Thursday, April 21, 2011

Language - Not Hard-Wired After All, (Not Very, Anyway)

The Lemming's going heavy on the excerpts in this post - mostly because this is a fascinating article. In the Lemming's opinion.

Your experience may vary.

What jumped out at the Lemming in this Wired Science article was that the old assumption - that human beings are more-or-less hard-wired for language - doesn't, quite, hold up when languages are run through a massive statistical analysis.

On the other hand, there does seem to be a sort of 'preferred pattern.'

Thousands of Years, Thousands of Languages: Few Common Structures

"Evolution of Language Takes Unexpected Turn"
Brandon Keim, Wired Science, Wired (April 14, 2011)

"It's widely thought that human language evolved in universally similar ways, following trajectories common across place and culture, and possibly reflecting common linguistic structures in our brains. But a massive, millennium-spanning analysis of humanity's major language families suggests otherwise.

"Instead, language seems to have evolved along varied, complicated paths, guided less by neurological settings than cultural circumstance. If our minds do shape the evolution of language, it's likely at levels deeper and more nuanced than many researchers anticipated.

" 'It's terribly important to understand human cognition, and how the human mind is put together,' said Michael Dunn, an evolutionary linguist at Germany's Max Planck Institute and co-author of the new study, published April 14 in Nature. The findings 'do not support simple ideas of the mind as a computer, with a language processor plugged in. They support much-more complex ideas of how language arises.'..."

"Human Mind?" or "Human Brain?"

The Lemming prefers to distinguish between the brain - the complicated network of neurons, blood vessels, and connective tissue about our eyes and ears - and the mind - the way that the we use the brain.

Then there are the folks who say that you're not really there - you just think you are, but actually it's just your brain fooling you into thinking you exist. The Lemming was never 'intelligent' enough to take that sort of thing seriously, though - besides, that's another topic.

Back to the article.

Hard-Wired for Language? It's Complicated

"...One school of thought, pioneered by linguist Noam Chomsky, holds that language is a product of dedicated mechanisms in the human brain. These can be imagined as a series of switches, each corresponding to particular forms of grammar and syntax and structure...."

"...Unlike earlier linguists, however, Dunn and Gray had access to powerful computational tools that, when set to work on sets of data, calculate the most likely relationships between the data. Such tools are well known in evolutionary biology, where they're used to create trees of descent from genetic readings, but they can be applied to most anything that changes over time, including language.

"In the new study, Dunn and Gray's team created evolutionary trees for eight word-order features in humanity's best-described language groups — Austronesian, Indo-European, Bantu and Uto-Aztecan. Together they contain more than one-third of humanity's 7,000 languages, and span thousands of years. If there are universal trends, say Dunn and Gray, they should be visible, with each language family evolving along similar lines.

"That's not what they found.

" 'Each language family is evolving according to its own set of rules. Some were similar, but none were the same,' said Dunn. 'There is much more diversity, in terms of evolutionary processes, than anybody ever expected.'

(Nature, via wired, used w/o permission)
"Comparison of trends in Austronesian and Indo-European languages (Nature)"

"In one representative example of divergence (diagram above), both Austronesian and Indo-European languages that linked prepositions and object-verb structures ('over the fence, ball kicked') tended to evolve preposition and verb-object structures ('over the fence, kicked ball.') That’s exactly what universalism would predict.

"But when Austronesian and Indo-European languages both started from postposition, verb-object arrangements ('the fence over, kicked ball'), they ended up in different places. Austronesian tended towards preposition, verb-object ('over the fence, kicked ball') but Indo-European tended towards postposition, object-verb ('the fence over, ball kicked.')..."

The researchers figure that random chance, "cultural circumstance," or maybe something else, has something to do with the differences between languages. The Lemming figures they're probably right - given the broad swath of possibilities cited.

A little more seriously: It's the Lemming's impressed that the researchers didn't take their conclusions beyond the data they'd collected - and their analysis of that data.

Hard-Wired for Language? What They Didn't Find

"...There is, however, still room for universals, said Pagel. After all, even if culture and circumstance shapes language evolution, it's still working with a limited set of possibilities. Of the six possible combinations of subject, verb and object, for example, just two - 'I kicked the ball' and 'I the ball kicked'- are found in more than 90 percent of all languages, with Yoda-style 'Kicked I the ball' exceedingly rare. People do seem to prefer some structures...."

"...People do seem to prefer some structures...?" Maybe not consciously - but the Lemming would be mightily surprised if the hardware in our heads didn't make it easier to put ideas in one order - and not so much in another.

As for metaphysical stuff like the meaning of life and all that? The Lemming doesn't expect to find such things answered in a statistical analysis of languages. What the Lemming expects from this study - and the more in-depth analyses planned by Dunn and his team - are insights into how people use language. And, maybe, how we organize information: how, in one sense of the word, we think.

That expectation comes from the Lemming's view of science. It's like the fellow said: the task of science "was and remains a patient yet passionate search for the truth about the cosmos, about nature and about the constitution of the human being."sup And that is another topic, for another blog. (A Catholic Citizen in America (October 30, 2010))

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