Re: Natural Language and Natural Selection

From: Stevan Harnad (
Date: Tue Apr 16 1996 - 18:17:17 BST

> The infant has the ability to produce phonemes from birth i.e. it has
> the ability produce the sound units of any language. As such does the
> infant actually have an understanding of what is and what isn't a
> phoneme? Does he choose to vocalise some of the sounds which a humans
> produce and not others?

No understanding, just an ability and inclination to produce and notice
some sounds more than others. (Remember phonemes don't mean anything;
they are merely the building blocks of words, which DO mean things.
Moreover, the "shapes" of phonemes and words are arbitrary with respect
to what they mean.)

> i.e. shouldn't the child confuse the phonemes of words with other
> sounds, which may not be phonemes, but are still vocalised such as
> tutting or coughing? e.g.

Actually, they don't confuse phonemes with other phonemes, or with
nonphonemic sounds. It looks as if speech sounds are already prepared in
advance, in our ears as well as our mouths (and the brain parts
controlling them), sounding as distinct to us as colours (also
prepared by evolution) look.

> If a child where to tut at her child and then immediately exclaim his
> name..."(tut)Harry"... why shouldn't the child consider '(tut)Harry' as
> one and the same word? Does the fact that the child would be exposed to
> this stimulus rarely, have any influence? After all, we know that
> 'tut-like' sounds exist in some languages.

"tut" as you write it IS phonemic. But cough-Harry would probably
be harder (and sneeze-Harry harder still, since we have no voluntary
control at all over the production of a true sneeze).

The boundary is probably not that crisp though: The artist's "palate" of
phonemes has been prepared by evolution, to a degree, but we are still
free to incorporate other sounds that our mouths can produce and our
ears can hear into our speech. It's just that some will be easier and
more detectable than others. And some will be altogether impossible
for sensory reasons (we cannot hear them, or cannot recognise them
reliably enough) or for motor reasons (we can't produce them, or procuce
them reliably enough).

This, as you see, is why an evolutionary story still makes sense for
pronunciation and its built-in structure; but for Universal Grammar,
with its very abstract, unlearnable rules, where something much simpler
and learnable LOOKS as if it could have done the job just as well, the
evolutionary story seems to make no sense at all. Hence the Big-Bang

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