiarly human artifact. Don't confuse technology with intelligence, or with linguistic capability.
I'm quite clear on the distinction, and I'm certain that language is one of the first and most important ingredients in every single technological advancement we have. It is not the computer itself that I was referring to, but the rapid development of the computer in really just a few generations after we learned to use electricity. Mathematics and language are the underlying facilitators of this advancement, and I have a feeling math owes much of its identity to language as well.

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While Human speech is not dependent on technology, it can give rise to technology and to it's spread as well as to other cultural expressions like storytelling and music.
And so why has this not happened with animals?

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On the other hand, ants are pretty good builders, and have a high degree of social organization. No doubt they have some means of communicating complex messages. Does our lack of comprehension indicate a lack of intelligence? Or a lack of sensory input?
Ants communicate with pheromones, don't they? I would actually argue that we even overestimate the intelligence required for this, because we put it in human terms using human language.

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The richness of human language is not dependent on technology, but rather on the human urge to talk about our experiences and our world.
Truly though, as much as intelligence may be relevant, many modern linguists argue that the human brain itself contains structures and exhibits congenital abilities that allow us to communicate the way we do. This is not to suggest that animals have no similar ability, but it is evidence that language is an innate feature of humanity.

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This is a very basic human instinct. and I'll bet it's a lot older than scientists have allowed themselves to admit. I'll bet it is a basic aspect of genus Homo that will eventually be traced all the way back to Australopithecus. Or at least to Homo Erectus. After all, both of them also made fairly complex tools, and had the beginnings of technology. Maybe you don't consider a spear to be a complex tool, but it requires fabrication; and the techniques of chipping stone tools and forming clay pots, are early technologies.
Yet it couldn't have been a human instinct before there were humans, and it's possible that the urge to communicate you mentioned evolved simultaneously with the ability to do so.


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  #49  
Old April 12th, 2011, 7:12 am
Quickquill  Female.gif Quickquill is offline
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Re: On Linguistics

That's precisely my point. That linguistic ability did not develop only in humans, but rather that it is fairly common in the animal kingdom and is present in nearly all of the higher mammals and birds, and a good many lower creatures too. The content of the conversations, and the form of communication is dependent on the peculiar capabilities of each specie, but the underlying ability to organize a conscious communication of information is very widespread.


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  #50  
Old April 12th, 2011, 8:16 am
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Re: On Linguistics

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That's precisely my point. That linguistic ability did not develop only in humans, but rather that it is fairly common in the animal kingdom and is present in nearly all of the higher mammals and birds, and a good many lower creatures too. The content of the conversations, and the form of communication is dependent on the peculiar capabilities of each specie, but the underlying ability to organize a conscious communication of information is very widespread.
The distinction I'm making here is between language, a human ability, and everything else. I don't believe anything you've said yet so far is evidence that this distinction is invalid. Language is nowadays understood as a complex human ability governed by universal rules and constraints. It is by definition a function of higher cognition.

What I think most completely marks language as a uniquely human ability is the fact that humans who are competent in language--as nearly all of us are--have a literally infinite ability to express ourselves. For example, while there are (varied but predictable) rules limiting how we may form sentences, there is absolutely nothing stopping me from forming completely unique and meaningful sentences over and over until I die. I can say something that nobody has ever said or heard before and it would be understood. Likewise, for a given meaning, there is no end to the ways I may choose to express it, and what's more two identical words or sentences can have a broad array of different meanings. I can express the exact same meaning with my voice, with my hands, as a raised texture on a surface, or by a regular series of simple tones. I can even say one thing and mean the exact opposite.

So I can't say, and I don't believe you can either, the same things for any known form of animal communication. It isn't simply that we communicate. It's the way our thoughts are made meaningful that makes language human.



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  #51  
Old April 13th, 2011, 9:57 pm
Quickquill  Female.gif Quickquill is offline
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Re: On Linguistics

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The distinction I'm making here is between language, a human ability, and everything else. I don't believe anything you've said yet so far is evidence that this distinction is invalid. Language is nowadays understood as a complex human ability governed by universal rules and constraints. It is by definition a function of higher cognition.

