Saturday, 25 December 2010

NWLC update: Victoria here I come!

Merry Christmas, everyone!

Good news: my abstract to the NWLC conference at UVic has been accepted.  I wasn't chosed for an oral presentation (boo), but I was accepted for a poster presentation, and I still have a chance to submit my essay to the proceedings, which is good (although when I will find time to create this poster along with the essay while juggling a full time job still eludes me!).

Anyways I thought I'd share my abstract and welcome any feedback.  I'd also welcome any poster presentation tips, as this will be my first!

What came first, the noun or the verb?

          Language origins research supports a gradual evolution of human language in our species over a long period of time, rather than an abrupt acquisition in one step (see for instance Pinker and Bloom 1990, Jackendoff 2002, Stade 2009). An important line of enquiry, then, is to explore in what steps language likely developed, such as in the emergence of syntactic structure.
          In the literature, it has been suggested that certain syntactic categories were the first to emerge, mainly nouns ([Smith 1767] Land 1977, Li and Hombert 2002, Luuk 2009). However, theories positing a first grammatical category are problematic; in isolation, an utterance cannot be attributed a syntactic category such as noun or verb unless one uses a semantic definition of what a syntactic category is. A semantic definition of syntactic category is awkward because of language variation, and therefore in modern linguistics it is common practise to attribute a syntactic category based on morphological and distributional properties (Evans and Green 2006, Gil 2000). An isolated word without any morphology or distribution is category-less.
Luuk’s (2009) paper argues that nouns were the first category to emerge, and he offers eleven reasons why this must be so. While Luuk’s paper argues successfully why verbs are unlikely to have emerged before nouns, he has not considered that these categories could have emerged together.
          It is argued here that the first utterances would have been category-less, and it was only in relation to another utterance that syntactic categories could truly exist; hence, two or more categories must have emerged at the same time. This hypothesis is supported by grammaticalization theory, which describes nouns and verbs as being the most primitive categories as they are the least grammaticalized and cannot be derived historically from other syntactic categories (Heine and Kuteva 2007).

Keywords: language evolution, syntax, grammaticalization

Evans, V. and Green, M., 2006. Cognitive Linguistics: an introduction. Edinburgh: Edinburgh
University Press.

Gil, D., 2000. Syntactic categories, cross-linguistic variation, and universal grammar. In: Vogel,
P. M., and Comrie, B. Approaches to the Typology of Word Classes. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.

Heine, B. and Kuteva, T., 2007. The Genesis of Grammar: a reconstruction (Studies in the
Evolution of Language). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Jackendoff, R., 2002. Foundations of Language: brain, meaning, grammar, evolution. Oxford:
Oxford University Press.

Land, S. K., 1977. Adam Smith’s “Considerations considering the first formation of languages”.
Journal of the History of Ideas 38, 677-690.

Li, C. N. and Hombert, J. M., 2002. On the evolutionary origin of language. In: Stamenov, M.
and Gallese, V. (eds). Mirror Neurons and the Evolution of Brain and Language. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Luuk, E., 2009. The noun/verb and predicate/argument structures. Lingua 119, 1707-1727.

Pinker, S. and Bloom, P., 1990. Natural language and natural selection. Behavioral and Brain
Sciences 13, 707-784.

Stade, C. 2009. Abrupt versus Gradual Evolution of Language and the Case for Semilanguage.
Unpublished MSc thesis, University College London.

Thursday, 23 December 2010

Evolutionary Linguistics 101

Biologists are interested in the origins of life, geologists are interested in the formation of rocks, but few linguists are interested in the origins of langauge, as Friedrick Newmeyer once pointed out.  But this is a problem to be rectified... and if I have my way, every linguistics major program will have a required 'origins' component.  I'll write the texbook myself, I will!

But until that can happen (and someone will probably beat me to it), for the budding evolutionary linguist, here are the seminal works to lay a foundation for getting a grasp of the discipline.  This is the best I can do to spread the evo-lingo love:

Pinker, S., and Bloom, P., 1990. Natural language and natural selection. Behavioral and Brain Sciences 13, 707-784.

