Linguist Forum

Specializations => Historical Linguistics => Topic started by: Daniel on December 21, 2013, 08:10:32 PM

Title: Extent of parallelism between evolution and language change
Post by: Daniel on December 21, 2013, 08:10:32 PM
We all use the metaphors, and they're useful for explanatory purposes. But how well do the metaphors really apply (are we just picking relevant aspects?), and is it entirely metaphorical?

We might have discussed this a while back, but I'm thinking about it again.

The inconsistencies in the metaphor are probably due to applying it loosely. It isn't "languages" that evolve any more than "species" evolve. It's the individual idiolects and individuals in the population. In both fields we might say vaguely that a species/language has evolved, but that's a simplification. And once we recognize that, the metaphor seems to almost apply perfectly to language, perhaps even beyond metaphorically.

As I see it, there are three remaining differences:
Beyond these points, almost everything else seems to line up.

There's another potential objection:
That's partly true. But:
1. It does to some basic degree-- expressiveness and complexity balance out-- grammaticalization and change. Some is random, though.
2. Most importantly, language is just one property of individuals, like hair color. Certainly there may be some broad reasons why blonde or brown hair is related to evolution, but at least after these genes exist it seems somewhat random-- language is equal, I'd say. If you speak English or speak Spanish, it's about the same as having different hair colors (except for nature vs. nurture, see above). The crucial point here is that it eliminates the thought "but wait, if a language is spoken by more people, doesn't it mean it's a better language?" -- no, not at all, it's just one of the traits of those people, and others likely contribute to why that language is carried along for the ride.


Any other objections you can think of?
Title: Re: Extent of parallelism between evolution and language change
Post by: Corybobory on December 22, 2013, 04:26:09 AM
I agree that there is a type of selection that acts on language, to do with its learnability and complexity which are balanced out through iterated learning and self organization. 

The metaphor comes from the fact that they are both similar processes but acting on different materials - there will of course be difference because they are acting on different things.  'Evolution' simply means change over time in a population with variability.  Language's 'population' is of words and rules, and speakers are the engine that learn and use language, which changes it over time.

Both language and species are participating in this process of change over time through selection because of their variability.  Therefore they both exhibit this change over time.

You might be interested in this article which talks about the self-organization of language, and specifically how complexity can arise in an artificial language system:
http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1467-9922.2009.00540.x/abstract
Title: Re: Extent of parallelism between evolution and language change
Post by: Guijarro on December 22, 2013, 04:47:14 AM
See what I mean (in http://linguistforum.com/index.php?topic=76.msg237#new)?

If we stick to the code prejudice we will have to imagine all sorts of clever (for they ARE clever, as Daniel's theory about the French word salir was) theories to account for its changes to adapt to new situations.

But if we become aware of how human communication seems to work, then these problems disappear just as the fist disappears when we open our hands (Zen maxim).
Title: Re: Extent of parallelism between evolution and language change
Post by: Corybobory on December 22, 2013, 04:54:40 AM
Sorry Guijarro I don't understand what you mean!  Can you clarify?
Title: Re: Extent of parallelism between evolution and language change
Post by: freknu on December 22, 2013, 04:57:40 AM
You might be interested in this article which talks about the self-organization of language, and specifically how complexity can arise in an artificial language system:
http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1467-9922.2009.00540.x/abstract

That's kind of what I first thought of when I first read djr's post. I thought of an experiment where small robots were given two basic features:


These robots were not explicitly given a language, so every time the data was reset the game would begin with all the robots being unable to communicate or play as teams, chaotically going all over the place and appearing almost random.

Over time the robots would learn from each other and each team eventually converging on a single, mutually intelligible language. Each time it would be different, random, emerging from the co-operative interaction of the robots

Naturally, this is a highly simplified model and experiment of language, but what I find intriguing is how the language in this case is an emergent result of interaction.

