What types of knowledge do you need in order to use language? You know A LOT more than you think! From abstract rules, to how to remove ambiguity in funny sentences, an ocean of knowledge is available to you every second of your day. Learn more about the ease with which you do amazing computations when you speak, and be proud of yourself!
Hello, and welcome to Language with Chu. If you haven’t watched the last two parts, please do so, so that you understand a bit better where we’re coming from, and getting to.
This part will be about the knowledge that is implicit, all the stuff that we need to know in order to use language. And it’s nothing short of a miracle, actually. So all these things, remember, are things that you’re not even aware of most of the time, okay? They’re implicit.
First you need to know sounds. And by sounds I don’t mean just /a/, /b/ etc, but also which ones correspond to your language, and how to combine them. You have all kinds of little rules in your head. For example, if I tell you “opened” and “looked”, both are the past tense of those verbs, but “opened” sounds like a “d”, the “d” at the end, while “looked” is actually a “t” sound. But you never thought about it, maybe, because obviously it’s written with “ed” at the end. Those have to do with sound combinations, what your language allows you to do. So you have a ton of rules just for that, for sounds.
Then you have a ton of rules of what I call “encyclopedic meaning“, because usually definitions in a dictionary are very simple, but they don’t convey all the subtleties and all the meanings of a word. Say the word “open”: you can open a door, open the closet, open a drawer, open a book, open your mind, open up with somebody, etcetera. There are a hundred of expressions with the word “open” that may not be in a dictionary, but you know perfectly well what they mean, and you use them perfectly well, and in a variety in multiple ranges of scenarios too. Okay.
Then you have knowledge about the word structure: if I tell you the word “teacher”, you know that it comes from the verb “to teach” and that the “er” means “a person who does something”, right? A teacher is a person who teaches. But what about “bestseller”? Is it a person who “best sells”? No. And what about a “villager”? Is it a person who “villages”? No. So, even though you saw certain patterns like in “teacher”, “carpenter”, “hairdresser”, etc., you already have knowledge of exceptions, basically. Of structures that are similar, but which don’t mean the same.
Then you have, based on word structure as well… you also have to expand into word order: in English, sentences go Subject + Verb + Object. So, if I tell you… a famous one for linguists is “Dog bites man” on a newspaper headline, for example. It wouldn’t necessarily make the news but what would make the news is “Man bites dog” because it’s more unusual. And you know which one is the subject and which one the object just from English’s word order. In languages like Hungarian, for example, you don’t have that at all, so you’d have to come up with other… you have to use other bits and bobs of the language to know who the subject is and who the object is.
And then you also have idioms: if I tell you, “He kicked the bucket”, either I’m talking about a janitor, say, who got really angry and kicked his bucket, or in most cases, you know exactly what I mean, right? It means “to die”.
Then there is the fact that you have to have these patterns —all these patterns in your head, thousands of them— and the abstract rules that go with them. Say the subject comes before the object, etc. and with just a few elements you form an infinite amount of sentences. It’s very likely that the sentence that I just uttered was never “invented” before. Some sentences are repeated and are very common, but for the most part, we can produce an infinite amount of sentences, with an infinite length, even, and still be understood. And nobody really knows how we do that, but it’s one of the nifty things about language, that with a few elements you can keep going on and on and on, just like I am now.
Okay, then you have the sentence structure. Like I said on the previous video, if I tell you “the woman standing next to you smiled”, did you smile, or did the woman smile? You know immediately that it’s the woman, even though “you” is right next to “smiled”. You just know how the thing works, and you understand the concepts in your head, and you can follow a conversation without any trouble.
Other examples are found often in newspapers, and they make for funny titles. I was looking for some earlier, and there is: “Students cook and serve grandparents”. There are two meanings there, and you got immediately what the right one was, but the other one sounds kind of… not too cool, right? Here’s another one: “Drunk gets nine years in violin case”. Obviously, it’s not the violin case, it’s a legal case, right? Or “Iraqi head seeks arms” obviously is the arms as weapons, right? [And the “head” as leader”.] So, all those little things make up for funny ambiguities and silly titles, but you know exactly how to use them. Immediately, you know how to recognize them.
