Re: Natural Language and Natural Selection

From: Stevan Harnad (
Date: Sun May 26 1996 - 18:38:02 BST

> From: "Alexandra Bilak" <>
> Date: Fri, 19 Apr 1996 11:45:33 GMT
> The study of the nature and origins of language seems to be the
> object of a lot of speculation and inquiry. Indeed, the origins of
> man's ability to use and comprehend language are slightly ambiguous,
> and people's views on it have often differed. Language can be seen as
> a basis, a universal, biological capacity common to every individual,
> but can also be considered as a cultural element that would have
> evolved in relation to different external, environmental factors.

What is language? Is it one thing, or a bundle of things? Is what's true
of one true of all?

> First of all, it is interesting to examine the aspect of language
> that links it to a biological predisposition of man to use and
> understand it. There are some clear genetic factors essential to the
> understanding of the origins of language. Although a little
> simplistic, a first element to consider would be a human
> morphological predisposition to language. Indeed, the sounds of
> language seem closely related to the morphology of the vocal tract:
> certain characteristics of a human face seem to have a decisive
> influence upon speech sounds. Simple elements such as the shape of
> the mouth and lips can be related to the development of language in
> man, or at least seem to be prerequisite for speech articulation,
> and oral motivity in man. However, anatomical descriptions do not
> seem to provide an accurate explanation for the nature, or the
> ORIGIN of language itself, and does not lead to insight into man's
> capacity for language, ie the underlying complexities of the matter.
> Some much more interesting aspects of study exist and must be
> considered. It seems indeed more interesting to examine the genetic,
> or biological account for the emergence of language. The "nativist"
> view, therefore, strongly insists on a human specific capacity for
> language peculiar to each individual.

Paragraphs are too long!

> One of the most influencial
> nativist theorists is the linguist Noam Chomsky, who insists on the
> fact that man has mental structural capacities including an innate
> concept of human language.

Not "concept of language." UG.

> This concept appears to be genetically
> determined, and present in every human individual. He explains that
> a "normal" human child is thus predisposed to learn any language
> fairly easily, by combining a set of innate rules with " language
> data", that she or he hears. Language would therefore appear in man
> as an abstract system of rules that cannot be acquired by
> traditional learning principles.

But why not? Chomsky doesn't just SAY this; he has evidence and

> An interesting example illustrating
> this predisposition to language is the creation of the "Creole
> language" among children of a mixed community of Japanese, Chinese,
> Korean, Portuguese, and Puerto Rican parents at the turn of the
> century. Immigrants of these various communities were "forced" to
> live together and thus communicate by some sort of hybrid (pidgin)
> language. A generation later, their children had invente (or come up
> with) a new language ("Creole"), being a highly developed linguistic
> system whose structure appeared to be similar among all the children
> of the community. This amazing fact seems to prove that, according
> to Bickerton (1983), "first-language acquisition is mediated by an
> innate device (...) the device provides the child with a single and
> fairly specific grammatical model". A iological basis of language
> would indeed seem to be more than just a possibility.

> Another
> important aspect of the nativist view emphasises on the fact that
> environmental (external) stimuli alone, such as learning, cannot
> account for language possession. This idea is summarised in the
> theory of the "Poverty of the Stimulus", that explains the ways in
> which language is born into an individual. Lightfoot (1982) explains
> that "there are no data available to the child that will suffice to
> establish some rule or principle". This implies the idea of an
> "innately-primed learning", that is, of an innate set of rules and
> information, of internal mechanisms suitable for the acquisition of
> language. The "poverty of the stimulus" phrase refers to the
> insufficient information obtained from OUTSIDE the individual, thus
> implying the idea of some sort of "compensating" internal,
> biological mechanism.


> This is where it becomes interesting to examine
> S. Pinker's view on the origins of language being determined by
> "natural selection". Darwin's theory of natural selection explains
> the existence of human organs in terms of "adaptive complexity";
> this means that every organ of the system has a specific function,
> and is adapted, arranged to perform a certain function, some sort of
> task. For example the eye (ie the visual organ) is adapted
> specifically for visual imagery (Function/task). For Darwin,
> therefore, it is through a process of natural selection that these
> organs have developed this specific function. It is this theory that
> Pinker relates to language. Indeed, he attempts to explain the
> origins of language as a natural process: for him, natural selection
> is a plausible explanation for the complex cognitive mechanisms
> underlying language. Language being a " complex design system",
> Pinker explains, it can only have occured through a process of
> natural selection.

But is "it" one thing, or several?

> An interesting analogy is made in Pinker's article
> Natural language and natural selection, extract of Behavioural and
> Brain Sciences (1990). He uses the image of a spandrel to describe

What is a spandrel? (Remember, kid-sib?)

