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Language as a universal engineering solution
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Oct15-12, 07:26 AM
I was speaking with a professional linguist the other day (PhD Harvard, which apparently isn't big in the linguistics community), and asked if there are such things as 'grammatical universals'.
The Hard-Chomskian answer is, yes, our brains are fundamentally programmed to utilize a certain grammatical structure, for example conceiving things in object and action (or noun and verb) terms.
The Soft-Chomskian answer is, sort of, all languages just happened to develop this way as a means of responding to certain challenges in their environment.
My point of departure for this discussion is: Can languages be thought of as an engineering solution to a concrete physical problem of communicating information about the environment, in the same way one would consider the streamlined shape of aquatic animals, or the hierarchical network of pulmonary systems? Then, would grammar be a kind of 'contingent' outcome of the process of adaptation?
OR, is there a logical necessity to having the form of language we currently have? In that sense, would all communicating life in the universe have grammatical universals, like objects, actions, etc?
This isn't likely to be a question decidable in the general discussion section of a physics forum, but if others have had similar lines of thought on the structure of language (or interesting sources to look into) I'd be glad to hear them.
One thing obvious is this: all differences between human languages are historically contingent outcomes and, as such, not necessary or intrinsic to their functioning as language systems.
Oct30-12, 02:58 PM
I don't think there's a logical necessity for communicating the way we do, animals seem to be able to communicate their needs to each other very well without grammar, if their needs were more complex (creativity for example) I guess they'd communicate in a more complicated way, whether this would require grammar I don't know! How could you possibly test it?
Chimps can learn human grammar to a certain extent though, and can differentiate between subjects and objects (john kicked mary, mary kicked john) I don't know what conclusions you could try to draw from that.
Oct31-12, 02:40 AM
H2Bro, I’ve studied your Opening Post carefully in an effort to offer a few comments. I took the liberty to extract individual questions from your post and number them so as to form logical responses. I hope to have not missed any important point. As for my background, English is my first language. I’ve also learned these other languages (included is my ILR proficiency level with each one): Farsi-4, Portuguese-3, Turkish-2, Arabic-2, Mandarin Chinese-2, and Korean-1. This language-learning experience is what motivates my interest in your subject.
1. “if there are such things as 'grammatical universals'”.
Although you mention Hard- and Soft-Chomskian theories there seems to be no consensus as to the veracity of Chomsky’s theory. First, this author offers a concise description of Chomsky’s proposal with clear examples:
Karim Nazari Bagha
Islamic Azad University – Astara Branch, Iran.
Secondly, in this Wikipedia article there are strong criticisms of Chomsky’s idea:
“Since their inception, universal grammar theories have been subjected to vocal and sustained criticism. In recent years, with the advent of more sophisticated brands of computational modeling and more innovative approaches to the study of language acquisition, these criticisms have multiplied.”
Thirdly, in this paper the author claims there are indeed grammatical universals:
“Universality of grammar and grammatical universals”, by von August Dauses
Fourthly, this author considers it premature to construct such theories of Universal Grammar:
"I and many fellow linguists would estimate that we only have a detailed scientific description of something like 10% to 15% of the world's languages, and for 85% we have no real documentation at all. Thus it seems premature to begin constructing grand theories of universal grammar. If we want to understand universals, we must first know the particulars."
(K. David Harrison, linguist at Swarthmore College, in "Seven Questions for K. David Harrison." The Economist, Nov. 23, 2010)
2. “Can languages be thought of as an engineering solution to a concrete physical problem of communicating information about the environment, in the same way one would consider the streamlined shape of aquatic animals, or the hierarchical network of pulmonary systems?”