What I think most completely marks language as a uniquely human ability is the fact that humans who are competent in language--as nearly all of us are--have a literally infinite ability to express ourselves. For example, while there are (varied but predictable) rules limiting how we may form sentences, there is absolutely nothing stopping me from forming completely unique and meaningful sentences over and over until I die. I can say something that nobody has ever said or heard before and it would be understood. Likewise, for a given meaning, there is no end to the ways I may choose to express it, and what's more two identical words or sentences can have a broad array of different meanings. I can express the exact same meaning with my voice, with my hands, as a raised texture on a surface, or by a regular series of simple tones. I can even say one thing and mean the exact opposite.

So I can't say, and I don't believe you can either, the same things for any known form of animal communication. It isn't simply that we communicate. It's the way our thoughts are made meaningful that makes language human.
I didn't disagree with you on that score. What I'm saying is that whatever capabilities we have developed out of preexisting capabilities already present in the animal kingdom. Therefore human language is largely different in degree from the "languages" of other creatures. We consider ourselves to be more intelligent than other creatures present on this planet, and we also think of our culture as more varied and richer than theirs. This is probably due to the fact that we are better acquainted with our own language and culture than we are with that of any of the lower animals.

I know people who think that only their own language is the most expressive. This is usually due to lack of depth of acquaintance with other languages or with second hand information about other languages.


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  #52  
Old October 17th, 2011, 6:43 am
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Re: On Linguistics

Don't know how effective the thread necromancy will be, but I'm going to give it a shot.

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I didn't disagree with you on that score. What I'm saying is that whatever capabilities we have developed out of preexisting capabilities already present in the animal kingdom. Therefore human language is largely different in degree from the "languages" of other creatures. We consider ourselves to be more intelligent than other creatures present on this planet, and we also think of our culture as more varied and richer than theirs. This is probably due to the fact that we are better acquainted with our own language and culture than we are with that of any of the lower animals.
In my opinion, it is no less reckless to say that human language is surely different only (or largely) in degree, absent evidence, as it is to say that it is surely different in kind. I think on that score we can say only that there is at present no good evidence that other animals can converse at the level of abstractions that we can.

Furthermore, I'm not sure what you mean in saying that our language capabilities developed from pre-existing skills in other creatures. In one sense, it's trivially true: We developed from other creatures; hence, our language skills did, too. But if you mean that all (or most) of the components of our language skills were developed largely before humans evolved--well, I'm not sure one can reliably say anything like that. There's just too much we have yet to understand about how humans read, write, speak, and listen.

I do think it's remarkable that there are (linguists claim) no "primitive" languages on the Earth--primitive in the sense that they are in principle less expressive than others. Is this an indication of a relatively recent origin of language? Or is just an indication that less expressive languages died out?


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  #53  
Old October 17th, 2011, 5:47 pm
canismajoris  Male.gif canismajoris is offline
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Re: On Linguistics

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I do think it's remarkable that there are (linguists claim) no "primitive" languages on the Earth--primitive in the sense that they are in principle less expressive than others. Is this an indication of a relatively recent origin of language? Or is just an indication that less expressive languages died out?
Well, to begin with, I'm not sure why it's such a remarkable claim, given that it is indeed simply an observation based on the languages we know of. Depending on who you ask, there are between 3,000 and 7,000 languages that fit into the discrete idioethnic category. Now, this category generally only includes languages that can be learned naturally as native languages from birth, and not invented ones, computer or symbolic languages, etc. Of these, they all generally have enough structure and expressiveness that no one is radically more utile than others and no one is especially inadequate.

That being said, the claim that some languages are primitive (which has for many decades been considered quaint or offensive) likely never had much scientific background to it in the first place, but was instead based on bogus racial or cultural prejudices. I could find examples if you wish, but otherwise take my word that very often people assessing the sophistication or primitiveness of a language were not trained to do any such thing. (As you rightly said, linguistics as a scientific discipline has not been around terribly long, but we do have a significant corpus of written texts to deal with going back thousands of years, and some pretty reliable theories about how languages change.)

