(no subject)

manaster at umich.edu manaster at umich.edu
Sat Feb 6 01:45:40 UTC 1999

On Sat, 6 Feb 1999, Gordon Selway wrote [in response to my
defense of Chomsky and others who hold that it is at least
possible thate the language CAPACITY did not evolve gradually]


> (i) if language is something we are peculiarly adapted to as a species,
> both in the configuration of our respiratory tracts and in the way our
> brains work, then there are several immediate (and of course many more
> mediate) changes required to permit us the language ability, and maybe
> evolution (in a Darwinian sense) might have refined the ability since it
> first arose.  However, as with almost any evolutionary change (as I
> understand it), it must have arisen 'abruptly' in the sense that the
> parents did not have the ability (except in an inchoate form with all but
> one or however many of the change needed already in place, but the last
> voussoir not in place as it were, so that the arch of language cannot bear
> weight) but the offspring did.

I dont see that.  The parents can have it to a slightly smaller
degree than the offspring.  When whiteness and then blondness
evolved in certain human populations, you did not have brown-
skinned and black-haired parents with white/blonde kids.  Same
with the loss of the tail or the opposable thumb or anything
else.  Why not language capacities?

> (ii) in practice we do pick up a wide repertory of vowels and consonants
> within a short time, when we first acquire language.  When we grow up, it
> appears that most of us find it more and more difficult to add to our sound
> repertories.  If the ability to acquire language has been more or less
> consistent during its existence, then the potential for all those sounds
> ought in theory to have arisen at one time.  Whether it could be realised
> is obviously a different question.

That is circular.  The circularity has to do with your assuming that
"the ability to acquire language has been more or less
consistent during its existence...".  Obviously those who think that
lg capacities evolved gradually presumably do not grant this assumption.

> (iii) some of the objections made to these points seem to me to have the
> same savour as some of the objections made to the theory of the evolution
> in the 19th century, looking to rhetoric for their effects, rather than the
> facts.

I am lost as to which side you are condemning.  For the record, I think
that both positions (viz., gradual AND abrupt) rise of the language
capacity in our species (Pan sapiens) are consistent with everything
we know and with what we know of how evolution works in general (viz.
sometimes gradually and sometimes abruptly). So whoever you are
criticizing, I am herewith/hereby? standing up for that side.


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