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Tags "Better Angels" , Lawrence Krauss , linguistics , noam chomsky , pundits , Steven Pinker

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Old 11th April 2015, 08:12 PM   #1
angrysoba
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Chomsky and Krauss in Conversation

I wasn't quite sure where to put this video because a number of topics come up, so I put it here in one of the more popular subforums where it is likely to be seen by a lot of people.

I think these topics are of general interest to a lot of people here. Lawrence Krauss introduces Chomsky and does, I think, a very good job of inviting Chomsky to spell out his views on a number of things pretty clearly.

They mostly talk about language and then move on to politics.

I happen to think that Chomsky (and Pinker) are ultimately wrong about language, and in this interview Chomsky agrees that his own views are now very much a minority view in linguistics (something that Pinker's Language Instinct failed to mention).

They also talk a little about Pinker's Better Angels of Our Nature. Chomsky thinks that Pinker is almost entirely wrong in his book.

Chomsky also talks a little about what he considers to be the legitimacy and illegitimacy of political power (in almost all cases he finds the exercise of power to be illegitimate).

You may find this talk interesting, you may not. I haven't actually finished watching it yet, but find what I have listened to so far to be interesting.

I also find it interesting because Krauss seems to have a lot of affection for Chomsky's views and the old man himself. As we know, Krauss's friends - Hitchens and Harris - have had some very public bust-ups with Chomsky.

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Old 12th April 2015, 10:56 AM   #2
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I made it just beyond an hour. I am a big fan of Krauss, but I have always found Chomsky difficult to listen to, if not outright boring, when he is in his political or philosophical mode. However, I was very interested in his discussion of linguistics. I was in the field of theoretical syntax which promoted the theory of generative/transformational grammar in the early 70s when Chomsky was pretty much in his prime, and acceptance of his ideas was widespread. His disciples from MIT were among my mentors, and their work was impressive and believed by many of us in graduate linguistics studies to be gospel and eventually a path to a universal linguistic theory.

I still harbor a great deal of positivity, shall we say, for Chomsky's fundamental ideas about natural language capacity as an innate evolved trait of humans which must have been present in our early ancestors' minds before leaving east Africa. Evidence such as symbolic art and close cooperation in sophisticated hunting skills is convincing, and the ability of even the most socially isolated to achieve language skills in any foreign language is difficult to explain otherwise.

His distinction between the core of language as an instrument of communication vs. a system for externalizing internal thoughts is an important one, and seems to be a basic dichotomy in schools of modern linguistic theories, though I have not kept up to date with these.

Chomsky's appeal to linguistic universals (syntactic, phonological or semantic) may be one his most enduring insights, and the idea that grammar acquisition must at some level be very simple is a feature that will have to be a part of any successful universal theory of grammar. Taking the study of grammar beyond the prescriptive into the descriptive realm was of paramount importance.

Unfortunately most of real meat of what makes the study of theoretical linguistics interesting is what Chomsky keeps saying are complex details that he cannot go into here. I will attempt to listen to the rest of this interview later, but I will need to skip the political parts.
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Old 12th April 2015, 03:01 PM   #3
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I skipped around. I wanted to catch the part where he comments on Pinker's book Better Angels, but never found that conversation thread. I also listened to the Q&A afterward.
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Old 13th April 2015, 02:16 AM   #4
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Originally Posted by Cain View Post
I skipped around. I wanted to catch the part where he comments on Pinker's book Better Angels, but never found that conversation thread. I also listened to the Q&A afterward.
It's at 51 minutes.
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Old 13th April 2015, 02:35 PM   #5
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Paging angrysoba!!! I'm curious what you meant by this part.

Quote:
I happen to think that Chomsky (and Pinker) are ultimately wrong about language, and in this interview Chomsky agrees that his own views are now very much a minority view in linguistics (something that Pinker's Language Instinct failed to mention).
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Old 14th April 2015, 06:17 AM   #6
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Originally Posted by Olowkow View Post
Paging angrysoba!!! I'm curious what you meant by this part.
Hi Olowkow

I can't claim expertise in Chomskyan linguistics, but from what I understand of it, his theory and the popular reinvigoration of the theory that was made by Pinker seems to have been pretty well refuted here.

It's possible that I haven't really read the seminal texts on the theory, and if you could give me some reading suggestions for Chomsky's theory I would be interested (I have Aspects of Syntax here, although I have not read it completely).

My main difficulties, if I understand Chomsky correctly, is that he sees language as being mostly about syntax - or grammar and deals mostly with sentence-level grammar. But I think that discourse-level language, shared social knowledge, pragmatics and various other things are important in language.

Some linguists have questioned the sharp division between grammar and lexis, and others have suggested that collocations, and phrasal chunks are more important organizing principles of language than grammar per se.

Also, while Chomsky and others often talk about how one of the remarkable things about language acquisition is that children will adopt the language that they are raised in even if they are transplanted from another culture, whereas something such as a housecat will not, I think it is no more remarkable surely than that a child would adopt all kinds of cultural behaviours of their peers.

Although if you wonder what I mean by saying that it is a minority position these days, then I think that is not so controversial. Chomsky himself says so in the video, and a number of linguists such as Langacker, Fillmore, Lakoff and indeed Tomasello and others have created new fields of linguistics such as cognitive linguistics and corpus linguistics which essentially disagree with Chomskyan syntactic theory (as far as I know).

Anyway, that might be a bit vague, but the tl;dr version is that I don't think Chomskyan linguistics is adequate for the explanation of language and may not even be necessary at all.
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Old 14th April 2015, 08:16 AM   #7
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Originally Posted by angrysoba View Post
Hi Olowkow

I can't claim expertise in Chomskyan linguistics, but from what I understand of it, his theory and the popular reinvigoration of the theory that was made by Pinker seems to have been pretty well refuted here.

It's possible that I haven't really read the seminal texts on the theory, and if you could give me some reading suggestions for Chomsky's theory I would be interested (I have Aspects of Syntax here, although I have not read it completely).

