Analytic languages and their function. (4)

Salinas17 at Salinas17 at
Sun May 28 16:27:41 UTC 2006

In a message dated 5/28/06 2:53:20 AM, amnfn at writes:
<< The fact that you "suspect" early languages would have taken a form with 
"a bare minimum of grammatical features" is very much influenced by the 
typology of the language you speak. Babies learning English start out with a very 
isolating beginning. Monolingual English speakers, when they start talking, do 
sound like Tarzan. But this is not universal. According to Dan Slobin, Turkish 
speakers start out with inflectional morphology at the one word level. As soon 
as they start speaking, it's inflected all the way. >>

I think this is where the disagreement is.  There's good reason to believe 
that those Turkish speakers starting out with inflectional morphology are not 
doing anything different from analytic speakers starting out with non-inflected 
words.  The grammatical implications have for the most part not entered into 
either of their speeches.  Many researchers have tried hard to find grammar in 
very early development, but I believe that a disciplined, objective review 
will show that it is just not there.

We do see mimicry and association, and that will have children mimicking 
inflected words, but without any kind of grammatical sense.

The key I believe is when children pass the threshold into understanding the 
representational, symbolic nature of language.  Judy DeLoache and others have 
done very important work in identifying the borderline in development where 
children begin to realize the relationship between a symbol and the real object. 
 (see, e.g., J.S. DeLoache, Mindful of Symbols, Sci Am August 2005)  When 
children begin to understand language as a descriptive tool, grammar begins to 
make sense -- because grammar plainly enhances descriptive power.   A child 
struggling with describing one block or many blocks, or something that happened in 
the past versus something happening in the present is still figuring out how 
changing the shape or position of words promotes accuracy - and approval.  
Before a child starts understanding the symbolic nature of words, language is at 
best mimicry and association, and so the manipulation of grammatical elements 
is out of reach.

What was early human language like?  Well, we can be pretty certain that a 
full-blown Latin grammar was not inherited from our "pre-human" ancestors.  Then 
how much grammar did the earliest human speech have?  I see no reason to 
think it had anymore than the simplest, least grammatical pidgin.  Any other 
conclusion calls for a deus ex machina that somehow implanted grammar full-blown in 
the form of a Chomskayan language mechanism, which I believe violates the 
naturalistic assumption of science.

Pidgins do function for mutual comprehension and, more importantly, for the 
effect they have on human behavior.  If the first real words were shared 
neologisms (they had to be neologisms), then what was acheived was the beginning of 
a communal representational system that mirrored the world.  Naming things in 
the world is a prerequisite for what we call human speech.  There can be no 
communication without common reference.  The lexicon would grow either by what 
you call "contrast" (discrimination) or by generalization.  Only then would 
grammar in the modern sense be possible.

<<Grammar allows language to become autonomous from theory of mind. While no 
language is context free, grammar allows us to spend less of our resources on 

I'm not sure what theory of mind means, but it is true that grammar more 
accurately maps identities, processes and relationships between things in time and 
space.  But just because early languages did not have much grammar did not 
mean they had not developed into distinctively human language.  

<<Bees -- if their dance language is to be credited (and there apparently is 
some controversy about that among the bee experts) -- are communicating 
accurately without a theory of mind, in a highly structured way. If bees can do 
this, do you think early man couldn't? Is that your point?>>

Again, I don't know what theory of mind means.  But the point with bees is th
at communication techniques have appeared and disappeared many times in the 
course of evolution on this planet.  Humans fly but did not inherit that trait 
from bees, birds or bats.  The fact that chimps communicate may have little 
relationship to the ways humans communicate.  Animal cries may carry all kinds of 
implication, but that is no reason to conclude that wild chimps speak in 
sentences.  Bees on the other hand have been shown to communicate using 
representative behavior that accurately maps and communicates location and distance 
(there's really no credible challenge to this) -- which bespeaks of some kind of 
an in-born grammar that we humans only acquire by hard learning and taking too 
many wrong exits off the turnpike.  

<<Now imagine a language with only two words. How likely is it that the
contrast chosen would be "night" and "day"? Of what use would this two
word language be to anyone?>>

The big cats only hunt at night.  The fact that night is coming would be a 
valuable piece of information to spread around.  A very good occasion for 
language to start.

<<Try getting a chimp to use "yes" and "no." It's very hard, because the
concepts are extremely abstract. (I speak from experience.)>>

Hmmm.  My dog knows the difference between yes and no very well.  Generalized 
(abstracted) across a whole slew of situations.  Which only reinforces the 
idea that the real functions of language may be more centered in the listener 
than the speaker.

Steve Long

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