So what I would suggest about language history is first, we believe that language as we define it has existed for some multiple of 10,000 years, whether 5x, 20x, depending on the theory. We also know rather convincingly that languages do change, in regular ways, and that there is even a strong correlation between the number of speakers of a language (and of course the proportion of native and non-native speakers) and how and how much the language will change over time.

My purely conjectural notion is that many thousands of years ago, what languages were spoken were not simpler in and of themselves, but were less prone to the kinds of changes we see when a language is used by a massive population spread across the planet. For example the theoretically-reconstructed Proto-Indo-European language may seem rudimentary at first glance, since for among other reasons we obviously have very little evidence of the breadth and depth of its vocabulary, but simple it is not.

It probably employed an intricately complex system of morphology including inflection and ablaut. And we "know" this because successively older ancestors of modern languages in the family tend toward these systems (e.g. look at the strongly fusional tendencies of Latin and Old English compared to the relatively isolating modern Italian and English). Syntactically PIE may have been relatively undeveloped, or it may have had no regular syntax at all, relying on devices like affixation and vowel harmony to piece increasingly complex words together. (Languages that tend toward this are called among other things synthetic--referring to a high morpheme-to-word ratio--and agglutinative--which is another way morphemes interact. cf. modern Turkish.)

So if PIE was morphologically more complex, and spoken by a smaller number of people... then guess what? Some theorists now suggest that the population size and demographic makeup of a language group are so strongly linked to the isolating-synthetic continuum that those data alone should suggest what type of language the people speak! I read this paper a while ago, but just off the top of my head I would note that English and Mandarin Chinese, two of the most widely spoken languages--and bear in mind I am not referring to number of native speakers alone--are also much closer to the isolating end of the spectrum, that is, they have very few morphemes per word and rely heavily on syntax to express meaning.

What I'm getting at, clumsily, is mainly that until surprisingly recently the full range of possible language strategies was not systematically understood either across populations or over time. What one scholar in the 19th century considered primitive may have only seemed so to him in comparison to Classical Latin. I'm not saying there never has been such a thing as a primitive language, only that to me it seems that fully developed languages are in some way linked with fully developed modern humans.



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  #54  
Old October 17th, 2011, 7:27 pm
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Re: On Linguistics

I freely admit to being a complete ignoramus on Linguistics, so I'm probably just making myself look even more stupid here, but I vaguely remember being taught at college that, far from the stereotype of cavemen communicating in grunts and human beings gradually making language more sophisticated over time, actually language has a tendency to simplify over time (that's why English used to have case inflections but - apart from the possessive 's - doesn't any more). So I'm guessing that a primitive language today would be a very complicated one with about 32 cases, and a non-primitive language would be one with very few grammatical rules!

Seriously, I'm assuming that at the dawn of humanity language was very simplistic, then it got more sophisticated, and it's now simplifying again. Or it was simple then, but in a different way. But I never totally got my head around that one.


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Old October 17th, 2011, 7:41 pm
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Re: On Linguistics

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Seriously, I'm assuming that at the dawn of humanity language was very simplistic, then it got more sophisticated, and it's now simplifying again. Or it was simple then, but in a different way. But I never totally got my head around that one.
It would make sense that the concepts being communicated at the dawn of humanity were more simple - the means by which they communicated might have been incredibly complex compared to the methods we would use to convey the same message today. We are the ones becoming more sophisticated over time, so as the complexity of the messages themselves grew, the need for a more simple way to convey the basic concepts grew as well.

That might explain why language itself is being simplified, though we might not necessarily be producing simpler messages. This is pure conjecture, though... I don't know anything on historical linguistics.


