By Ronald Batchelor
A most dominant factor in the use of language is register, or variety or level of language determined by the communicative situation in which the speaker/writer finds herself/ himself. In other words, the level of language we resort to depends, to a very large extent, on whether we are speaking with friends, which would attract a colloquial style, writing a letter, delivering a lecture involving a standard style, or writing a book frequently entailing a formal, elevated style of expression. Levels of language may therefore differ over a range from informal to formal, and are determined by four factors: sex, age, professional or social status, and intimacy. All these features affect, in varying degrees, the way we use language in areas of vocabulary and grammar.
A simple formula for assigning register (henceforth called R) to vocabulary and grammar could be: R1* vulgar, possibly offensive; R1 colloquial, elliptical, casual; R2 standard, polite, educationally sound: R3 formal, literary, scholarly. Such subdivisions are arbitrary and there could be some movement between them, but they do seem to hold water for most linguists. What is clear, however, is that language-sensitive speakers would consider as “incorrect” many expressions in the R1 or R1* category. As they say in Spanish, “Está mal dicho” or “Es una palabra malsonante”.
Looking towards the future, it is possible that some of what are deemed incorrect usages assigned to R1 will end up in an R2 category. A simple illustration: the Mexican use of the x in México, once shunned in Iberian Spanish, is now accepted in Spain. In point of fact, it appears quite regularly in the Spanish press. It is manifestly obvious that the Spanish language, spoken over vast territories, from the Río Bravo (Río Grande) to Tierra del Fuego, will entail great diversity, and even uncertainty, in the light of which what is “correct” in one Spanish-speaking country may be considered “incorrect” in another.
The Real Academia Española (RAE) was once recognized as the guardian of the “correctness” and standard register of Spanish, but this can no longer be the case. There are as many Academias as there are Spanish-speaking countries. And they all enjoy linguistic parity. As a consequence, the judgment of correctness has become arbitrary in many cases. An Argentinian would find the juxtaposition of adverb and possessive pronoun (adelante mío=in front of me), (cerca tuyo=near you), perfectly admissible, and would classify these structures as R2, but these expressions would appear strange to a Colombian, a Mexican or a speaker from the Iberian Peninsula who would doubtless reject them. How many speakers of “standard” Spanish would admit delante mío as R2? Probably no one outside Argentinian. No disagreement, of course, on the acceptability of delante de mí/cerca de ti, everyone considering them as R2. All Spanish speakers would unanimously agree on the use of ante mí (before me) as an R3 expression. Yet, delante mío, delante de mí, ante mí all have validity in their own way, depending on circumstances, region, locality, and country.
Paradoxically, in the case of Mexico, and this point may be applied to Peru and Colombia, and even Argentina, Spanish, as imported from Peninsular Spain from the sixteenth century onwards, felt conservative constraints, doubtless on account of distance from the “mother” country, so that some vocabulary, as heard and seen in Mexico, has an archaic resonance, falling into an R3 category. It is the author’s experience that Mexican speakers prefer certain terms that are now high register, or of less or restricted use, in modern Spain: alberca instead of piscina, platicar instead of hablar, regresar instead of volver, caminar instead of andar, and even the apocopation of a before a feminine noun, once common in the Spain of the Middle Ages and Renaissance: la primer casa/página/vez, instead of la primera casa…
A compelling argument pleading for the rich diversity of register in the different Spanish-speaking countries lies in the more than well documented origin of Spanish itself, and of all Romance languages for that matter. They derive largely from Latin, which gradually and inevitably splintered into French, Italian, Romanian, Portuguese and Spanish, as Roman administrators followed Roman legions. With distance in time and place from Rome and Lazio, the surrounding area, Latin speakers of Roman origin began to speak a different, and therefore, for many, a bastardized form of Latin. Vergil, Cicero, Horace and Ovid would have turned over in their grave on hearing a degenerate form of Latin in the Roman Empire of the third, fourth and fifth centuries AD. The fall of the Roman Empire was accompanied by the fall of the Latin language. The lesson is clear, and “Heresy” I hear some say. Spanish, like all Romance languages, is a deteriorated, low-register form of Latin. But, a type of expression generally considered faulty or “incorrect” in Latin generated a new standard, culturally exciting and linguistically exalting, and this linguistic “deterioration” resolved itself into the marvel of the languages of Cervantes, Racine, Manzoni and Camōens. A case of R1 usage finding its way into R2 and R3 usages over the succeeding centuries.
(Adapted from the Cambridge A Reference Grammar of Spanish (600pp). See pp 3-10 for chapter on Register)
3 examples of range of register, taken from Spain, A(rgentina) and M(exico):
R3 disturbar; R2 fastidiar, incordiar, molestar; R1 enchinchar M, hinchar A, chinchar;
R1* chingar M, dar el coñazo/la puñeta (a) (+many more)
R3 seno; R2 pecho; R1 lola(s) A, delantera; R1* chichis M, tetorras (+many more)
R3 recrearse; R2 pasarla bien A/M, pasarlo bien, disfrutar, divertirse, gozar; R1 pasarla mil puntos A, pasarlo bomba/la mar de bien; R1* pasarla a toda madre M (+many more)
(Taken from my Cambridge Using Span. Synonyms)
Find out more about Dr. Batchelor here
by Ronald Batchelor
To the English-speaking beginner, the notion of masculine and feminine gender for French nouns comes as a surprise. Perhaps it should not be so. For in most European languages of Indo-European origin, and this includes Arabic, Pashto, Hindi, among many others, but excludes Basque, Finnish, Hungarian or Turkish, gender distinction forms an integral part of grammatical discourse. But let’s play the devil’s advocate. For such a beginner, the concept of gender assigned to inanimate objects appears extraordinary, lacking all logic and convincing definition. So much for the logic of “Ce qui n’est pas logique n’est pas français.” It seems to make more sense that gender should find no place when applied to inanimate objects, as in English. One may quote she for a ship, but this is the limit.
However, the idea of gender in French is a presence to be reckoned with. One of the neo-Latin languages, French inherits the concept of M. and F. gender, just like Spanish, Italian, Romanian and Portuguese. One may understand M. and F. nouns in the context of humans (male and female) and some animals (again male and female). But that a table in French should be F. (=la table), like the Italian tavola (la), (but M. tavolo (il) is also common in Italian!), and mesa (la) in Spanish, while couteau (le) in French, coltello (il) in Italian and cuchillo (el) in Spanish are M. defies rational explanation. Indeed, linguists agree that no rules may be established to justify this arbitrary application of gender to nouns, save for those pointing to persons and some animals. And even here, gender seems to go a bit transvestite. That a male should be F. as in French victime, Spanish víctima, or Italian vittima, or a female should be M. as in French membre, Spanish miembro or Italian membro merely dims our understanding even more.
