Further biological/linguistic parallels?

Rob Freeman lists at chaoticlanguage.com
Mon Mar 27 00:17:32 UTC 2006

Sorry Jess, I didn't read you message in detail, but as Brian has distilled it 
down to protein folding for me :-) I would like to say that I for one would 
agree with you that there might be an analogy.

Once again I wish we would get past talking about evolution (why should he 
"use another, more selectionist, biological mechanism" for his emergent 
language analogy Brian?) and consider the synchronic possibilities of syntax 
as alternate emergent forms, of proteins if you will. Particularly if those 
proteins can constantly snap back and forth into different configurations, 
with different functions.

As far as form/meaning mappings go, I do think there is a form/meaning mapping 
for syntax, but as syntax becomes habitual it gathers extrinsic associations 
until, as a word, it is largely (completely?) symbolic (and as a phoneme even 
less meaningful.)

I don't know what proof there is for this form/meaning mapping. It is of 
course suggested by Cognitive Linguistics (though they kind of turn it around 
and try to use it to govern syntax, a slightly chicken and egg argument to my 
mind.) For me it is enough that such a model gives you what I regard as the 
necessary power to model the complexity and elusiveness of syntax. The fact 
it suggests a native model for meaning as form as well is just a bonus.


On Monday 27 March 2006 09:09, Brian Macwhinney wrote:
> Jess,
>    I have found your comments regarding parallels between genetics and
> language stimulating.   But I am having trouble with the details of your
> current claims.  I agree that protein folding is one of the most beautiful
> examples of emergence in biology.  In fact, my intro college bio textbook
> (Campbell, Reece, Mitchell, p. 71) says,  "The function of a protein is an
> emergent property resulting from exquisite molecular order."  The book then
> goes on to describe the four levels of emergent structure.  Beautiful stuff
> that can clearly serve as a model for emergentist thinking of relations
> across structure.  On that level, I follow your thinking. But there is
> nothing here about Darwinian selection of proteins.  So, this level of
> analogy with your ideas about the emergence of the lexicon doesn't go
> through.  This issue illustrates a general concern regarding accounts of
> linguistic structure as emergent phenomena.  In the end, there is no doubt
> that all language structure is a result of emergence, albeit  across many
> diverse time scales supported by many different mechanisms.  But a proposal
> for a specific emergentist mechanism can be either right or wrong.  I don't
> see how viewing the lexical inventory of a language in terms of protein
> folding is going to work. You could well decide instead to use another,
> more selectionist, biological mechanism as his analogy.  That would at
> least allow us to keep out analogies straight.   But, then we need to have
> some evidence that the "form/meaning mapping is usually very crisp, and
> based on the internal symmetries of the used portion of the phonological
> inventory of the language."  Is this basically the insight of Paget (1930)
> regarding sound symbolism in Indonesian?  If so, getting this to work
> universally is going to be a pretty big project. I like the idea of getting
> Tom G. involved in this discussion, but maybe first we can get the details
> of the emergentist proposal clarified a bit.
> --Brian MacWhinney, CMU

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