Language and Syntax

Like other animals, we learn about the world by observing, by doing, by communicating, and by imitating others.

But unlike other animals, we are able to talk at a young age. We all learn to speak a LANGUAGE that has a set of innate rules, or grammar. And we do this without having to be taught what the rules are. Similar to Mozart’s innate ability to compose music as a child without having to ask how, we are all geniuses at learning to speak.

Later, we are taught how to read and write the language we first learn to speak, as well as other languages.

Many animals communicate with one another using elaborate signaling mechanisms, including visual cues, sounds, taste, touch, and smell. Humans also use these inherited methods of communication to signal one another.

But we have evolved something in our brains that other animals don’t have, and that is a system of symbols that provides us with a wide range of expression for communicating with others. We use these symbols in different combinations to represent a nearly infinite amount of information and knowledge.

For billions of years creatures lived in water. It has been only millions of years that animals have walked on land. It is only comparatively recently that primitive brain cells have evolved. And it was in the very recent past that humans first used symbolic language to express our intentions, thoughts, and emotions.

The capacity for a human brain to represent the world outside of itself is a remarkable achievement of evolution. Writing, music, art, and mathematics are only a few ways in which we use symbols to represent meaningful aspects of the world around us.

These symbols include alphabets invented for the purpose of reading and writing language, and speech sounds used to articulate spoken languages.

There are as many languages in the world as there are cultures, with alphabets that use different letters or characters, and different ways of producing spoken sounds.

Some languages use pictures instead of an alphabet, such as the ancient Chinese language of pictograms. There are ‘click’ languages spoken in Africa. There are also languages that use graphic symbols, such as Morse Code, Braille touch language for the sightless, and Sign language for the deaf.

We use these symbols to communicate with one another: to speak, and write, and touch, and gesture.

Other symbols that we use to communicate include musical scales, numbers 0 through 9, visual shapes and forms, and body movements.

These symbol sets, such as an alphabet or music scale, and the rules that go with them, provide a wide range of expression that enables us to share those things that are most meaningful.

These symbols help us to represent the world around us.

Signals, such as sounds, pheromones, and colored areas of the body (adapted for attraction and camouflage) in multi-celled creatures are primitive forms of symbolism. They represent meaningful desires.

As animals evolved, symbolism became more sophisticated, such as the ‘waggle dance’ of worker bees, in which choreographed movements of the bees provide specific directions to food sources. Various mammals use body movements, as well as sounds including hissing, purring, licking, and growling, to make their opinions known.

As early primates became increasingly socialized, symbolism became more evolved, including the use of facial signals, elaborate body motions and attitudes. Some chimpanzees have learned sign-language in captivity. However, they show no inclination to teach it to others. Chimpanzees learn through imitation. ‘They can transmit observable skills, but not abstract ones.’ (for more, see Mary E. Clark, In Search of Human Nature)

As Homo habilis (3.2m) learned to make and use tools, and Homo erectus (1.8m) migrated from Africa to other parts of the world, various communal strategies, including primitive forms of symbolic language, evolved as a means of surviving new environments.

Homo erectus imitated animal sounds. They also used facial signals including smiles, pouts, eyebrow movements, staring, and lip-smacking. Sounds were combined with facial expressions to communicate simple basic intentions and reactions such as ‘yes’, ‘no’, ‘please’, ‘sweet’, and ‘sour’1 With increased communication came deeper social attachments.

In Homo erectus, we see the first significant positional descent of the voice box, which would have increased their ability to produce more human-like sounds, perhaps with some added inflection.

These systems didn’t just appear overnight. Early hominids evolved specialized brain circuits that could express and process symbols, such as meaningful grunts, growls, and whistles, facial expressions and hand signals. These evolved into brain processes that could imitate the sounds of other animals, read and interpret elaborate signals, form social attachments and express early forms of imagination, creativity, and planning. Ultimately these brain circuits expanded to be able to express the kinds of symbolic repertoire that we see in humans.

The rules of grammar, or SYNTAX, for learning to speak are programmed into our brains from birth. They are part of the human genome, our genetic code. Each of us uses the same set of rules to learn whatever language we are speaking.

Although different languages in different parts of the world may use different alphabets and sound different, they all have similar sentence structures. All languages include nouns that represent objects, verbs that refer to actions, and adjectives and adverbs that modify objects and actions.

But only the rules, or syntax, for spoken languages are hard-wired in our brains. In fact, it is interesting to note that different children who speak the same language generally acquire the rules of language in the same order.

The acquisition of language is also developmental. Speech sounds, alphabets,  musical scales, mathematics, visual and body language have been created and developed entirely by humans. All of these languages have developed in different cultures throughout the world since the beginning of modern human expression.

Modern research in linguistics has shown that young children don’t just imitate words they hear. Just hearing the words is not enough. In order to acquire language, young children must be able to continually communicate and interact with those around them. As children acquire language, they build an internal system; they develop a systematic knowledge through creative language practice. And a child must be able to do this at an early stage of development. It has been famously shown that in cases where infants have been isolated from all human contact before they are five years old, the development of normal language facility becomes all but impossible.

New research has also shown that the acquisition of language rewires our brains. Babies that are hearing two languages in utero develop bilingual brains before they are born.

And there are new experiments suggesting that young children, world-wide, develop a disproportionately large animal vocabulary, reflecting a deep, possibly innate, connection to the natural world. (google Jean Berko Gleason,  Psycholinguist, Boston University)

Whenever we use language, there is a necessary trade-off between clarity and brevity. We want to present our ideas clearly so that people understand us, yet we don’t want to go on for so long that they become bored. We may need to repeat and emphasize certain things, but not so much that we risk losing our audience. Syntax provides a structure that tends to support complex interactive communication.