This paper is commonly cited as starting the snowballing of interest in language evolution.  It was very important for the discipline to be seen as a legitimate line of study as well as for language to be viewed as a complex biological adaptation that had to have evolved.

Hauser, M. D., Chomsky, N., and Fitch, W. T., 2002. The faculty of language: what is it, who has it, and how did it evolve? Science 298, 1569-1579.

Probably the most widely read paper on evolutionary linguistics because of both the prominence of the authors and the unlikeliness of their co-authoring together.  The paper rocks up with an authoritative air, but kicks off a lot of argument and discussion, namely the resulting papers published by Pinker and Jackendoff in Cognition in 1995.  It was answered by HCF, and another reply by Pinker and Jackendoff was also published, all in Cognition between 2005 and 2007.

Jackendoff, R., 2002. Foundations of Language.

Ray Jackendoff outlines most clearly and for perhaps the first time, a reasonable complete picture of the way in which language likely arose. 

Christiansen, M., and Kirby, S.,2003. The Evolution of Language.
This book is an edited collection of essays from the leading evolutionary linguists in the field, speaking about a wide range of topics in the discipline from mirror neurons to the archaeological record to computerised simulations.

Johansson, S., 2005. Origins of Language: constraints on hypotheses.

Constraints are so important for focussing a new and excitable dsicipline like language evolution, and Sverker Johansson's book is a wonderful introduction to the discipline.

Bickerton, D., 2007b. Language evolution: a brief guide for linguists. Lingua 117, 510-526.

Derek Bickerton has been a major name in evolutionary linguistics for ages.  This paper outlines the discipline and provides a real focus on the questions it should be addressing.

Kenneally, C., 2008.  The First Word: The search for the origins of language.

Because the actual discipline of evolutionary linguistics is just as fascinating as the subject it studies, this is possibly my faovurite book on evolutionary lingusitics.

Botha, R., and Knight, C., 2009 (eds.). The Prehistory of Language.
Botha, R., and Knight, C., 2009 (eds.). The Cradle of Language.

These two books are collections of essays that, like Christiansen and Kirby's 2003 book, show a wide range of topics from a wide range of experts in the field giving is a good look at the state of the discipline.

If you manage to read all of these, email me and I will create a badge for you that says 'expert language origins master' or something :)

And if you ever need more, the Langauge Evolution and Computation Bibliography is an excellent source:

Monday, 15 November 2010

The 27th Northwest Linguistics Conference, Victoria Canada

UVic Campus

For almost 30 years, 4 universities in the Pacific Northwest of Canada (University of Washington, University of British Columbia, Simon Fraser University and University of Victoria) have alternated hosting the Northwest Linguistics Conference, a student lead conference for students in all areas of linguistics.  This year it is UVic’s turn to host the conference at their beautiful Vancouver Island campus full of their renowned campus bunnies.

I’m not a student… formally… but I was thinking it was worth a shot to submit an abstract (they confirmed that it is fine as long as I am not faculty!).  If it is accepted, it just gives me a fun extra reason to go back and visit family on The Island.  I have also only been to Victoria a handful of times, and it really is a beautiful place.

UVic bunny

In an earlier post, I discussed my ideas about the emergence of grammatical categories in human language and how there could not be a ‘first’ category because it would need to exist in contrast to another.  I was thinking this would be a comfortable topic to share for a 20 minute presentation, instead of discussing my Masters thesis topic, which I really think needs more work.

One of the benefits of presenting at the student conference, other than the obvious fun and networking, is that presenters get to submit their full paper to a Proceedings.  It would be a nice add to a very bare academic CV, and I’m always looking for opportunities to build.  Looking for, but not always fulfilling…

Thursday, 11 November 2010

Mary Stiner Lecture: Cave Bears and Neanderthals

Mary Stiner and Steven Kuhn, both from the University of Arizona, are visiting professors at the UCL Institute of Archaeology through UCL's Leverhulme visiting professor scheme, and they are conducting a series of lectures about their research on Palaeolithic Archaeology over the next few months. 