I can't remember the exact details, but it was always this emergent property of language that really intrigued me. Why would human language be any different? Would we have developed such "complex" language if we were not also a very social animal?
Title: Re: Extent of parallelism between evolution and language change
Post by: Daniel on December 23, 2013, 01:33:06 AM
Quote from: Cory
Language's 'population' is of words and rules, and speakers are the engine that learn and use language, which changes it over time.
Hm. That's not quite how I see it. That's interesting, given how this metaphor can be applied somewhat loosely.
I'd say the population is the individual idiolects ("I-languages" or whatever you want to call them).
In your version, what is the 'DNA'-- the people?

Quote
You might be interested in this article which talks about the self-organization of language, and specifically how complexity can arise in an artificial language system:
http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1467-9922.2009.00540.x/abstract
I was aware of that volume and thought it looked interesting, but never got around to reading the whole thing. Thanks for reminding me. I hadn't noticed that article before :)

From a paper of mine:
Quote
Another line of research at the moment is exploring how learners, especially children, restructure input (Fedzechkina, Jaeger & Newport 2012; see also Hudson Kam & Newport 2009; Wonnacott et al. 2012); that is, instead of expecting perfect performance, the goal of the experiment is actually to expect the learners to change the language to suit communicative need and learning constraints. Although there are many directions in which that research should be pursued (a particularly fascinating one would be to see a large-scale repeated filtering process from raw artificial pseudo-language to a complete natural grammar, along the lines of what MacCallum, Mauchm Burt & Leroi (2012) have done for music)


Fedzechkina, M., Jaeger, T. F., & Newport, E. L. (2012). Language learners restructure their input to facilitate efficient communication. PNAS.

Hudson Kam, C. L., & Newport, E. L. (2009). Getting it right by getting it wrong: When learners change languages. Cognitive Psychology 59, 30-66.

Wonnacott, E., Boyd, J. K., Thomson, J., & Goldberg, A. E. (2012). Input effects on the acquisition of a novel phrasal construction in 5 year olds. Journal of Memory and Language 66, 458-478.

MacCallum, R., Mauch, M., Burt, A., & Leroi, A. (2012). Evolution of music by public choice. PNAS.
The last reference may be the most interesting if you haven't seen it yet. There's a website to view the music under discussion as well.



---

Guijarro, I'm not quite sure what you mean either (but I'm interested). I'm wondering about how "evolution" applies, not whether there's a specific problem or not.


---

Quote
I thought of an experiment where small robots were given two basic features:

    playing football (no, not handegg)
    communication


These robots were not explicitly given a language, so every time the data was reset the game would begin with all the robots being unable to communicate or play as teams, chaotically going all over the place and appearing almost random.

Over time the robots would learn from each other and each team eventually converging on a single, mutually intelligible language. Each time it would be different, random, emerging from the co-operative interaction of the robots
Is this a real experiment that was done? I haven't heard of it and I'd love to know more.

Quote
Naturally, this is a highly simplified model and experiment of language, but what I find intriguing is how the language in this case is an emergent result of interaction.
There are lots of theories of that; but of course some (neurological) base must exist for it to start.

Quote
I can't remember the exact details, but it was always this emergent property of language that really intrigued me. Why would human language be any different? Would we have developed such "complex" language if we were not also a very social animal?
Chomsky sees language as something internal in the mind, while you're describing it as the result of communication-- and I agree. The form is due to use. (The capability may be something else.)

John Hawkins (UC Davis and Cambridge) has some interesting theories about performance leading to competence, rather than the (ubiquitous) other way around that's so popular in Generativism. The "Performance grammar correspondence" is one of his theories. Interesting stuff.
Title: Re: Extent of parallelism between evolution and language change
Post by: Guijarro on December 23, 2013, 12:08:23 PM

Dear Cory!

What Mercier and Sperber said in the summary of their paper (which I pasted the other day) seems to be reinforced by your desire to get some clarification from me. If I remember rightly, you and I have been debating this point long before you wrote your (excellent!) thesis which I quoted in my subsequent paper (in Spanish) on the subject written ages ago; it would seem, then, that our two points of view should be clear to each other with no need to clarify things whatsoever in our particular case.