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  #56  
Old October 17th, 2011, 9:08 pm
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Re: On Linguistics

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Originally Posted by canismajoris View Post
Well, to begin with, I'm not sure why it's such a remarkable claim, given that it is indeed simply an observation based on the languages we know of. Depending on who you ask, there are between 3,000 and 7,000 languages that fit into the discrete idioethnic category. Now, this category generally only includes languages that can be learned naturally as native languages from birth, and not invented ones, computer or symbolic languages, etc. Of these, they all generally have enough structure and expressiveness that no one is radically more utile than others and no one is especially inadequate.
I'm not sure we mean "remarkable" in the same way. I don't mean that it is remarkable in the sense that I don't believe it of the languages we know. I mean that it is remarkable in the sense that I don't think it needed to have come out that way in truth. By way of analogy, if a bunch of computer scientists got together and each designed a different programming language, would we expect them all to come out Turing complete? Not so sure about that.

So I think it makes sense to speculate about how that might have come about. Is there something about either human brain organization or more general needs that makes a significantly more or less expressive language less likely? Or are the equalizing effects of diffusion sufficient to explain the parity? A lot of this might be clearer if we knew whether or not there was a single origin to all surviving languages. As far as I can tell, there is no general agreement on this.

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So what I would suggest about language history is first, we believe that language as we define it has existed for some multiple of 10,000 years, whether 5x, 20x, depending on the theory. We also know rather convincingly that languages do change, in regular ways, and that there is even a strong correlation between the number of speakers of a language (and of course the proportion of native and non-native speakers) and how and how much the language will change over time.
Have you read this article by Lieberman, et al., "Quantifying the evolutionary dynamics of language"? It appeared in the 2007-10-11 issue of Nature, and describes a rather interesting quantitative relation between the frequency that an irregular word appears in corpora, and the average time that it takes for such a word to regularize. It's fairly speculative, but pretty interesting.

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My purely conjectural notion is that many thousands of years ago, what languages were spoken were not simpler in and of themselves, but were less prone to the kinds of changes we see when a language is used by a massive population spread across the planet. For example the theoretically-reconstructed Proto-Indo-European language may seem rudimentary at first glance, since for among other reasons we obviously have very little evidence of the breadth and depth of its vocabulary, but simple it is not.
I don't know how it might seem to others, but it certainly doesn't seem simple to me.

But I'm not sure why you think early language would be less prone to changes. It might be true that the speakers of PIE covered less of the planet, but then, too, the time that it took from information to travel from one end of the PIE-speaking area to the other (so to speak) probably was longer than it was in recent times--just before the development of the modern dictionary, which tends to fix language--and certainly longer than it is now. I should think that "propagation time" has a substantial impact on how fungible a language is.

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So if PIE was morphologically more complex, and spoken by a smaller number of people... then guess what? Some theorists now suggest that the population size and demographic makeup of a language group are so strongly linked to the isolating-synthetic continuum that those data alone should suggest what type of language the people speak! I read this paper a while ago, but just off the top of my head I would note that English and Mandarin Chinese, two of the most widely spoken languages--and bear in mind I am not referring to number of native speakers alone--are also much closer to the isolating end of the spectrum, that is, they have very few morphemes per word and rely heavily on syntax to express meaning.
Yes. In fact, back in the days when amateur philologists were classifying languages in their charmingly Euro-centric fashion, it was commonly understood that Chinese had no grammar at all--which of course was pure garbage. It does (essentially, though not completely) lack morphology, but of course there is plenty of syntax.

However, I'm not sure that Chinese is so illustrative of the large speaker base = analytic / small speaker base = synthetic correlation. Old Chinese doesn't have a ton of morphology, either. Now, to be sure, we're not exactly certain what Old Chinese sounded like (not, at any rate, to the extent that we know what Middle Chinese sounded like), but there are general notions. We suspect that there was some inflection, but it doesn't appear to have been for declension, conjugation, number, etc. Based on what I've read, it seems that inflection was most productive for determining voice and degree of introversion/extroversion of verbs, and may today account for some of the tonal aspect of the various dialects. (A bit like how we say re-JECT for the verb, and RE-ject for the noun.)

