Author Topic: Extent of parallelism between evolution and language change  (Read 9266 times)

Offline Daniel

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Re: Extent of parallelism between evolution and language change
« Reply #15 on: December 24, 2013, 02:44:56 AM »
Maybe. Then is natural selection not applicable to language? It isn't applicable directly (people don't often pick languages based on aesthetics) but at least in some sense there's selection going on, either:
1. Of words/forms based on need. (This is where frequency distributions come in.)
Or in a very different sense:
2. Of particular humans (with their languages) for various reasons (almost certainly nonlinguistic, except in cases where discrimination or language barriers could play a role in success). Even here, it's not entirely unlike biological evolution-- in my first post I noted that blonde hair (today) isn't really an advantage (or disadvantage) for survival, but it still evolves biologically based on reproduction and so forth.
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Offline Corybobory

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Re: Extent of parallelism between evolution and language change
« Reply #16 on: December 24, 2013, 03:49:24 AM »
There is a type of natural selection pressure on language, mentioned above, where language items that are understandable and replicable and transmittable and memorable are passed on while others are not - I think there's a weak selective pressure for this (language items that are already in use have already gone through this filter - it would probably apply more to neologisms)
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Offline Daniel

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Re: Extent of parallelism between evolution and language change
« Reply #17 on: December 24, 2013, 03:53:36 AM »
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I think there's a weak selective pressure for this (language items that are already in use have already gone through this filter - it would probably apply more to neologisms)
Well said.
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Offline Guijarro

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Re: Extent of parallelism between evolution and language change
« Reply #18 on: December 24, 2013, 05:19:55 AM »
If Romans evolved into Spaniards, then OK, go on using the term (who cares if, in my view, this is unreasonable?).

If pre-scientifically, the metaphor works well, then OK, go on using the term (who cares if, in my view, the metaphor hides important contingencies, and will probably cause wrong assumptions?)

No, Freknu, I am definitely NOT confusing evolution with natural selection, since I believe that evolution probably also works by endosymbiosis. Two mechanisms that make a specific, say, process of creation possible.
(If you look at the two last postings by Cory and Daniel, however, it seems that they DO speak about selection, natural or not (but weak, if you please!)

This is really my last attempt:

I believe that EVOLUTION (through natural selection, endosymbiosis, or whatever other mechanism that might be discovered) allows for a new "element" to appear in the world. Non-humans --> humans; non-language --> language; codified communication --> inferential (+coded) communication, and so on.

But, Roman human --> Spanish human, or language --> different language are not in my view the result of an evolutionary step. It is the result of an historical change of already existing elements.

Why should change and evolution be synonymous, for God's sake?

Before EVOLUTION became a trendy concept, everybody talked about the HISTORY OF LANGUAGES. So, to change it to the EVOLUTION OF LANGUAGES seems ludicrous to me.

But, again, if they are fine for you, be my guest! I have nothing else to object.






 

« Last Edit: December 24, 2013, 05:33:27 AM by Guijarro »

Offline Daniel

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Re: Extent of parallelism between evolution and language change
« Reply #19 on: December 24, 2013, 05:32:25 AM »
It's a matter of scale, and as far as I know, yours would certainly be the minority opinion in the scientific community.

Evolution is change over generations. Sometimes it is big (dinosaurs to birds; monkeys to apes to humans), but often it is very small: your eye color from your parents.

Whether we call this "change" or "evolution" depends on the scale.

I don't mean to necessarily imply a big change when I use "evolution". I simply mean (biological) generational change, and I'm wondering to what extent that fits language as well.


While I now understand what you mean (I think), there's a fundamental problem with that position: evolution is never big. Fish didn't evolve legs in a single generation. Slight mutations (yes, just changes) built up and eventually emerged as macro-level (observable) properties and what you call "evolution". But the process of evolution, if we are to study the process (rather than the results), is in some sense gradual-- many small changes adding up eventually to larger ones. An interesting question would be the extent to which a species can change over a single generation/mutation, but certainly that's rarely something significant.