However …

Now, since we are in a new place, where all the traces of our ideas have disappeared from view at one click, I will try and summarize as clearly as I may my position on this problem for you (and everyone else interested) to be able to forget it yet again as another just-so story (which, I am afraid, is what all our ideas are, given our present state of knowledge). I will concentrate on two points, an introductory one, and the crucial one:

1º) EVOLUTION:

Let me employ a very basic account on this topic (you are much more conversant with the real steps than I am, of course): I think that when we talk about EVOLUTION we figure out how proto-humans appeared in this world from other ancestors related to apes; and then, we try and establish how real humans evolved from those proto-humans. 

But once humans are around, we tend to forget about evolutionary steps.  We don’t imagine Romans evolving from, say, Ligurians, nor, subsequently, Italians, French, Rumanian, Portuguese, Catalans, etc., from Romans, etc. We change the term EVOLUTION and call this changing process HISTORY.

If you agree (generally speaking) on the two points above, tell me then on what grounds you seem to use the same word EVOLUTION to point to the appearance of human language and also for the changes that occur in that same human language in the course of time, from the Proto-Germanic to Germanic, to English, etc.

For me, then, it is quite clear, that there are two such processes also in language, and that extending the term EVOLUTION to cover the HISTORICAL changes would very much look like the (to me, at least!)  ludicrous intent to show how, say, Macbeth and his subjects EVOLVED into Alex Salmond and his nationalist compatriots.

Therefore, I never talk about the EVOLUTION of languages, but only about the HISTORY of their changes.

2º) LANGUAGE (L1, L2 and L3)

However, surely, there was a time where no LANGUAGE whatsoever existed; how come it exists now-a-day? This, indeed, is a problem that may be tackled by an EVOLUTIONARY account.

Unluckily, a very great linguist of our time, with a lot of followers, Chomsky, is universally thought to have claimed that language did not evolve; the story goes that he maintained it appeared abruptly as some jack-in-the-box. Happily (for me, who am a chomskyan), I have an e-mail of his own where he strongly and crossly objects to that universal rumour. I will paste it here, as indeed, I have already done it in several forums before, but, for the same reasons that Marcier & Sperber pointed to in their paper, to no avail. The rumour keeps growing like a snowball and nobody ever doubts that Chomsky is culprit of that misdeanour.  Such is life!

Quote
I am afraid you have misinterpreted both my past and present views on natural selection and human language. You say: “Chomsky seems not to have changed his views on the lack of a role for natural selection in the origin of language”.

That statement presupposes that on some earlier occasion I expressed “views on the lack of a role for natural selection in the origin of language”. I have never expressed such views in the past. If you think otherwise, try to find the statement –by me, that is; not by someone repeating something they think they heard in the common room about what someone was told I said somewhere.

Nor is such a view expressed in the statement you cite. On the contrary, that statement explicitly presupposes that natural selection is operative in this case (as in others). The statement raises questions about 'the “channel” within which natural selection proceeds'. That natural selection selection proceeds within such a “channel” is too obvious to have been questioned by anyone. Only the most extreme dogmatists would produce a priori declarations about its role in any particular case, whether it is virus shells, slime molds, bones of the middle ear, infrared vision, or whatever.
As before, in the excerpt you cite I take no particular stand on the matter, for the simple and sufficient reason that virtually nothing significant is known –even about vastly simpler questions, such as the evolutionary origins of the waggle dance of honeybees. The excerpt to which you refer makes some tentative suggestions about what may be useful directions to pursue in seeking to determine how these various factors interact in the case of natural language.

