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:

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