This also brings into question Chomsky's ideas about something small changing quickly about 100,00 years ago. It's possible if we really assume that whatever allows language ("UG", "language faculty") is so small that it might arise by chance in a single generation. But much more in line with the typical type of development is a major change [like Language, right??] is built on smaller ones.

"Which one was first-- the chicken or the egg?"
A hard question perhaps (although I'm certain the answer is egg).
But a much, much harder question is, picking either one:
"Which one was the first-- generation 1, generation 2, ..., generation n?"
That's where things get messy.
« Last Edit: December 24, 2013, 05:34:06 AM by djr33 »
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Offline Guijarro

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Re: Extent of parallelism between evolution and language change
« Reply #20 on: December 24, 2013, 05:46:04 AM »
Well, I begin to see how applying the evolution term to the traditional HISTORY concept might revive the importance of this specific field in which you are interested. So, this move does not seem to be altogether unreasonable on your part, at least. You have a very clear and decent motive behind it.


Offline lx

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Re: Extent of parallelism between evolution and language change
« Reply #21 on: December 24, 2013, 05:53:35 AM »
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This also brings into question Chomsky's ideas about something small changing quickly about 100,00 years ago
Was it not 50,000 years ago?
It's been a while since I've read about this theory but I do remember seeing 50,000 years ago as being the date thrown around in every book and every paper. Apologies if it seems as if I'm splitting hairs (but after all, modern humans have been around for ~200,000 years ago, and 25-50% differences in proposed changes seems to be worth pointing out).

About the eye colour instance of evolution, is that really what we'd call evolution? I mean, whatever the eye colour was, it has a good chance of popping back up in further descendants, i.e. genetic details on two recessive genes having the chance to come back on dominant genes in children. I'd think if there was a long-term process where there would be a movement away from that specific eye colour - fair enough. I'm also not saying that evolution can't get rid of and then bring back features. Okay this reply is getting a bit complicated. I should have just kept quiet.
« Last Edit: December 24, 2013, 05:55:42 AM by lx »

Offline Daniel

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Re: Extent of parallelism between evolution and language change
« Reply #22 on: December 24, 2013, 05:57:14 AM »
This idea isn't mine. I'm also not really arguing for it. I'm wondering about it. While it seems like a loose metaphor without much significance, it actually seems to line up pretty well-- if you try to make it fit, that is. The question is where exactly this fails.

One possibility is that it fails on the macro-level you're talking about: you want to note that language doesn't change fundamentally (in the way that, say, organisms do) because the Language Faculty is always the same. But at the same time, couldn't someone argue that there's another parallel: UG/LF is equivalent to DNA. Virtually all life forms share DNA, much like all languages share UG (whatever it is). So what we see evolving is the form, not the structure.

Perhaps I'm guilty of too cleverly/arbitrarily applying the metaphor, as I said above "loosely". But anyway, the parallels are interesting.

By the way, if you don't like the word "evolution", then what about "genetics"? I mean exactly the same thing by it, but perhaps you get a different sense.
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Offline Daniel

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Re: Extent of parallelism between evolution and language change
« Reply #23 on: December 24, 2013, 06:04:38 AM »
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Was it not 50,000 years ago?
It's been a while since I've read about this theory but I do remember seeing 50,000 years ago as being the date thrown around in every book and every paper. Apologies if it seems as if I'm splitting hairs (but after all, modern humans have been around for ~200,000 years ago, and 25-50% differences in proposed changes seems to be worth pointing out).
Several Minimalism instructors cited "about 100,000 years ago" a few times. That's what I'm going by. I should look up the exact date. You're right that it's important, but the quality of the argument is the same-- it was quickly 50,000 years ago or 70,000 or 100,000, whichever one.
I've heard the window is considered 40,000 (all humans share language) to 2 million years (vocal tract development). So that's about as precise as we can say with confidence.

