Re: Evolution of Language

From: x99lynx@...
Message: 18314
Date: 2003-01-31

"John <jdcroft@...>" writes:
<<Language evolved in a leap
Conflicting needs may have driven rapid development of communication. 22
January 2003 PHILIP BALL>>

John - I'd like to forward this article to Funknet, the functional
linguistics list, to see what response it might get.

In the meantime, I'd point out that the difference between "rudimentary
language"/ "limited signaling of some animals" and human language has not
been qualitatively or functionally distinguished in any real scientific

The very fact that there is a large disparity between the physical speaking
ability of primates and humans (humans are capable of much more complex
sounds) suggests that there was a gradual biological process that accompanied
the "emergence of human speech." Like the evolution of the giraffe's neck,
it would have been a gradual, interactive process involving eons of time,
where full modern human vocal cord capability would have evolved in response
to a gradually increasing need for more complex sounds. Spontaneous emergence
of complex human vocal cords is not an acceptible idea in evolutionary

The article states:
"Language probably leapt, not crept, from squeaks to Shakespeare, two
physicists have calculated. Human communication, they propose, underwent a
'phase transition', like solid ice melting to liquid water.
So languages between those of present-day humans and the limited signalling
of some animals cannot really exist. There must, at some point, have been a
switch from rudimentary to sophisticated language....
This contrasts with some linguists' view that language evolution was a
gradual affair in which new words accumulated steadily."

AS for the following part of the report, it MUST be pointed out that "a
language that all information unambiguously" is completely inoperational
concept, for many reasons, not the least of which is that listeners may have
little interest in hearing about "all information" available -- the optimun
language may have been easily satisfied -- and that the original function of
language may well have been less ambitious for both listener and speaker.

The idea that language is a balance between speaker and listener is however a
good one. (One would get the impression sometimes that speakers determine
established sound changes. In fact, the function of communication would seem
to dictate that no sound change can occur unless listeners respond to it and
thereby accept it.)

The report further states:
"The richness of human languages is a fine-tuned compromise between the needs
of speakers and of listeners, explain Ramon Ferrer i Cancho and Ricard Solé
of the Universitat Pompeu Fabra in Barcelona. Just a slight imbalance of
these demands prevents the exchange of complex information, they argue....
A language that conveyed all information unambiguously, say Ferrer i Cancho
and Solé, would have a separate word for every thing, concept or action it
referred to. Such a language would be formidably complicated for the speaker:
the green of grass, for example, would be represented by a totally different
word to the green of sea, an emerald or an oak leaf. But it would be ideal
for the listener, who wouldn't have to work out any meanings from a word's
Ideal for the speaker is a language of few words, where simple, short
utterances serve many purposes. The extreme case is a language with a single
sound that conveys everything that needs saying..."

In fact this balance would suggest that the leap Ramon Ferrer i Cancho and
Ricard Solé postulate could not have happened, at least without a gradual
back and forth between speaker and listener that established the commonality
of particular meaning that is communication.

Their problem seems to be the same one visible in the analysis of PIE
semantics. By gathering a variety of meanings and coming up with an abstract
that covers them, PIE reconstructions are connected to an incredible list of
abstract ideas that supposedly gave rise to particulars. But our best
information is that it does not work that way. Instead, very particular,
concrete words are afterward analogized to similar features and thereby
generalized to eventually become abstractions. (The example of color is a
good one.)

Language probably started with very particular references in response to very
local and particular needs, so that the balance between speaker and listener
the authors described could been satisfied (temporarily) with a simple rather
than complex language. As with the rest of evolution, we would see
complexity increase in response to a long series of these very local and
limited adaptions.

Steve Long