Saturday, June 27, 2009

Adam's Tongue (pt 3)

(classic depiction of Saussure's arbitrariness of the sign claim)

This is the third in a series of posts detailing my notes and thoughts about the book Adam's Tongue as I prepare to lead a book discussion meeting July 6, 2009 in the DC metro area (see my first post here and second here).

Ch 3 - Thinking Like Engineers

I've spent the last 5 years working in natural language processing and with engineers and I agree that there is something very valuable for a linguist to "think like an engineer" so I was curious from the start about this chapter, but I was also weary because the Chomskyan syntacticians also "think like engineers" and I believe they have led linguistics down a garden path of false starts and flawed theories for 40 years. So I read on cautiously.
  • DB notes that he came into linguistics via pidgins and creoles and they bear on his thinking about language evolution. But does this bias him too, like the man who has a hammer and sees everything as a nail? We shall see.
  • DB says there's no syntax when we try to speak with people who don't share our language (p 39) because we don't know enough of the language, the foreign words just pop out as we grope for them. Now, I certainly defer to DB's far greater expertise of pidgin & creole formation, but this thought experiment of his does not jive with my own experiences. Like many travelers, I've had this exact experience in places like Guangzhou China and Prague but I don't think the foreign words "just popped out" quite as randomly as he suggests. I'm tending to side with Slobin here.
  • He claims that protowords must not have had any internal morphological structure (41) because early language users would have had no rules defining that structure. On it's face, this makes sense, nonetheless this begs the question: which came first, the word or the morphology? Is it not plausible that some neurologically based process for seeking internal structure to sounds developed prior to the advent or words? I just don't know.
  • The boom vocalization of the Campbell's monkey occurs 30 seconds before the alarm (42). My first reaction: wow! this is stretching the limits of transitional probabilities, isn't it? Can we plausibly claim that an association between sounds 30 seconds apart is neurologically feasible?
  • DB claims these booms are not modifiers (p42) because the boom "cancels out" the alarm. I'd have to review the literature on these boom carefully, but my first reaction is: does it really cancel the alarm? If I understand the context, it simply means "not immediate threat (but still a threat)". That's not a cancellation. It's more like epistemic modality: "there MIGHT be danger."
  • Page 44 -- The gavagai problem restated.
  • Confused: I'm confused by DB's claim on page 45 that "words combine as separate units -- they never blend. They're atoms, not mudballs." I'm not sure what he means. Blending and combining are different, in that blending suggests some elements of both previous words/calls are preserved in the new word/call. This happens all the time in contemporary linguistic change (classic example: motel blends motor + hotel, persevering bits of each's morphology as well as semantic blending). But I suspect DB is not referencing that. So what is he referencing?
  • He makes a nice distinction between ACSs and Language: ACSs are primarily for manipulation of behavior while language is primarily for information sharing. I have no clue if this is really true, but if yes, it's a good point (p 47).
  • He writes "language units are symbolic because they're designed to convey information." A nice follow-up point on the difference point above, but it begs the question: what is "information"? Any answer which supports DB would have to couch a definition in abstraction, right? E.g., Information is a conceptualization that is independent from direct reference.
  • DB makes a bold claim on page 52 that strikes at the heart of post-Saussurean linguistics: displacement is a more important factor to language evolution than arbitrariness. But it's worth noting that both are functions of abstraction, so perhaps this is just another version of his previous point that the jump to abstract thought is the key.
On to chapter 3 -- Singing Apes....


uzza said...

Yo, I just found your blog and I'm enjoying the heck out of surfing it. You never followed this post with any more adams' tongue; What happened with the book discussion?
I was looking forward to hearing about the singing apes. Are they A Capella?

Chris said...

uzza, I just got a bit lazy, hehe. I've got each chapter riddled with notes and I guess I just thought it a bit tiresome to write them up. I thought about writing a single overall book review, but again with the laziness. So sorry.

The book club was interesting because it included two PhD biologists, both with some background in evolutionary biology (and one who actually specialized in it) and the general conclusion was the book was not a serious piece of academic scholarship. The evolutionary biologist specifically said he thought Bickerton simply didn't understand the basic facts of the theory of evolution. This was my hunch too. Both biologists agreed that the evolutionary theory component was weak at best.

From a linguistic standpoint, his analysis of Chomsky and recursion was superficial and incoherent.

It was a disappointing read overall. The one bright spot, I felt, was the chapter critiquing animal language hyperbole. I would consider that as a good assigned reading in an introductory linguistics course.

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