Further biological/linguistic parallels?

Diane Frances Lesley-Neuman Diane.Lesley-neuman at colorado.edu
Mon Mar 27 01:10:56 UTC 2006

Juan Uriagereka at University of Maryland College Park is working on this-- in
conjunction with Chomskyian syntax.  He is broadminded enough to work with
people in any framework, however, in the spirit of a true scientist.
Diane Lesley-Neuman, M. Ed.
Linguistics Department
Institute for Cognitive Science
University of Colorado at Boulder

Quoting Rob Freeman <lists at chaoticlanguage.com>:

> 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.
> -Rob
> 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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