On a Monday evening, Mary gave her second talk on Cave Bears and Neanderthals.  Her first, on cooperative hunting and meat sharing in the late lower palaeolithic, I had to miss due to work- but I was luckily able to make the second one (I also missed Steven Kuhn's first lecture, on ornamentation as information technology, but I try not to think about it as I really wanted to see that one!).  I will try my best to attend more of the public lectures Mary Stiner and Steven Kuhn and report on them here, when I can get away from my desk.

Mary introduced her topic with how cave bears are often depicted in conflict with prehistoric humans, as they were both users of caves.  She said there was a grain of truth in this, as they overlap both in time and space in Europe.

The cave bear was the largest bear of all time- even slightly bigger than the Kodiak bear, although even more robust.  The Kodiak bear, however, has a different morphology and habits.  It can climb trees when young, and is built for strength not speed.  The cave bear, which was probably much more slow and lumbering, with an absolutely massive cranium, lived on a seasonal veggie diet, and therefore hibernated in the winter.

Mary discussed the proposed cave bear cult briefly.  The type site for this is at Drachenlock, in the Swiss Alps.  There a cave bear skull was found with a femur (?) stuck through the zygomatic arch.  It looks at first glance very indicative of some sort of symbolic placement.  This and other sites, Mary said, have been increasingly embellished over time.

It makes sense to consider the odd placement of cave bear bones as being related to human ritual- bears are revered ethnographically by pretty much every human group that lives near them (I immediately thought of Native groups of the Pacific Northwest where I am from, as well as the Ainu of Japan who have a really interesting bear festival called Iomante- and for anyone who has read or seen the movie Clan of the Cave Bear, it will seem quite familiar!).  Associations between humans and bears in the archaeological record have been located in three circumstances in the archaeological record:
  • Cave art (ex. Chauvet cave- note, these paintings are made after Neanderthal occupation of Europe)
  • Bear remains in human middens (someitmes cutmarked or burned)
  • Bone accumulations (of mostly bear bones) with stone tools also present
Mary then went on to discuss in more detail a site in Yaraimburgaz Cave, Turkey.  It is a large cave abundant with cave bear bones in stratigraphic association with stone artefacts.  One part of the cave had actually been used as a Byzantine church.

The layers were dated by ESR (Electronic Spin Resonance) to 211-226 ka BP, which was during a cold interval within MIS 7.

The bones were scattered, some broken and some whole.  Most of the bones were not articulated other than the odd paw.  93% of the bones belonged to one type of cave bear.  There was also a very diverse range of other species present, and there was no burning and few (possibly 2) cut marks, if any, on the bones (not cave bear bones).

The lithics associated with it were not Mousterian, and were primative looking.  There were 1674 in all, of which 602 had been retouched.

Mary's question was, then, "why do the bear bones and the artefacts co-occur"?  She considered that:
  • Bears are sensitive about their locations when they hibernate, and keep food debris away rom the cave as it betrays their location to predators (also, interestingly, when a bear is hibernating it becomes odourless because its metabolism drops so low and it manages to reuse its own waste)
  • The mortality rate is high near the end of hibernation because of starvation
  • Skeletons are often moved around by other bears, and they can acumulate along with the slow sedimentation of the cave.
Mary looked at the mortality pattern in the cave.  Many bears were juveniles and old age adults, while prime age skeletons were comparatively rare.  There was also a relatively complete body part representation (although it was scattered). 

There was extensive gnawing on the bones, especially toe bones, which alludes to low traffic in the cave over a very long period of time.  There was a lot of gnawing from wolves, and wolf scat.

Mary also  looked at the % of bones gnawed with the % where marrow was accessed in a Pearson correlation matrix which I will not be able to comment on!  But there were some lovely charts and the interpretation that the lithics showed little relationship to the other remains.

Her final interpretation was that the cave represents a "palimsest of disparate events".  Bears used the cave for hibernation, and there was heavy use over generations with long quiet intervals in between.  Hominids and other carnivores only visited the cave briefly.

Because of the high proportion of retouched tools (which implies high mobility), few tool marks on the bones, no evidence of fire, no carcass processing, she interpreted that people were stopping at the cave, but not staying.