Moreover, in many European languages, from Greek and Latin, through to Czech, German, Polish and Russian and the Scandinavian languages, for example, one has to confront a further gender applied to nouns: neuter. In Romance languages, fortunately this is not the case, although in Spanish, there exists the vigorous use of adjectives with a neuter value (=lo). The imagination is stretched beyond all reasonable bounds in Old Church Russian where a fourth gender occurs with a mixture of plural M. and F., the equivalent of they. However, for our purposes, we may safely concentrate on French M. and F. nouns which have repercussions throughout the French sentence since they require agreement of adjectives and past participles. Oddest of anomalies, here we come.
The gender of numerous French nouns has never been stable over the centuries, which explains serious hesitation felt, at one time or another, by practically all French speakers. The same comment applies to other Romance languages. This variability is partly due to the diverse origins of words, changes based on analogy with other words in the same language, and the constant requirements of adapting to new circumstances, as with the accession of females to what was once an exclusive male precinct. Three simple examples of the variability of genders over the centuries is the French M. noun le miel which is also M. in Italian (il miele) but F. in Spanish (la miel); fleur is F. in French and Spanish (la flor) but M. in Italian (il fiore); opéra is M. in French but ópera is F. in Spanish, and opera is also F. in Italian. Little wonder that perplexity reigns here since opus/operis is neuter in Latin. In short, the study of gender is a testing minefield, requiring meticulous attention. Indeed, our Cambridge Reference Grammar of French devotes thirty-six pages to the subject in the light of current French usage.
The common expression “discuter sur le sexe des anges” (“to indulge in Byzantine quibbling”) says it all. Such a discussion points to an interminable and seemingly fruitless wrangling over the sex, and therefore gender, of angels, although sex and gender are not the same thing. Whether angels can be exclusively male or female, and whether their gender in French is M. or F. are unresolved issues. Of course, only the gender of ange concerns us here. Consensus of opinion suggests that ange is only M, witness the entry in the admirable Canadian MULTI Dictionnaire of de Villers which states unequivocally that “ange est toujours masculin” (our underlining). This opinion finds support in the Belgians Hanse and Blampain’s excellent Nouveau dictionnaire des difficultés du français moderne. Yet, this trenchant assertion flies in the face of evidence adduced by Grevisse’s Le bon usage which quotes such prestigious authors as Vigny, Flaubert, Nerval, Zola and Saint-Exupéry, who also assign a F. gender to it. The simple fact is that French, as with other Romance languages, finds itself unavoidably caught up in gender issues that remain adamantly blurred by virtue of the relationship of the nature of gender and the constantly shifting sands of nouns. To conclude the matter of ange, nearly all contemporary French speakers view it as M. For further confusion on the sex of possible supernatural beings, démon/démone is merely another illustration of this labyrinth, although the F. form is little used these days. This said, Chateaubriand uses the F. form in his Mémoires d’outre-tombe (near the beginning of chapter 12, book 3).
(Adapted from the Cambridge A Reference Grammar of French)
Find out more about Dr. Ron Batchelor here
by Louise Cummings
Nottingham Trent University, UK
As academic researchers, linguists are increasingly being asked to demonstrate the impact of their work on the lives of individuals and on the growth of national economies. There is one field within linguistics where impact is more readily demonstrated than in any other. This is the study of the many ways in which language and communication can break down or fail to develop normally in children and adults with communication disorders. These disorders are the focus of a recently published handbook, the Cambridge Handbook of Communication Disorders, which brings together 30 chapters on all aspects of the classification, assessment and treatment of communication disorders. The chapters in this volume will speak for themselves. My purpose in this short extract is to demonstrate how, in an age of impact, the case for the academic study and clinical management of communication disorders could not be more persuasive.
I begin by revisiting a quotation which I included in the preface to the handbook. It is a comment which was made in 2006 by Lord Ramsbotham, the then Chief Inspector of Prisons in the UK. He remarked: ‘When I went to the young offender establishment at Polmont, I was walking with the governor, who told me that if, by some mischance, he had to get rid of all his staff, the last one out of the gate would be his speech and language therapist’. This statement focuses attention quite forcefully on an issue which clinicians and educationalists have known for years: the remediation of impoverished language and communication skills can have a significant, positive impact on one’s life chances and experiences in a range of areas. These areas include social integration, psychological well-being and occupational and educational success. Conversely, the neglect of language and communication impairments presents a significant barrier to academic achievement, vocational functioning and social participation. The area of professional practice which aims to mitigate these harmful consequences of communication disorders – speech and language therapy (UK) or speech-language pathology (US) – has played an increasingly important role in recent years in raising awareness of these disorders. That increased awareness has been felt not just among members of the public in the form of greater tolerance and understanding of communication disorders, but also in policy areas which have the power to transform the provision and delivery of speech and language therapy services.
“It is clear that a society which neglects communication disorders among its citizens can expect to sustain significant economic harm“.
If the human impact of communication disorders does not persuade the reader of the merits of this area of academic and clinical work, then perhaps the economic implications of these disorders will make the case even more convincingly. A report1 commissioned by the Royal College of Speech and Language Therapists in the UK and published in 2010 found that speech and language therapy across aphasia, specific language impairment and autism delivers an estimated net benefit of £765 million to the British economy each year. In 2000, the economic cost of communication disorders in the US was estimated to be between $154 billion and $186 billion per year, which is equal to 2.5% to 3% of the Gross National Product.2 It is clear that a society which neglects communication disorders among its citizens can expect to sustain significant economic harm. This is in addition to the abdication of any type of social responsibility to the welfare of its people.
1 Marsh, K., Bertranou, E., Suominen, H. and Venkatachalam, M. (2010) An Economic Evaluation of Speech and Language Therapy. Matrix Evidence.
2 Ruben, R.J. (2000) ‘Redefining the survival of the fittest: Communication disorders in the 21st century’, Laryngoscope, 110 (2 Pt 1): 241-245.
The Cambridge Handbook of Communication Disorders, is now available from Cambridge University Press.
Posted on behalf of Editors William Labov and Dennis Preston
Cambridge University Press is pleased to announce the launch of the new online-only Journal of Linguistic Geography (JLG). The journal’s goal is to open the flow of linguistic analysis using electronic formats (such as scalable maps and figures, searchable data sets, and embedded audio files) in a field that has long been blocked by technical factors. For all new subscribers, a comprehensive User Experience Guide provides an overview of the journal’s interactive capacities. Submissions to the journal are welcome and may be sent to email@example.com. Queries are welcome, too.
