Sunday, August 14, 2011

Derek Bickerton's "Adam's Tongue"

This is an excellent overview of language and why humans are so special. I've followed this debate about language for 40 years. This book is the best of the bunch and it delivers good news. We are actually understanding how language evolved.

I remember getting excited about experiments in the late 1960s and early 1970s to teach language to chimps. At the time I was outraged by linguists played down the language abilities of the chimps. I now realize that I was a victim of "enthusiastic" scientists who gave a positive spin to their research and oversold the results. Bikerton's book explains why those experiments to teach "language" to chimps failed miserably. I can now say that I understand why things turned out they way they did. This is the first book that has really explained it all to me.

What I especially appreciate about this book is Bickerton's attempt at a theory of language evolution in the following stages. I've used Bickerton's language and added my interpretation in an italicized parenthetical comment:
  1. Animals have concepts that won't merge. (The term "merge" is technical and means that the elements come together in a meaningful understanding like words joined to paint a bigger picture)

  2. Proto-humans start talking. (These early "words" are simple references to things present that can be pointed at (indexical signs) or can be imitated (iconic signs) and generally mean specific instances and not generalized concepts)

  3. Talking produces typical human concepts. (I.e., the use of the words in many different contexts helps loosen them from being immediate references to something more abstract and general, i.e. more "conceptualized")

  4. Merge appears and starts merging typically human concepts. (Humans put words together and they create a new understanding such as "cattle nearby" or "snake bit Joe")

  5. The brain maybe gets rewired (plausible but not certain). (The idea is that initial words used together didn't immediately translate into "aha! we can use these words to make language with complicated speech". Instead, words were initially used to support "catchment scavenging", i.e. the finding of dead animals in a small territory closely monitored but after other predators had taken the meat and left only the bones to be cracked for the marrow. Then humans learned to use words to recruit bigger groups to aggressively go after downed or weak animals before other predators killed them so that they could use newly invented stone tools to cut chunks off and retreat and eat their fill. This recruitment required a proto-language and once this was in place the capabilities of language could be expanded and the brain evolved to facilitate processes for language use and understanding.)

  6. Capacities for complex thought, planning, etc. develop. (This was the full blossoming of language beyond foraging into social interactions, tool development, story-telling, and cultural development.)
The above strikes me as both reasonable as a reconstruction of the evolutionary path.

The book makes the very clear distinction between "animal communication systems" (vervet monkeys with their various calls to identify predators) and true language. It also clarifies the distinction between proto-languages like pidgins and real languages with syntax that is built around the ability of use to "merge" elements of language in blocks of understanding. Also, an element of language isn't captured by words: we use intonation and body movement to help express meaning, e.g. questions are asked with a rising tone in English. The words don't show this, but real human language uses this clue to help pass meaning from speaker to recipient. This book has helped me finally have a real, and deep, understanding of language issues and why the animal experiments with "language" failed.

The book is a surprisingly full and rich elaboration of this theory with many useful details of previous theories of language and other sciences that have all been brought together to make possible this latest theory of language evolution. This is definitely a book to be recommended as readable and covering a significant scientific field that more people should understand and appreciate.

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