Wednesday, October 8, 2008


The history of the biological basis of language*

Language has been thought of as being the expression of man’s reason, the result of onomatopoeia, invented as a means of communication, considered basic to the formation of society, or simply a gift of God. Each of these definitions of language has been used in the construction of a multitude of language theories [1]. We shall not be concerned with the development of these theories, but limit ourselves to a discussion of the recurrent emergence of the thoughts on the biological basis of language.
The idea that language is on of man’s inherent characteristics, like vision or hearing, is found in some myths on the creation of man [2]. In these myths, language is given to man in conjunction with his senses, so that apparently it was considered on of them, and not part of man’s cultural or social functions (which are also described as given or taught by the gods). By no means can these assertions of a divine origin be considered antithetical to a natural origin of language; on the contrary, everything natural to man was God’s gift to him.
Between the reaslm of mythology and science stands the experiment of the Egyptian King Psammetichos of the seventh century B.C. and related by Herodotus (fifth century B.C.). Psammetichos supposedly tried to have two children raised by shepherds who never spoke to them in order to see what language would develop [3]. This experiment is relevant to our discussion in so far as its design implies the belief that children left to themselves will develop language. Psammetichos thought he would be able to demonstrate which language was the oldest, but apparently did not doubt that even untutored children would speak.
Language first became the subject of discussion by the pre-Socratic philosophers in the latter part of the sixth century B.C. The setting up of antitheses, typical for Greek philosophy, was also applied to the problems which language posed. But discussions of language were limited to a mere consideration of naming and were purely secondary outgrowths of the philosopher’s search for general truths. In order to understand the statements on language made by the Greek philosophers, it is essential to give an idea of the context in which they were made and briefly describe the evolution of the meaning of the two ever recurring terms nomos and physis in which language was to be discussed. Nomos was later replaced by theses and was often wrongly translated as convention while physis has been incorrectly equated with nature.
For Herakleitos (ca. 500 B.C.), nomos was the order regulating the life of society and the individual, but he did not see it as a product of society [4].The nomos of society was valid, but not absolute. Similarly names were valid as they reflected some aspect of the object they named. (Apparently, he did not consider them physis as had been thought)[5]. Physis would have implied that names are an adequate expression of reality or of the true nature of things, an idea to which Herakleitos did not subscribe.
Parmenides, (fifth century B.C.) thought that originally names had been given to things on the basis of “wrong thinking,” and that the continued use of the original names perpetuated the errors of men’s earlier thinking about the objects around them. To him, and to Anaxagoras and Empedokles, names and concepts were synonymous. Their concern with conventional names and their condemnation of them as nomos was related to their critical view of conventional thought. To these philosophers’ nomos and conventional thought had acquired the connotation of incorrectness and inadequacy as opposed to the truth and real nature or physis which they were seeking [5].
Pindar(522-433 B.C.) considered all of man’s true abilities innate. They cannot be acquired by learning bt can only be furthered by training [6]. For him the rules of society which are nomos were God-given and, therefore, contained absolute truth. Nomos and physis were not purely antithetical as it was for Parmenides and his school. It is also well to keep in mind that nomos and physis had not been antithetical in Greek ethnography. Nomos referred to all peculiarities of a people due to custom and not attributable to the influences of climate, country, or food. So Herodotus had ascribed the elongated heads of a tribe, due to their binding of the infant’s skull, to nomos, but he believed that this would become hereditary (physis). In medicine of the fifth century B.C., physis came to mean normal [7].
Although we find the nomos-physis antithesis in all Greek philosophy and science, the exact meaning of the terms would have to be determined in each case, before we might claim that one of the philosophers made certain pronouncements about language. We have attempted to indicate that none of the pre-Socratic philosophers were concerned with language as such, nor with questions of its origin or development, and in no case could their statements be said to establish language as cultural or natural to man.
In classical philosophy, the relationship of the name to its object continued to be the focal point in discussions on language: naming and language were synonymous. Did the object determined in some way the name by which it was called, just as its shape determined the image we saw of it? In his dialogue, Cratylos, Plato (427-347) attempted a solution of this problem. If the name was determined by the nature of the object to which it referred, then language was physis, that is , it could be said to reflect the true nature of things, but if it were nomos, then the name could not serve as a source of real knowledge. As Steinthal [8] pointed out, language was taken as given, and the philosophical discussion had not originated from questions about the nature of man or language. Plato’s answer could, therefore, have only indirect implications for questions about language origin which were to arise much later. He overcame the antithesis by demonstrating that the name does not represent the object but that it stands for the idea which we have of the object. Furthermore, he declared that the name or the word is only a sound symbol which in itself does not reveal the truth of the idea it represents. Words gain their meaning from other oodes of communication like imitative body movements or noises. The latter are similar to painting in that they are representative but not purely symbolic as is language. The only reference to the origin of language in Cratylos is Socrates’ statement that speaking of a divine origin of words is but a contrivance to avoid a scientific examination of the source of names [10].
Aristotle’s (384-322 B.C.) interest in language was both philosophical and scientific. In his book on animals the ten paragraphs devoted to language follow immediately after a discussion of the senses. His differentiation of sound, voice, and language is based on his physical concept of sound production. In his opinion, voice was produced in the trachea and language resulted from the modulation of the voice by tongue and lip movements. Language proper is only found in man. Children babble and stammer because they have not yet gained control over their tongues. Among the animals only the song of birds is similar call, “kak kak” in one vicinity and “tri tri” in another and as the song of a bird will differ from that of its parents’ if it grows up without them. Language, like the song of the nightingale, is perfected by training.
Aristotle had based his differentiation of man’s language (logos) from the language of animals (phonē) biologically, for he thought that man’s language was produced mainly by movement of the tongue and the sounds of animals by the impact of air on the walls of the trachea. He did not think that human language could have been derived from sounds, noises or the expression of emotions seen in animals and children. “A sound is not yet a word it only becomes a word when it is used by man as a sign.” “The articulated signs (of human language) are not like the expression of emotions of children or animals. Animal noises cannot be combined to form syllables, nor can they be reduced to syllables like human speech” [12]. He rejected an onomatopoeic origin of language and established the primacy of its symbolic function. Because he recognized that the meaning of spoken language was based on agreement, it has been claimed that he thought language to be of cultural origin. I terms of the old antithesis of physis versus nomos, Aristotle saw both principles operative in language. Physis meant to him the law of nature without the virtue of justice which it had contained for Plato, and Nomos was replaced by thesis and had come to mean man made. Language, as such, he considered physis, and the meaning of words he attributed to thesis [13].
The question of the origin of language had not been raised in Greek philosophy until Epicurus (341-271 B.C.) asked:”What makes language possible? How does man form words so that he is understood?”[14]. He concluded that neither God nor reason, but Nature was the source of language. To him, language was a biological function like vision and hearing. A different opinion was held by Zeno (333-262 B.C.) the founder of the Stoa, to whom language was an expression of man’s mind and derived from his reason. He believed that names had been given without conscious reflection or purpose [15].
Although Epicurus had been the first to contemplate the origin of language, Chysippos (died about 200 B.C.) a stoic, was the first to consider language in terms broader than names. Before him the ambiguity of some names had been noted but no satisfactory explanation had been found. Chrysippos proclaimed that all names were ambiguous and lost their ambiguity by being placed in context. Thereby he drew attention to the importance of the grouping of words but his belief that language did not follow logic kept his inquiry from proceeding any further [16].