Next week (15 November) Mary will be speaking on the division of labour and diet diversification in the Mediterranean Palaeolithic.  I'll try my best to catch it!

Tuesday, 9 November 2010

Neanderthals in the News

Something that really irks me is the way that Neanderthals are potrayed in the popular media, even in science based outlets. Sensational titles like,
  • "Neanderthal Males had Popeye-like Arms" (Discovery News)
  • "Neanderthals Were More Promiscuous Than Modern Humans, Fossil Finger Bones Suggest" (ScienceDaily)
  • "Neanderthal man 'sang and danced'" (BBC)
  • Or, even, "Was Neanderthal man the original metrosexual? New study suggests he wore make-up" (to be fair, that last one was from the online version of the Daily Mail, Mail Online so we can't expect much!)
These titles suggest a whole lot more than the content the article actually discusses, much less findings of the research the article is written about.

It's true titles like these serve their purpose and grab the readers attention, and of course misleading titles altered to be more suprising or shocking pervades media on other topics too. But the result is that the message the reader takes away can be a very mislead one.

Yesterday an article on Neanderthals was published in ScienceNOW called "Neandertal Brains Developed More Like Chimps'". To the reader, this would have a very suggestive implication that Neanderthals brains are somehow chimp-like, and attrubute them with chimp-like behaviour. But really, what the article is about (, is how human brains are different from other primates, with a unique brain growth pattern early on in child brain development. Science Daily covered the same story with the title, "Brains of Neanderthals and Modern Humans Developed Differently", and Discovery News with, "Human, Neanderthal Brains the Same Until Birth".

It is facinating to look to our past in amusement when the first Neanderthal bones were uncovered in Germany in the 1850s, and how the image of the arthritic lumbering cave man emerged in popular culture. With todays media, however, that image looks no nearer to a true picture of our late sister species.

Friday, 22 October 2010

Uncharted Territory: where do we learn these things?

How does one become an academic?  How does one learn how to become one?

I don't imagine I am that alone, but I feel a bit like I'm bumbling along blindly in incipient academia- trying to write, network, and research my way into my choice career (albeit with a break to make money along the way).  I work in higher education, read the Times Higher religiously, and have a good grip on how universities function in some respects, so I feel like I should know more about the steps I need to take to succeed in one myself as a researcher and lecturer.  But I have no idea even how to apply for PhD funding, where to look, when or how to fill out university applications, and what order to do it all in.  And all as an overseas student, which throws the problems of Visas and funding eligibility into the mix.  Then there is the great beyond- do I apply for postdoctorates after I finish my course?  How long should I expect before I can get a post lecturing at a university?  Am I likely to have lecturing opportunities while I do my PhD?

It all resembles the mysticism surrounding the process when I started my MSc- it seemed I didn't know what I was doing until I was doing it.  Somehow it all fell together- finding the right course, personal statements, Visas, letters of recommendation, renting a flat, navigating London, attending/auditing courses and tackling the reading, and figuring out what a dissertation actually was while writing it at the same time.  It was as daunting as it was rewarding, and I expected it to be like that, but all the while I remember wishing I knew more about the next step, so I could be more prepared and set my ambitions high, but realistic.

The questions I have are, for instance: what steps are involved in a paper being published?  I've read around on a few journal sites, but still feel confused.  How much original research is needed for it to be a useful contribution to the discipline?

Should I publish my thesis?  If so, what do I need to do to modify it so it is ready for publishing?  I have this answer partly answered, and was making the appropriate changes, but with a full time job I am finding it hard to make time...

What else is there that I can do to strengthen my academic CV at this stage of my (not yet born) career?

What is my affiliation now to my university?  I work there administratively but I don't research there.  If I submit a paper, do I say I am from UCL?

These are the questions I have that I want to ask- but there are so many more I would want to ask, if I knew more about what it is I want to know!  The biggest problem I see is that it is all just unknown, and therefore, I don't even know what it is I don't know.

Sunday, 17 October 2010

Are we being a bit unfair to Neanderthals?