My main difficulties, if I understand Chomsky correctly, is that he sees language as being mostly about syntax - or grammar and deals mostly with sentence-level grammar. But I think that discourse-level language, shared social knowledge, pragmatics and various other things are important in language.
Chomsky was interested in syntactic structures. The basic structural unit of syntax is the sentence. So then, someone says, "What about commands, like 'look!'?" They are sentences in deep structure. There were plenty of others like Lakoff who dealt with implication, analogy, metaphor, hedges, fantasy, etc. Phonology and semantics have their gurus as well.

Honestly, I would recommend works by students of Chomsky and various interpreters of his work, such as Lakoff, Ross, McCawley, etc. rather than Chomsky himself. I'm thinking of actual research papers that demonstrate how generative grammar actually works. Haj Ross is a good place to begin. His ideas such as the Complex Noun Phrase constraint, Islands, conspiracies, etc. make it much easier to understand why the theory had so much traction at the time. As I have told you in PMs much of the criticism of these ideas are just due to not understanding their implications. Examples tend to leave a lot of people in the dust. Not that it is a difficult concept to understand, but in my experience, what is fascinating to the linguist often seems to strike some as trivial or uninteresting. From your Tomasello paper:

Quote:
....their scientific reporting is often inaccessible to nonlinguists due to the technical jargon of Generative Grammar.
In his new book, The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language, (1994) Steven Pinker attempts to remedy this situation.
....
The book is sure to be widely read as it is aimed at a general audience and has received broad popular exposure from a number of Book-of-the-Month club listings and reviews in such publications as People magazine and USA Today.
....
The problem with the book is that Generative Grammar and its concomitant nativism are presented to the reader as established scientific facts, without even the hint of a hint that there are fierce theoretical and empirical debates currently raging over almost every issue discussed. That many linguists, indeed the majority of linguists, do not believe in a Chomsky-like Universal Grammar is not acknowledged anywhere in the 430 pages of the book. Thus, Pinker simply states in the introductory chapter that he is going
to introduce the reader to “the science of language,” which contrasts only with the confused and uninformed views of laypersons and humanists.
Tomasello is really upset about something, but I can't quite understand just what it is. Humanists? Universal grammar?

I am trying to figure out what he means by his claim that a "majority linguists do not believe in a Chomsky-like Universal Grammar". Where did he get this from? Is he focusing on "Chomsky-like" or "Universal"? It's kind of like claiming that Newton was wrong, because Einstein is right. What is the alternative to a universal grammar? Does he mean syntax only?

A huge number of papers have demonstrated that it is likely that, given the right approach and theory, universal syntactic constraints on constructions can be described. A good example is the limit on the number of self embeddings that the mind is capable of dealing with. In theories of natural language parsing, the difficulty with multiple center embedding is thought to arise from limitations of the human short term memory. In order to process multiple center embeddings, we have to store many subjects in order to connect them to their predicates.

Quote:
A man that a woman loves
A man that a woman that a child knows loves
A man that a woman that a child that a bird saw knows loves
A man that a woman that a child that a bird that I heard saw knows loves
The claim is that there is a universal grammar that is somehow built into the brain that selects from a bag of syntactic, semantic and phonological set of rules (read: "principles") for each language.

This is a powerful claim. It predicts certain impossible rules in natural languages (more than 3 levels of self embedding), and recursiveness in order to account for an infinite set of sentences. The latter has always struck me as a little lame, but there it is. I have always believed that it also predicts that certain rules occur in combination with other rules which may not be at first obvious, but I've never pursued this idea. I agree that these details concerning various aspects of LADl/UG etc. are vague and always have been.

The idea is that in our mind we form a sentence in a "deep structure" and then these lexical items are transformed via synchronic rules into a vocalized version of the sentence in "surface structure." Native speaker intuitions are the sole source of syntactic data for analysis, and these intuitions are at times very tenuous. As a science, generative transformational grammars have always been on shaky ground because of the nature of the data, but nonetheless often useful.

Phonology has benefited most greatly from a generative approach, though attempts at generative semantics have been far less fruitful. For example, if one posits an underlying English plural morpheme /z/, the phonology of all regular nouns can be easily written with generative phonological rules. It is overwhelmingly clear to me, from having dabbled in about a dozen languages' morphology, that the principles cannot be argued to be "non-universal" in any interesting way.

Quote:
Some linguists have questioned the sharp division between grammar and lexis, and others have suggested that collocations, and phrasal chunks are more important organizing principles of language than grammar per se.
Details. Could well be true. Let's try it and see where it leads. Why are translation machines still pretty much based on throwing huge amounts of memory at the problem? What do these theories predict?

Quote:
Also, while Chomsky and others often talk about how one of the remarkable things about language acquisition is that children will adopt the language that they are raised in even if they are transplanted from another culture, whereas something such as a housecat will not, I think it is no more remarkable surely than that a child would adopt all kinds of cultural behaviours of their peers.
It likely is not all that remarkable, namely because we are humans: universal language template built in and enabling our brain to seek out language patterns within certain limits. Much of linguistic behavior is in fact cultural or sociological. Bilingual children in a bilingual community learn rule governed principles which constrain their code-switching behavior in sociological and syntactic/phonological ways.

Quote:
Although if you wonder what I mean by saying that it is a minority position these days, then I think that is not so controversial. Chomsky himself says so in the video, and a number of linguists such as Langacker, Fillmore, Lakoff and indeed Tomasello and others have created new fields of linguistics such as cognitive linguistics and corpus linguistics which essentially disagree with Chomskyan syntactic theory (as far as I know).
Chomsky accepts that there are other ideas out there.

I am at a loss to understand whether this means that Chomsky has been totally devastated and undermined or just modified or added to. The major theoretical problems for transformational grammars came when guys like Lakoff pointed out that passives were not always identical in meaning to their active sentence counterparts, when they should be. Or when phonology was tempted by Occam's razor to appeal to derivational history. These are problems with the theory, not the nitpicks by new branches or ways of regarding linguistics.

Quote:
Anyway, that might be a bit vague, but the tl;dr version is that I don't think Chomskyan linguistics is adequate for the explanation of language and may not even be necessary at all.
That might well be true that it's not adequate, but it sure doesn't negate all the work that seemed to show so much promise in describing the structure of natural languages. I wouldn't be surprised if many of the insights weren't mined some day to make translation machines more efficient. The GPS talking program was in part at least done by Chomskyan linguists.