Toward a bilogical theory of language development (General summary)

We have discussed language from many different aspects, have drawn various conclusions and offered a variety of explanations. If we now stand back and survey the entire panorama, will this synopsis suggest an integrated theory? I believe it will.


The language theory to be proposed here is based upon the following five empirically verifiable, general biological premises.

(i) Cognitive function is species-specific. Taxonomies suggest themselves for virtually all aspects of life. Formally, these taxonomies are always type-token hierarchies, and on every level of the hierarchy we may discern differences among tokens and, at the same time, there are commonalities that assign the tokens logically to a type. The commonalities are not necessarily more and more abstract theoretical concepts but are suggested by physiological and structural invariances. An anatomical example of such an invariance is cell-constituency- it is common to all organisms. In the realm of sensory perception there are physiological properties that result in commonalities for entire classes of animals, so that every species has very similar pure stimulus thresholds. When we compare behavior across species, we also find certain invariances, fro instance, the general effects of reward and punishment. But in each of these examples there are also species differences. Cells combine into a species-specific form; sensations combine to produce species-specific pattern-recognition; and behavioral parameters enter into the elaboration of species-specific action patterns.
Let us focus on the species-psecificities of behvior. There are certain cerebral functions that mediate between sensory input and motor output which we shall call generically cognitive function. The neurophysiology of cognitive function is larely unknown but its behavioral correlates are the propensity for problem solving, the formation of learning sets, the tendency to generalize in certain directions, or the facility for memorizing some but not other conditions. The interaction or integrated patterns of all of these different potentialities produces the cognitive specificities that have induced von Uexkuell, the forerunner of modern ethology, to propose that every species has its own world-view. The phenomenological implications of his formulation may sound old-fashioned today, but students of animal behavior cannot ignore the fact that the differences in cognitive processes (1)are empirically demonstrable and (2) are the correlates of species-specific behavior.