Unfortunately, in the past few years a curious religious cult has emerged, which would have appalled Darwin. Members are enjoined to chant “natural selection” repeatedly from the mutual admiration society, even if there is no substantive content; as an exercise, you might take some of the mantras and ask how they would if the properties of natural language –pick the simplest one you like– were to turn out to be radically different from what is now supposed. And you might also want to have a look at the biological literature on the evolution of the waggle dance, or vervet calls, or songbirds. A requirement for membership in the cult, it seems, is to circulate claims that have been concocted about various symbolic figures cast as “enemies”, which are circulated and repeated, based on little more than gossip in the corridors. It's not an attractive picture, to put it mildly

Noam Chomsky

These are his words. Now, everyone may go on claiming what they think they believe Chomsky said. What I think he claims, though, is that we (ALL!) know yet very little about the evolutionary process that shaped our human language to muse about it inventing just-so-stories, as I am indeed going to attempt. Everybody knows Chomsky tries to describe the English language as it is NOW in his part of the World; he does not claim to be studying language historically (or geographically, for that matter), although there is a vast knowledge about these changes and differences.  Why should he be concerned with a process from which we still possess such a lack of evidence? We may just as well suppose that language is an unchanging object and try to describe it.

That’s fair enough for me.

But I am not as serious and as intelligent as Chomsky. And although I believe he is right in limiting his scientific effort, I feel like musing my own just-so story which, to me, at least, makes sense as framed in my overall conception of human communication, which is not necessarily the conception of other people –and I suppose, correct me if I am wrong, though, you to be one of those people.

To begin with, I imagine that communication among apes (and other species) is very similar to our own. By acting in a certain way, individuals are able to point to things or events out there; some are even able to point to basic desires and longings (such as foraging for food, or indulging in mating behavior). This pointing makes those things manifest to others and so some kind of joint action may result.

Some species are able (as well) to learn from experience (in which, some communicated aspects may be included). That is, they seem to have evolved a faculty whereby they, not only perceive that a given F(act) exists, but are able to embed another into it. So, when there is the F that Godzilla has screamed it points to the F that there is danger. We could represent it like this: [F (F)].

My just-so-story imagines that a very small mutation has occurred in human beings, which has allowed us to establish enormous chains of embedded facts, one inside the other. This seems to be a faculty that appears only in our species and, as such, gives us an enormous power to organize aspects of our surrounding environment and our inner states of mind relating them in all sorts of ways. That is, I believe that this small mutation is the origin of what has been known as the human soul, which some of us now names the human mind. 

This (seemingly unique human) faculty, then, is what has created our human LANGUAGE (the formal device with which, through mental representations, we are able to organize our surroundings and our relations towards them). I have called it LANGUAGE 1, and it is the translation of the Spanish word LENGUAJE. I have no clue as to what was the step by step process that resulted in that faculty; it may have been as Michael A. K. Halliday imagined, namely, steps covering distinct needs of individuals: (1) the instrumental step, where language serves to get things done: come! Go!, Watch up, etc., This step is shared with other animal species. (2)The regulatory step, closely related to the first one, but where embedding begins to show: [I say, want, desire, etc. (do this)]. (3) Interactional step, where "I" is extended to other individuals, showing for instance who belongs to our world, or not, etc. (4) Personal step, where language is used by an individual to express her awareness of herself and, by opposition, of the environment. (5)  The heuristic step, whereby the individual is able to look at language as an appropriate tool to be explored. (6) The imaginative step in which individuals may create world of their own.  And (7), the representational, in which language is used to make mental representations of anything that happens to them. (I may have given a too sketchy account of Halliday’s  seven evolutionary functions. If interested in having a deeper account, you may consult this model in his 1973 beautiful little book, Explorations in the Functions of Language (Edward Arnold).)

In any case, this hallidayan story, or any other which offers a likely narrative, will serve. In fact, my using of his ideas can be considered problematic in a chomskyan world, since both researchers have an altogether different view of how language works. The important thing to notice here, though, is that the REAL unique characteristic of this human language (L1) is that it offers in the last step an organized set of related mental representations.

 In my view, then, the fact that humans communicate with each other by behaving in one way or another (using vocal sounds is a form of behaviour, which is shared by other species) does not present an important problem for our just-so-stories, unless we are all set into believing that this linguistic behaviour becomes coded and is thereafter the crucial aspect of our human communicative behaviour.