Between 50 and 100 thousand years ago, intensified socialization must have put tremendous pressure on early Homo sapiens communities to communicate more fluently, using language. In order for this to happen, the brain needed to be able to process abstract symbols, but also the muscles of the voice box, mouth, and tongue had to be coordinated in order to produce complex speech sounds. Earlier, bipedalism, which made possible the interruption of exhalation, a precondition for speech, and an anatomically lowered voice box, made it possible for early humans ‘to laugh, sing and speak’ (see Robert Provine’s book Laughter). But it also raises provocative questions: Did thinking precede speech, or vice-versa? Did thought and speech coevolve? Exactly how are thought and speech related?

There has been a debate for centuries that thinking is dependent on language. Some say that some form of language is necessary for thinking to occur. Others say not. If it is true that language is required for more abstract thinking, then thinking itself must be shaped, in part, by the innate rules of grammar.

All languages are combinatorial and depend on a vocabulary of expression.

Any vocabulary may be derived arbitrarily from nature, such as a musical scale, or from the process of natural selection, as in the case of speech. The discrete tones of a musical scale are sampled directly from the natural acoustic spectrum. In the case of speech, the vocal apparatus and brain functions related to language have evolved over tens of thousands of years.

In speech, individual sounds, or phonemes, are combined to form syllables, words, phrases, and sentences that convey meaning. The vocabulary of speech is composed of from 13 to 200 separate phonemes, depending on the specific language that is being spoken. English-speaking peoples employ a vocabulary of 44 phonemes.

There is recent evidence suggesting that the further people have migrated from their human origins, the fewer phonemes were required to communicate. In other words, there is a direct correlation between the age of a civilization and the number of phonemes in its language. For example, Inuit languages in the far north contain the fewest phonemes, along with the indigenous peoples of the Pacific Rim, including Hawaii, while African languages tend to be rich in phonemes.

In writing, a few graphic symbols are arranged in thousands of different combinations, resulting in the sharing of a common language. In western culture, writing has a vocabulary of 26 letters, with various adornments. Other cultures have invented different character schemes.

Mark Twain, Benjamin Franklin, and George Bernard Shaw all have attempted, for one reason or another, to modify the number of characters in the English language.**

In the western world, the vocabulary of music is confined to 12 tones known as the chromatic scale. All other scales are derived from these 12 tones. In other cultures, melodic systems may include microtonal scales that are composed of many less discrete tones.

The vocabulary of visual art is point, line, plane, perspective, scale, color, form and dimension.

The vocabulary of numbers is zero through nine, plus or minus, with or without a floating point. In addition, there are mathematical symbols used in writing equations. Aristotle said ‘All things are numbers’, by which he meant that any physical quantity that may be imagined by a human brain can be represented by a numerical symbol or expression.

The vocabulary of computers is a binary code of zeroes and ones.

The vocabulary of smell is based on a finite set of pheromones. The vocabulary of taste relies on five elements of discrimination: sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and what the Japanese call umami, meaning savory or delicious.

The vocabulary of human experience is actions, thoughts, and feelings. All things human are combinations of these three dynamic systems.

The vocabulary of human emotion contains neurochemical states with standardized names such as passionate, anxious, content, frightened. A variety of these primitive elements combine to form all of our emotions. The same principle works for facial expressions, as well as other forms of non-verbal communication, including physical gestures.

The vocabulary of life is DNA. Four chemical bases ATG and C create DNA sequences that map to all known forms of life. In addition, there are twenty amino acids arranged differently to create proteins that build and maintain organisms.

At last count, there are one hundred and nine chemical elements which, when rendered in various combinations, form all of the materials in the known universe.

The vocabulary of nature is atoms, or more precisely electrons and quarks.

Today, there are about 6500 languages spoken world-wide. Some 2000 of these are attributed to hunter gatherer tribes. In India alone, there are some 1000 languages in use. These are average figures. Languages are fluid, they change based on cultural circumstance and need. Languages and dialects range from ‘click’ and ‘sign’ languages to jargon and slang. While some languages are dying out, new languages are emerging. New words enter a language routinely, while others become extinct. Think of all the new computer-related words that were not part of our vocabulary even 10 years ago, such as ‘ebook’ or ‘smart phone’ .

The origin and use of different languages and dialects is driven by cultural and social patterns. Adolescents make up new dialects to keep secrets from authority figures. Small urban neighborhoods and other isolated communities are a perfect spawning ground for the creation of new dialects. Consider that it doesn’t take much time for immigrant children of different cultural backgrounds to make up new languages on the school playground in order to communicate with one another. This combining of two distinctly different languages into a new spoken form creates what linguistics call a Pidgin language.

There is a well-documented case of a parrot in South America which, for a time until its death, was the last surviving creature to speak the native language of the surrounding human population. When the parrot died, the language became extinct.

Here is an old-style limerick I wrote that describes the incident. It’s called Death of a Language.

There once was a Parrot from Peru
Who was older than me and you.
He could swear like a pirate,
Would rat like a fink.

When he finally died,
The anthropologists cried,
For the language he spoke
(and this is no joke)
Was realio, trulio extinct.

(** Abraham Lincoln and Benjamin Franklin wrote short pieces marveling at the invention of phonetic writing. Franklin also composed a delightful Bagatelle in which the letter Z petitions for the alphabet to be reformed. These short pieces, Lincoln’s The Invention of Phonetic Writing, and Franklin’s Writing and The Petition of the Letter Z are easily accessible online.)

MIT Media Lab researcher Deb Roy wanted to understand how his infant son acquired language — ‘so he famously wired up his house with video cameras to catch every moment (with exceptions) of his son’s life.’

See Deb Roy’s remarkable TED talk The Birth of a Word:

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1 Comments ↓

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