First words: The surprisingly simple foundation of language

New Scientist

These are important advances in Linguistics, I was not aware of.

The debate over the extent to which language is learned or innate is one of the most enduring in linguistics. Most children start to speak around age 2, and within a few short years are proficient, often prolific, users of language. Do they simply listen and learn, or are they born with some language facility that is filled in by the specifics of their native tongue? Learning is obviously involved – children pick up the language(s) they are brought up with. But can this alone account for the complexity and creativity of language?

I saw this once myself. I knew an Italian family in NYC who had a young daughter who only knew English. They went for a vacation in Italy – and when they returned, their daughter could speak Italian!

When I asked her how she learned this, she said “I listened to them talk, and figured out what they were saying.”

Simple as that!


Looking at Linguistics – Two Points of View

Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes: Life and Language in the Amazonian Jungle

At the Birth of Language

Linguistics is interesting – and here are two ways of looking at it. I prefer the first, which proceeds by induction – looking at an actual language, and deducing from it how language works. The second works by deduction – deciding on abstract linguistic principles, and then building theories based on those.

The second link, which is a review of a book in the New York Review, also goes in the history of how language must have evolved – in quite satisfactory detail.

Try both of them.

In the Beginning was Chomsky

Harper’s Magazine – by Tom Wolfe

Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes: Life and Language in the Amazonian Jungle

Tom has gone after big game – and has bagged his quarry.

Nobody in academia had ever witnessed or even heard of a performance like this before. In just a few years, in the early 1950s, a University of Pennsylvania graduate student — a student, in his twenties — had taken over an entire field of study, linguistics, and stood it on its head and hardened it from a spongy so-called “social science” into a real science, a hardscience, and put his name on it: Noam Chomsky.

This is a long article, but so well-written I have no trouble reading it – twice. And I download a book that it mentioned Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes – of which it says this:

OOOF! — right into the solar plexus! — a 13,000-word article in the August–October 2005 issue of Current Anthropology entitled “Cultural Constraints on Grammar and Cognition in Pirahã” by one Daniel L. Everett. Pirahã was apparently a language spoken by several hundred — estimates ranged from 250 to 500 — members of a tribe, the Pirahã (pronounced Pee-da-hannh), isolated deep within Brazil’s vast Amazon basin (2,670,000 square miles, about 40 percent of South America’s entire landmass). Ordinarily, Chomsky was bored brainless by all those tiny little languages that old-fashioned flycatchers like Everett were still bringing back from out in “the field.” But this article was an affront aimed straight at him, by name, harping on two points: first, this particular tiny language, Pirahã, had no recursion, none at all, immediately reducing Chomsky’s law to just another feature found in most languages; and second, it was the Pirahã’s own distinctive culture, their unique ways of living, that shaped the language — not any “language organ,” not any “universal grammar” or “deep structure” or “language acquisition device” that Chomsky said all languages had in common.

And this:

In November of 2008, a full seven months before the truth squad’s scheduled hecatomb time for Everett, he, the scheduled mark, did a stunning thing. He maintained his mad pace and beat them into print — with one of the handful of popular books ever written on linguistics: Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes, an account of his and his family’s thirty years with the Pirahã. It was dead serious in an academic sense. He loaded it with scholarly linguistic and anthropological reports of his findings in the Amazon. He left academics blinking . . . and nonacademics with eyes wide open, staring. The book broke free of its scholarly binding right away.

I downloaded the Kindle version, and couldn’t take my eyes off it.

How the Brain Thinks About Language

The human brain is hard-wired to learn and use human language. Any child can easily learn any language – no matter how difficult it is. And then use it flawlessly – without having any understanding of it at all.

Why this is so has been baffling. But the discovery of an universal grammar, by Noam Chomsky, was a breakthrough. It showed, for one thing, that we do not think like computers – but in an entirely different way. We use parameters.

Languages are strange: they are both similar and different at the same time. And how they are similar and different depends on the settings of a limited set of these parameters. They describe the rules that are used to make any language. The rules do not resemble any language – any more than a recipe for a cake resembles a cake.

The problems with language were much like that in chemistry: what was the underlying order behind all the elements? Eventually the periodic table of the elements was deduced – after a long struggle. Then everything made sense.

Linguists are now going through a similar struggle. They have lots of clues: they have analyzed thousands of languages, and some parameters have become apparent – only some kinds of languages exist, there is not in infinite variety of them. But how the parameters all fit together is a matter of heated debate – but at least there is agreement on what needs to be agreed on.