The journal is an official publication of the International Conference on Methods in Dialectology. Editors Bill Labov (University of Pennsylvania) and Dennis R. Preston (Oklahoma State University) are supported by Technical Editor Bartłomiej Plichta (University of Minnesota). The full editorial board can be viewed here.
The Journal of Linguistic Geography: From Concept to Creation
The stacks of our libraries are filled with magnificent atlases of linguistic geography. File cabinets throughout the world are filled with papers that have never appeared, faced with the problem of reducing maps to small black-and-white versions that convey only a small part of the information in the original.
There will be no limit on the size of maps submitted to the Journal of Linguistic Geography; they will be viewed in their entirety with the panning and zooming options that are second nature to users of the internet. Color is as fundamental as size in cartography, and in electronic publication, color is no more difficult or expensive than black-and-white.
Even more crucial to analytical reading is the relation between map and text, which in print may require a back-and-forth paging operation that challenges memory and even lead to accepting (or rejecting) the author’s statement without making a point-by-point inspection. In the Journal of Linguistic Geography, maps and figures open in a new window, allowing the reader to make a direct comparison between what is said and what is shown.
A further advantage of the journal’s format is that of sound samples in the electronic page. They will not replace IPA notation, but rather serve to refine and encourage the use of phonetic notation.
Reading the Journal of Linguistic Geography will also show that technical innovations are not confined to modes of display. New developments in mathematical analysis of spatial patterns are represented and may include substantial appendices, since the space limitations of print journals do not apply.
So much for form. But what about content?
To put it simply, linguistic geography is concerned with the spatial differentiation of linguistic forms. Teachers of introductory linguistics find that students are fascinated with the fact there are regions nearby where speakers use ‘X’ to refer to what is (“rightly”) called ‘Y.’ This fascination with the facts of the matter impedes rather than encourages the development of our field as a branch of linguistic science. JLG hopes to mobilize those facts in pursuit of a better understanding of the nature of language structure and language change. Our interest is focused on those connections within language that reflect the impact of a given change on other members of the system. A submission that traces distribution of isolated forms or sounds will receive our full attention when it is woven into the fabric of relations that turn words into language.
We do not disprefer studies of the lexicon, but we encourage authors to display the use of a form against the background of competing and complimentary forms, showing what meanings are found for a given form as well as what forms are found for a given meaning.
Fields of structural relationships are most clearly delineated in phonology, and we would be surprised not to receive submissions dealing with the geography of chain shifts, splits and mergers, but we hope to deal with the geography of the full range of linguistic structures.
We invite studies of the perception of speech as well as production. We are interested in both how linguistic varieties across and within regions are heard and processed and how non-linguists perceive the spatial distribution of varieties, particularly when such studies shed light on the characteristics of language variation and change.
The fact that we are named the Journal of Linguistic Geography is not without significance, but the linguistics we appeal to is not just that of the internal relations of linguistic forms. It is also outwardly defined to include the social, historical and economic contexts in which language is formed and used. Thus we expect to find maps reflecting population growth and movement, out- and in-migration, political trends and voting records as well as highway and railroad networks.
Our Editorial Board comprises a group of distinguished linguists from throughout the world. Learn more about these board members and how their own published work illustrates research of the scope and quality we hope to feature in the journal.
by Julie Tetel Andresen
Duke University, North Carolina
My favorite words in Romanian are those of Turkish origin. Because parts of present-day Romania were under Ottoman rule for a long time, it’s natural that Romanian would have lexical borrowings from Turkish. One is the word for tulip. Now, tulips are not native to Holland. They are native to Central Asia, and in the eighteenth century there was a craze for tulips at the Ottoman court, and images of tulips could be found on clothing and furniture, while real tulips flourished in gardens and parks. Still today the tulip is a symbol for Turkey. The English word ‘tulip’ comes from the Turkish word tulbend ‘turban’ because the flower resembles the shape of a turban. However, the Turkish word is lâle, and the Romanian word is lalea.
Why do I like this word? Because it’s fun to say, especially in the plural: ‘tulips’ is lalele and ‘the tulips’ is lalelele. There’s ‘coffee’ cafea, ‘coffees’ cafele, and ‘coffees’ cafelele. Same goes for ‘hinge’ balama, plural ‘hinges’ balamale and ‘the hinges’ balamalele and for ‘crane (piece of construction equipment)’ macara, ‘cranes’ macarale and ‘cranes’ macaralele. Not all Turkish borrowings have the phonetic form that generates these plurals, and not all words in Romanian with this plural type come from Turkish, but most of them do.
The other reason I like Turkish borrowings in Romanian is they often come with nice semantic twists. The word belea is usually used in the plural belele and means ‘troubles,’ which is tinged almost, but not quite, with a sense of the ridiculous. When I think of ‘my troubles’ as belelele mele, they don’t seem so bad. And what could be better than the word beizadea ‘son of a bei, a high ranking Turkish official’? It would never be used in Romanian as a compliment, and we need such a word in English, because entitled spoiled brat doesn’t quite cover it.
Finally, there’s the Romanian word for ‘neighborhood, suburb’ mahala, and it, too, is freighted with negative connotations. The politică de mahala, which includes personal attacks and reckless speech, would characterize much of what’s gone on in Washington DC is recent years. Those readers with knowledge of Arabic will recognize the root halla ‘to lodge’ with the place prefix ma-, making a word that means something like ‘building.’ So, the Turkish borrowing is itself a borrowing from Arabic. This word was also borrowed into Persian and is immortalized in the name Taj Mahal, which means in Persian ‘best of buildings.’ So, in the western extent of this etymon, we have a down-market usage, while in the eastern extent, we find something beautiful. Romania has its beauties, too. They’re found in the language.
Written by John Edwards
Based on an article in the July 2013 issue of Language Teaching.
In the popular mind, constructing a language has always been seen as an odd activity, one that seems to fly in the face of ‘natural’ language dynamics. After all, languages evolve; they do not emerge from some sacred forehead, much less from a mortal brain. And yet interest in a divine – and therefore immediately fully-formed – language was once important (and, even today, remains significant in some rather curious religious quarters). Attention to this, and to later and more mundane projects aimed at improving upon natural languages in some way, is a neglected but important aspect of linguistic history – and, indeed, of modern scientific development.