Last edited by Olowkow; 14th April 2015 at 08:32 AM.
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Old 14th April 2015, 07:32 PM   #8
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Originally Posted by Urg View Post
It's at 51 minutes.
Thanks!

He didn't really address the claim that, on a per capita basis, humans are safer now than during hunter-gatherer times.

If you lived in a tribe of fifty, and four people were murdered in a raid, then that's 8% of your population. (You'd need to murder over 25 million people in the U.S. for a comparable figure.) There are other factors, of course: if you got stabbed back then, you'd probably die; today people can survive despite having limbs torn off. Nevertheless, it's remarkable that we can walk down the street of a large city without watching our back every two seconds. Complete strangers are objectively more likely to help you than harm you.
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Old 14th April 2015, 07:37 PM   #9
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Originally Posted by Cain View Post
If you lived in a tribe of fifty, and four people were murdered in a raid, then that's 8% of your population. (You'd need to murder over 25 million people in the U.S. for a comparable figure.)
Well, I know what I'm doing this weekend! Thanks for the suggestion.
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Old 14th April 2015, 09:19 PM   #10
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Old 15th April 2015, 07:33 AM   #11
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HI Olowkow. Thanks for your detailed response. Unfortunately, I have no time to do your response justice with a well-thought-out response, so please accept these sloppy musings for now.

Originally Posted by Olowkow View Post
Chomsky was interested in syntactic structures. The basic structural unit of syntax is the sentence. So then, someone says, "What about commands, like 'look!'?" They are sentences in deep structure.
I think that one of the contentions that many linguists have with Chomskyan linguistics is that the sentence is itself something of an artificial construction that has mainly come to seem more real than it is because of written language. Some linguists do make distinctions between what they consider to be spoken and written grammar.

Other linguists who are involved with child language acquisition talk of holophrases (sp?) in which grammar is non-existent.

To begin with, it might be worth sketching the idea that Chomsky appears to be advocating which is that all languages have an essential grammar, and that the differences between languages are superficial because all of them conform to certain principles (?), with the specific differences in grammar between languages being called parameters (?).

Chomsky finds the idea that all non-pathological children will learn a language regardless of upbringing to be evidence of a built-in language acquisition device of some kind. That language is too complicated and that children have far too little stimulus to understand the grammatical rules of their first language, specifically given the lack of corrections that are made to their speech by their parents and caregivers, unless this LAD and/or language universals exist. Of course, the fact that this is referred to as "deep structure" often means that it is unclear if such structures really do exist or whether they are just being posited as necessities of the theory.

Originally Posted by Olowkow View Post
Honestly, I would recommend works by students of Chomsky and various interpreters of his work, such as Lakoff, Ross, McCawley, etc. rather than Chomsky himself. I'm thinking of actual research papers that demonstrate how generative grammar actually works. Haj Ross is a good place to begin. His ideas such as the Complex Noun Phrase constraint, Islands, conspiracies, etc. make it much easier to understand why the theory had so much traction at the time. As I have told you in PMs much of the criticism of these ideas are just due to not understanding their implications. Examples tend to leave a lot of people in the dust. Not that it is a difficult concept to understand, but in my experience, what is fascinating to the linguist often seems to strike some as trivial or uninteresting.
One book that has been suggested in the research I have done into this is Mark Baker's The Atoms of Language, which is supposed to give an overview of language universals. I think the idea of language universals is one pillar on which Chomsky's theory stands. If some non-trivial universals were discovered then perhaps the theory would seem to have some vindication but is that actually the case?


Originally Posted by Olowkow View Post
From your Tomasello paper:


Tomasello is really upset about something, but I can't quite understand just what it is. Humanists? Universal grammar?

I am trying to figure out what he means by his claim that a "majority linguists do not believe in a Chomsky-like Universal Grammar". Where did he get this from? Is he focusing on "Chomsky-like" or "Universal"? It's kind of like claiming that Newton was wrong, because Einstein is right.
I don't think Tomasello is "upset", but rather after praising Pinker for doing a good job of making Chomskyan linguistics accessible to the lay reader, Tomasello says that Pinker has done the reader something of an injustice by failing to point out how controversial these ideas are. I don't think Chomsky is on anything like as firm a footing in his field as Newton or Einstein are in physics.

Originally Posted by Olowkow View Post
What is the alternative to a universal grammar? Does he mean syntax only?
One alternative is construction grammar.
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Old 15th April 2015, 09:08 AM   #12
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Originally Posted by angrysoba View Post
HI Olowkow. Thanks for your detailed response. Unfortunately, I have no time to do your response justice with a well-thought-out response, so please accept these sloppy musings for now.
....

One alternative is construction grammar.
I don't have the time to properly rehash these topics either, and doing so in writing is very tricky and frustrating. I'd much rather discuss these things over beer and burgers.

One thing about "no grammar" advocates.

Quote:
Holophrasis is the prelinguistic use of a single word to express a complex idea. A holophrase may resemble an interjection, but whereas an interjection is linguistic, and has a specific grammatical function, a holophrase is simply a vocalization memorized by rote and used without grammatical intent.
This is a little like the linguistics equivalent of the bacterial flagellum and irreducible complexity.

There is a lot of misunderstanding with regard to claims of "universality" in linguistic descriptions with regard to rules or principles. It is really not much more than a claim that as humans, our minds all work pretty much the same way and are limited by the same constraints. There are lots of putative linguistic universals at all levels of structure. Obviously not all are relevant to all grammars. Some examples from phonology are: assimilation, sandhi, metathesis, reduplication, liaison, aspiration loss, morphological boundaries, etc. From syntax, there are phenomena like I mentioned which are probably universal: complex noun phrase constraint, limited levels of self-embedding, WH-movement restrictions, etc. There is even evidence of universal constraints on code-switching in bilingual communities.

