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Linguist Noel Rude doesn’t think that silvery gibbons and birds “explain” human language

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As per this.

Noel Rude kindly writes to say:

La Société Linguistique de Paris banned any discussion of the evolution of language back in 1866–this because of the absurdity of the papers that evolved on the subject. Such discussion didn’t ensue again until the 1970s when Philip Lieberman began theorizing on the evolution of the vocal tract.

Humans have a bent vocal tract, Lieberman pointed out, whereas that of the apes is straight, and thus vowels are easy for us and difficult for the apes. But parrots, as I’ve noted, do quite fine with a beak. And Bella Coula and Berber have many words without vowels. My old Berber teacher from Morocco (he was also a linguist) composed of a lengthy spiel he could spout without vowels and tried it on his mother. She laughed but understood.

The focus now, however, is not on the vocal tract but on those parts of the brain that have to do with language. But this article by Shigeru Miyagawa et al is interesting in that it takes us back to the abstract qualities of language itself.

These authors have come up with a clever analysis. For them everything in language divides into EXPRESSION STRUCTURE (ES) and LEXICAL STRUCTURE (LS), the former including functional categories like question, focus, tense, definiteness, subordination (in other words grammatical categories) and the latter is limited to words. ES is then equated with bird song, dog growls, horse whinnies, etc. (which are functional without words) and LS with bee language (and reportedly certain primate behavior) that employ the equivalent of words without grammar.

ES and LS are finite. There are only so many bird song variables (or tail switches available to your cat) and only so many lexical dances available to the bees. The same with human language. There are only so many functional (and/or grammatical) categories and there are only so many words. And so though human language is unique, it is an inheritance (they claim) of both the birds and the bees. It links ES (grammar, function) and LS (words) and thus gives us a linguistic output that is unlimited.

But what if they’ve got the cart before the horse. What if it is the human mind that is unlimited, and language is a tool of that unlimited mind? We can program a computer with grammar and lexicon, but will that give it mind?

Tossing logical categories into the same ES box as emotive expression is bound to be controversial, but if the neurolinguists can correlate the ES and LS with differing brain activity many will be impressed. Brain damage called aphasia is brain damage that affects speech. And such damage varies, some affecting vocabulary and some grammar, so I am told. Anyway I am not against any such studies–in formal linguistics or in neurolinguistics. I merely question two points: 1) that all this came about by chance and necessity, and 2) that the mind is mere mechanism.

If aspects of language have correlates among the birds and the bees, so do aspects of our bodies and brains have correlates among other species. And even if you could show an incremental development from, say, the body and brain of a lemur to that of man, this still does not confirm Darwin. You still have to show that chance and necessity are up to the task, which to my mind Mike Behe’s Edge of Evolution shows they are not.

We share most of our anatomy with the vertebrates–limbs, torso, head–it’s what we do with that anatomy that makes the difference. We can build ships to take us to the moon. Human language also shares features with other creatures. We are not gifted with a special “language organ” but rather every part of our anatomy involved in speech, from the tongue and larynx to Broca’s and Wernicke’s areas, serve functions besides language and are there to one degree or another in the beasts. Yet human language excels animal communication like moon rockets excel bird nests.

I think I’ve mentioned it before, but Charles Hockett’s “design features” (note the word “design”!) are still worth contemplating.

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One Reply to “Linguist Noel Rude doesn’t think that silvery gibbons and birds “explain” human language

  1. 1
    Robert Byers says:

    Yes its the same body parts and YES its only about us being intelligent beings like our father that explains language.
    nothing to do with vocal tracts. Apes , I think, could speak as well as us right now but are only dumb animals and have nothing to say or ability to organize sounds anyways.
    God didn’t give man language.
    He gave us a soul that is intelligent. We instantly simply used sounds to express our intelligence.
    Language is a simple thing of sounds. however its the thoughts that are special.
    Yes parotts can mimic us and its a clue our mechanism of language is no big deal.
    The bird however is not talking to us.

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