The first stage here involved attempts (highly speculative, of course) to recapture the original lingua humana, as spoken in the Garden of Eden. Adam, we are told, named all the birds and beasts of the earth in this original language, a variety that – unlike all languages since – encapsulated a perfect correspondence between spoken words and the things they represented. As Milton wrote in Paradise Lost, Adam named the animals ‘as they pass’d, and understood their nature.’ Could this first language have been Hebrew – or perhaps Aramaic, or Arabic? If so, then speakers of those languages (or even of their post-Adamic descendants) might surely claim some higher moral ground than others.
By the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, however, these early speculations were set aside as essentially pointless. But the notion of a language more perfect than existing natural varieties still appealed, and, in a second part of our story, we find scholars trying to create entire languages ab ovo, motivated by the desire for a more logical and regular variety that would better reflect and channel scientific classification. It eventually became clear, however, that attempts to make a language that owed nothing to existing varieties were as fruitless as efforts to discover the language of Eden. So, in a third and still-existing stage, ‘artificial’ languages have been assembled from pre-existing rules and components; the most well-known example is Esperanto. This work has been underpinned by hopes for a more practical medium, but there have also been expectations that a language that was both regular and widely shared would contribute to international harmony and understanding.
You can read the entire article here without charge until 30th September 2013.
Published on behalf of Aline Godfroid, Paula Winke and Susan Gass
Understanding how languages are learned involves investigating the cognitive processes that underlie acquisition. Many methodologies have been used over the years to comprehend these processes, but one of recent prominence is eye-movement recording, colloquially referred to as eye-tracking. Eye-tracking consists of the registration, in real time, of what an individual looks at and for how long. Thus, eye-trackers provide information about the duration and location of an individual’s eye movements on a computer screen as he or she reads text or listens to audio. Because eye-tracking is still a relatively novel technique in research on adult second language learning, we put together a thematic issue on this topic. The special issue brings together an international group of eye-tracking experts who use eye-movement data to study a variety of language-related questions. The issue also contains important methodological recommendations for colleagues who are interested in using eye-trackers for their own research.
Following an introductory chapter by Leah Roberts and Anna Siyanova-Chanturia, we have organized the empirical articles in this volume into two broad categories: (a) the processing of verbs and verb parts (morphology) and (b) the processing of grammatical gender. Eva Van Assche, Wouter Duyck, and Marc Brysbaert report findings from an empirical study about the organization of the bilingual lexicon. They investigated whether bilingual speakers process cognates (e.g., English win – Dutch winnen) faster, even if the cognate words are embedded in a unilingual sentence context, which presumably constrains which language is to be activated in the brain. Nuria Sagarra and Nick Ellis investigated the effect of participants’ native language and second language proficiency on their second language processing strategies. They compared what linguistic cue (an adverb or a verb ending) learners of Spanish preferred, depending on whether their native language was, like Spanish, a morphologically rich language (i.e., Romanian) or, unlike Spanish, a morphologically poor language (i.e., English). Aline Godfroid and Maren Uggen examined whether beginning learners of German notice irregular features in German verbs during sentence reading and, if they do, whether this helps them reproduce the verbs correctly afterwards. Paula Winke studied the effects of underlining and printing grammatical constructions in a text in red—a technique known as input enhancement—on second language learners’ attention to and learning of these grammar forms. Whereas all other research in this volume concerns written sentence processing, Paola Dussias, Jorge Valdés Kroff, Rosa Guzzardo Tamargo, and Chip Gerfen used eye-tracking to investigate language learners’ use of grammatical gender in auditory sentence processing. Finally, Patti Spinner, Susan Gass, and Jennifer Behney took a step back and considered the technical constraints that eye-tracking imposes on reading research and what this means for the relationship between eye-tracking studies and natural reading. They make the point that as more and more researchers turn to eye-tracking technology, there is a need for published guidelines about what font size and font type to use and how to define regions of interest on the screen.
All in all, this special issue affords an opportunity to pause and evaluate how some applied linguists are utilizing this novel data-collection method. We hope that this volume will be viewed as an invitation to continue and expand this exciting new line of research. (531 words)
By Iris Berent
Northeastern University, Boston
Humans weave phonological patterns instinctively. We contrast dogs and gods, favour blogs to lbogs; we begin forming patterns at birth; and like songbirds, we do so spontaneously, even in the absence of an adult model. In fact, we impose phonological design not only on our natural linguistic communication but also on invented cultural technologies—reading and writing. Why are humans compelled to generate phonological patterns? And why do different phonological systems—signed and spoken—share aspects of their design?
In The Phonological Mind, I outline a novel answer to these questions. The answer encompasses two claims. The first is that phonology is an algebraic system—it comprises powerful rules, akin to syntactic generalizations. For example, speakers whose language bans identical consonants (e.g., the identical b in bibeg) will freely extend this restriction across the board, even to consonants that do not occur in their language (e.g., thitheg). Algebraic rules are important because they support the productivity of the phonological system.
But algebraic rules are not sufficient to explain the intricate design of phonological patterns. Indeed, distinct phonological systems share not only the capacity to encode rules but potentially also the type of rules that are attested. To explain this possibly, I further suggest that phonology is a specialized system of core knowledge.
Core knowledge systems are shaped by innate universal principles that are evident already in early infancy. Whether phonological principles are in fact fully universal and innate remains an open empirical question, but there is a wide range of linguistic and experimental evidence that is consistent with this possibility. The core phonology hypothesis also explains the early onset of phonological knowledge and its spontaneous regenesis in emerging signed phonological systems. Another feature of core knowledge is that it shapes both our early instinctive understanding of the world as well as mature cultural inventions. And indeed, just as our mature theories of mathematics are based on very early knowledge of number, found in infants and adults, so is the cultural invention of reading and writing typically based on phonological principles.
The design of the phonological grammar is not only specialized but also special in the animal kingdom. This is not because the capacity to learn rules is unique to humans—such rules have been repeatedly demonstrated in many species (albeit not in apes). Phonology is also not special in its tendency to generate rules that are adaptive—ones that fit the properties of their phonetic channel, either vocal or manual (for spoken and signed languages, respectively). Such adaptive capacities are clearly seen in the design of birdsong, for example. Rather, what might be special to phonology is the capacity to marry those two abilities—to use algebraic rules to optimize phonetic pressures. Remarkably, this combination (“algebraic optimization”) has not been shown even in species that possess its two ingredients. While this possibility requires further evaluation, it absence would suggest that this capacity might be a uniquely human adaptation.
The Phonological Mind, is now available from Cambridge University Press at £22.95
Michael Billig has been Professor of Social Sciences at Loughborough University for more than 25 years. In 2011 he received the Distinguished Contribution to Social Psychology Award from the Social Section of the British Psychological Society.