The use of the "sentence" as a linguistic unit is not sacrosanct any more than the "noun, verb, adjective" classifications are. These are convenient conventions, and there were plenty of attempts to meld some categories. I can't see that Lakoff's and Fillmore's insights really refute any claims of the importance of universals in the description of natural languages.

The best way to appreciate Lakoff is to listen to him speak. He's still one of my favorites when it comes to specifics about ideas in linguistic theorizing.

One of his areas of expertise is metaphors in language. His claims are powerful and universal if one stops to think about it.

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Old 23rd April 2015, 07:19 AM   #13
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I thought I would transfer the discussion from Education to here, so that we keep the UG discussion in one place.

Originally Posted by Olowkow View Post
There is a lot of misunderstanding with regard to claims of "universality" in linguistic descriptions with regard to rules or principles. It is really not much more than a claim that as humans, our minds all work pretty much the same way and are limited by the same constraints. There are lots of putative linguistic universals at all levels of structure. Obviously not all are relevant to all grammars. Some examples from phonology are: assimilation, sandhi, metathesis, reduplication, liaison, aspiration loss, morphological boundaries, etc. From syntax, there are phenomena like I mentioned which are probably universal: complex noun phrase constraint, limited levels of self-embedding, WH-movement restrictions, etc. There is even evidence of universal constraints on code-switching in bilingual communities.
Okay, but would it be fair to say that according to Chomsky:

a) Language is separate from other forms of cognition and therefore a language universal is not merely something that there are physical mental constraints on such as speaking in ways that the human vocal tract is not able to produce?

b) That a language universal is exactly that: universal, and not merely likely.

In the list on “phonological universals”, we have:

Quote:
Here are some phonological universals concerning vowel systems:
Symmetry
• Vowel systems tend to be symmetrical.
• The minimal vowel system includes /i a u/. All known languages are said to have these three vowels, or slight variations of them.
Rounding
• Back vowels tend to be rounded.
• Front vowels tend to be unrounded.


Can they really be said to be “universals”? And again, are we talking about what is physiologically easier or an actual property of the “language faculty”?

Furthermore, is it true that Chomsky argues that:

c) human languages are not related to animal communication systems.

and

d) that syntax is what sets human language apart from animal communication systems.

Originally Posted by Olowkow View Post
The use of the "sentence" as a linguistic unit is not sacrosanct any more than the "noun, verb, adjective" classifications are. These are convenient conventions, and there were plenty of attempts to meld some categories. I can't see that Lakoff's and Fillmore's insights really refute any claims of the importance of universals in the description of natural languages.
Well, it could be that they are arguing that grammar is not separate from semantics or that language is not separate from broader human cognition. I could be wrong, though.

Originally Posted by Olowkow View Post
The best way to appreciate Lakoff is to listen to him speak. He's still one of my favorites when it comes to specifics about ideas in linguistic theorizing.

One of his areas of expertise is metaphors in language. His claims are powerful and universal if one stops to think about it.

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Thanks. I have Lakoff and Johnson’s Metaphors We Live By which is very thought-provoking and his book, Women, Fire and Dangerous Things which I must get round to reading soon.

It is interesting to see that he and Fillmore are working from Ervine Goffman’s work. I have read some of Goffman’s Presentation of the Self and his stuff on face. It’s quite interesting and has had a profound effect on pragmatics. Brown and Levinson were influenced by Goffman also when they came up with what they called a “universal” in language which they dubbed “politeness theory”.


Originally Posted by Olowkow View Post
Universal grammar is the set of tools or innate abilities a child brings to the table from infancy to allow him to acquire a grammar by making useful generalizations from data provided to him solely by speakers within his environment. Gleason's "wug test" is a classic demonstration of how children can generalize morphological rules from their anecdotal input in acquiring language without ever having been taught in the strict sense.



The two year old child has not been drilled in English grammatical plural rules, yet he can easily produce an English plural which he has never heard before by using the common underlying morpheme suffix, /+əz/. He does not make "wug" plural by affixing a random sound, nor does he err by using the /z/ as a prefix. He does not err by producing /wugəz/ (cf. churches) however, he might well over generalize by avoiding an irregular form [ran] for the past tense of [run] such as *[runned].
Yes, I remember reading about the wug test in Pinker’s books Language Instinct and Stuff of Thought. To be honest, I am not really sure how the wug test is supposed to be any kind of evidence for Universal Grammar or deep structure. All the child has to do is recognize that there is a convention for plurals and apply it. Why would we expect a child to otherwise apply a “random sound” to pluralize something? And why would we expect the /z/ or the /es/ sounds to appear when they are more difficult to produce than a /s/? I’m not sure what the point of that is given that children don’t pluralize church as church/z/ or church/s/. I doubt it has anything to do with deep structure.

In fact, Gleason herself seems to be bemused by the claims of innatists over the wug test when all she was looking to investigate was the ages at which children apply certain morphological rules in English:

http://ltprofessionals.com/journalpd...Ninterview.pdf

Originally Posted by Olowkow View Post
Universals of semantics, syntax, morphology, phonology and child language acquisition, absent a more robust theory which could impact education, have little relevance or significance for students learning a foreign language. The acquisition of a second language after the age of puberty, more or less, is complicated by the apparent loss of the mechanisms which greatly facilitate first or second language acquisitions in much younger bilingual children.
Yes, but what can also complicate language acquisition at later ages is more complicated lives of adults who largely will not live their day to day lives in a second language which is something that young children can do. For adults, more of their lives have been encoded in their first language, and they have friends and relatives who speak in those languages. Trying to learn a new language at a later age, is first of all, by no means impossible, but second of all, could be complicated by other factors than simply the UG switch turning off. The most salient example of something appearing to be determined by some “critical period hypothesis” is accent, which may come down to physiological rather than some hypothesized dissipation in the UG-posited “Language Acquisition Device” (the latter we have no evidence for).

However, you seem to have produced two pieces of evidence of what UG supposedly accounts for:

a) that children learn morphological rules without being explicitly taught
b) that after a Critical Period (puberty) the UG switches off, and hence adult second language learning becomes more difficult

Yet, adult learners also make over-generalizations of grammar. A university student of mine today wrote the sentence “We eated the cake” by over-generalizing the past tense rule. I expect there are large corpora of similar mistakes among second language learners.