Yes. If we think about our primitive distant ancestors and how they interacted with their environment we may conjecture that universals are found in all human spoken languages. Beginning with the absolutely universal trio of human desires: “to eat, survive, and reproduce” we may imagine the process of language evolution. Nouns for objects and verbs for actions seem essential. When that primitive family was hungry the male needed to tell the female, “Stay here and gather fruits and vegetables while I go hunt meat for dinner.” When they needed protection from predators and shelter from the elements they entered caves or built dwelling structures. These activities required cooperation, and this necessitated the invention of verbal language. When a lion was seen stalking in the nearby brush, words to sound the alarm to others were imperative. As for reproducing, I cannot think of any example of verbal communication used in those primitive times to facilitate reproduction, but many nonverbal cues must have been developed. Some examples are gestures, touch, body language or posture, facial expressions, eye contact, and through the olfactory senses via pheromones. All of this evolution towards successful adaptation to the environment can be considered engineering solutions designed to promote eating, surviving, and reproducing. Disparate tribes invented grammar in isolation, accounting for structural differences in today’s world languages. But the ultimate goal, homeostasis through language, was universal.
3. “Then, would grammar be a kind of 'contingent' outcome of the process of adaptation?”
Yes, see answer #2 above.
4. “OR, is there a logical necessity to having the form of language we currently have?”
Maybe, but I’m not sure I understand this.
5. “In that sense, would all communicating life in the universe have grammatical universals, like objects, actions, etc?”
Please first consider other life forms right here on earth. Ants, for example, issue both chemical scents and sounds to communicate complex messages. Here are a few excerpts from an article describing the sophisticated communication among these very successful social insects without any “grammatical universals”:
“In contrast to the widely broadcast information of pheromone trails, the use of sounds, physical contacts and displays are primarily mechanisms whereby information can be communicated to near neighbours. Camponotus senex live in large arboreal nests built from larval silk. If a small area of the nest is disturbed physically, or by carbon dioxide, then the ants affected produce an alarm response by drumming their abdomens on the nest substrate. This stimulates other ants to follow suit, resulting in the communication of alarm throughout the entire nest, which can be up to 1 m in length. The volume of a medium-sized colony drumming is greater than human speech.
Multiple pheromones, displays, contacts and sounds are often used in combination. This is probably not to provide backup mechanisms (redundancy) but to communicate a wider repertoire of messages. For example, Aphaenogaster albisetosus (Figure 4) modulate the recruitment pheromone by rubbing their abdominal tergites together to make sound. When individual A. albisetosus workers locate large prey items, such as dead insects, they release a poison gland pheromone and audibly stridulate to attract workers in the locale. The stridulation encourages other workers to release further pheromone and this feedback leads to rapid trail recruitment to the prey site. A. albisetosus retrieves prey items significantly faster when stridulation is present.”
There are many other examples of life forms here on earth communicating without grammar. I will not speculate on any hypothetical life forms in our universe since there is no evidence they even exist.
Finally, there is this from your post: “One thing obvious is this: all differences between human languages are historically contingent outcomes and, as such, not necessary or intrinsic to their functioning as language systems.”
May I ask you to please explain in more simple or clear terms what this means?
Nov10-12, 07:31 PM
Language as a universal engineering solution
You put up some great sources and I'll have a read at them tomorrow. For now, I'll clarify my point a bit which you asked about.
1. Language has developed through natural means and selection as a tool for communicating information
2. Language constructs, such as grammatical rules, syntax, word order, subject-object distinctions, etc, that leave ambiguity as to potentially important or crucial meanings are less ecologically fit than languages which avoid such ambiguities.
2a. The ecological fitness of a language is the extent to which it improves or decreases fitness of users.
3. Languages in extant use today have undergone a sufficient historical period of selective processes to be considered "mature," meaning they lack substantial problems from premise 2 that result in ambiguity in meanings.
3a. Ambiguities in modern languages are not such that would significantly impeded the fitness of users.
4. Languages across the world today show a great variety of grammatical rules, word orders, syntax structures, and object-subject distinctions.
The differences in various linguistic constructions between modern languages are not necessary to their more intrinsic nature as an evolved engineering solution to communicating information in an unambiguous manner, in other words, the particularities of one language do not substantially impact the fitness of its users when compared to the particularities of another language.
Conclusion 2 (also in your post).
Universalities among human languages are owing to universal problems faced by all developing human societies.
Differences in various forms of linguistic constructions are resultant from either purely accidental origins, or at least as solutions to problems specific to a certain groups ecological history - in this sense, historically contingent on past groups environs.
Looking forward to your further thoughts on the topic or response to the above.
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