1. What were the greatest challenges you faced in writing Learn to Write Badly?
The most obvious and difficult challenge was to write clearly. Anyone, who criticises the way that other academics write, inevitably sets themselves up as a potential target. So, I had to try to avoid the faults that I was identifying in others. I am criticising a style of writing, which is currently ingrained within the social sciences and which young postgraduates are being taught to use routinely. Therefore, I am sure that readers will be able to find passages where my own writing falls into this style. But, at least I have tried to escape, drafting and re-drafting in order to say things as simply and clearly as I can.
The other big challenge was to avoid just making a rant. I wanted to analyse the language used by social scientists and to say why the current, economic conditions of university life, with the constant pressure to publish, are encouraging bad writing. At root, I am analysing the linguistic features of much social science writing: abstracted, unpopulated prose, with heavy use of big nouns and verbs in the passive voice. I argue that, when it comes to describing human actions, this way of writing is far more imprecise and contains far less information than simpler, ordinary language. Because I did not want to be accused of selecting extreme examples just to fit my case, I tried to take examples where I found them. In analysing academic writing, I needed to cite studies from linguistics, educational research, sociology etc. And then I would turn on these studies to show how their authors were using language, sometimes to inflate their own claims or to conceal ambiguities or just to sound impressively technical. Normally academics like it when someone else cites their work. Some of those, whom I cite in ‘Learn to Write Badly’, will not be so glad.
2. Where do you like to write?
At home, in a small room which I use as a study and where I keep my books. My wife complains that, when my writing is going well, I make insufficient use of the room’s window – and, consequently, I fail to notice matters of interest about the neighbours. It is not good for a social scientist to be more interested in bits of paper than people.
3. What one piece of advice would you give to social science scholars?
This is a more complicated, less innocent question than it might seem. If I was advising young scholars about how to have a successful career, I would advise them to join networks, to use the long words favoured by those networks and to promote their work within and beyond those networks. But if was to advise young scholars how to be genuinely scholarly, I would tell them the opposite: they should try to stand apart from established networks and to try to translate the currently favoured big words into as simple a language as possible. I would warn them that, in the current climate of instant publication and constant academic self-promotion, this scholarly way is not the way to conventional success.
4. What is your favourite example of the wording used by academics/students who ‘write badly’?
It would be invidious to give an example here – especially an example from the writings of a student. In ‘Learn to Write Badly’, I suggest that there are reasons why current academic writing can resemble the language used by administrators, managers and even advertising executives. My favourite example comes from my own university’s official title for the system that we teachers are told to use for recording information about our tutees. The system is grandly called: ‘Co-Tutor Student Relationship Management System’. The five nouns are strung together without the aid of pronouns, let alone verbs. It’s not a precise term: if you asked an outsider to say what sort of system it was and what it was supposedly managing, they would probably get it wrong. Unfortunately, the social sciences today are full of terms like this.
5. Have you got plans for more books in the future?
Only vague ideas, not definite plans. I am seldom in control of the directions which my interests take me. But at present, I’m looking out of the window more than I hope to be.
Part 6. Gumbo: The thought–language–hand link, social interactive growth points, the timeline of Mead’s Loop, and bionic language.
David McNeill, University of Chicago
To end this series, I address four questions regarding Mead’s Loop: 1) what evidence is there for the thought-language-hand link that in theory it established; 2) how did it change face-to-face social interaction; 3) when did it emerge; and 4) how far can it be duplicated artificially? The questions, disparate as they are, are connected through the concept of the growth point, which is the linchpin of each.
The “IW case” reveals the thought–language–hand link
Natural selection of a thought-language-hand link, chiefly in Broca’s Area but also with links to the other “language areas” indicated in Part 3[HYPERLINK TO 3], was part of Mead’s Loop’s evolution. This thought–language–hand link is usually submerged among other actions, but in certain forms of neuropathy, where sensory feedback is eliminated, it becomes visible. Then action is disrupted but gestures are unaffected. It is this dissociation that reveals a specific path from thought and language to gesture in the human brain.
Mr. Ian Waterman, sometimes referred to as “IW,” whose character and achievements are captured in the title of Jonathan Cole’s book about him, Pride and a Daily Marathon, at age 19, suffered a sudden, total deafferentation of his body from the neck down – the near total loss of all the touch, proprioception, and limb spatial position senses that tell you, without looking, where your body is and what it is doing. The loss followed a never-diagnosed fever that Jonathan Cole believes set off an auto-immune reaction. The immediate behavioral effect was immobility, even though IW’s motor system was unaffected and there was no paralysis. The problem was not lack of movement per se but lack of control. Upon awakening after three days, IW nightmarishly found that he had no control over what his body did – he was unable to sit up, walk, feed himself or manipulate objects; none of the ordinary actions of everyday life, let alone the precise actions required for his vocation.
To imagine what deafferentation is like, try this experiment suggested by Shaun Gallagher: sit down at a table (something IW could not have done at first) and place your hands below the surface; open and close one hand, close the other and extend a finger; open the first hand and put it over the closed hand, and so forth. You know at all times what your hands are doing and where they are but IW would not know any of this – he would know that he had willed his hands to move but, without vision, would have no idea of what they are doing or where they are located.
After years of constant self-drill, IW has mastered movement in an entirely new way – he plans movements in advance and visually monitors them as they occur. It is remarkable to watch him since these movements look so normal – accurate, at speed, and seemingly effortless (although actually the result of great concentration).
IW also performs gestures in the same planned, monitored way. He refers to them as “constructed,” and distinguishes them from others he terms “throw-aways,” which just happen without planning or monitoring. For us, of course, the focus is on precisely these “throw-aways.”
Thanks to the BBC, filming for a Horizon program about IW (“The Man Who Lost His Body,” 1998), IW, Jonathan Cole, Shaun Gallagher and the University of Chicago gesture researchers gathered at our Gesture and Speech Lab for several days of filming. We wanted to record IW under a variety of conditions, both with and without vision. IW cannot simply be blindfolded. He would be unable to orient himself and be at risk of falling over. Taking up an idea of Nobuhiro Furuyama, we devised a tray-like blind, that could be pulled down in front of IW, blocking vision of his hands, while allowing him space to move and preserving visual contact with his surroundings. IW was videotaped retelling our usual animated cartoon. He also was recorded under the blind in casual conversation with Jonathan Cole.