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About the eye colour instance of evolution, is that really what we'd call evolution? I mean, whatever the eye colour was, it has a good chance of popping back up in further descendants, i.e. genetic details on two recessive genes having the chance to come back on dominant genes in children. I'd think if there was a long-term process where there would be a movement away from that specific eye colour - fair enough. I'm also not saying that evolution can't get rid of and then bring back features. Okay this reply is getting a bit complicated. I should have just kept quiet.
It's certainly not a major change-- no new species involved in it. But I'd say yes-- it's a change in distribution of properties (note that humans aren't recycled-- every individual is unique, as far as I know, ignoring details like twins). Eventually these things get passed on.
For a broader look at actual evolution going on in humans today, look at the fact that humans are progressively deteriorating physically-- eyeglasses are more common because humans no longer die when they have poor eyesight, just among many other things. Intelligence is also shooting up because it's now attractive for mating, whereas before it was all about strength.
So eye color? I'll accept that's a stretch (but only in effect, not process). Evolution of humans? Sure! It's slow, but it happens.
There's also a bias of perspective here:
Light skin is apparently useful for people living farther north. I don't really understand why, but it's fairly clear that humans originally had dark skin and then some group became progressively lighter or some reason or other. What's important, though, is that we'd see this clearly as evolution if the only surviving humans had light skin. But given that there is still variation, it's harder to call it evolution. Again, process vs. effect.

Do others disagree with me in calling the process evolution, as well as the effect/result?
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Offline lx

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Re: Extent of parallelism between evolution and language change
« Reply #24 on: December 24, 2013, 06:24:36 AM »
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Light skin is apparently useful for people living farther north. I don't really understand why, but it's fairly clear that humans originally had dark skin and then some group became progressively lighter or some reason or other. What's important, though, is that we'd see this clearly as evolution if the only surviving humans had light skin. But given that there is still variation, it's harder to call it evolution. Again, process vs. effect.

I'd actually see that as a strong case of what evolution is (or what I'd call evolution).

I mean, it came about due to the lack of vitamin D (from the sun) present in the earlier environments of those migrators during the last ice age and due to the less 'sunny' climates after the ice melted and we headed further north. It was a genetic response to climatic conditions, is that not the base definition of what evolution is?

Okay, I can kind of see where my definitions exist with and break away from a more natural-selection-sort-of-definition. Somewhere more than just 'gradual change' but less than 'being advantageous to the species', though I still would use that term to describe those features in other contexts. I've never really thought about what evolution meant, personally, to me. It seems to have just been an amalgamation of all the times I've heard it or read it (which has probably been variable).
« Last Edit: December 24, 2013, 06:28:21 AM by lx »

Offline Daniel

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Re: Extent of parallelism between evolution and language change
« Reply #25 on: December 24, 2013, 06:49:31 AM »
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I'd actually see that as a strong case of what evolution is (or what I'd call evolution).

I mean, it came about due to the lack of vitamin D (from the sun) present in the earlier environments of those migrators during the last ice age and due to the less 'sunny' climates after the ice melted and we headed further north. It was a genetic response to climatic conditions, is that not the base definition of what evolution is?
Ah, I wasn't aware of that (I should be more careful with my examples :) ). Thanks for explaining.
At the same time, it's still a case of within-species "evolution", not exactly a new result from it, just variation, sort of like hair color (now, is THAT also the same reason?) or eye color.

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Okay, I can kind of see where my definitions exist with and break away from a more natural-selection-sort-of-definition. Somewhere more than just 'gradual change' but less than 'being advantageous to the species', though I still would use that term to describe those features in other contexts. I've never really thought about what evolution meant, personally, to me. It seems to have just been an amalgamation of all the times I've heard it or read it (which has probably been variable).
Yes, much of this is just nomenclature. I think we more or less agree on it.