What seems to happen, though, is that some of those L1 characteristics become modularized and act as a universal sieve through which subsequent communicative linguistic experiences are percolated thereby creating a universal structure of relationships which I call LENGUA (L2) and some of you, English speaking people, name Faculty of Language (wide or restricted, in recent chomskyan terms). This modularized device, like the rest of centres of immediate reaction (i.e., modules) helps individuals to acquire the linguistic code of their social environment and make it newly formatted module, except in terminology, where different and new words and meanings are always popping out. The final linguistic module is what I call IDIOMA (L3). Of course, like everything I mention here, the processes are a lot more complicated, but this is long enough, I am afraid.

Now, my final point is this: the linguistic code that we modularize is just one of the many tools humans have to make their inner mental states apparent to other individuals. A very handy tool, certainly, but NOT (in my view, that is) the crucial element in achieving communicative effects. The linguistic code is so wide and complicated for two main reasons: (1) because with it we do not only point to things and events out there, but also to inner representations inhabiting our minds, with all their shades and differences; (2) this enormous richness has been achieved by the unique human way to use these codes as tools to point to their intentional messages. We do not use the coding-decoding faculty as the only way to achieve our communicative efforts, but as a helping device in acquiring accuracy. Our communication is crucially inferential: we normally guess what the communicative intentions of others are (Grice called it, “reading the mind” faculty) by using all kinds of cues from the context of communication, one of them is, naturally the linguistic material we are able to express ), and we do it reasonably well.  If we need a new meaning, we act in a way to make it clear to others even using the same coded material but giving it a new function. Thus, languages evolve, new meanings are acquired and vast vocabularies are created over time.

To summarize all this:

1º) I don’t think that the origins of the coded L3 are interesting in any way to answer the question of why we humans communicate differently than other species. This endeavour is, in my view, the result of a wrong perspective, namely, the communication as a (complex) coded activity.

2º) What IS interesting is to figure out a nice and coherent just-so-story about the change our species achieved from pointing to things out there and some feelings inside, like other species are able to do, to point mainly to aspects of our mental life. I used Halliday’s story, but any other might do instead.  I believe we are a long way off to find a “real” answer to this problem, for mental activity leaves no traces and it is mighty hard to find clear evidence for this.

3º) What IS interesting too is to find how and why humans started to use a physical object (i.e., vocal noise) to represent publicly their mental representations organized in L1. I have suggested elsewhere that this could have been a symbiotic process as described by Lynn Margulis, but this would require another posting, and I am sure you have had more than enough.

(I will understand if, from now on you sort of shun my possible "short and simple explanations"!. Really, I sympathise!)
Title: Re: Extent of parallelism between evolution and language change
Post by: Corybobory on December 23, 2013, 02:49:29 PM
I hope you don't find it rude that I don't read the above post in its entirety Guijarro, but I'm even more confused now - this thread is about the similarities between language change and biological evolution, which is often used as a metaphor for the former.  Your post read:
See what I mean (in http://linguistforum.com/index.php?topic=76.msg237#new)?

If we stick to the code prejudice we will have to imagine all sorts of clever (for they ARE clever, as Daniel's theory about the French word salir was) theories to account for its changes to adapt to new situations.

But if we become aware of how human communication seems to work, then these problems disappear just as the fist disappears when we open our hands (Zen maxim).

which I noted that I didn't understand what it referred to (and I see that I'm not the only one).  I was hoping for a clarification, perhaps a 'simplification' of your stance (if that's what your post was illustrating), but you seem to have gone far so back in the history of our discussions that I don't follow how it relates to what we are even talking about now!