Originally Posted by Olowkow View Post
I have tried to understand the objections, but any alternative to a universal grammar would complicate linguistic descriptions and would suggest that any similarities in structures and rule behavior found across language groups are just coincidental. I seem to be hearing only arguments from incredulity and misunderstanding. The goals of universal descriptive grammars are pretty arcane and far from settling for the "blank slate" theory of language acquisition.

From previous link:
The objections are really that:

1) UG fails to provide explanations for language acquisition that cannot be explained in other ways.
2) That it is thus unnecessary.
3) That it is unfalsifiable
OR
4) trivial
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Old 23rd April 2015, 07:46 AM   #14
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From your link:

Quote:
Universal grammar

Universal grammar, then, consists of a set of unconscious constraints that let us decide whether a sentence is correctly formed. This mental grammar is not necessarily the same for all languages. But according to Chomskyian theorists, the process by which, in any given language, certain sentences are perceived as correct while others are not, is universal and independent of meaning.

Thus, we immediately perceive that the sentence “Robert book reads the” is not correct English, even though we have a pretty good idea of what it means. Conversely, we recognize that a sentence such as “Colorless green ideas sleep furiously.” is grammatically correct English, even though it is nonsense.

A pair of dice offers a useful metaphor to explain what Chomsky means when he refers to universal grammar as a “set of constraints”. Before we throw the pair of dice, we know that the result will be a number from 2 to 12, but nobody would take a bet on its being 3.143. Similarly, a newborn baby has the potential to speak any of a number of languages, depending on what country it is born in, but it will not just speak them any way it likes: it will adopt certain preferred, innate structures. One way to describe these structures would be that they are not things that babies and children learn, but rather things that happen to them. Just as babies naturally develop arms and not wings while they are still in the womb, once they are born they naturally learn to speak, and not to chirp or neigh.
A few objections:

If the process by which in any given language we - native speakers - can intuit when sentences are grammatically sound, then why is it that there is disagreement among native speakers?

For example, is it grammatically correct to say:

a) I have many friends.
b) I have much money.
c) I have less friends.
d) I have got more money than you.
e) If I would have had less money than you I would have less friends.
f) I wrote him.
g) I have a couple friends.
h) It needs ironed.

I think in some dialects of English and common use all of the above are acceptable to some and not to others. And by "acceptable" I don't necessarily mean in the prescriptive sense, but in the sense that the sentence jars.

While it may be true that most speakers recognize the sentence “Colorless green ideas sleep furiously.” is grammatical, I am not sure what that demonstrates. Is it not also true that "Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo" is grammatically correct, but is it recognized as being so?

There are other linguistic features of language which are not related to syntax which are nonetheless important in understanding a particular language without necessarily being taught them, and that is collocations.

I can say, "I have a burning desire", but not "I have a flaming desire" even though grammatically it is fine. The problem is simply that it is strange for the words to co-occur in such a sentence.

As far as I know, children don't say "Merry New Year" even though the words "Merry" and "Happy" mean the same thing. Are children explicitly taught one and not the other, and is there not a "poverty of stimulus" problem here?
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Old 23rd April 2015, 06:08 PM   #15
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Originally Posted by angrysoba View Post
I thought I would transfer the discussion from Education to here, so that we keep the UG discussion in one place.
Good idea to bring it over here. I am going to try to be brief, but not curt, since there is so much to respond to.
Quote:

Okay, but would it be fair to say that according to Chomsky:

a) Language is separate from other forms of cognition and therefore a language universal is not merely something that there are physical mental constraints on such as speaking in ways that the human vocal tract is not able to produce?

b) That a language universal is exactly that: universal, and not merely likely.
I don't know whether Chomsky made fine distinctions as you do in a) but some psycholinguists do. It's a huge question, and personally, I think the answer is still unknown.

I have to say that as far as I know, language universals for Chomsky and for the disciples I knew have always been "universal". The classic example is the so-called center- or self-embeddings.

From Wiki: In linguistics, center embedding refers to the process of embedding a phrase in the middle of another phrase of the same type. This often leads to difficulty with parsing which would be difficult to explain on grammatical grounds alone. In theories of natural language parsing, the difficulty with multiple center embedding is thought to arise from limitations of the human short term memory. In order to process multiple center embeddings, we have to store many subjects in order to connect them to their predicates.

  • The man that the actress loves arrived.
  • The man that the actress that her child watched loves arrived.
  • The man that the actress that her child that an artist painted watched loves arrived.
  • The man that the actress that her child that an artist that I heard painted watched knows loves arrived.

It's clear that the increasing number of nested clauses causes confusion. This is very likely to be similar in all languages, or a universal constraint on syntactic structures, since we are all human. There are other examples. They get very arcane quickly.

The police arrested John and Harvey.
*Who did the police arrest and John? (or...John and.)
The police arrested John and who?



Quote:
In the list on “phonological universals”, we have:

Here are some phonological universals concerning vowel systems:
Symmetry
• Vowel systems tend to be symmetrical.
• The minimal vowel system includes /i a u/. All known languages are said to have these three vowels, or slight variations of them.
Rounding
• Back vowels tend to be rounded.
• Front vowels tend to be unrounded.

Quote:
Can they really be said to be “universals”? And again, are we talking about what is physiologically easier or an actual property of the “language faculty”?
I guess they could be said to be if there were few exceptions to be found. These are more along the lines of stuff a phonetician would be interested in. I studied phonetics mainly to figure out how to accurately describe sounds for students, and I never looked into putative universals.

Quote:
Furthermore, is it true that Chomsky argues that:
c) human languages are not related to animal communication systems.

and
d) that syntax is what sets human language apart from animal communication systems.
What I know is that human natural languages across an amazing spread of families exhibit similarities in many areas when scrutinized properly. The huge problem that linguists face is that their data is human intuitions about well formedness, not terribly scientific without huge amounts of data.