This is another post dedicated to my ongoing efforts to battle Neanderthal racism... I believe Neanderthal technology and its reputation for its uninovativeness is partially due to being compared to a benchmark of quite recent human cultural complexity.

At a recent conference, I was lucky to hear a talk from Wil Roebrooks (Professor of Archaeology, Leiden University).  The conference was on the evolution of language, and researchers with an in depth knowledge of the Palaeolithic did not number many in the crowd, so it was a bit lighter in content than his talk at the Ancient Human Occupation of Britain conference a week earlier (which I was also lucky to have seen!).

During this talk though, Roebrooks did something that has been done many times before: Neanderthal and ancient human culture were compared side by side, tallying up cultural achievements.

This talk made me think about how we as researchers can be quite unfair to Neanderthals, who died out in Europe around 30,000 years ago.  We have a common ancestor, and had a very similar contemporary cultural repertoire throughout most of that time.  The complex cultural achievements people often associate with modern humans have mostly happened since the Neanderthals have disappeared.

Pockets of innovation in Middle Stone Age Africa showed that some human cultures developed new innovative tool technologies well before the upper Palaeolithic; harpoons (such as those at Katanda), blades (such as those at Kapthurian formation 500,000 years ago), and decorative items like shell and ostrich beads (Qafzeh and Blombos Cave) appear before modern humans entered Europe.   Things such as cave paintings, clear forms of social hierarchy, specialisation and wealth appeared much later.

We also see Neanderthals with their own shell ornaments, covered in red ochre at 50,000 years ago in Spain, evidence of exploiting marine resources, and the use of deep caves such as at Bruniquel (Hayden 2003).  These examples suggest a cognitive ability not unlike that of their closest living relatives of the time.  Though the Middle Stone Age of Africa no doubt shows humans at this time to have a higher number of sites that show pockets of innovation, these sites are not typical of humans cross culturally during the MSA.
It makes sense to compare Neanderthals and humans, how they were utilising and experiencing their environment, and exploring their differences and commonalities, being two similar species evolving on separate continents.  But I want to point out what I believe is a strong bias that makes the material cultural differences between the two seem much larger than might be the case, leading to the conclusion by many that they were much different as a species, cognitively and culturally.
Roebrooks’ talk looked at Neanderthal material culture, but when it came time to compare this with what humans achieve culturally, time fast forwarded to Gravettian Europe for modern human examples.  Was this a fair comparison?  If culture has sort of a feedback loop, if it first needs to build on itself in order to achieve a more complex stage, then what needs to happen for that complexity, other than a pressure for that complexity to come about, is the passage of time.

To compare Neanderthal complexity at 70,000 years ago with modern humans at 20,000 years ago, where Neanderthals' cultural development was cut off due to their extinction, is a bit unfair to what they could have develloped if given a few more millenia for cultural complexity to intensify.  After all, modern humans at 70,000 years ago really had not accumulated much of their extreme material culture differences that we see showing up later on.  Again, culturally, their material culture was very similar to their European cousins.

Right before Neanderthals disappeared, they developed a culture called the Chatelperronean.  There exists much debate about whether or not this culture is due to contact with humans (for, how could they develop cultural complexity on their own?)

Often humans are cited as the reason for Neanderthal extinction.  While not saying this is not the case, I do have a problem with this is explained as being because modern humans were somehow ‘doing a better job at soemthing’ than Neanderthals (making tools, hunting, speaking, thinking).  Even if modern humans showed up on the scene with higher cognitive capacities and a complex language that they lacked, what in this would force Neanderthals to die out?   If this were the case, surely there would be a massive Europe wide extinction as each species with lower cognitive capabilities to humans started to die out in response to a ‘smarter’ species on the scene?

My main point is that to compare what Neanderthals did on average throughout their 400,000 year stint in Europe, with modern human Gravettian culture at 20,000 years ago, which even in human terms is pretty impressive, is no less than an unfair comparison and puts Neanderthals in a very uninovative light.  It would hardly be fair to compare 21st century art, technology and cultural achievements of Japan, to say, the gravettian cultures of France at 20,000 years ago.