Could you perhaps rephrase what you meant in your first post in this thread, that being the original piece I didn't understand what you meant, and perhaps in less than 400 words or so?
Title: Re: Extent of parallelism between evolution and language change
Post by: Daniel on December 23, 2013, 02:58:23 PM
Right. I don't see what this has to do with evolution and language. It's fine for another discussion. Are we missing something, Guijarro?
Title: Re: Extent of parallelism between evolution and language change
Post by: Guijarro on December 24, 2013, 12:36:11 AM
I suppose I have lost my last neuron. I don't understand what you don't understand. Sorry.
My stance on evolution and language is very clear: language does not evolve as Romans did not evolve into Spaniards. However, human communication is different from that of the other species. This has nothing to do with our coding system, since all coded systems are alike (except in volume). It has to do with how we USE the coding system. This use is responsible for the development of languages. If we used the coding system as the only means to communicate, any change, no matter how small, would be a hindrance to communication. Since we rely on inference, changes do not prevent communication. On the contrary, they help expand the code adapting it to every situation.

I am not able to explain this in any other way. Sorry to have written such a long posting for nothing but to bore you. I hope you pardon me, for it is X-mas eve, and we should forgive other people's misdemeanour.

Merry Christmas, and forget about my musings.
Title: Re: Extent of parallelism between evolution and language change
Post by: Daniel on December 24, 2013, 01:44:02 AM
No, actually that now makes sense.

I had intended to specifically talk about the form of language (say, English in contrast to Spanish), not the ability to speak. Certainly related to the implications and inferences in Pragmatics, the form is not all that there is to language. But I wonder how much the form of language evolves in the way that organisms evolve.

Quote
My stance on evolution and language is very clear: language does not evolve as Romans did not evolve into Spaniards.
I'm making the exact opposite point, but I believe for a different definition of "language". Latin evolved into Spanish in form through grammaticalization and other changes. The question is how well that biological metaphor applies to the form of language-- it's surely imperfect, but does it generally work out?
Title: Re: Extent of parallelism between evolution and language change
Post by: Guijarro on December 24, 2013, 02:04:01 AM
For the reasons described above, I think that we are not reasonably coherent in applying the notion of EVOLUTION to explain the development of any given language. There is another concept that seems to adapt itself better to the development of languages: HISTORY.

But if you use the term evolution to point to the concept of HISTORY, I will have to admit that this is a possible new use which may have some advantage for you although I am unable to grasp it.

It is like using the word red to apply to the concept POLITICAL LEFT. Unreasonable things like that occur all the time, and make our languages change and expand their vocabulary.

I, for one, must accept that reason is not usually applicable in this area!
Title: Re: Extent of parallelism between evolution and language change
Post by: Corybobory on December 24, 2013, 02:33:31 AM
Some Romans did evolve into Spaniards though...? Romans had children in the area that is now Spain, and they had children and they had children and they had children etc, and the one who stayed in Spain eventually would have been considered Spaniards.  Unless I'm missing something and this is just history like you say and not 'change over time' ie evolution?
Title: Re: Extent of parallelism between evolution and language change
Post by: Daniel on December 24, 2013, 02:35:46 AM
Quote
For the reasons described above, I think that we are not reasonably coherent in applying the notion of EVOLUTION to explain the development of any given language. There is another concept that seems to adapt itself better to the development of languages: HISTORY.
Why? What is biological evolution but chance, change, use and selection-- all parts of history.
Are you claiming that dinosaurs, early human-like apes, and Darwin's finches are not part of history?
That's exactly what I'm claiming. Or rather, asking. I'm not yet intending to claim it. I'm wondering out loud.



Evolution: the replacement of older forms with newer forms due to random mutation and then successful transmission to future generations.

That simple version obviously applies to organisms and linguistic forms. A more complicated version might not, and that's what I'm wondering-- where is the line drawn?

Darwin's finches evolved on separate islands. The Polynesian languages did the same.
Darwin's finches had different colors. The Polynesian languages have different phonemes.
Darwin's finches were ultimately related but in distinct groups (species). The Polynesian languages are ultimate related but form distinct groups (of dialects = languages).


Certainly at least pre-scientifically the metaphor works very well! You must agree with that at least, right?

