Evolution of the language organism

June 10, 2011

Professor Simon Kirby is a computational linguist who holds the Chair of Language Evolution in the department of Linguistics and English Language at the University of Edinburgh.

Kirby and his colleagues investigate, among other things, how culture and biology interact in humans to give rise to language. He appeared on this blog before, when I included his paper “The Evolution of Language” (PDF) in an early collection of language links. Here’s a diagram from the paper:

The Language Evolution and Computation research unit, which Kirby co-founded, focuses on “understanding the origins and evolution of language and communication”. It has “pioneered the application of computational and mathematical modelling techniques to traditional issues in language acquisition, change and evolution”. Its website has an overview of this work, along with a selection of dissertations and an introduction to the intriguing “alien language” experiment.

Kirby’s public Inaugural Lecture took place in March but appeared on YouTube just recently. Titled The Language Organism: evolution, culture, and what it means to be human, it is a broad discussion with general appeal, and Kirby is a relaxed and genial speaker. (I don’t know whether the ambiguity in the phrase “the language organism” is deliberate; it’s apt in any case.) From his summary:

Our species can do something utterly unique in the natural world – a behaviour so transformative that it has reshaped the mechanisms of our own evolution. . . . Virtually all species communicate, but only humans have this trick called Language.

Read the rest of this entry »

Speech as a river of electricity

March 5, 2011

The analogy is Emerson’s, from his essay on poets. I was re-reading it around the time the Fortnightly Review asked me to write something about The King’s Speech, and Emerson’s essay has a passage that is remarkably suited to one of the film’s principal themes: the occasional difficulty of fluid expression. This coincidence led me down several trains of thought that emerged as the article from which I now quote:

The familiarity of speech means we easily overlook how astonishing even its basic mechanics are. Breath swells from our lungs, moving up through the trachea to be shaped by vocal cords, tongue, teeth, jaws and lips and emerge from our mouths as a series of sonic pulses that spread as waves into the world around us. Ears are shaped to receive these vibrations, turn them into electrical signals and transmit them to the brain, where these “rivers of electricity” are unpacked at high speed as sounds, words, and (ideally) sense in other people’s minds.

It is an intricate system that blends physics and biology in a kind of spontaneous everyday alchemy. So much can go wrong, the wonder is that it so often doesn’t. But when we falter, and falter repeatedly, our vulnerable sense of ourselves is undermined. Language is an intimate part of our identity, and for most people it begins with speech and stays centred there. Even when we read, we speak to ourselves. To speak publicly, we must play a role: it is a performance; to do it well, we must be comfortable in the role. To speak like a king, Albert had to feel like one – and he didn’t, at least not at first.

The King’s Speech has been showered with awards, including a Best Picture Oscar, and has received much critical and public acclaim. Not unanimously, of course: its politics and historical authenticity have been soundly challenged. But it’s an enjoyable, effective, and interesting film.

My short essay is called “Radio signals and royal symbols: Language and The King’s Speech”. It’s not a review: more a series of notes on speech, sound, symbols, and the cultural significance of radio at the time George VI’s voice was required to make a declaration of war.

* * *

A note on the Fortnightly Review: first published in 1865, its founder, Anthony Trollope, wanted it to be “impartial and absolutely honest, thoroughly eclectic, opening its columns to all opinions, without any pretensions to editorial consistency or harmony”. It was an editorial experiment; so too is the new series, which is edited by Anthony O’Hear and Denis Boyles.

Curiosities of biological nomenclature

November 9, 2010

Curiosities of Biological Nomenclature is a wonderful website you might not have come across. Its creator, Mark Isaak, introduces it as follows:

Scientific names of organisms are not usually known for their entertainment value. They are indispensable for clarity in communication, but most people skip over them with barely a glance. Here I collect those names that are worth a second look.

And what a collection it is. Virtually every page offers an eye-opening, smile-inducing specimen – often several of them – with succinct and edifying commentary. You’ll find funny facts, strange stories, verbal delights and historical oddities. The site is divided into sections such as Etymology, Puns, and Wordplay, and its many sub-pages amount to a feast of fine browsing material, which is regularly updated.

An example of its taxonomic lore: I learned that Piseinotecus divae, a nudibranch,* gained its peculiar name after an incident in which one of its discoverers “stepped on [a] dog on the way to the kitchen in the middle of the night”. Apparently, Piseinotecus means “I stepped on Teco”, Teco being the name of a dog that belonged either to a diva or to Professor Diva Corrêa.