I have delved into the phonology of a few American Indian languages, Athabaskan, Swahili, Ewe, Igbo, Kanuri, Chinese, Thai, Japanese, Russian, French, Spanish but no animal languages. I just listened to a woman on the Big Picture Science podcast who is teaching dolphins words using their own whistle and click sounds generated via computer, and recognition software to detect if they happen to get it right. Her main interest beyond linguistics of dolphin language is the sociology or etiquette of dolphins. Very cool stuff.

In my opinion, what sets human language apart from animal communications and thought is a very tricky question. First, we have the vocal mechanism for a wide range of production of sounds. We have an ability to engage in abstract thinking, which is probably needed to form and infer syntactic rules. If I had to guess, I would think that stone tool making, sophisticated hunting and fire maintenance became so important to an improved life style at some point that it required more than rudimentary communications to maintain one's immediate group in safety and comfort.

There is what can be called syntax of animal communications, but it is much different qualitatively from that of human languages.

Quote:
Well, it could be that they are arguing that grammar is not separate from semantics or that language is not separate from broader human cognition. I could be wrong, though.
I don't know, but the concept sounds foreign to me. Some have tried to treat semantics in a similar way to how syntacticians deal with grammar, but it's a very tough nut to crack.

Quote:
Yes, I remember reading about the wug test in Pinker’s books Language Instinct and Stuff of Thought. To be honest, I am not really sure how the wug test is supposed to be any kind of evidence for Universal Grammar or deep structure.
The notion of "deep structure" can be pushed too far as a matter relating to human performance. My own experience was that this was not something that should ever be done. Leave that to the psychologists.

Quote:
All the child has to do is recognize that there is a convention for plurals and apply it. Why would we expect a child to otherwise apply a “random sound” to pluralize something? And why would we expect the /z/ or the /es/ sounds to appear when they are more difficult to produce than a /s/? I’m not sure what the point of that is given that children don’t pluralize church as church/z/ or church/s/. I doubt it has anything to do with deep structure.
That's all? Here we have an organism that is receiving noises from a hole in the face of a huge organism who feeds it. Often noises are accompanied by eye contact and loud, threatening or soft cooing sounds. This noisemaker utters a string of sounds and the organism applies a sophisticated linguistic "convention" properly for producing a syntactic plural suffix. That's all?

I'm not concerned about "difficult to produce". That has nothing to do with it. I think I am beginning to understand why you are having trouble with universals.

The underlying plural for English nouns is the morpheme /+əz/. In surface structure, what we produce or hear, this can become either [-s], [əz], or [z] depending on what sound the singular noun has in final position, i.e. according to a phonological rule.
  • tops
  • boxes
  • bags

There is no universal rule that predicts plural suffixes in languages, and there is no phonetic principle that makes [tops] easier to pronounce than *[topəz]. There are plenty of languages that, in principle, would pronounce the plural of [bag] as */baks/, using an assimilation rule of phonology to devoice the /g/ to /k/ when adjacent to the unvoiced /s/--again, hypothetically.

The point is that the child has made a sophisticated linguistic generalization about a phonological rule in deciding that /wugz/ would be preferable to */wugəz/ or */wugəs/ in his response to the request for a plural of [wug]. Ease or difficulty of pronunciation is not an issue nor can his correct derivation and pronunciation be claimed to be a random guess.

As for "evidence for deep structure"? I'm not sure what kind of evidence one would be looking for. It's just how phonology works, whether or not the brain actually does a stepwise derivation is not an issue that I would ever argue. I do know that generative phonology works for describing language morphology, and the experts who deal with speech production, language acquisition and FMRI brain studies may or may not find such research helpful.


Quote:
In fact, Gleason herself seems to be bemused by the claims of innatists over the wug test when all she was looking to investigate was the ages at which children apply certain morphological rules in English:
Your pdf won't let me copy/paste. What she said was, that her study showed that children clearly do have rules. She didn't set out to confirm or make claims about innateness, but it seems she actually fell into an area that makes it difficult to avoid such claims.

http://ltprofessionals.com/journalpd...Ninterview.pdf

Quote:
Yes, but what can also complicate language acquisition at later ages is more complicated lives of adults who largely will not live their day to day lives in a second language which is something that young children can do. For adults, more of their lives have been encoded in their first language, and they have friends and relatives who speak in those languages.
Sure. Lots of factors, but the LAD is a very compelling claim to me when I see children progressing in sentence formation. I have always felt that perhaps for the child learning his first language, it is really tantamount to learning about the real world. The linguistic symbolism for objects and relational concepts is reality in a way that it can perhaps never be as clearly felt again using different symbols. I am not wedded to this idea though.

Quote:
Trying to learn a new language at a later age, is first of all, by no means impossible, but second of all, could be complicated by other factors than simply the UG switch turning off. The most salient example of something appearing to be determined by some “critical period hypothesis” is accent, which may come down to physiological rather than some hypothesized dissipation in the UG-posited “Language Acquisition Device” (the latter we have no evidence for).
It is rare for an older learner of a second language to achieve total mastery of the accent, but not unheard of. It seems like puberty is the cutoff point, with some exceptions of course.

Quote:
However, you seem to have produced two pieces of evidence of what UG supposedly accounts for:

a) that children learn morphological rules without being explicitly taught
b) that after a Critical Period (puberty) the UG switches off, and hence adult second language learning becomes more difficult

Yet, adult learners also make over-generalizations of grammar. A university student of mine today wrote the sentence “We eated the cake” by over-generalizing the past tense rule. I expect there are large corpora of similar mistakes among second language learners.
Children "acquire" rules through generalizations from language input provided by speakers in their environment. Sure, mistakes are made by all speakers. Transcripts of conversations are horrendously full of all kinds of errors. I still can't get the meaning of hoi polloi right. I keep using it to mean the wealthy! So what? We generalize, we overgeneralize, and then we use words like "who'd of thunk it?" Some humorous analogy of [sink, sunk] and [think, thunk]?