Perhaps we can make a note that at least one place where the parallels fail is that evolution is often a "big picture" difference, while language change is usually details. We don't often talk about the development of polysynthesis out of isolating languages or the development of VSO out of SVO, etc. Usually it's the smaller steps.
So at least in terms of basic perception of these things, perhaps the scales are quite different in an important way. I hadn't thought of that before.
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Offline Corybobory

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Re: Extent of parallelism between evolution and language change
« Reply #26 on: December 24, 2013, 07:59:54 AM »
The big change at 50,000 years ago oft talked about is the now outdated idea of an Upper Palaeolithic 'reviolution', the appearance in the archaeological record of cave art, symbolic objects, and 'modern human technologies' such as blade technology, and marine resource exploitation.  It is now understood that all of these things, while appearing in concentration in Western and Southern Europe around 40-30,000 years ago, have their antecendents all through the Middle Stone Age of Africa in preceding hundreds of thousands of years. This appearance, when understood as sudden, led some people to suggest that perhaps the abrupt change in behaviour was due to the appearance of language (and not, as I find much more reasonable, an economic change), or syntax.

The date of 100,000 years ago is bandied about as lots of these signs taken before to be of modern human beaviour appear in the record around this time - ostrich egg shell beads at Qafzeh Cave at 90,000 years ago, and complex tools and use of Ochre at Howieson's Poort in South Africa at 70,000 years ago.  The date of 100,000 years bothers me - it just seems to be latched on to by people who haven't looked at the archaeology but are taking it as authoritative even though they don't know why it would be.
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Offline Daniel

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Re: Extent of parallelism between evolution and language change
« Reply #27 on: December 24, 2013, 02:34:23 PM »
freknu posted this useful documentary a while ago that deals with some of that in detail:
https://youtube.com/watch?v=gnSf7pAjw38 [The Day We Learned to Think]

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(and not, as I find much more reasonable, an economic change)
:)

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The date of 100,000 years ago is bandied about as lots of these signs taken before to be of modern human beaviour appear in the record around this time - ostrich egg shell beads at Qafzeh Cave at 90,000 years ago, and complex tools and use of Ochre at Howieson's Poort in South Africa at 70,000 years ago.  The date of 100,000 years bothers me - it just seems to be latched on to by people who haven't looked at the archaeology but are taking it as authoritative even though they don't know why it would be.
I get that impression too but I have no background in the field to argue with them. To me it just seems sort of silly: oh, the first date was wrong, let's assume it was definitely this new one!
Certainly by say 90,000 years ago there is evidence of abstract thought, but that 1) might not necessarily directly correlate with language; 2) that, if anything, marks an "at the latest" date, not a beginning-- after all, archaeological evidence of any kind gets rarer as you go back in time (it's often destroyed, or buried deeper), so the extent of evidence means very little.
« Last Edit: December 24, 2013, 02:36:17 PM by djr33 »
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Offline Corybobory

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Re: Extent of parallelism between evolution and language change
« Reply #28 on: December 24, 2013, 02:58:58 PM »
Exactly!  If we use just symbolic material as a proxy of when language was used, then we're limiting this inference to just times where cultures where making them and they preserved until the present, and it's only an 'at the latest' date - this deals with what my PhD is concentrating on, which is looking for different ways you can look at material culture and say something about the existence of language.  I'm looking at what cognitive correlates there are with language (I'm focussing on theory of mind), and looking for signs of this in wider overall human behaviour instead of humanly produced material, in order to make that link, and to make a sort of chain of inference about language use.   (...hopefully!) 
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Offline Daniel

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Re: Extent of parallelism between evolution and language change
« Reply #29 on: December 24, 2013, 07:29:14 PM »
Sounds useful, speculative, and challenging! In other words, probably a great topic, but not an easy one.

Will you be trying to establish a gradual set of changes that lead to modern humans? Any ideas how?
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