Archive for the 'Linguistics' Category

Hear a Neanderthal Talk (and Other Interesting Neanderthal Language Rumblings) and New Scientist have recently reported on a couple of developments in the Neanderthal language debate.
Firstly, a new paper is in the works that will cast doubt upon the conclusions of the now famous Neanderthal FOXP2 paper from last year. Krause et al found the same adaptive variation of the language-implicated FOXP2 gene as is found in humans in Neanderthal DNA sequences, and claimed that the this was evidence for FOXP2 as a homologous trait that was present in our common ancestor. Cue endless headlines about how this finding is proof that Neanderthals had language.

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Evolang Post #4

After this one, there’s two more posts to come on Evolang, where firstly I’ll sum up the remaining plenary speakers, and then sum up the more interesting speakers from the normal sessions. Apologies for the slow posting but ‘tis essay season and I’ve loads of work to do.

As far as Evolang goes I must confess that beer and tapas had diminished my note-taking skills at this point and so some of these sketches might be a little vague, but I’ll try to be as fair and accurate as I can be.

Simon Kirby presented a kind of ‘greatest hits’ of the work being carried out at the LEC in Edinburgh. I better restate my biases in the interests of disclosure. I am one of the vast crowd of ‘Edinburghians’ who made up the largest group at Evolang, but I hope this won’t distort my reporting of their or other people’s ideas.

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Languages Change in Punctuational Bursts

This nice little paper from Science (Vol 319, 2008 ) presents evidence that languages undergo an initial period of strong seperation, where the rate of change is high, and then slow down into a steadier pace of change. They hypothesise that this is due to a cultural need to establish a seperate identity, or as a product of the way we use language to enhance group cohesion in times of cultural upheaval. A nice hypothesis that, if true, would demonstrate the power of cutltural transmission upon language structure. It fits roughly into the same line of argument as Kirby, Hurford, Smith (K) et al.

Evolang 08 – Plenary Speakers Day 2

The next day brought a couple of plenary speakers who both spoke on fascinating topics but somehow managed to make them dull as hell or inpenetratable.

Rudolph Botha began by looking at exaptation and argued that it is a mechanism that is too frequently employed in accounts of language evolution. He painstakingly went through a series of examples in the literature where exaptation is heavily invoked and tried to show that it did not meet the standards for exaptation that most biologists would use. It was persuasive, and on an interesting topic, but somehow Botha contrived to make it duller than a Calvinist sermon. Come on Rudi, this subject is naturally cool, it shouldn’t have the life sucked out of it like this.

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Evolang 08 – More Plenary Speakers

Okay, more biased rambling commentary on Evolang 08…

On day two the proper conference began and we were treated to two excellent plenary speakers, Gary Marcus and Susan Goldin-Meadow.

I’d never heard of Gary Marcus before but he presented one of the most stimulating presentations of the whole week. The title of his talk, “Language as Kluge”, was intriguing, but sounded a bit too technical to really whet the appetite. As he got into his talk I was very pleasantly surprised by the broad brush approach he used, and the attention-to-detail he used to back it up.

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Cool Neo-Whorfian Stuff

More evidence for language affecting cognition. Here’s a lovely long post at Mixing Memory about a PLoS paper showing language having a measurable influence on colour perception.

Major Language Evolution Papers # 3

The Faculty of Language: What Is It, Who Has It, and How Did It Evolve?

-Marc D. Hauser, Noam Chomsky & W. Tecumseh Fitch

Who’s it by?

The big dog Chomsky, granddaddy of modern linguistics, in association with Tecumseh Fitch and Mark Hauser, a psychologist and a biologist respectively, both heavily involved in the field of language evolution.

What’s it about?

A much misunderstood paper and probably the most debated paper on language evolution there has ever been. In it the authors make an impassioned plea for a comparative approach to solving the language evolution problem, and draw up a list of features that belong to the narrow language faculty possessed by humans (just recursion) and a those which belong to a broader definition of language features that can be found in the animal kingdom (everything else).

Why should an evolutionary linguist care?

Because this is the only meaningful attempt to reconcile language evolution with the chomskian consensus in modern linguistics. However, this paper is probably more Hauser and Fitch than Chomsky, and lots of people have used it to engage in a bit of Chomsky bashing by misrepresenting its central claims. The distinction between the FLN and FLB is meant to emphasise the value of the broad language faculty, rather than seeking to claim something special about the narrow language faculty, at least from Hauser and Fitch’s perspective.