In any event, Chinese seems to have been, from its earliest attested stages, a fairly analytic/isolating language, even when it had a relatively small speaker base. I wonder if there isn't something a bit more flexible than size of speaker base that one can hang the morphological classification of a language on. (Of course, the more flexible, the harder to disprove/verify empirically.)

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What I'm getting at, clumsily, is mainly that until surprisingly recently the full range of possible language strategies was not systematically understood either across populations or over time. What one scholar in the 19th century considered primitive may have only seemed so to him in comparison to Classical Latin. I'm not saying there never has been such a thing as a primitive language, only that to me it seems that fully developed languages are in some way linked with fully developed modern humans.
Yes, I think that's quite right. I think it's open, however, as to how fully developed languages got that way.

In some sense, some kind of intermediate value theorem for languages must apply; there must at some point have been a language, a system of signs, that was distinctly less expressive than any surviving human language. We can imagine that it might have had all kinds of concrete terms, but perhaps little or nothing in the way of abstract ones. The question is fairly uninteresting in those terms; I think a more interesting one is whether such a language could have survived for any length of time, more or less unchanged, or whether it was inevitably a mere steppingstone on the way to modern language.


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  #57  
Old October 17th, 2011, 11:27 pm
canismajoris  Male.gif canismajoris is offline
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Re: On Linguistics

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Originally Posted by BrianTung View Post
Have you read this article by Lieberman, et al., "Quantifying the evolutionary dynamics of language"? It appeared in the 2007-10-11 issue of Nature, and describes a rather interesting quantitative relation between the frequency that an irregular word appears in corpora, and the average time that it takes for such a word to regularize. It's fairly speculative, but pretty interesting.
I'm reading it now, definitely interesting, and rather in line with what I know personally about the decline of strong verbs. On that subject actually, if you need some light reading, I would recommend Pinker's Words and Rules, as it approaches some neuro-psychological notions of how irregular verbs appear and disappear.

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Originally Posted by BrianTung View Post
But I'm not sure why you think early language would be less prone to changes. It might be true that the speakers of PIE covered less of the planet, but then, too, the time that it took from information to travel from one end of the PIE-speaking area to the other (so to speak) probably was longer than it was in recent times--just before the development of the modern dictionary, which tends to fix language--and certainly longer than it is now. I should think that "propagation time" has a substantial impact on how fungible a language is.
Well, I would underscore that a smaller population in a tighter geographic distribution is probably going to suggest less change. By that I don't mean that the speakers don't unwittingly make changes to how they speak, I only mean that if there's only one contiguous population there will be fewer competing standards going at once, and a much greater chance of stasis within the population even if not over long periods of time.

As for the language traveling across larger areas, I don't think we need to speculate about what happened, because obviously several different groups eventually became mutually unintelligible... it's just we have to draw a line somewhere saying that it ceased to be Proto-Indo-European. What I'm saying is that (going on the assumption that it really existed in this form) when it was itself, in its original population in its original location, it probably changed a lot less than it did once it spread out and the number of speakers increased.

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Originally Posted by BrianTung View Post
Yes. In fact, back in the days when amateur philologists were classifying languages in their charmingly Euro-centric fashion, it was commonly understood that Chinese had no grammar at all--which of course was pure garbage. It does (essentially, though not completely) lack morphology, but of course there is plenty of syntax.
I was actually reading a very interesting 19th-century text about the Anglo-Saxon-Jute migration to Britain, and the word "savage" came up about a hundred times in one page.