> the process of language acquisition : the centerpiece is an innate,
> biological capacity for language and is necessary for the holding up
> of what lies around it, ie language acquisition. Finally, the most
> important argument in favour of a biological foundation of language
> is probably the universality of its structures, ie it definitely
> seems to be common to every individual. The linguist Chomsky for
> example insisted on the fact that there are similar linguistic
> traits all over the world.

Insisted? Or provided evidence?

> In order to understand this, it is
> interesting to consider the idea of a "Language Acquisition Device",
> which explains the transformation of a "corpus of speech", ie a set
> of utterances (some grammatical, some not) into a complex
> grammatical system. This is generally studied in relation to the
> acquisition of language in a child. For example, the corpus of
> speech will be utterances overheard by a child in a given
> environment.

Or spoken by the child.

> Upon receipt of this corpus, the Language Acquisition
> Device creates a grammatical system. The device therefore represents
> some kind of internal structure, that must be able to acquire any
> natural language. It is therefore universally applicable to the
> fundamental human capacity for language. The idea of an internal and
> universal capacity for language is closely associated to that of
> Universal Grammar (UG), whose study is clearly an attempt to specify
> the forms and features common to all human language. UG suggests a
> universal set of grammatical rules, and therefore also suggests that
> a child is predisposed to entertain certain hypotheses concerning
> the structure of language. The idea of UG clearly implies the idea
> of a biological foundation of language, and suggests that no
> individual will thus "start from scratch" his/her acquisition of
> language.

Need to relate this to poverty of the stimulus, otherwise sounds

> A number of elements seem thus to support the claim that language is
> most of all a biological capacity. However, it is easy to notethat
> it is not this biological basis alone that makes up for the study of
> language. Indeed, it seems to have a context as well, some sort of
> external, CULTURAL aspect.
> Indeed, language is often considered a cultural invention, precisely
> because it evolves differently among peoples and cultures as a means
> of communication. Language often seems to have been invented by man
> simply in order to communicate with his peers. The capacity to use
> language is a capacity to use and comprehend the use of SIGNS, and
> it is the arbitrariness of the sign that implies that there is
> something cutural about language. The fact that for example the word
> "tree" is used to define the concept of a tree in the English

"Tree" does not define a concept (it doesn't define anything). tree
refers to an object: to a tree. A tree is not the same as a concept of a
tree. And the word "tree" is not the same as either of the other two.
The definition of "tree" is yet another thing. We have a concept of a
tree: A tree is a green wooden thing. A concept MIGHT be like a
definition, or it may be more like an image, or a filter for picking out
trees when we see them. It is important to begin to try sorting these
things out, as vague use fo words will only lead to vague

> language, but that in French one will use the word "arbre" to the
> same concept, proves the arbitrariness of the sign, ie the word.
> This arbitrariness shows that language is culturally determined to
> some extent, and relates to the idea of "particular grammar" in
> opposition to UG. "Particular Grammar" studies the features of a
> particular language ( though always in relation to universal
> features of Grammar.)

Unclear what you mean.

> Another important aspect to consider with the
> cultural aspect of language is the external factors having an
> influence on the acquisition of language. Language may well be
> culturally determined, in that some aspects of a culture or a given
> environment may well act as stimuli to the development of it. The
> "nurture" view (as opposed to a "nativist" account of language)
> emphasises on an account of traditional learning principles being
> key-elements in the development of language. The theorist
> B.F.Skinner (1957) proposes a theory of reinforcement, in which he
> explains that it is certain elements in a child's environment (eg
> parents) that are capable of "reinforcing", that is, improving the
> child's early babbling sounds. The concept of imitation is here very
> important, since it is this activity that enables the child to
> "reinforce" its language abilities. It is therefore in this sense
> that language can be considered as culturally determined, because
> certain aspects of a culture tend to either provide a language with
> a particular grammar peculiar to that culture, or simply reinforce
> the process of acquisition.

But the story is different for UG and for vocabulary. You have to sort
these out.

> It would seem that the origins of language are a little complicated
> to undersand. Although it would appear obvious that language
> represents a cultural invention ( because of its communicative
> function and the fact that it actually symbolises man's will to
> communicate), language seems to be at the root biologically
> determined, proving man's predisposition to acquire and use a
> language. However, one must take into account both sides of the
> answer. Indeed, language seems definitely to be genetically
> determined and universal, but finds its evolution and development in
> external factors aswell. An internal structure would therefore be at
> the core of language acquisition, whereas external stimuli lie
> around this key-structure to make it more solid and complex. One can
> thus say that language is both a biological capacity and a cultural
> invention.

Kid-sib would not be too happy with that conclusion!

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