And then finally there is “contextualization cues” which is anything you need to know about, say, for example, pronouns. In many languages, you have different pronouns according to the age of the person. Or even if I just tell you simply “you saw them” or “he saw them”. You know who “he” is, and you know who “they” are (“them”). Otherwise you couldn’t understand that sentence, and I know you know. That’s why I’m using these pronouns.
So, basically, if you combine all of this with the knowledge about your environment that you need, which is a lot… You need to read cues all the time (nonverbal communication). You need to know others, you need to know how others think more or less, you need to know who you’re talking to. You need to know everything about the world that you can know, from gravity to how to buy potatoes at a supermarket. Anything, everything that you know, it weighs more than an entire encyclopedia in your head. And yet, you just use it as if it was nothing. You take language for granted most of the time.
So I’ll finish with this: if you ever think that you’re too dumb, too old or whatever to learn any new language (or any new skill, really), just remember how much you know about language, and with how much ease you use it without realizing it. If you’ve managed to learn your mother tongue and anything else in life, you can tackle your next project, no problem! You’re going to be able to, because any time we acquire a complex skill such as language, we’re picking from all kinds of areas (physical, mental, and social) to perform all kinds of functions. And we have a ton of abilities that we don’t even remember we have or acknowledge that we have or notice that we have.
So you’re just a walking little Einstein (we all are) when it comes to language. And yeah, to me it’s like magical. It’s amazing. The richness of language is unbelievable, and we often take it for granted just like we do for most of our other capacities, or even the parts of our…. how our body works as a whole.
Thank you for watching, for leaving comments and questions and likes and for subscribing, and see you soon for more on language!
And now we explore all the functions that language fulfills. Our lives would be so empty without it! Language is constantly helping us communicate, understand the world around us, and even ourselves. It can be used for creation, or for destruction. A few words can become powerful actions. And last but not least, language offers a window towards what is invisible in the miracle of life. Are you still thinking that we owe language to gradual and random mutations? Think again!
Hello, and welcome to language with Chu. Let’s continue on with what language is. I recommend that you watch at least part six of this series, if not all of it, so that you have a pretty good idea of what we’re talking about.
But now, on this part, we’re going to focus on what the functions of language are. What does language do for us? Well, there are many, many functions. You can you can do as we did in the previous one, if you want. Pause the video and try to come up with your own ideas of what language does, and then tell me if you got more or less than I did.
First of all, we have a communicative function. For linguists, sometimes communication is the most important function of language. For others, not so much. Rather, it’s more like an expression of our thoughts. Both camps, again, are right in a way, but I think they also miss a lot of details. But if we only focus on communication, we could say, well, language serves to express ideas, concepts, feelings, thoughts… anything you want to can express via language. And if you didn’t have language, well, good luck expressing some things! If I wanted to tell you that yesterday I tripped and fell, and my knee was aching, I could probably try to imitate the action, sort of, and you might get it. But imagine if I was telling you without language that I’m reading this interesting book about gravity, and blah, blah, blah. Good luck with that, right?
So language fulfills a big, big function in terms of expressing our thoughts, our feelings, or any concept, really. And how do we do that? Well, we do that with symbols. Again, there are different schools of thought. Sometimes linguists prefer to talk about a “language of thought”, which works with different grammar rules, if you wish. And different symbols too. And then we have language as it is externalized/ expressed via your own mother tongue or other languages.
But now, for the sake of simplicity, let’s just focus on the symbols that we use for language. And those can be of all kinds. The sounds, like I described in the Sounds and Meaning videos. It can be morphemes: “possible”/”impossible”. The “im” in “impossible” means “not”, “not possible”. You know those things without even thinking about them.
Then comes each word. You have to know the symbol for each concept, each word. So you know “yesterday”, “bottle”, “tree”, “cigarette”, or anything.
Then you know groups of words. You know that “behind the sofa” is three words, and it’s not the same as “in front of the sofa”, while for a foreigner, for example, that might be all a blur and they don’t know where one word starts, and the other one finishes, right? For each of the languages we master, we know how to decode and encode groups of words.
