evolution of syntax
- Hi all,
A small excerpt from http://cogweb.ucla.edu/ep/Conceptual-3.html -
For a discussion of the conditions under which the evolution of syntax would
be favored, see Nowak et al. (2000). [at
http://cogweb.ucla.edu/Abstracts/Nowak_00.html%5d This is a computational
analysis that leaves out considerations of how syntax is transmitted.
Are elements of syntax part of normal ontogenetic development? It is
somewhat unclear what the claim for an innate grammar amounts to, since
language was part of the natural environment of human babies in our
ancestral environment. According to the principle of efficient information
storage, it is thus plausible that knowledge of grammar is simply stored in
the child's environment--that is, in the minds of its relatives. What the
child minimally requires is a set of capacities, most likely a specialized
and dedicated set, for acquiring that knowledge. A somewhat stronger claim
would be that a child will spontaneously be able to structure symbols
syntactically; here is some evidence for this view.
Spontaneous sign systems created by deaf children in two cultures
Deaf children whose access to usable conventional linguistic input, signed
or spoken, is severely limited nevertheless use gesture to communicate.
These gestures resemble natural language in that they are structured at the
level both of sentence and of word. Although the inclination to use gesture
may be traceable to the fact that the deaf childrens hearing parents, like
all speakers, gesture as they talk, the children themselves are responsible
for introducing language-like structure into their gestures. The authors
have explored the robustness of this phenomenon by observing deaf children
of hearing parents in two cultures, an American and a Chinese culture, that
differ in their child-rearing practices and in the way gesture is used in
relation to speech. The spontaneous sign systems developed in these cultures
shared a number of structural similarities: patterned production and
deletion of semantic elements in the surface structure of a sentence;
patterned ordering of those elements within the sentence; and concatenation
of propositions within a sentence. These striking similarities offer
critical empirical input towards resolving the ongoing debate about the
'innateness' of language in human infants.
S Goldin-Meadow & C Mylander Spontaneous sign systems created by deaf
children in two cultures (Letter to Nature). Nature 391 (1998): 279. [no
So, waddya think?
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- One thing that seems to get lost in the shuffle in discussions of
innateness is that there are many well-documented cases of
individuals who really are completely isolated from language
for a long period of time, and who, as a consequence, never
develop language. This goes for both hearing and deaf children.
David Perlmutter's observation that in order for a language to
develop there must be a community is something that comes to
mind when reading this abstract. Regardless of the differences
in culture, there is, no doubt, an attempt at communication
between the children and their parents and others. That is,
they're a part of a community, even if they share no common
language. It would seem to me that if language is really innate,
a community would not, in fact, be necessary, and that there
could not exist a person without language (barring physical
As a general comment, all the evidence I've ever seen in favor
of innateness has been incredibly underwhelming. I'm always
open to hearing more, though.
"A male love inevivi i'ala'i oku i ue pokulu'ume o heki a."
"No eternal reward will forgive us now for wasting the dawn."