A problematic prediction of nativism

john at research.haifa.ac.il john at research.haifa.ac.il
Tue Oct 26 09:17:25 UTC 2010

Dear Wolfgang,
I'm not a phonetician and so I'm not in a position to intelligently
discuss this issue (are you?). The statements were made by Ian Catford and
(IIRC) Peter Ladefoged, two of the most respected phoneticians in the world,
I did not fully understand the articulatory and acoustic arguments they were
making, and I respect the field of phonetics enough, and sufficiently recognize
its intellectual autonomy, to think that it's very likely that phoneticians
understand things which not only other people but even other linguists don't
really understand. Dan asked a question, I suggested something which he might
look at in relation to his question. If he (or anyone) is interested in
seriously investigating this, s/he should talk to a phonetician.

I should say that I don't recall whether Ian specifically thought that
physiological differences were associated with ejectives (this claim was
definitely made with regards to the clicks, though). It was more of a statement
about the acoustic properties of ejectives which make them easier to pronounce
at high altitudes. The basic idea (if I remember and understood more or less
correctly) was that pronouncing ejectives requires compressing and then
releasing air pressure between the glottis and a more external point of closer,
the tricky thing being that the air being released can't be expelled by the
lungs because the glottis is closed, and this is easier if the air pressure
from outside is weaker, as it is at higher altitudes.

The fact that there is not a PERFECT correlation between contemporary altitude
and the presence of ejectives does not mean that there is not a correlation
which is far greater than chance in several places around the world, and such a
correlation suggests to the inquiring and interested mind that there must be
SOME explanation, and physiology might be that explanation, whether or not it
seems in one way or another dangerous.

Why then would there be exceptions? The counterevidence which you offer could
have other explanations. The lowland Caucasian languages having ejectives might
have originated in the highlands (the Israeli Circassians have been living at
sea level for 130 years and still have ejectives). Or the ejectives may have
spread to the lowlands as an areal feature. Both highland and lowland Mayan
languages have ejectives BUT there is an extremely strong tendency for only the
highland languages to have UVULAR ejectives (when I mentioned this to Catford he
said that was natural enough given his understanding of why there is a
correlation between altitude and ejectives, because it's particularly hard to
build up the air pressure necessary to produce an ejective if the second point
of closer is the uvula, because of the relative smallness of the air cavity and
the general inflexibility of the articulator--that is, if there's one ejective
you'll lose first, it'll be the uvular one).

Of course anyone can learn to produce some kind of sound APPROXIMATING clicks in
Khoisan languages/Zulu/Xhosa, and some of these can be approximated more easily
than others. But there is no way that you or I can learn to produce in
particular a lateral or retroflex click in exactly the same way as a Zulu
speaker, especially in running speech (the bilabial and alveolar ones are
easier). Have you actually heard a native speaker pronounce a retroflex click?
I remember hearing a recording of Miriam Makeba singing in Xhosa and at first I
literally assumed that the retroflex clicks were a wood block or some other
musical instrument, they were that loud and clear, it was only when I became a
linguist that I realized that she was singing them. If Peter Ladefoged declares
himself to be physiologically incapable of pronouncing a certain sound in a
remotely native-like way, this suggests to me that we are dealing with someone
more than just language acquisition.

Incidentally the alveolar click (with lips rounded) meaning negation isn't just
in Syrian Arabic, it's found in many places around the Mediterranian (e.g. here
in Israel) and at least in Brazil.

I agree that claims explaining anything in language in terms of genetic or
physiological differences are dangerous and very likely to be wrong. But that
doesn't mean that ALL of them are dangerous or wrong.
Best wishes,

Quoting Wolfgang Schulze <W.Schulze at lrz.uni-muenchen.de>:

> 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
> (learning).
> 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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