(ii) Specific properties of cognitive function arereplicated in every memberof the species. Although there are individual differences among all creatures, the members of one species resemble each other very closely. In every individual a highly invariable type of both form and function is replicated. Individual differences of most characteristics tend to have a normal (Gaussian) frequency distribution and the differences within species are smaller than between species. (We are disregarding special taxonomic problems in species identification.)
The application of these notions to (i) makes it clear that also the cognitive processes and potentialities that are characteristics of a species are replicated in every individual. Notice that we must distinguish between what an individual actually does and what he is capable of doing. The intraspecific similarity holds for the latter, not the former, and the similarity in capacity becomes striking only if we concentrate on the general type and manner of activity and disregard such variables as how fast or how accurately a given performance is carried out.

(iii) Cognitive processes and capacities are differentiated spontaneously with maturation. This statement must not be confused with the question of how much the environment contributes to development. It is obvious that all development requires an appropriate substrate and availability of certain forms of energy. However, in most cases environments are not specific to just one form of life and development. A forest pond may be an appropriate environment for hundreds of different forms of life. It may support the fertilized egg of a frog or a minnow, and each of the eggs will respond to just those types and forms of energy that are appropriate to it. The frog’s egg will develop into a frog and the minnow’s egg into a minnow. The pond just makes the building stones available, but the organismic architecture unfolds through conditions that are created within the maturing individual.
Cognition is regarded as the behavioral manifestation of physiological processes. Form and function are not arbitrarily superimposed upon the embryo from the outside but gradually develop through a process of differentiation. The basic plan is based on information contained in the developing tissues. Some fuctions need an extra organismic stimulus for the initiation of operation-something that triggers the cocked mechanisms; the onset of air-breathingin mammals is an example. These extra-organismic stimuli do not shape the ensuing function.a species’ peculiar mode of processing visual input, as evidenced in pattern recognition, may develop only in individuals who have had a minimum of exposure to properly illuminated objects in the environment during their formative years. But the environment clearly does not shape the mode of input processing, because the environment might have been the background to the visual development of a vast number of other types of pattern-recognition.

(iv) At birth, man is relatively immature; certain aspects of his behavior and cognitive functionemerge only during infancy. Man’s postnatial state of maturity (brain and behavior) is less advanced than that of other primates. This is a statement of fact and not a return to the fetalization and neotony theories of old (details in Chapter Four).

(v) Certain social phenomena among aimals come about by spontaneous adaptation of the behavior of the growing individual to the behavior of other individuals around him. Adequate environment does not merely include nutritive and physical conditions; many animals require specific social conditions for proper development. The survival of the species frequently depednds on the development of mechanisms for social cohesion or social cooperation. The development of typical social behavior in a growing individual requires, for many species, exposure to specific stimuli such as the presence of certain action patterns in the mother, a sexual partner, a group leader, etc. sometimes mere exposure to social behavior of other individuals is a sufficient stimulus. For some species the correct stimulation must occur during a narrow formative period in infancy; failing this, further development may become seriously and irreverible distorted. In all types of developing social behavior, the growing individual begins to engage in behavior as if by resonance; he is maturationally ready but will not begin to perform unless properly stimulated. If expsed to the stimuli, he becomes socially “excited” as a resonator may become excited when exposed to a given range of sound frequencies. Some social behavior consists of intricate patterns, the development of which is the result of subtle adjustments to and interactions with similar behavior patterns (for example, the songs of certain bird species). An impoverished social input may entail permanently impoverished behavior patterns.
Even though the development of social behavior may require an environmental trigger for proper development and function, the triggering stimulus must not be mistaken for the cause that shapes the behavior. Prerequisite social triggering mechanisms do not shape the social behavior in the way Emily Post may shape the manners of a debutante.

II. A concise statement of the theory
(1) Language is the manifestation of species-specific cognitive propensities. It is the consequence of the biological peculiarities that make a human type of cognition possible. *The dependence of language upon human cognition is merely one instance of the general phenomenon characterized by premise (i) above. There is evidence (Chapter Seven and Eight) that cognitive function is a more basic and primary process than language, and that the dependence-relationship of language upon cognition is incomparably stronger than vice versa.
(2) The cognitive function underlying language consists of an adaptation of a ubiquitous process (among vertebrates) of categorization and extraction of similarities. The perception and production of language may be reduced on all levels to categorization processes, including the subsuming of narrow categories under more comprehensive ones and the subdivision of comprehensive categories into more specific ones. The extraction of similarities does not only operate upon physical stimuli but also upon categories of underlying structural schemata. Words label categorization processes (Chapter Seven and Eight).
(3) Certain Specialization s in peripheral anatomy and physiology account for some of the universal features of natural languages, but the description of these human peculiarities does not constitute an explanation for the phylogenetic development of language. During the evolutionary history of the species form, function and behavior have interacted adaptively, but none of these aspects may be regarded as the “cause” of the other. Today, mastery of language by an individual may be accomplished despite severe peripheral anomalies, indicating that cerebral function is now the determining factor for language behavior as we know it in contemporary man. This, however, does not necessarily reflect the evolutionary sequence of developmental events.