A problematic prediction of nativism

A. Katz amnfn at well.com
Tue Oct 26 08:26:20 UTC 2010


Dan's point about Phil Lieberman's assertion is a very good one, I think, 
but I did not take it to be specifically about phonetics. There are people 
who can't articulate at all, and they can still acquire a language 
whose normal mode of expression is through articulation. A child born with 
a damaged larynx has no trouble picking up whatever language is spoken 
around him or her. If a writing system is available, the child will be 
just as fluent as anyone at writing that language. In the local population 
where I live, here in the Ozarks, there are children who can't make a very 
good "r" sound, but this does not affect their ability to communicate 
effectively in English.

If we compare parrots and chimpanzees, clearly parrots have an advantage 
in articulating human languages, despite being less closely related to 
humans genetically than chimpanzees. What really counts as language is 
not the sounds, but the use of the system of contrasts to express 
information. So, when I was comparing Alex's achievements with Bow's, I 
was comparing Bow's use of spelling in English and Hebrew with Alex's use 
of articulation, but the measure of whether it was language was at a much 
higher level of encoding and decoding.

Overall, there is no evidence that general intelligence, rather than a 
specific language module in the brain, cannot account for language 
processing in real time.


On Tue, 26 Oct 2010, john at research.haifa.ac.il wrote:

> 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
> Quoting Daniel Everett <dan at daneverett.org>:
>> 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.
>> It is possible that this is correct, but that it is an accident of the
>> current population of languages that we haven't seen this yet. But it is a
>> prediction.
>> It is not a prediction, however, of the idea that language is a result of
>> more general cognitive properties.
>> Dan
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