What is emergence anyway?

Tom Givon tgivon at OREGON.UOREGON.EDU
Fri Jul 30 19:14:27 UTC 1999

Liz addressed an important part of the question--whether there are or
are not language-specific dedicated structure. I have no strong
preconceptions on the subject (tho some weak biases...). But the
question of "emergence" in the Hopper/MacWhinney sense (if I understand
it) remains even if the structures are not language-specific:
Automaticity during lifetime learning, through whatever neural
structure, is the hallmark of all skilled acquisition. Grammar is a
skilled performance PAR EXCELLENCE. So when it "emerges", does it
acquire the (at least partial) rigidity & categoriality characteristics
that have been shown in the acquisition of all other complex,
rhythmic-hierarchic skilled behaviours? Here, I obviously have a VERY
strong bias. But regardless of what ones bias is, we've got to find
non-linguistic criteria for seeing whether the PROCESS of "emergence"
does lead to the STATE of "having emerged", or not. I myself find the
"not" option rather bizarre, given what is known about the expenditure
of neuro-cognitive resources during development (both ontogenetic &
phylogenetic). But one way or another, the issue needs to be resolved
through making empirical predictions & then seeing if they pan out.   TG

Elizabeth Bates wrote:
> Talmy is right that it is important to find empirical tests that can
> distinguish between grammatical outcomes that have a dedicated
> neurocognitive structure and those that have instead emerged
> across the course of learning and communication, supported by
> neurocognitive mechanisms that have "still kept their day jobs"
> (i.e. mechanisms that continue to do non-linguistic work for which
> they evolved long before grammar ever appeared).  It's not an easy
> matter, but there is evidence on the point.  Here are just a few
> relevant bits:
> 1) Children who have early damage to the putative language organs
> in the left hemisphere go on to acquire lexical and grammatical
> abilities that are perfectly normal (i.e. they are not aphasic,
> although as a group brain-damaged children tend to perform in
> the low-normal range, corresponding to an approximate average
> loss of 5 - 7 IQ points).  Interesting, if these children are
> studied after 5 years of age, there seems to be no evidence
> whatsoever for differences as a function of early left- vs.
> right-hemisphere damage.  This conclusion now appears to be
> on very solid ground, as several recent and comprehensive
> reviews of the literature have shown (by our research group;
> by Vargha-Khadem and colleagues; by Eisele and Aram).  There
> were some inklings in the 1970's that this might not be the
> case (e.g. papers by Dennis & Whitaker, Woods & Teuber), but if you go
> back and read those carefully you will see that none of these studies
> were able to compare left- and right-hemisphere-damaged children
> directly.  Either they looked only at children with left-hemisphere
> damage vs. controls, or they compared LHD and RHD to separate
> control groups without ever conducting a direct "head-on" comparison
> of the sort that would be required to conclude that one hemisphere
> is irreversibly superior to the other.  At the very least, this
> conclusion suggests that there is no bounded and lateralized "organ"
> in the left hemisphere that is innately and irreversibly dedicated
> to grammar, and furthermore, parts of the brain that would ordinarily not
> be used to mediate grammatical processing can be encouraged to do so, quite
> successfully.
> 2) Recent neural imaging studies of normal adults have shown that
> the putative language areas of the left hemisphere are also involved
> in the mediation of non-linguistic processes.  For example, studies
> from many different laboratories have shown that *ALL* of the
> candidate areas in and around the "Broca complex" are active in the
> planning and/or covert execution of non-linguistic mouth movements
> and/or non-symbolic movements of the hand.  In other words, these
> areas may be involved in the processing of grammar, but they do a lot
> of other things as well, a point that is quite relevant to the
> notion of a "dedicated" neuro-cognitive system.  Similar findings
> are beginning to pile up for the posterior language areas as well.
> 3) Another outcome of recent imaging studies is the now-widespread
> finding that many different parts of the brain are activated during
> language tasks, in patterns that vary depending on task demands,
> strategies, the expertise and experience of an individual subject.
> It may turn out that it makes no more sense to ask "where is language
> in the brain" than it does to ask "where is the dance in the dancer?"
> To be sure, it is the human brain (and only the human brain) that
> does language, but the case is not looking very good right now for
> the idea that it does so with a dedicated and well-defined language
> organ that has evolved to do language and language alone.  -liz bates

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