IW’s gestures without vision. The first pair of illustrations shows a coordinated two-handed tableau (a “throw-away”) in which the left hand is Sylvester and the right hand is a streetcar pursuing him. IW was saying, “[and the atram bcaught him up]” (a, b referring to the illustration’s first and second panels). His right hand moved to the left in exact synchrony with the co-expressive “caught” (boldface), although slightly out of alignment (reflecting a lack of topokinetic control, which requires feedback, versus morphokinetic control, which IW achieves). Moreover, a poststroke hold (underlining) extended the stroke image through “him” and “up,” capturing more of the co-expressive speech. It is important to recall that this synchrony and co-expressivity were achieved without proprioceptive or spatial feedback.
This kind of performance by IW – coordinated gestures without feedback (there are many other examples) – is part of the evidence we need of a thought–language–hand link.
The other part is that his gestures are separate from practical actions, which without vision are impossible for him. The second pair of illustrationss shows two steps in his attempt to remove the cap of a thermos bottle. The first is immediately after Jonathan Cole has placed the thermos into his right hand and placed his left hand on the cap (IW is strongly left handed); the second is a second later, when IW has begun to twist the cap off. As can be seen, his left hand has fallen off and is turning in midair. Similar disconnects occurred during other instrumental actions (threading a cloth through a ring, hitting a toy xylophone, etc. – this last of interest since IW could have made use of acoustic feedback or its absence to know when his hand had drifted off target, but still he could not perform the action).
In keeping with the thought–language–hand link, IW was able to “remove” the cap of an imaginary thermos in gesture (third illustration) and, although not asked to speak, spontaneously produced synchronous, co-expressive speech as he performed it.
IW, without vision, changes speech and gesture in tandem. Another manifestation of the thought–language–hand link is that, without vision, IW modulated the speed at which he presented meanings in both speech and gesture, and did this in tandem. As his speech slowed, his gesture slowed, and to the same extent, so that synchrony and speech–gesture unity were preserved (which the Warlpiri speaker, described in post 2, who was not producing impromptu gestures as with IW but a sign language, specifically could not do while also producing speech),
If IW is forming gesture–speech units, this joint modulation of speed is explicable. He does it based on a sense (available to him) of how long a given joint imagery-linguistic unit remains “alive,” and lacking peripheral sensory feedback needn’t play a part.
During a conversation with Jonathan Cole, while still under the blind, IW reduced his speech rate at one point by about one-half (paralinguistic emphasis). Speech and gesture remained in synchrony:
Normal Speed “and I’m startin’ t’use m’hands and that’s be-” (bold = hands rotating)
Slow Speed “-cause I’m startin’ t’get into” (bold = hands rotating)
The gestures are of a familiar metaphoric type in which a process is depicted as a rotation in space. IW executes the metaphor twice; first at normal speed, then at slow speed.
The crucial observation is that the hand rotations are locked to the same landmarks in speech at the two speeds (across nearly the same syllable counts). If we look at where his hands orbit inward and outward we see that the rotations at both speeds coincide with the same lexical words and the same stress peaks.
It is important to recall that this tandem slowing was produced without any proprioceptive and spatial feedback; IW could not tell what his hand were doing, yet they were in perfect synchrony with speech.
Whatever controlled the slowdown it was exactly the same for speech and gesture.
As the rotating hands were metaphors for the idea of a process, the pacesetter accordingly was activated by a thought–language–hand link and was co-opted by significances other than the action of rotation itself. This co-opting is shown in the timing, since the hands rotated only while IW was presenting the metaphor, “I’m starting to…,” and there was actually a cessation of the gesture between the first (normal speed) and second (reduced speed) rotations when he said, “and that’s because.”
That is, the rotation and any phonetic linkages it claimed were organized specifically around the idea of a process as rotation. This is gesture–speech unity over the thought–language–hand link.
Overall significance of the IW case for the origin of language. The IW case suggests that control of the hands and the relevant motorneurons is possible directly from the thought-linguistic system. It does not pass through any pantomime (so is yet another piece of evidence that pantomime is not connected to human speech). Without vision, IW’s dissociation of gesture, which remains intact, from instrumental action, which is impaired, implies that the “know-how” of gesture is not the same as the “know-how” of instrumental movement. In terms of brain function, it implies that at some point gesture enters a circuit of its own and hooks into speech. A likely locus of this thought–language–hand link, at least in part, is in areas 44 and 45 or Broca’s area.
Mimicry, interpersonal synchrony of growth points.
The Mead’s Loop “twist” sustains a host of social interactions including turn-exchanges in conversations and two-person mind-merging.
Irene Kimbara studied gestural mimicry as an interactive phenomenon. Mimicry she describes as a process of “interpersonal synchrony,” which creates a sense of solidarity and is prominent when the interlocutors are personally close.
Mimicry can merge GPs and contexts between speakers. If through mimicry people approximate similar growth points they come to some common ground. It works through embodiment. Recreating a gesture in mimicry is more than imitating a movement; it is the envelopment of the mimic in the other’s world of meanings. Imagine experiencing an interpersonal misconstrual. One can overcome it by mind-merging the other’s GP and, from this, finding its context, the only context in which this mimicked GP is a possible differentiation. By their nature, growth points are not independent of the context, which means that if a speaker is generating a GP contexts also tend to emerge.
The mimicry need not be overt. We focus on the mimicry of growth points. It is accomplished at a level of orchestration, with or without overt movement.
Two-body GPs are joint constructions, collaborative GPs wherein Mind 2 mimics the gesture and speech of Mind 1. A psychological predicate and field of equivalents seemingly belonging to Mind 1 arise as if by magic (but it is not magic – it is because the original gesture had absorbed this context and mimicking it recreates it at least in part).
Mimicry imports the GP of the other (or rather, recreates it over one’s own thought–language–hand link). It is a kind of borrowed embodiment. It recreates the other’s gesture–speech unit as if it were one’s own. The many experimental demonstrations of sympathetic responses to verbs that denote actions (“grab” accompanied by a listener’s incipient grabbing) are, in this version, mimicry of “new actions,” of GPs.
Two-body GPs appeared in experiments devised by Nobuhiro Furuyama. The setting was one person teaching a second person, a stranger, how to create an origami box but without actual paper in hand. In one version shared embodiment occurred when the learner mimicked the teacher’s gesture without the learner speaking. The gesture instead was synchronized with the teacher’s speech – “[pull down] the corner,” the learner performing a gesture during the bracketed portion. One person, that is, appropriated the other’s speech, combining it with her gesture, as if student and teacher were jointly creating a single GP.
The reverse also occurs. The learner appropriates the teacher’s gesture by combining it with her speech. In one such case the learner (female) said, “[you bend this down?]” and during the bracketed speech seized and moved the (male) teacher’s hand down. It is striking that the taboo normally prohibiting strangers, especially of opposite genders, from non-accidental physical contact was overridden, possibly because both the learner’s and tutor’s hands were no longer “hands,” actual body-parts subject to the taboo, but pure symbols.