Chimera fans will appreciate Boselaphus tragocamelus (an antelope, pictured below) whose Latin name translates as “ox-deer goat-camel”; Chaetopterus pugaporcinus (a marine worm) is a “Chaetopterid worm that looks like the rump of a pig” (judge for yourself); while Vampyroteuthis infernalis is, more B-movie-ishly, the “Vampire squid from Hell”. Pun names include Apopyllus now (a spider), Daphoenus demilo (an extinct bear dog), Heerz lukenatcha (a braconid), Pieza deresistans (a fly), and Verae peculya (another braconid).

Offensive names are officially prohibited, but insults and imprecations slip through, sometimes cryptically. Other names are inadvertently indecent. There’s the beetle Foadia (its offence is acronymic), Fukuia (a snail), and Silybum (milk thistle). They get much ruder. Under “Valid Words in Other Contexts” we encounter an insect named Alienates, a beetle named Euphoria, a sea urchin named Disaster, a spinosaur named Irritator, a snail named Provocator, and an arachnid named Oops.

Among the Long and Short Names in the Wordplay section, I met Polichinellobizarrocomicburlescomagicaraneus for the first time; unfortunately, its identity remains a mystery. One page is dedicated to Drosophila melanogaster’s noteworthy gene names, which include currant bun, faint sausage, karst, prospero, skittles, snafu and splat. There are anagrams and tautonyms, rhymes and reversals, onomatopoeia and oxymorons (e.g., Anoura caudifera, the tailed tailless bat).

Names of living things are often redundant and are subject to ongoing revision. One reason for their proliferation is that some namers are “splitters” rather than “lumpers”. All the more reason to be grateful for a website that records and aggregates some of the most interesting and entertaining names in biology.


* Nudibranchs are sea slugs from paradise.

And the vowel was made flesh

October 14, 2010

Neanderthals have been the subject of a lot of attention and research in recent years, some of which has focused on their capacity for speech. What their capabilities were in this regard remains an open question, one I’m not going to get into here, but I would like to share a related item.*

The following quote is from a letter by J. Fremlen titled “The Demese ef the Ne’enderthels: Wes Lengege e Fecter?” It was published in Science magazine in February 1975, in response (I think) to the idea that Neanderthals’ anatomy restricted their vowel sounds and that this in turn imposed significant constraints on their vocal range:

…et seems emprebeble theth ther speech wes enedeqwete bekes ef the leck ef the three vewels seggested. the kemplexete ef speech depends en the kensenents, net en the vewels, es ken be seen frem the generel kemprehensebelete ef thes letter.

Most internet users are familiar with the text that begins: “Aoccdrnig to rscheearch at Cmabrigde uinervtisy…” (see the discussion at Language Hat), but the uni-vowel text above is comparatively obscure. Rewritten with correct vowels: “…it seems improbable that their speech was inadequate because of the lack of the three vowels suggested. The complexity of speech depends on the consonants, not on the vowels, as can be seen from the general comprehensibility of this letter.”

The greater weight of consonants in speech is reflected in their relative stability. Tremendous shifts in vowel sounds have occurred, most notably during the Great Vowel Shift of the 15C–18C; there’s also much vowel-sound variety between contemporary dialects. Simeon Potter, in Our Language, used anatomical metaphors to convey the relative stabilities of the two main speech sound categories:

Consonants are, in general, the more permanent elements in a language: they are, as it were, the skeleton. Vowels and diphthongs are, so to speak, the flesh and blood.

And, as we’ve seen, vowels can emerge not just from flesh and blood but from silicone, plaster, metal, and sheer ingenuity.


* First encountered in an endnote in Steven Mithen’s The Prehistory of the Mind.

Pronunciation: received or rejected

September 27, 2010

In his book Does Accent Matter? The Pygmalion Factor, John Honey writes that public school attendance or an RP [Received Pronunciation] accent were among the main criteria for being a British army officer in the world wars of last century. (Actor Dirk Bogarde is said to have attributed his promotions in WWII to his accent.) According to Honey, carnage in the trenches led to a relaxation in the requirement for an RP accent, and men were commissioned “whose voices betrayed their promotion from the ranks”.

Such was the prestige of an RP accent that its lack in these newly promoted officers — the “temporary gentlemen” of Pat Barker’s historical fiction — was apt to invite automatic disrespect from certain quarters. When one such officer inspected the cadets at a public school in Lancing in 1919, Evelyn Waugh (then in his mid-teens) helped organise the dropping of rifles to demonstrate against the officer’s regional form of speech. As a collective gesture it was perhaps more powerful than a Waugh of words would have been.

