Specializations > Historical Linguistics

Man vs. Beast

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Daniel:
It was once said that man was separated from the beasts by using tools... before Jane Goodall showed that was just wrong.

And now it is claimed that humans are superior to animals because of the complexity of our communication system: Language.


...I'm skeptical of that. And I've been wondering about a few things, like whether there really is a sharp distinction between human and animal communication. But I just thought of a more interesting question:

If human language is really superior to animal communication, then why can't we all easily learn to speak cat? Or dog? Or dolphin?

And I mean that as a serious question. If humans have animal communication plus added complexity (recursion or whatever you want to claim), then doesn't that mean we should be able to also still speak cat, dog and dolphin?


If instead it turns out that the communication systems of different species are just different, then the entire assumption that humans have some special Language Faculty or UG or whatever is an odd one-- every animal would then. Sure, for us it might add to the "complexity" in the way we observe daily, but if we can't learn to speak cat, then isn't cat also a pretty complicated language?

I'm puzzled about this one.




Of course one lazy (and irrelevant?) answer is that we don't have the same physical speech organs to produce what animals produce. But I don't think that's an important consideration.

The only other way around this would be to suggest that "speak cat" is an inaccurate description of an action, given that cats don't speak-- but they do seem to make some sounds with certain associations, in a way that we don't/can't. Right?

jkpate:

--- Quote from: djr33 on May 23, 2014, 10:16:42 PM ---If human language is really superior to animal communication, then why can't we all easily learn to speak cat? Or dog? Or dolphin?

And I mean that as a serious question. If humans have animal communication plus added complexity (recursion or whatever you want to claim), then doesn't that mean we should be able to also still speak cat, dog and dolphin?

--- End quote ---

A system that learns one thing doesn't necessarily learn every simplification of that thing. This is because a more complex hypothesis space is going to be larger, and so learning a simple system with that complex hypothesis space requires two kinds of evidence: 1) evidence that the system is simple, and 2) evidence about the behavior of that system. A learner that does not consider the large hypothesis space needs only the second kind of evidence. Indeed, a complex learner might assume that the system is complex, in which case no amount of the first kind of evidence will be enough.

For a concrete example, we can view context free grammars as a generalization of linear structures by saying that a linear structure is a tree where every local subtree branches to the right:



A learner that assumes a linear structure on data that has only linear structure will discover the linear regularities very quickly. A learner that assumes that local subtrees may branch in either direction, however, will need both evidence for the linear regularities and evidence that there is nothing except rightward branching structure. Moreover, if the learner refuses to consider the possibility that all trees branch to the right, then the learner will never learn the correct linear structure.

freknu:
I'm always quite sceptical of things that say humans are "special" or somehow "superior" to other animals. Sure, our intellect seems to be quite astounding compared to most other animals, but that is one tiny aspect of the animal that we are — other animals do other things far better than we do.

I would say that out intellect (and our idea of "humanity") is simply an evolutionary trait equivalent to that of the Galapagos finches' beaks. From our point of view our intellect is the survival trait which has shaped us over the millennia.

To say that humans are superior because we ended up with one trait over another is, well, childish. Oh, and dare I say, circular.

Corybobory:
All species have special things that other species don't do - that is why they have their own niche and adaptive pressures resulted in them speciating in the first place. Humans, like other animals, have unique traits.  I believe one of these things is language, but there are a number of other cognitive skills humans have that are not found in other animals. Language isn't monolithic, and is made up of a huge amount of interacting skills - and these skills can be found in other species to varying degrees sometimes.

But humans are the only ones that intentionally communicate with a learned system of symbols that have been agreed upon by a community. And humans are the only animals that live in this niche, with this type of social structure and life strategies. It's not superior, because 'superior' is a subjective designation and is in this context meaningless, like discussing which communication system is more beautiful.

For my research I'm looking at the relationship between theory of mind and language.  Theory of mind is also a trait that is rare and possibly unique to the human species.  Both of these traits scaffold the development of each other and are required for the other to work properly. There are a number of developments that are required before the development of theory of mind or language - and it's the lack of these, as they haven't been evolutionarily adaptive and have not developed in other species, that other species can't be taught to speak, and we can't be taught their communication system. So it's a much more complicated story than that language is just 'communication plus complexity', or our system with a little less complexity and you get 'cat'.

I don't find the term 'language faculty' helpful at all - I suggest tossing it away and things might be a bit easier to talk about!

Daniel:
jkpate, that's an interesting point. However, wouldn't that mean that we'd at least be able to understand cat? Maybe we would inherently speak it in a way that is too complicated for other animals to understand, but a simpler system would be within what we would understand, as part of understanding the more complex system. I think.


--- Quote from: freknu ---To say that humans are superior because we ended up with one trait over another is, well, childish. Oh, and dare I say, circular.
--- End quote ---
I'd agree with you there. I've never understood the need to make and adjust such claims in light of how they're frequently falsified either :)


--- Quote from: Cory ---But humans are the only ones that intentionally communicate with a learned system of symbols that have been agreed upon by a community.
--- End quote ---
What's unique to humans is the arbitrariness of the sign? I don't think that's true. The details are not something I'm particularly familiar with, but I think some other species use arbitrary signs. For example, apes have been taught to use bits and pieces of (arbitrary) sign languages, and prairie dogs have different dialects in different locations.

To phrase the question another way, then, why can't humans speak cat?


--- Quote ---All species have special things that other species don't do - that is why they have their own niche and adaptive pressures resulted in them speciating in the first place. Humans, like other animals, have unique traits.
--- End quote ---
But then why do we assume that there is some special trait that is inherently better than the traits of all other species that allows us to use Language?

The impression I get from Chomskian approaches to language evolution is that there was a time when humans communicated like other animals then there was a genetic mutation (he says Merge) that allowed humans to have Language. And that missing linguistic link is all that separates us from animals and all that critically supports our ability to speak. Its presence and development is deduced from the "fact" that we clearly have a more evolved communication system, and so forth.
I'm question those assumptions.

If all species (or some?) just communicate "differently", then there's no reason to assume a basic logical/mathematical difference between the systems; rather, they may differ in complex ways, not just one better system replacing an inferior one.

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