Turn-taking at momentary overlaps of GPs depends on this process, and creates yet another interactive discourse unit. Turn-taking is typically analyzed as the coordinated activity of one speaker authorizing the next speaker to speak. But the process also involves joint GPs at the exchange point, with gestures playing a critical role. A GP starts with one speaker and passes over to the next speaker. Emanuel Schegloff, in an early gesture study, used gesture to forecast what would be “in play” in the next round of a conversation. We follow his lead, supplemented with the concept of a GP, and look for joint GPs and the contexts they differentiate. A new joint discourse unit is formed when the listener mimics the gesture of the speaker; or when two individuals participate in one GP, one providing the speech, the other the gesture.
Shared tip of the tongue. Mimicry also offers an explanation (found by Liesbet Quaeghebeur, not published) of the curious phenomenon of tip of the tongue contagion – one person cannot recall a common word whose meaning is clear to all, and you, the interlocutor, suddenly also cannot recall it. If conversation includes “mind merging,” it also could include “tip-of-the-tongue merging,” through spontaneous mimicry.
Gesture-coder mimicry. Coders frequently mimic gestures and speech as they work. Mimicry brings the speaker’s differentiation and context into the coder’s own momentary cognitive being; she inhabits the other’s gesture and speech. It is mimicry of a stranger visible in video (or, as here, in a screenshot). The following illustrations demonstrate the experience.
In Panel 2 the field of equivalents is something like EXPECTED TWEETY and the differentiated newsworthy point is GRANNY.
In Panel 3 it is something like HOW THIS ESCAPADE ENDS, with the point of differentiation NOT WHAT HE THOUGHT. Each speaker forms his own story, and with speech the gestures tell it.
Thanks ultimately to the social references built into Mead’s Loop, we find discourse units in conversations formed by two persons, their gestures and contexts realized in common, through mimicry. Mimicry can take place in conversations, in deception or during instruction, or in the virtual interaction of a gesture coder with video images of another person’s gestures.
Mead’s Loop timeline.
The phrase, “the dawn of language,” suggests that language burst forth at some definite point, say 150∼200 kya (thousand years ago), when the prefrontal expansion of the human brain was complete.
But the origin of language has elements that began long before – 5 mya (million years ago) for bipedalism, on which things gestural depend. I think 2 mya, based on humanlike family life dated to then, for starting the expansion of forebrain and the selection of self-responsiveness of mirror neurons and the resulting reconfiguration of Areas 44/45. I imagine this form of living was itself the product of changes in reproduction patterns, female fertility cycles, child rearing, neotony, all of which must have been emerging over long periods before.
So this says that language as we know it emerged over 1 to 2 million years and that not much has changed since the 150K∼200K landmark of reconfiguring Broca’s area with the mirror neurons/Mead’s Loop circuit (although this date could overlook continuing evolution: there are hints that the brain has changed since the dawn of agriculture and urban living).
The Mead’s Loop model doesn’t say what might have been a protolanguage before 2 mya – Lucy and all. It would have been something an apelike brain is capable of. There are many proposals about this – Kendon, for example, proposed that signs emerged out of ritualized incipient actions (or incomplete actions). Natural gesture signals in modern apes have an incipient quality as well, the characteristic of which is that an action is cut short and the resulting action-stub becomes a signifier. The figure in Part 2 shows a truncated shove by one bonobo signaling a demand for a second bonobo to move in a certain direction.
The slow-to-emerge precursor from 5 mya to 2 mya may have built up a gesture language from instrumental actions, a gesture-first type language. It would have been an evolution track leading to pantomime.
But the human brain evolved a new system in which gesture fused with vocalization.
Mead’s Loop also does not say where language evolved (an argument by Atkinson suggests the southwestern corner of Africa), but it does “predict” that wherever it was the languages there now would tend to be of the isolating type (and this appears to be the case in SW Africa; see Part 3 for the “isolating type”). In any case the origin point would have been an area where human family life also was emerging.
A proposed time line for the origin of Mead’s Loop is as follows:
- To pick a date, the evolution of a thought–language–hand link started 5 mya with the emergence of habitual bipedalism in Australopithicus. This freed the hands for manipulative work and gesture, but it would have been only the beginning. Even earlier there were preadaptations such as an ability to combine vocal and manual gestures, to perform rapid sequences of meaningful hand movements, and the sorts of iconic/pantomimic gestures we see in bonobos, but not yet an ability to orchestrate movements of the vocal tract by gestures.
- The period from 5 to 3∼2 mya – Lucy and the long reign of Australopithicus – would have seen the emergence of various precursors of language, such as the protolanguage Bickerton attributes to apes, very young children and aphasics; also, ritualized incipient actions becoming signs as described by Kendon.
- At some point after the 3∼2mya advent of H. habilis and later H. erectus, there commenced the crucial selection of self-responsive mirror neurons and the reconfiguring of areas 44 and 45, with a growing co-opting of actions by language to form speech-integrated gestures, this emergence being grounded in the appearance of a humanlike family life with a host of other factors shaping the change (including cultural innovations like the domestication of fire and cooking). The timing of this stage is not clear but recent archeological findings strongly suggest that hominids had control of fire, had hearths, and cooked 800 kya.
- Thus, the family as the scenario for evolving the thought–language–hand link we see in the IW case seems plausible, commencing no more recently than 800 kya.
Another crucial factor would have been the physical immaturity of human infants at birth and the resulting prolonged period of dependency giving time for cultural exposure and GPs to emerge, an essential delay pegged to the emergence of self-aware agency (Neanderthals, in contrast, may have had a short period of development).
Along with this sociocultural revolution was the expansion of the forebrain from 2 mya, and a complete reconfiguring of areas 44 and 45, including Mead’s loop, into what we now call Broca’s area. This development was an exclusively human phenomenon and was completed with H. sapiens about 200–100 kya. If a “dawn” occurred , it was here.
At least two other human species have existed, Neanderthals and the recently discovered Denisova hominin; each may have had a gesture-only form of communication but our species also developed Mead’s Loop and GPs. These other humans went extinct, one factor in which could have been a confinement to pantomime and consequent inability to reach a new form of language, inhabitance with thought and action, just as, in our case having evolved this ability, we were spared the same fate (but it is also possible that Mead’s Loop emerged earlier and Neanderthals also had speech–gesture units and extinguished for other reasons; see Part 3 for more).
