Further biological/linguistic parallels?

jess tauber phonosemantics at earthlink.net
Wed Mar 29 03:10:27 UTC 2006

Aya Katz wrote: 'what effect on communicative behavior does socialization or lack thereof have? Do loner bees still dance the dance that helps locate sources of nectar? Is the dance intentional and manipulative or is it merely expressive and involuntary?'

I am not up to date on research in this area- all I know is what I saw in the newsfeed piece. I'm also not aware if the dance is intentional- my guess is it is involuntary, but that doesn't necessarily mean nonawarenss- chimps involuntarily emit food calls when they find ripening fruit in trees, but have been known to cover their mouth with their hands to block this signal. 

But what I find interesting about honeybee dances is that they have since their original discovery been found to be used in a number of different circumstances- finding nectar and pollen sources of course, but also for water sources, and possible new nesting sites (if memory serves). So it is a general sort of pathfinder signalling system, similar in spirit to a deictic demonstrative system in a language.

One wonders how such a thing could have evolved, but likely bees already used sun angle etc. to find their way home, aided by their ability to sense polarized light. A cognitive flip and now you can use the same internal model to find your way there. Coding this in the waggle dance is another issue- clearly the angle represented is a sort of demonstration, acting out, as a sort of iconicity with imagic and diagrammatic components. Intensity of the waggle if I remember right corresponds to richness of source implied, so another iconic representation (but do they do the same for water, or holes in trees? It would be interesting if audience size and recruitment correlated with enthusiasm of the signaller- and if the causal effect went both ways.

How is 'topic' established? Is there some sort of indexical value understood?). Also, it may take time for the bee to get everyone together to do a dance, as well as the time taken to fly (which in the dance is I think is related via the number of figure-8 turns per demonstration- which may remind one of vocalic demonstrative iconicity in many human languages, if one thinks of the number of turns as a kind of frequency analogue)- does the bee compensate for the time lag from where the sun IS versus where it WAS?

Another question I have is whether the angle is in practice variable continuously, or in quantized fashion (into pie slices, as it were, from a circle- and if so how many?). A grosser angle range would mean greater misses by bees following the dance to the source.

I've also read that different bees within a hive have different 'attitudes'- toward hard work, towards flying from the nest, etc. Co-worker bees punish laggarts physically, and degree of extroversion seems also to evolve over time (newly ex-pupa bees are stay-at-homes, tending the young, older ones go outside, but there must be some older ones that would rather stay indoors, and younger ones that would rather fly).

In many vertebrate species (such as monkeys), the 'topic' continuum seems to be very roughly divided by gross signal type- but then the particulars of the situation seem to be more or less finely differentiably depictable (depending on species) by tweaking that signal along its various parameters and features. Eugene Morton (of the National Zoo) came up with his 'motivation structure theory' which deals with signals that relate to intraspecific conflicts (attacker versus defender, approaching loss or win, sureness/security of position, and so on). A handful of acoustic features correlate with different aspects- roughness or smoothness of the formants, angle (rise, fall, even, etc.). Humans still use these. 

Morton suggests animals may even quantize these into cells in a multidimensional grid, the way humans do phonemes. And there seem to be similar systems being discovered for signals used in other forms of social interaction. Not all are intraspecific. Is a tiger's roar as he attacks just a measure of his aggression, or is he trying to affect the ability of the prey to save itself? The tiger may not have a choice, but is he aware of its possible purpose when he emits it? Can he suppress it when stalking, or is it unconscious? A human's cry of triumph may be hard to suppress given the right situation. But it seems a lot of the evolution of humanity from apes lay in suppression of otherwise uncontrollable behaviors- the frontal cortex which controls this is so very much larger in our species than in any other relative to brain size elsewhere. The key to successful large scale intricate social interaction is to NOT act like a monad animal all the time.

A lot if not most linguists are satisfied that language is something radically different from animal vocal communication- a number believe it somehow magically evolved from external gestures. However, given the newer work hinted at above, my own take is that language (separate from its oral instantiation, which is less relevant than its organization) just takes the existing system, speeds it up radically, allows for mixing of single instances of each signal type (rather than just repetition of the same simple ones as found in so many other species) creating higher level strings (which we mistakenly think are basic) as well as hierarchical combination of these strings even higher up. Plus other stuff :-)  I'm also not the first to suggest this, though I would venture that others feel there was a distinct form/meaning break when this happened, so that arbitrariness existed in human language from the beginning.

But the existance of the kind of iconic mapping one sees in ideophones, plus the new realization among historical linguists that such ideophones may feed large parts of the lexicon, may mean that one would have to be very careful about this. Adam or Og may not have simply put string A to idea or referent B on Naming Day. There may already have been firmly in place an existing connotational reference system, that only later worked itself into a more classically arbitrarist denotational one. And remember I've touched on cyclicity typologically in modern human languages- did a similar cycle exist before human language? There is evidence for this in animal signal systems, but the cycle may be much longer in duration, and relate to speciation and adaptation to new environments. 

If true, then my hypothetical speeding up of human signaling could help explain why our typological cycles only take thousands of years.

BTW, I'm not sure that speakers are that conscious all the time of their word choices, or think about the degree of generality that grammatalizable terms are supposed to have, etc.- in fact given that these are usually the most common terms in a language, people might be LESS likely to think about them- thus their ultimate automaticization.

Jess Tauber

More information about the Funknet mailing list