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 excellent 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.

A post at 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.


Omit needless criticisms of redundancy

January 4, 2011

In writing, as in conversation, an economical use of words is not always what we want – Bergen Evans

Redundancy has a poor reputation in writing and editing. Its modern linguistic sense – which I think derives from information theory – has to do with predictability, but it is more generally associated with needless repetition or wordiness, and is therefore often automatically considered a failing in prose. This, however, is only part of the story.

Certainly there are pointless pleonasms like future plans, necessary requirement, in close proximity to, collaborate together, and 9 a.m. in the morning, which can bug readers and signal carelessness in writers, while phrases like sudden explosion and crept quietly gain nothing from their modifying adjectives and adverbs. Acronymic doublings like ATM machine and HIV virus attract endless criticism, and you won’t find me defending due to the fact that over because. Speaking of ATMs, is there a subtlety I’m missing in the instruction “Please Prepay in Advance”?

Yet despite what you might infer from some writing guides, redundancy is not inherently problematic. It’s a natural part of our speech and grammar, and can help in the transmission of a message by compensating for interference or incomplete attention. MWDEU offers an illuminating example from Todd & Hancock (1986): “those two dogs”, in which plurality is marked three times in three words. This shows how redundancy is built into the very structure of language. According to Terrence Deacon,

the best way to compensate for noise or error-proneness in communication is redundancy. We tend to repeat things, spell out important words, say the same thing in different ways, or add gestures and exaggerated tonality and volume in order to overcome the vicissitudes imposed by noisy rooms, distractions, inept listeners, or otherwise difficult-to-convey messages. Redundancy is implicitly built into language structure as well. Highly predictable phonetic elements, grammatical markers that all must agree within a sentence, and predictable word-order constraints can help one anticipate what is coming. (The Symbolic Species, 1997)

English has many redundant lexical pairs, such as first and foremost, and so on and so forth, and each and every. Joseph M. Williams dates this phenomenon to the time the language began to borrow liberally from Latin and French. “Because the borrowed word usually sounded a bit more learned than the familiar native one,” he observes, “early writers would use both.”

Perhaps the persistence of these set phrases testifies to our love of rhythmic and alliterative couplets. Such characteristics may, in turn, help memory and learning. We need not take Strunk and White’s authoritarian “Omit needless words” too much to heart, nor Orwell’s equally severe “A sentence should contain no unnecessary words”. In The Columbia Guide to Standard American English, Kenneth G. Wilson writes, more generously:

as every preacher and teacher knows, it is often pedagogically sound to “tell ’em first what you’re gonna tell ’em, then tell ’em, and finally tell ’em what you’ve told ’em.” Sometimes repetition – redundancy – is a good way to ensure effectiveness.


Albert Anker: Grandfather Tells a Story, 1884

Repetition is a key part of oral storytelling traditions, and lives on especially in children’s books. Maybe its rhetorical status suffered as a result of our industrial ideals of efficiency and economy. It can still be used deliberately to emphasise an idea, convey a certain nuance, or achieve some prosodic effect. For example, reducing the tautological “there’s dollars there, dollars and bucks and nuggets in the ground”* to a concise “there’s wealth there” would drain it of colour and life.

In Irish English, redundancy is an abundant feature. Many people here are incurably fond of roundabout locutions, be it in casual conversation or as a literary device. “Are you going out?” goes the question, to which the reply might be not a curt “No” but a singsong “Well indeed now and I am not.” P. W. Joyce dedicated an entire chapter of English As We Speak It In Ireland to exaggeration and redundancy.

To recap: We can think of redundancy in language in two ways: a technical kind that is essential to language, and a more general kind that can require editing, but doesn’t necessarily. Rather than assume that wordy redundancy should always be eliminated, language users can judge its effect on communication in a given context. Sometimes even in formal writing, there’s no harm in a delay or detour if it makes the message more meaningful or memorable.

Update: Gabe Doyle has written a useful post on the subject, writing: “Adding redundant information is the rational thing to do if you expect the noise levels to be high enough that some information will be lost, and in almost every linguistic situation, that’s the case.”

F. L. Lucas, in his classic work Style, says:

It is not considerate to the reader to present him continuously with matter to tersely and tensely compressed that his attention can never relax, because if he loses a word he is lost. This becomes truer still with oratory. Ben Johnson says in praise of Bacon that ‘His hearers could not cough, or look aside from him, without loss.’ … There remains sometimes a certain need of bulk.


* From MacCruiskeen’s description of the U.S.A. in Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman.

[image source]

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 period of time. (Birds, bats and dolphins are also said to go through 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 certain non-humans to make sounds like we do. We are amused and intrigued by any creature that can mimic human speech despite 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 includes a charming account 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 very 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 that 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.

Edit: Another note on Hoover’s vocalisations, and accent, from 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.