Quote:
The objections are really that:

1) UG fails to provide explanations for language acquisition that cannot be explained in other ways.
2) That it is thus unnecessary.
3) That it is unfalsifiable
OR
4) trivial
1) I suppose you could posit huge memory banks that randomly spit out every utterance until the correct one makes it past a special pleading filter in the brain, or sumpin'. Be my guest.
2) Meh! Ok.
3) The best test for falsifiability is actual research with human informants. There is such a thing as an ill formed sentence. In fact, there are ill formed bilingual code-switched utterances in bilingual communities.
4) Could be trivial. Most pursuits are in the grand scheme of things. Occam's Razor is after all a noble yardstick. I find E=R*I trivial now, but it sure did take a lot of effort and working with electronics to get there.

It took me an entire year in grad school until I finally figured out what the problem was these guys were trying to solve. Once I caught on, I was hooked. My dissatisfaction with the field of linguistics was that I didn't see it going much beyond anecdotal analysis, and churning out papers full of arcane stuff no one would ever read.

That is, I saw theoretical syntax as a field in search of a theory, and I was not a Chomsky, a Lakoff, or a Haj Ross. I was not a whiz kid. I figured that I could not do any better at solving this problem than they had, so after 7 years I got out and changed careers. I don't regret the experience, nor do I regret getting out.

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Old 23rd April 2015, 07:29 PM   #16
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Originally Posted by angrysoba View Post
From your link:

A few objections:

If the process by which in any given language we - native speakers - can intuit when sentences are grammatically sound, then why is it that there is disagreement among native speakers?

For example, is it grammatically correct to say:

a) I have many friends.
b) I have much money.
c) I have less friends.
d) I have got more money than you.
e) If I would have had less money than you I would have less friends.
f) I wrote him.
g) I have a couple friends.
h) It needs ironed.
Sorry, but this sounds like "If we evolved from monkeys, why are there still monkeys?"
Those sentences all sound fine to me as belonging to a set of "well formed" utterances. But I can find grammatical errors which should be avoided in a formal writing style. Corrections in red.

a) I have many friends.
b) I have much money.
c) I have fewer friends.
d) I have got more money than you.
e) If I would have had less money than you I would have less fewer friends.
f) I wrote him.
g) I have a couple of (?) friends.
h) It needs ironed.
Some prefer "needs ironing", but I'm from Pennsylvania.

Quote:
I think in some dialects of English and common use all of the above are acceptable to some and not to others. And by "acceptable" I don't necessarily mean in the prescriptive sense, but in the sense that the sentence jars.
I agree. These corrections are merely stylistic. The reasons for the corrections can easily be described by a prescriptive style sheet, but may also lend themselves to analysis by a linguist.

Language is a very imprecise vehicle for communicating. There is a lot of social baggage that we all carry around, and when we begin to speak or write, we lay bare our education level, our region of origin, our self concept, our fears, etc.

We need to be clear about what an "ill formed" sentence is.
The attempt to extract out of an adjunct clause fails.
a. You went home because you needed to do what?
b. *What did you go home because you needed to do?

a. Alex likes the woman who wears tight sweaters?
b. *What does Alex like the woman who wears?

The b-sentences are strongly marginal/unacceptable because one has attempted to extract an expression out of a wh-island.
a. John wonders where Eric went to buy a gift?
b. ??What does John wonder where Eric went to buy?

a. Susan asked why Sam was waiting for Fred.
b. *Who did Susan ask why Sam was waiting for?

In coordination, extraction out of a conjunct of a coordinate structure is possible only if this extraction affects all the conjuncts of the coordinate structure equally.
a. Sam ate [beans] and [broccoli].
b. *What did Sam eat [beans] and [__]?
Native speakers know that violations of these rules when using "wh movement" will produce nonsense or at best questionable utterances. We all have found ourselves headed down the path to similar violations and often just have to start over. I hear politicians make errors such as the one below in their extemporaneous monologues.
Attempt to extract out of a complex noun phrase fails.
a. You heard the claim that Fred solved the second problem.
b. ??What did you hear the claim that Fred solved?

a. She likes the possibility that she might get a new phone for X-mas.
b. ??What does she like the possibility that she might get for X-mas?
The asterisk[*] denotes an unacceptable sentence while the [?] is for questionable utterances.

Quote:
While it may be true that most speakers recognize the sentence “Colorless green ideas sleep furiously.” is grammatical, I am not sure what that demonstrates. Is it not also true that "Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo" is grammatically correct, but is it recognized as being so?
Chomsky used this sentence in his 1957 Syntactic Structures to show that the distinction between semantics and syntax could not be ignored in the formalization. IIRC, he was trying to put the final nail in the coffin of some off the wall theories of language....

Quote:
There are other linguistic features of language which are not related to syntax which are nonetheless important in understanding a particular language without necessarily being taught them, and that is collocations.
such as probabilistic and stochastic models of natural language.

Quote:
I can say, "I have a burning desire", but not "I have a flaming desire" even though grammatically it is fine. The problem is simply that it is strange for the words to co-occur in such a sentence.
"flaming desire"

Poets and crazy people can say all kinds of weird but grammatical stuff.

Quote:
As far as I know, children don't say "Merry New Year" even though the words "Merry" and "Happy" mean the same thing. Are children explicitly taught one and not the other, and is there not a "poverty of stimulus" problem here?
We all have memorized thousands of "fixed expressions". I suspect for some politicians, their entire speaking repertoire consists of nothing but a Chinese menu of platitudes and memorized phrases.

BTW, you never asked about the most famous claim for generative grammars: the need for recursion in the grammar model.

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Old 28th April 2015, 05:07 AM   #17
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Hi Olowkow,

Thank you very much for your detailed and thoughtful responses. I appreciate them (except for the bewildering comparisons of anti-Chomskyan theories to intelligent design or crank physics, since I obviously don't think they are warranted ).

I have been reading a lot in anticipation of a response to the main strands and hope to be able to explain my position more clearly. I realize I am not doing so well so far.

I hope to get back to you soon.

Cheers!
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Old 28th April 2015, 09:29 AM   #18
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Originally Posted by angrysoba View Post
Hi Olowkow,

Thank you very much for your detailed and thoughtful responses. I appreciate them (except for the bewildering comparisons of anti-Chomskyan theories to intelligent design or crank physics, since I obviously don't think they are warranted ).

I have been reading a lot in anticipation of a response to the main strands and hope to be able to explain my position more clearly. I realize I am not doing so well so far.