Perhaps if Neanderthals did not die out roughly 30,000 years ago, if left to their own devices they may have fallen into a cultural feedback loop of increasing complexity that could rival that of our own ever increasing speed of invention.

Sunday, 10 October 2010

What was the first syntactic category?

I've been thinking lately about the origin of syntactic categories in language, and when things such as nouns and verbs could be said to exist.  In the literature, I've seen it implied more than a few times that nouns are the most fundamental syntactic category and likely arose first (see Luuk 2009 for a recent example).

Upon pondering what exactly a 'syntactic category' means, and what makes a noun a noun and a verb a verb etc, I came to the conclusion that it is only in relation to another word that you can say what syntactic category a word has.  We remember in school learning how a noun is a 'person, place or thing', while a verb is 'an action', but this is a simplification- relying on the semantics of a word is very unreliable in determining the category of a word in a sentence.

For example, the word 'hammer' is only a noun if it is used as a noun in a sentence: ex. "I have a hammer."  In isolation, it does not have a syntactic category- in English, it could quite possibly be a verb as well: ex. "Hammer the nail into the wall."  There are other languages, such as those in the Wakashan family, where most word roots can act as a noun, verb, or adjective in a sentence- fore example, 'wolf' can be a noun just as easily as a verb or ajective (I heard this discussed by Maggie Tallerman at the last Evolang conference in Utrecht, but I haven't seen it published).

My conclusion from this is that the first syntactic category must have arisen in contrast to another; and therefore, a minimum of two would have had to arise at the same time in order for there to have been any distinction between words and their roles in an utterance.

The only discussion of this idea I've seen occurs in Heine and Kuteva, A Genesis of Grammar (2007), where they cite Tallerman as well as Jim Hurford (as personal communication).

I've been trying to put my thoughts down about this into a coherent sort of paper, but it lies untouched in my folder not getting much attention.  I need a nudge!

Saturday, 2 October 2010

Neanderthal innovation or acculturation: did aliens build the pyramids?

I have a (bad?) habit of making flaky analogies, and they occasionally crop up in my writing as well- generally near the end, and they generally read like a poor attempt at introducing stylistic flair in order to bring an essay to conclusion and leave my reader stroking their chin!

One analogy I used that I'm particularly fond of compared speciation and rainbows.  In another, I compared attitudes towards the debate over the origin of late Neanderthal tool industries to19th century anthropologists' incredulity to New World earthworks and Central and South American pyramids- the Hopewell and Mississippian mounds, for example, were attributed by some anthropologists as having built by an advanced race that was destroyed by the Native American tribes.

This incredulity at the cognitive capacities of the indigenous population associated with the complex material culture is echoed in both instances.  Neanderthals are found essentially with a Chatelperronean backed blade in one hand, and a perforated wolf's tooth in another, and the suggestion immediately arises that Neanderthals attained these skills by acculturating themselves with modern humans, generally because Neanderthals are viewed as having inferior cognitive capabilities.  Why IS that (other than humans are egotistical beings!)? 

It's true this is a possibility, that Neanderthals gained Chatelperronean tool technology from contact with modern humans.  But there is also the possibility that Neanderthals simply developed these tools themselves.  After all, we see examples of Neanderthal symbolism before evidence of modern human arrival such as with the ochre covered shells in Spain 50,000 years ago, uses of black manganese, burial, deep cave use, and complex tools like throwing spears and hafted points, well before Neanderthal use of a 'typically Upper Palaeolithic' toolkit.

As a sister species that branched apart only 4-500,000 years ago, we can expect there to be some cognitive differences between modern humans and neanderthals, but I expect there were also large similarities.  Both species seemed to use technology to adapt to their environments to a large degree, and I do not believe things such as symbolic thought, language, and complex tool manufacture to be out of the realm of the Neanderthal mind.

To me, jumping to a conclusion that if Neanderthals did have complex tool sets resembling what was once thought unique to modern humans then it must have been a borrowed or copied technology, is reminiscent of 19th century anthropologists incredulity that indigenous populations built great momuments and fine architecture.