Honey describes the role schools played in creating a consensus that certain accents were authoritative, while others — whether from the mouths of students or teachers — were shameful:

There is little evidence that, in boys’ public schools at least, [RP] was systematically taught. New boys with local accents were simply shamed out of them by the pressure of the school’s ‘public opinion’. The prep schools, having pupils at an earlier, more formative age, were very important in this respect. In the decades immediately following 1870 there was a time-lag before non-standard accents died out among masters (and indeed headmasters) in the leading public schools. New appointees could be, and were, screened for accent. The boys’ reaction to that minority with ‘suspect’ accents who got through this screening depended upon their general effectiveness as teachers: a weak disciplinarian would find that his accent became another stick with which they would beat or bait him. In a popular man, respected for his teaching or sporting gifts, mildly non-standard speech forms were tolerated — even humoured — as part of the idiosyncrasies of a ‘character’.

As Orwell put it in Politics vs. Literature: “public opinion, because of the tremendous urge to conformity, is less tolerant than any system of law”. Donning my biologist’s hat for a moment, I would say that conformity can be a powerful motivator of behaviour because it serves the structure and survival of a group. This instinct, which can manifest with great cruelty (ridicule, humiliation, isolation, and so on), probably serves an adaptive purpose. It binds a social group, strengthening its cohesion by dismissing outliers (or demanding that they cooperate), and thereby fostering a more effective and efficient system. It’s not pretty, but it’s very mammalian.

Update: There’s further discussion about this at Language Hat.

Frogspawn in an Irish pond

March 15, 2010

As a child I spent endless hours exploring the shallows and periphery of a nearby lake, peering into one mysterious microhabitat after another. Between the house and the lake lies a pond whose gentler motions foster a different kind of local ecology. For example, every spring the pond plays host to masses of frogspawn that grow gradually and perilously into tadpoles, tailed froglets, and finally (if they’re very lucky) adult frogs.

The Common frog (Rana temporaria) is one of Ireland’s three amphibious animals, along with the Natterjack toad and Common newt; all are protected species. Ireland’s frogs appear to have a unique lineage, and despite their vulnerability they may even have survived the last Ice Age. If so, they were probably helped by their ability to breathe through their skin: this allows them to hibernate at the bottom of a pond or in a deep layer of mud.

On a visit to the countryside last weekend, I was delighted to see the local frogs tending to a prodigious clump of spawn that floated serenely at the side of the pond in the early morning sun:

View downward at part of a still pond, with clumps of low reeds and grasses in the foreground and masses of frogspawn amidst and just beyond them. At the top can be seen the reflections of trees on the pond surface.

Click here for clammy close-ups

Hoover, the ‘talking’ harbour seal

January 26, 2010

‘Imitation is as crucial to the acquisition of speech as it is to learning gesture,’ writes Christine Kenneally in The First Word: The Search for the Origins of Language. As infants we mimic our parents’ or guardians’ language as part of a natural process of learning our unique version of it, going from babbling to building novel sentences in a remarkably short time. (Birds, bats and dolphins are also said to have a babbling phase.)

As we get older we remain impressed by skilled mimicry, be it impressions of other accents or the more peculiar ability of some animals to make sounds like we do. We are amused and intrigued by any creature that can mimic human speech despite the considerable anatomical differences. Videos of ‘talking’ cats and dogs abound on YouTube, to say nothing of birds and elephants.

A more surprising example is the seal. Kenneally’s book describes the case of Hoover, a harbour seal who became famous for his human impersonations:

Hoover didn’t ‘talk’ until he reached sexual maturity, but once he started, he improved over the years. He spoke only at certain times of the year (not as much in the mating season) and would reputedly adopt a strange position in order to do so. He didn’t move his mouth. Terrence Deacon [Anthropologist at the University of California, Berkeley] recounts stumbling across Hoover while walking near the aquarium one evening. He thought a guard was yelling at him (‘Hey! Hey! Get outta there!’).

Harbour seals may seem unlikely mimics, but they have a wide range of vocalisations — especially among sexually mature males. You can read a short account of Hoover’s life story at the New England Aquarium website, which also has a short audio clip of Hoover ‘talking’. It’s a funny, slurring sound, like the gruff scolding of an ill-tempered janitor.

Evolutionary biologist Tecumseh Fitch hosts a few more files of Hoover’s ‘speech’ on his page at the University of St Andrews. Fitch says Hoover’s ability is all the more interesting because ‘vocal learning of complex sounds’ has not been found in any non-human primate, and the animals skilled in such learning — such as song birds and cetaceans — do not use the same organs that we do.

Hoover died in 1985 but his legacy continues in his grandson Chacoda, aka Chuck, who seems to have inherited this remarkable ability.

Update: Another note on Hoover’s vocalisations, and accent, appears in Terrence Deacon’s book The Symbolic Species:

Opinions were mixed on where and how he learned these phrases. Some were convinced that he learned them from the staff, or was taught by them as he began to vocalize in ways that sounded speechlike; but the story that seemed to ring true was that he sounded just like the old fisherman who originally took him in, years before. I thought from the beginning that he had sort of a down-east, old-salt accent.