I hope to get back to you soon.

Cheers!
Just kidding. I thought the grin would convey my hopeful "gotcha".

Quote:
Angrysoba:
A few objections:

If the process by which in any given language we - native speakers - can intuit when sentences are grammatically [correct is] sound, then why is it that there is disagreement among native speakers?
While using speakers' subjective judgements as data might be problematic for a scientific pursuit, I don't think confusion or disagreement on the grammaticality of an utterance among native speakers constitutes a real counterexample to anything Chomsky claimed about syntactic deep and surface structures. As a matter of fact, he posited a transformational approach which could well explain why such semantic ambiguity might arise, by showing how a unique surface structure can be derived by application of syntactic rules to completely disparate deep structures. Chomsky's best known example of such ambiguity is "flying planes" where the listener's interpretation of "flying" as an adjectival present participle or as a gerund (noun) produces different meanings.

Quote:
Flying planes can be dangerous.
[Either the act of flying planes is dangerous, or planes that are flying can be dangerous.]
or
John saw the man on the mountain with a telescope.
[Who has the telescope? John, the man on the mountain, or the mountain?]
Such ambiguities are completely language dependent--mere accidents of the historical nature of their origins.

The meanings get a little clearer when we start asking native speakers about their intuitions for sentences such as:
  • Flying multi-engine planes can be dangerous.
  • Flying poorly maintained planes can be dangerous.
  • Flying planes with no wings can be dangerous.
    but
  • Flying planes without experience can be dangerous.
  • Flying planes on dope can be dangerous.

I find somewhat interesting that the above sentences become much less ambiguous, when additional semantic clues are provided by the speaker, possibly with the intent to disambiguate. Sociological, cultural and real world assumptions, considerations or presuppositions are all commonly involved in speakers' techniques for disambiguation of confusing or humorous surface structures, often in odd ways.
  • Throw momma from the train a kiss.
  • I saw a dead cow walking down the street.
    but
  • I saw a dead snake walking down the street.
We all know that dead cows cannot walk, but the humor may lie in the fact that a cow is at least in the category of walking animals, while a walking snake is too far from our real world experience to cause much real ambiguity, but that could be a humorous feature in itself.


I know you must be quite busy these days, so no hurry about your responses.
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Old 31st May 2015, 12:03 AM   #19
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There's an interesting article here that makes the claim that there are no "non-trivial" language universals that could be candidates for Universal Grammar's content.

The main article is by Nicholas Evans and Stephen Levinson, and it is followed up by responses from a wide range of linguists who either support UG (Mark Baker; Stephen Pinker and Ray Jackendoff; and a few others), or else are big opponents of UG (Tomasello; Adele Goldberg; and Haspelmath - I think), or they argue that the UG debate is more of a trivial, or meaningless debate (Pullum and Scholtz seem to say this).

I think the main thing here is that certain features that have been proposed to be "universal" such as phonological features or wh-movement etc... turn out not to be.

Perhaps the simplest one to demonstrate is that of phonology, because it is clearly and obviously true that sign language has no "phonology" as such (although one response by Iris Berent seems to attempt to rescue this).

Some of the UG proponents do indeed suggest that there are some non-trivial examples of language universals that Evans and Levinson haven't shown to be non-universal. Baker in particular attempts to give one example.

But here it seems to me is part of the problem: a lot of defenders of UG have argued that looking for language universals in this sense is missing the point. They will say that such things are superficial and refer to them as "Greenberg universals". For them, the universals are far more abstract. Hauser, Fitch and Chomsky even went on to say that "recursion" is the defining feature of language.

Of course, this leads to further problems, in my opinion. A simple one is that UG is really not very well formulated if it can mean so many things to so many theorists. Another is that if it turns out to be something trivial then it has very little value in explaining how it is that children learn (or acquire language), which is surely something that Chomsky and others believed UG does.

The article is pretty long, and it is packed with a lot of interesting information and probably far too much for us to discuss. Some of it, particularly some of the responses, are very technical and I was not able to understand some of them.
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Old 31st May 2015, 12:56 AM   #20
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Lurker just dropping in to say thanks for an interesting discussion that I am unable to grasp in all the details but hopefully get some sense of the issues being discussed. Excellent thread of the type ISF should have more of.
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Old 20th June 2015, 03:05 AM   #21
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The BBC has an excellent podcast called Discovery which has been a favorite for years. I happened to listen to an intriguing episode called What the Songbird Said. The topic is human language evolution, and suggests, simply stated, that children may learn language in much the same way as young birds learn the songs of their parents.

There are some points made toward the end of this half hour podcast that I thought worth passing along in this thread while the context is fresh in my mind.

A Japanese linguist and colleague of Chomsky at MIT, Shigeru Miyagawa, has proposed a seemingly simple but useful idea concerning the development of language in animals and humans which he has dubbed the integration hypothesis. He has proposed that there are two basic layers in human languages: the lexical and the expressive systems. Just as bats and birds have independently evolved the ability to fly, certain groups of animals have independently come up with different basic systems of communication. Birds use an expressive highly inflected system to find mates and warn of danger, whereas chimps and others use a lexicon based system to convey threats and warnings etc.

He suggests that humans are possibly the only animals to have managed to integrate the two systems, though he is entertaining the notion that gibbons may also have mastered a syntax in their usage of an extensive lexicon. He didn't mention whale songs, which I feel could well be a good example.


Quote:
SezMe
Lurker just dropping in to say thanks for an interesting discussion that I am unable to grasp in all the details but hopefully get some sense of the issues being discussed. Excellent thread of the type ISF should have more of.
I appreciate your comment. Sometimes it feels like no one but my friend Angrysoba ever reads this stuff.

Don't worry about the details. Theoretical linguistics has been a seat-of-the-pants discipline for a long time, populated by a lot of hippies trying their darndest to think outside the box. Many ideas are therefore necessarily pulled out of various nether regions, since previous centuries of thinking appear to have exhausted all other orifices. It's proven to be a very tough nut to crack.


Related link: http://www.bbc.com/earth/story/20150...ey-to-language

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