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Originally Posted by BrianTung View Post
However, I'm not sure that Chinese is so illustrative of the large speaker base = analytic / small speaker base = synthetic correlation. Old Chinese doesn't have a ton of morphology, either. Now, to be sure, we're not exactly certain what Old Chinese sounded like (not, at any rate, to the extent that we know what Middle Chinese sounded like), but there are general notions. We suspect that there was some inflection, but it doesn't appear to have been for declension, conjugation, number, etc. Based on what I've read, it seems that inflection was most productive for determining voice and degree of introversion/extroversion of verbs, and may today account for some of the tonal aspect of the various dialects. (A bit like how we say re-JECT for the verb, and RE-ject for the noun.)
If I misled you I'm sorry, the hypothesis in article I was describing was a bit more involved than what I described. One of the key factors they looked at (again I apologize, this is from memory, I was unable to find it again) was the number of adult L2 speakers of a given language, and languages with larger numbers in that area tended to be less morphologically involved. In other words, it says, the more people acquire a language as a second language, the less complex it might realistically be on the word level. So, it's definitely possible that this is not the case with Mandarin or other Chinese languages, but I suspect to some extent it is or was historically.

Quote:
Originally Posted by BrianTung View Post
In any event, Chinese seems to have been, from its earliest attested stages, a fairly analytic/isolating language, even when it had a relatively small speaker base. I wonder if there isn't something a bit more flexible than size of speaker base that one can hang the morphological classification of a language on. (Of course, the more flexible, the harder to disprove/verify empirically.)
Oh, see above, and I will try to find that article.

Quote:
Originally Posted by BrianTung View Post
Yes, I think that's quite right. I think it's open, however, as to how fully developed languages got that way.

In some sense, some kind of intermediate value theorem for languages must apply; there must at some point have been a language, a system of signs, that was distinctly less expressive than any surviving human language. We can imagine that it might have had all kinds of concrete terms, but perhaps little or nothing in the way of abstract ones. The question is fairly uninteresting in those terms; I think a more interesting one is whether such a language could have survived for any length of time, more or less unchanged, or whether it was inevitably a mere steppingstone on the way to modern language.
A fine set of questions to which I have no answers. I believe there are some other folks around here who have a more anthropological interest in language (and a great deal more knowledge than I have), so maybe somehow we can rope them in.



Last edited by canismajoris; October 17th, 2011 at 11:30 pm.
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  #58  
Old October 18th, 2011, 4:46 am
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Re: On Linguistics

Actually when the Europeans started to explore the whole globe a number of languages lacking words for abstract thinking were found. These languages were used in gatherer-hunter societies without much need for abstract thinking. Unfortunately I can't remember any example for the moment.

So that stage of development in a language can survive for a very long time if the pressure for change is absent.


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Old October 18th, 2011, 5:01 am
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Re: On Linguistics

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Originally Posted by Alastor View Post
Actually when the Europeans started to explore the whole globe a number of languages lacking words for abstract thinking were found. These languages were used in gatherer-hunter societies without much need for abstract thinking. Unfortunately I can't remember any example for the moment.

So that stage of development in a language can survive for a very long time if the pressure for change is absent.
One thing I recall is that in some hunter-gatherer societies, elements denoting tense were non-existent, indicating that those societies had a non-linear sense of time.

More recent research, however, may have since superceded this interpretation.


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  #60  
Old October 18th, 2011, 6:55 am
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Re: On Linguistics

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Originally Posted by Melaszka View Post
I freely admit to being a complete ignoramus on Linguistics, so I'm probably just making myself look even more stupid here, but I vaguely remember being taught at college that, far from the stereotype of cavemen communicating in grunts and human beings gradually making language more sophisticated over time, actually language has a tendency to simplify over time (that's why English used to have case inflections but - apart from the possessive 's - doesn't any more). So I'm guessing that a primitive language today would be a very complicated one with about 32 cases, and a non-primitive language would be one with very few grammatical rules!

Seriously, I'm assuming that at the dawn of humanity language was very simplistic, then it got more sophisticated, and it's now simplifying again. Or it was simple then, but in a different way. But I never totally got my head around that one.
A completely amateur observation, but - I think languages which transition from synthetic to analytical may simplify morphologically (lose inflections, cases, etc.), but they tend to compensate with more grammatical flexibility, polysemic pre- or postpositions, and possibly other things I'm not aware of because I haven't been in a linguistics class in 6 years.


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