So where does it fail? I'm not sure.
Title: Re: Extent of parallelism between evolution and language change
Post by: freknu on December 24, 2013, 02:41:01 AM
I think Guijarro is confusing evolution and natural selection.
Title: Re: Extent of parallelism between evolution and language change
Post by: Daniel 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.
Title: Re: Extent of parallelism between evolution and language change
Post by: Corybobory 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)
Title: Re: Extent of parallelism between evolution and language change
Post by: Daniel on December 24, 2013, 03:53:36 AM
Quote
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.
Title: Re: Extent of parallelism between evolution and language change
Post by: Guijarro 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.






 

Title: Re: Extent of parallelism between evolution and language change
Post by: Daniel 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.
Title: Re: Extent of parallelism between evolution and language change
Post by: Guijarro 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.

Title: Re: Extent of parallelism between evolution and language change
Post by: lx 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.
Title: Re: Extent of parallelism between evolution and language change
Post by: Daniel 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.
Title: Re: Extent of parallelism between evolution and language change
Post by: Daniel 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?
Title: Re: Extent of parallelism between evolution and language change
Post by: lx 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).
Title: Re: Extent of parallelism between evolution and language change
Post by: Daniel 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.
Title: Re: Extent of parallelism between evolution and language change
Post by: Corybobory 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.
Title: Re: Extent of parallelism between evolution and language change
Post by: Daniel 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.
Title: Re: Extent of parallelism between evolution and language change
Post by: Corybobory 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!) 
Title: Re: Extent of parallelism between evolution and language change
Post by: Daniel 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?
Title: Re: Extent of parallelism between evolution and language change
Post by: MalFet on December 24, 2013, 08:54:35 PM
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)

Much of the contemporary research in phonological theory is heading in these directions. The most promising new work right now is probably Blevins's book Evolutionary Phonology (2008). The argument there takes evolution as a lot more than a metaphor, though for her it's phonological systems rather than cognitive faculties that are evolving.

The idea is basically that articulation and perception are inherently tied to noisy material channels, and thus the sounds encountered by a speaker of a language intrinsically include a broad scope of quasi-random variation. This scope of variation converges over time on relatively more stable, more contrastively adaptive type-categories in highly patterned (though completely atelic) ways, and tracking these pattens allows us to explain both the synchronic system and the diachronic change of languages simultaneously.
Title: Re: Extent of parallelism between evolution and language change
Post by: Daniel on December 24, 2013, 09:06:41 PM
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The argument there takes evolution as a lot more than a metaphor, though for her it's phonological systems rather than cognitive faculties that are evolving.
Right. And we might make similar claims about the lexicon or morphosyntactic structures. I'm not claiming the cognitive faculties are evolving (although an interesting hypothesis would be to imagine that as linguistic form gets more complex [eg, the introduction of subordination], our faculties follow-- perhaps 5 levels of center embedding will be perfectly normal in several thousand years-- I don't think there's any evidence to actually support this, so I'm not focusing on it now).


The idea of Evolutionary Phonology sounds very interesting, and this really shows that we can potentially look at the form as truly evolving. It also reminds me of a talk I heard by Ohala a year or so ago.
Title: Re: Extent of parallelism between evolution and language change
Post by: Guijarro on April 01, 2014, 05:06:53 AM
You may be interested in this approach on the evolutionary character of some cultural items:

http://rstb.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/369/1642/20130368.short

ABSTRACT:
Darwin-inspired population thinking suggests approaching culture as a population of items of different types, whose relative frequencies may change over time. Three nested subtypes of populational models can be distinguished: evolutionary, selectional and replicative. Substantial progress has been made in the study of cultural evolution by modelling it within the selectional frame. This progress has involved idealizing away from phenomena that may be critical to an adequate understanding of culture and cultural evolution, particularly the constructive aspect of the mechanisms of cultural transmission. Taking these aspects into account, we describe cultural evolution in terms of cultural attraction, which is populational and evolutionary, but only selectional under certain circumstances. As such, in order to model cultural evolution, we must not simply adjust existing replicative or selectional models but we should rather generalize them, so that, just as replicator-based selection is one form that Darwinian selection can take, selection itself is one of several different forms that attraction can take. We present an elementary formalization of the idea of cultural attraction.