Monday, 27 September 2010

Evolution of Language and the Evolution of Syntax: Same Debate, Same Solution?

I have recently realised that only after submitting my Masters thesis have I really started to understand my main arguement (a bit late perhaps?).  The arguement was located in the paper, but perhaps not clearly enough, probably because I wasn't thinking about it enough myself at the time.  I'll try to explain:

One of the debates that exist in language evolution research is whether language evolved abruptly, or gradually in many steps.  It is one of the topics of research I am most fascinated with, and was the subject of study for my MSc dissertation (you can read it here).

Abruptist arguments follow that language evolved in a mutation (suggested in writings by Gould and Lewontin, Piatelli-Palmerini, Crow, Klein, Hornstein, Lanyon, and even Chomsky), and possibly argue language could not have evolved gradually as an intermediate stage between language and non-language could not have existed (such as in Berwick's writings).  Gradualist arguments, which most contemporary evolutionary linguists side with and I too find much more biologically likely, approach language as not a monolithic thing, but made up of many different components that evolved in several stages over time (such as in the writings of Pinker, Jackendoff, Burling, Hurford, Kirby, Aitcheson, Kinsella, Heine and Kuteva, Fitch, and Johansson to name a few).

In the gradualist explanations of language evolution however, you often see reconstructions where there is a single step from a protolanguage (essentially a syntax-less language) and complex grammar.  I view this step as containing the same problems the idea that language evolved abruptly.  Syntax too is not a monolithic thing, and takes more than one cognitive step.  Modern languages contain complex syntax that requires certain memory capacities, and I think certain types of grammatical relationships would take more than just the learning of one rule, such as "merge".

In my thesis, I went through a literature review of gradual and abruptist arguments for language evolution, and posited an intermediate stage of syntactic complexity where a language might have only one level of embedding in its grammar.  It's a shaky and underdeveloped example of an intermediate stage of language, and requires a lot of exploration; but my reason for positing it in the first place is that I think we need to think of the evolution of syntax the way many researchers are seeing the evolution of language as a whole, not as a monolithic thing that evolved in one fell swoop as a consequence of a genetic mutation, but as a series of steps in increasing complexity.

Derek Bickerton, one of my favourite authors of evolutionary linguistics material, has written a number of excellent books and papers on the subject.  But he also argues that language likely experienced a jump from a syntax-less protolanguage to a fully modern version of complex syntax seen in languages today.  To me that seems unintuitive.  Children learn syntax in steps, and non-human species seem to only be able to grasp simple syntax.  Does this not suggest that it's possible to have a stable stage of intermediate syntax?

So my arguement is not very well developed, and I have a terrible example of what an intermediate stage of syntax might look like in my thesis.  But the errors you will likely find in my suppositions is beside the point; I've come to realise now that what I'm really trying to say is that we are treating the gap between non-syntax and syntax the way we have historically treated non-language and language- as a great leap.  And I would really like to explore the idea that relationships between words could first have been simple, and then relationships grew in complexity over time.


Sunday, 26 September 2010

Musings... ramblings... blogging? Discuss.

It has been a year since I finished my MSc.  In my perfect world, I would now be a brazen young academic, publishing, presenting, contributing and networking through a fully funded PhD.  But instead, my academic dreams have become stagnant, on hold while I direct my attentions to the bottom line, and work like a real person in a 9-5 to pay off my enormous student loan debts.

I like my job, in fact I love it, and it IS in higher education (an assistant in a university development office).  But in some sense I feel I'm letting my real goals sit on the back burner, while I watch and don't participate in the academic field I long to play a part in.

Hence this blog.  In an effort to create SOME platform for my thoughts on palaeoanthropology and evolutionary linguistics, I will use this as an outlet for my musings, a place to put my ramblings, and hopefully even an opportunity to get some feedback/critisism and inspiraton.

So stay tuned; hopefully I will muster some interesting writings on topics in anthropology, archaeology, philosophy and linguistics, and hopefully you will be engaged.  I welcome discussion and critisism, mockery or flattery.

Thank you for reading,

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