I must repeat an important point here: computers cannot do this kind of work. We have become used to thinking that computers can do anything – after all, anything can be digitized! But language skills are an entirely different matter – they require a different kind of logic. The implications of just why this is so is one of life’s mysteries.

I cannot explain how parameters work in this posting, but one day’s lesson in a linguistic course would be adequate. Or there is an excellent book The Atoms of Language – which will carefully hold you by the hand.

Code Switching

This posting is about Linguistics – which, as I have said before, many people absolutely hate – probably because language is such an integral part of being human. But let that go.

I am taking a course from the Teaching Company about this, and the instructor, John McWhorter, is telling me more about Linguistics than I really wanted to know. But let that go too.

Today the class is about code switching: switching back and forth between two languages in the same sentence, or between sentences. This interests me because I have had a lot of exposure to people who spoke both English and Spanish. My ex’s family was bilingual and would frequently switch back and forth between the two on the telephone. I noticed they used Spanish when they were being subjective and emotional – but English when being more objective.  But I never heard them code switch – something that is very common in New York City, with its many immigrants from the Caribbean.

Costa Rica used to have many speakers of English on its Caribbean coast – Black people. But this English is quickly dying out because Costa Rica does not support Black English – even though it is making a strong effort to teach all its children American English. No one seems to notice this contradiction.

Linguists have studied code switching – and almost broke out in fights over their theories on how this is done. The dominant theory is MLF which explains a lot – but every location has its variations.

I lived with a Tico family for five years, and Marielos learned enough English (Spanglish, really) so we could communicate about the basics. They expected me to learn Spanish, a reasonable expectation, but for a variety of reasons this never happened.

Costa Rica seems to be an area where code-switching seldom happens. Here you can speak Spanish and English, and can switch back and forth – but you don’t mix them up.

In the States, Spanish-speaking people are very aware that Spanish use is discouraged – and take great care in mixed company to not mix them up. My last girlfriend in California was Mexican-American, and spoke fluent Spanish that she was proud of – but was very careful to make it clear that she could speak both. Hispanic members of the police force find their Spanish is very useful – they probably use it to talk to their grandparents who were immigrants – and of course, to the drug dealers they arrest – but they wouldn’t dream of mixing them up.

Paranoia about immigrants is now common in the US and in Europe – and even, believe it or not, in Costa Rica – which, with its relatively affluent economy is full of immigrants, many of them illegal. They do not have a language problem – only a money problem.

Educated Language and the Less-Educated Kind

I am listening to a course on Linguistics by John McWhorter – to a lesson called How Class Defines Speech. It took me back to my childhood. Neither of my parents graduated from college: both had to drop out because of the Depression. But they were determined that their children would make it all the way – as we did.

In their day America was still a class-conscious society, and they were obsessed with social status, and with respectability. In our day, we have been sternly instructed to ignore class differences – whether they exist or not (which they certainly do – with immigration issues, for example). Americans have been hypocrites for a long time, and this tendency seems to be getting worse. But I see I am getting off the subject.

One reason Americans now hate linguistics, I think, is because it insists on examining language as it really is. This implies as acceptance of everything else as it really is – something Americans absolutely cannot stand. They insist on things being the way they think it is instead.

America has turned its back on educated usage, which encourages thinking, and insists on the ignorant kind – where everybody has to agree on nearly everything.

The Apparent and the Real in Language

I am now taking the course Understanding Linguistics from the Teaching Company. I had read a book by Professor John McWhorter, and I wanted to know more, so I got the video class: 36 lectures, for only $99.

Lecture Four is entitled: In the Head versus On the Lips. It is about the phonemic versus the phonetic – or in linguistic shorthand, the difference between the emic and the etic. This is something linguists have studied for over 100 years, so it is nothing new.

Every culture decides what the basic sounds of its language are. But it also decides how these basics get translated into its spoken language – two different things entirely.

For example, in English plurals are indicated in writing by the suffix s. But this is usually pronounced as a z – as in things – try it yourself. The brain applies its rules, which usually indicate a z sound – but sometimes an s sound – as in shoots.

Linguists use a simple technique here: they listen to what is actually said – and then figure out what the rules are behind that usage – which can be amazingly complicated. As small children we learn these rules automatically.

This also has philosophical implications: there are many ways where what is apparent differs from what is real.