A problematic prediction of nativism

Wolfgang Schulze W.Schulze at lrz.uni-muenchen.de
Tue Oct 26 07:08:23 UTC 2010

Dear John,
I do not know whether it makes to to refer to some kind of Lamarckism in 
order to account for clicks and ejectives. True, the production of 
clicks usually involves a specific training of some muscles relevant in 
articulating these sounds (esp. tongue), but this simply is a matter of 
language acquisition. By the way, many of us can and do produce clicks, 
too, embodied in terms of the so-called "para-linguistic usages of 
clicks" (e.g. [ | | ] (reduplicated in German) in order to (a) make a 
horse or so moving or (b) to indicate negation (in e.g. Syrian Arabioc, 
[ non-reduplicated [  |  ] would be the usual para-linguistic negator. 
Sure, certain genetically determined features of 'oral geometry' may 
favor the production of certain sounds, but we cannot (and probably mus 
nor) say that this geormetry has developed 'in order to prucde' these 
specific sounds. Such a claim would turn around the cause/effect relation.

As for ejectives: Have a look at WALS (World Atlas of Language 
Strcutures, feature 7 (written by Ian Maddieson, by the way) to see that 
ejectives are far from being restricted to "groups living in high 
altitudes". This simply is a myth. For instance, in one of my field work 
languages (Udi, East Caucasian), ejectives are a pronounced feature in 
one of its dialects, whereas it tends to get lost in the other. Both (!) 
variants are spoken in the plains adjacent to the Southern slopes of the 
Great Caucasus mountain range, not in 'high altitude' . Some neighboring 
dialects of Azeri even tend to adopt the ejective articulation (as it is 
true for some low-land Qumyk dialects in Daghestan). Also note that 
other languages with ejectives such as Lakohta are spoken (more or less) 
on the plains, too.  Obviously, ejectives have nothing to do with 'high 
mountains' except for the fact the communicative style 'on the plains' 
may have caused the loss of the ejective option (!), simply because the 
ejective feature may be less audible in 'long distance' communication 
among (say) shepherds or so. Again, this has nothing to do with 
genetics. Rather, we have to deal with the adoption of an articulatory 
style that may have developed under specific conditions and that was 
then handed over to the next generation in terms of language acquisition 

As for Dan's comment:

> I believe that  Phil Lieberman was the first to point this out. Nativism
> predicts that some peoples could learn some languages but not others. This is
> so because we know that cultures can affect genes (even leading within the
> last 5,000 years to new genes) and that there can also be random  mutations.
> So there ought to be some mutation, nativism predicts it in fact, that
> prevents some people from learning some languages. Different populations
> would develop different genotypes over time.
In my eyes, this is an extremely difficult (and in parts dangerous) 
claim. First, we should define what is meant by 'culture' (integrating 
and respecting the actual discussion in the wide field of 'cultural 
sciences. As far as I can see there is no/communis opinio /concerning 
the definition of 'culture'). Second, it may have been (and still may 
be) that certain (alamodistic) preferences in cultural patterns relevant 
to 'partner selection' develop concerning specific human properties and 
that these properties will then (slowly) become dominant in a given 
social group (all this presupposes that these preferences are rather 
stable over time). It also may have been the case that idiosyncratic 
human features developed by mutation acquire a 'high value' within a 
culture and that they may later see a greater distribution because of 
their relevance for partner selection. But all this has nothing to do 
with language, not to speak of 'languages (plural). It's not language 
that is condition by genetics, but by [among others] (a) the ability to 
link articulatory patterns (that is: patterns of muscle activities etc. 
used to manipulate the air streaming when breathing) to conceptual 
'events' in cognition (in other words:symbolization in its broadest 
sense)  and (b) the ability to turn complex 'event images' into linear 
sequences (already in cognition). In this sense, you are right when say:
> It is not a prediction, however, of the idea that language is a result of
> more general cognitive properties.
But you should perhaps make clear what you mean by "result". For 
instance, you may say that (a) language is an instantiation of these 
properties (hence genetic by itself), or that (b) language is nothing 
but an stabilized emergent event in cognition the properties have 
nothing to do with the properties of the relevant cognitive 'micro 
level'. Or, you may say that (c) 'result' means nothing by the 
application and activation of these properties during knowledge 
acquisition, with hlanguage being nothing but 'learning how other people 
make use of these properties in order to produce language'. Personally, 
I waver between option (b) and (c).

Best wishes,
Wolfgang  .

Am 26.10.2010 07:34, schrieb john at research.haifa.ac.il:
> You're probably looking for something more complex that this, but I
> remember some phonetician (Ladefoged?) saying that people speaking
> languages with clicks (Khoisan and neighboring Bantu languages like
> Xhosa and Zulu) have some sort of more highly developed musculature
> somewhere in the mouth which makes it possible to pronounce these
> sounds as they do and that other people simply can't do it (I remember
> in particular hearing the retroflex click, which sounds like a wood
> block, and thinking 'how can a human do this?'). I don't know to what
> extent this musculature is developed from a very early age and to what
> extent it's become genetic, I have the recollection that the person
> believed it had become genetic but I'm not sure. I also remember Ian Catford,
> another phonetician, pointing out the obvious correlation between ejective
> consonants and groups living in high altitudes (which I think a lot of us have
> noticed but had no explanation for) and explaining it in terms of air pressure
> (he's done a lot of work on Caucasian languages) but I didn't really understand
> what he was saying and I don't remember if he was suggesting that had become in
> any way  genetically inbred (the way that features related to distance running
> may have become genetically inbred in populations living in high altitudes).
> John



*Prof. Dr. Wolfgang Schulze *


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