Language with dual semiosis came into being over the last 1 or 2 million years. Considering protolanguage and then language itself the time-line seems to be over five million years (low hum more than big bang). Meaning-controlled manual and vocal gestures that combine under imagery, emerged over the last two million years. The entire process may have been completed not more than 100 kya, a mere 5,000 human generations, if it is not continuing.
A bionic version of human language is one possible continuation. Language in this vision of the future is extended with artificial enhancements. In a book published in 1968 Herbert A. Simon made the case for the sciences of what he called “the artificial.” He was careful not only to explain these sciences but also to distinguish the artificial from the natural. He seems to have believed that language was “man-made.” Over the years enthusiasm for the artificial has grown while a sense of its limits has shrunk. However, this enthusiasm underestimates the gulf between the artificial and the natural in the case of gesture–speech unity.
The artificial is not natural. To begin with, the origin of language was not artificial. It was “man-made” in one way – it was made in “man” (actually, probably in “woman”) as the product of natural selection but was not artificial in Simon’s sense, the outcome of human purpose and goal-directedness.
Simulations such as automatic speech “recognition,” while constantly improving, do not recreate, nor do they aim to recreate, the human inhabitance of language.
And for good reason. Purpose-designed artificial devices cannot model GPs and their evolved global-synthetic semiotics from Mead’s Loop. Even gestures, while inputting them might improve recognition, could not lead to an imagery–language dialectic. This is because systems that model gestures (as in conversational agents and physical robots) do it in a bottom-up, features-to-whole, static dimension language-like way that, even if synchronized with speech, is inherently incapable of forming a dialectic.
The problem is not just adjusting models to include imagery. Mead’s Loop is beyond their reach basically because action, which speech fundamentally is and which the linguistic system evolved in part to orchestrate, does not exist as a unit in these artificial systems. They instead construct actions using a feature-based mode wherein the features are the units and the actions the outcomes (in a GP, features are outcomes, actions are the units).
Foremost of these difficulties is the global-synthetic imagery of the GP, essential for the dynamic dimension as a whole. The problem is that the use of features in computational models forces the process of gesture creation to be combinatoric, to move from parts to whole rather than whole to parts; and this loses the semiotic opposition.
Once created we can usually identify form and meaning features, e.g., enclosure means interiority, and so forth. But we must not conclude that composition was the process of creation; it is the result of our analysis. Features are products. This is the paradox of natural gestures – they work in the opposite direction from modeling based on features.
Coordinative structures, drawn to ideas as attractors, may avoid the bottom-up problem but they create a new problem. (An anonymous Yale linguistics handout defines coordinative structures as “flexible patterns of cooperation among a set of articulators to accomplish some functional goal.”) The weakness is that they impose a distinction between “image” and “gesture” (the attractor is the image and coordinative structures fashion a gesture to embody it).
This creates a new contradiction with the concept of a gesture as a material carrier (see part 4). The gesture is the image – the image in its most material form; it is not a copy of it. Thus we have merely exchanged one contradiction for another, and are no closer to a model of the GP and imagery–language dialectic.
Analog machines. One may think that a hybrid analog–digital machine with self-defining, self-segregating imagery would do the trick. The most effective approach would be to build in a self-responding Mead’s Loop and then attempt to have the machine evolve a new language. Robots capable of limb and hand motion may be the nearest approximation to such a machine. To do this information needs to be (or simulated to be):
- 3D, that is, embody variation as in gesture space.
- With correct orientation, as in gesture space.
- In the correct direction, as in gesture space.
- With texture, as in gesture space.
- As a spatial array, as in gesture space
- With local identity (in all 3Ds), as set up in gesture space.
- With memory of past configurations, as in catchment space.
- And organized by action.
No doubt the list can be extended but it is already a substantial departure from what I understand to be modeling practice. Its feasibility is far from assured and a global analog device is at present more a deus ex machina than a realizable thing.
But there is a more profound difficulty. None of this is actually imagery, global-synthetic, and meaningful. Meaningful imagery is totally absent, so a hybrid machine is no closer to the imagery–language dialectic than the digital one.
Synchrony. My co-worker Susan Duncan once contrasted an autonomous agent, “Max,” to the GP in how it synchronizes gesture and speech. In a GP the synchrony is a condition of the dialectic, and achieving it is a matter of thought, not of external signals tying speech and gesture together. However, as Duncan writes: “Max works as follows – looks ahead, sees what the linguistic resource will be, calculates how far back the preparation will have to be in order for the stroke to coincide with this. Then speech and gesture are generated on their own tracks, and the two assembled into a multimodal utterance. In contrast, in the GP the gesture image and linguistic categorization constitute one idea unit, and timing is inherent part of how this thought is created. The start of preparation is the dawn of the idea unit, which is kept intact and is unpacked, as a unit, into a full utterance.”
The natural is not artificial. We learn from these thought experiments that artificial models do not match an evolved biological/psychological process, or head in the right direction to reach the GP – most crucially, that the semiosis must include a global component (to drive the dialectic), that there is a dialectic, and that finally the process is embodied in and tied to action, and requires accordingly a “body” that is the embodiment of meaning. Further, the gesture–speech unit differentiates a context and the context and its differentiation are one “thing.” Finally, all these models conflict with Quaeghebeur’s “all-at-onceness,” in that in their logic they are sequential. Conversational agents can simulate many of these properties, but the basic difference between an artificial system, designed by rational intelligence, and what has naturally evolved remains a root fact in the contrast of the GP with modeling schemes.
Why the fascination with the artificial? A machine that thinks (or seems to), speaks, or evolves a human language or something like one, strikes us as uncanny. It captures life in the making, a new existence or being; and for scientific interest, the elements and history of this being. Uncanniness is one reason for fascination. The fascination (similar to the fascination with chimps schooled in sign language) is actually with our own existence; the bionic has an existence close to but not quite ours, one that can be dismantled and regarded objectively.
And it is this fascination the jeremiad here must disappoint. Machines that attempt to “inhabit” language as Merleau-Ponty would have agreed seem blocked from the possible.
We learn (or recall) the uniqueness of human evolution. It was it that gave us language. Bionic man tries to make it artificial, and here lies hubris.
And here ends our series on how language began in gesture–speech unity. To all who have participated, I express my thanks and admiration. Comments are more than welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org. I thank R.B. McNeill, N.B. McNeill and E.T. Levy for very helpful comments.
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David McNeill is a professor in the Departments of Linguistics and Psychology at the University of Chicago.
His new title How Language Began: Gesture and Speech in Human Evolution is now available from Cambridge University Press at £19.99/$36.99