Outbreaks of contagious laughter (and mewing)

May 10, 2014

Robert Provine’s book Laughter: A Scientific Investigation has a very interesting chapter on contagious laughter. This curious phenomenon has long been exploited in such items as laugh boxes and musical laugh records, as well as being central to laugh tracks (from Ancient Rome to modern TV) and churches of “holy laughter”.

Contagious laughter is, of course, also an everyday occurrence, spreading directly from person to person in normal interaction. But even this activity can become abnormal, when for instance instead of dying down it persists and spreads over a wide area, as happened in the Tanganyika laughter epidemic (though it wasn’t just laughter).

Provine writes:

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Book spine poem: a language evolution special

October 24, 2013

Someone once told me it was harder to make a book spine poem from non-fiction titles. I hadn’t thought about this before, and I’m never conscious of it when constructing them.

But it led me to look at my earlier book spine poems and see what pattern emerged. Fiction/non-fiction ratios (in reverse chronological order) are as follows: 5:5, 7:2, 8:2, 4:4, 2:5, 6:2, 2:4, 4:4, 2:4, 2:4, 2:5, 3:2, 3:4, 4:3, 2:1, 0:4, 1:4, 0:3, 2:2, 4:2, 1:2, 4:4, 7:9.

That’s 75 fiction, 81 non-fiction. I’m surprised there are more non-fiction, and that the totals ended up so close. Two bookmashes are exclusively non-fiction, but none contain only fiction. (New challenge!)

I don’t usually set out with a theme in mind, but this time I wanted to make one about language/linguistics, which was always going to skew heavily towards non-fiction: 2:7. Non-fiction surges ahead – for now.

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stan carey - book spine poem - bookmash - evolution the difference engine

Evolution: the difference engine

Words words words ad infinitum –
The power of Babel,
The languages of the world.
Human speech: the articulate mammal enigma,
Evolution: the difference engine.

*

Thanks to the authors: Diarmaid Ó Muirithe, Nicholas Ostler, John McWhorter, Kenneth Katzner, Richard Paget, Jean Aitchison, Robert Harris, Carl Zimmer, William Gibson and Bruce Sterling; and to artist Nina Katchadourian.

More in the bookmash archive.


Terrence Deacon on language evolution

December 20, 2011

Was it William Burroughs who first described language as a virus from outer space? I’ve always liked the analogy, though it may be more useful to think of language as a symbiont from inner space.

In his book The Symbolic Species (1997), Terrence Deacon describes the language-as-a-virus metaphor as extreme but helpful. He identifies the most basic principle guiding the design of languages to be ‘not communicative utility but reproduction – theirs and ours’.

Deacon feels the best way to study language structure is to do so from an evolutionary point of view. Languages have co-evolved with their hosts – us – under the forces of selection. This can help us make sense of children’s precocious rate of linguistic development:

The structure of a language is under intense selection because in its reproduction from generation to generation, it must pass through a narrow bottleneck: children’s minds. Language operations that can be learned quickly and easily by children will tend to get passed on to the next generation more effectively and more intact than those that are difficult to learn. . . . Language structures that are poorly adapted to this niche simply will not persist for long.

As language emerged in tandem with the human nervous system – each adapting to the other – it drew on existing cognitive abilities. The facility for language is not the responsibility of some dedicated device in the brain but rather is spread across many parts of it.

In his his article ‘Rethinking the natural selection of human language’, Deacon writes that

the neural structures and circuits involved in the production and comprehension of language are homologous to structures found ubiquitously in most monkey and ape brains: old structures performing unprecedented new tricks.

Below is a video of Deacon giving a talk in 2010 called ‘Language & complexity: Evolution inside out’. It’s quite a technical presentation (I was grateful for my distant background in genetics and developmental biology), but Deacon is a clear and engaging speaker and his subject matter is deeply interesting.

Replicated Typo, reporting on the talk, says Deacon’s ideas are ‘our best avenue for exploring how language evolved’. Edmund Blair Bolles at Babel’s Dawn is similarly impressed; he writes that the strength of Deacon’s proposal is that it “[describes] a mechanism for the brain changes that support language”:

The old view that language functions are confined to a few regions like Broca’s area and Wernicke’s area, or even the left hemisphere can no longer stand. Language processing involves complex coordination between multiple systems. But the modern human brain is a relatively recent acquisition. How did all that complexity evolve and become coordinated?

Deacon has some persuasive thoughts on this. Birdsong, some of you will be happy to hear, features quite a lot. The talk lasts about an hour, with a short Q&A at the end.


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.

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On the mysterious emergence of language

March 24, 2010

Ironically, what makes it hard to discern how language evolved is a result of language having evolved (Christine Kenneally, The First Word)

In a short piece I wrote in January about a “talking” harbour seal, I mentioned Christine Kenneally’s book The First Word: The Search for the Origins of Language. More recently I watched a talk Kenneally gave, hence this reprise.

Her book delves into several of my pet interests: linguistics, natural history, psychology, evolution, animal behaviour and communication, and cognitive science. It’s an accessible and up-to-date work of popular evolutionary linguistics, exploring what language is and how it arose. It discusses what is known and accepted about these matters, and it assesses points of uncertainty and dispute.

Something very strange about evolutionary linguistics is that the subject was effectively off limits for so long. In 1866 the Société de Linguistique de Paris rejected all material concerning the origin of language; six years later the London Philological Society followed suit. This scholastic self-censorship helped make language evolution a discredited subject for decades, and it wasn’t until the second half of the 20th century that it began to gradually regain academic credibility.

In an author’s note to The Secret Agent, Joseph Conrad wrote: “Man may smile and smile but he is not an investigating animal. He loves the obvious. He shrinks from explanation.” There is something to this observation. I’m reminded of the widespread aversion to studying consciousness when behaviourism dominated mainstream psychology, and the related reluctance to accept the phenomenon of neuroplasticity (and its significance to learning).

In late 2007 Christine Kenneally gave a talk about the origins of language and the development of its scientific study, as part of the Authors@Google programme. Her presentation covers much the same material as her book, though obviously in a more condensed and sketchy form, and with questions and answers from the audience:

Kenneally’s website has more information, including related articles and links and several reviews of The First Word. Erika Hoff’s review (PDF, 22 kB) for the Journal of Evolutionary Psychology is an especially interesting read; it includes what seems to be a fair assessment of the book’s shortcomings, which are easily outweighed by its merits.

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