Then we have groups of clauses, that is, many sentences within sentences, and full sentences. So, for example, if I tell you, “The man who worked at the flower shop loved the lady who worked at the bakery”, or whatever, those two chunks of sentences… the “who worked at the bakery”… are closest, and you know how to group them. And you know how to understand immediately a sentence. Or “The teacher standing next to the pupil smiled”. Who smiled, the teacher or the pupil? You immediately know that is the teacher, right? Even though “smiled” is right next to “pupil”. So all those things are automatic for you.
And then we have this idea that for each symbol, you have a form (whether it’s the letters in the way it’s spelled or the sounds in the way it’s pronounced), and you have a meaning (what it really means, kind of like a dictionary definition). But as we’ll see in a minute, meaning is not so simple. It’s a lot more complex than that. And the sign, the symbols, may not be as arbitrary and conventional as it’s often thought. Usually it’s believed that somebody (our ancestors, the people who created our own language) decided, “Okay this is a paper. You know this is called paper end of story”. Everybody starts calling it “paper”.
Well, if you watched the Sounds and Meaning videos, you know that it… I think it can’t be that simple, because there are too many similarities across languages, even in languages that are never supposed to be related. That speaks of something else, that speaks of some kind of glue that binds certain groups of languages with others, and that it’s not as easy as to say, “Well, this is the mother of this language”. I’m going to make another series on the chronology of some of the languages and how supposedly they evolved. Say, romance languages from Latin. And you’ll see that it’s not so clear-cut. I don’t have the answer, but I think it’s a lot more, I would say “spiritual”, in a sense. It’s not so tangible, it’s not so easy to determine as to say it’s just conventional, somebody decided and everybody agreed, okay?
So next: the interactive or social aspects and functions of language. Many things in language are actions. They’re called “acts of speech”. So, if I tell you, “Pass me the salt!”, it really is an order. If I were a minister and I were to tell you, “I pronounce you husband and wife”, think of the implications of that, just that little sentence. If I ask you, “Do you know the time?” Obviously, I’m not asking you if you know the time, but I’m asking you for something. And if you’re a smart ass, you could say, “Yes I do, and not answer my question, but you know what I mean. So all those are acts of speech.
Then you have something that I think is quite important in language. I’ve mentioned it in the past as well, and it’s that language, as much as it allows us to express our conscious feelings and thoughts, it also allows for more sneaky feelings and thoughts, and it can be turned into a weapon for creation or for destruction. Simple words like “pandemic”, for example. The definition has changed a lot in the last two years depending on who you ask, what “science you follow” and… I don’t want to get political or anything, to not be banned from Youtube, but I hope you get my meaning.
Other words like such could be “white male”, “dissident”, “war on terror”… It all depends on who’s telling them, and who’s using them for creating policies that could either improve the situation in a country or destroy it, improve the situation in society or destroy it, create more division or not. So I think that’s an important function of language that usually gets exploited. But not always. Sometimes it’s used for good reasons too, kind of like when you give yourself good affirmations and you accomplish something after the fact.
Then we have that language fulfills a role within culturally understood activities, with mutually understood goals. What I mean by that is that, for example, say you meet with a bunch of friends and it’s agreed that you’re gossiping, that you’re not really telling the truth about somebody, or really have solid proof about what you’re saying. Everybody understands that, and that stays within the context of that conversation. Or say you go to a shop to buy a pair of boots. If the shop assistant suddenly brings you a bundle of bananas, you know that there’s something wrong, right? It doesn’t belong to that kind of situation. So language has to keep… when you’re using language, you keep in mind all those kinds of goals and activities and rules.
A then, finally, you get a lot of information from language with cues from your environment. So, an example would be, again, that one about the bananas instead of shoes. Or when you get cues about how the other person is feeling, and you change the way you’re talking, because you’re getting those cues from his or her language and from the environment as a whole. So language uses… it filters a lot of information that you constantly are bombarded with.
And finally, this is a little bit less, let’s say, “official or mainstream”, but I think language is a big, big tool to make sense of our world, from when we’re children till much later too. The words we have are an integral part of who we are, of our growth, our internal world. It would be nice to have, say for example, telepathy. I wouldn’t have to guess your thoughts, and you wouldn’t have to guess mine. But would we learn as much? When you’re trying to express a strong emotion, and you don’t have the words for it, and you search and search, and dig, and finally go, like, “Yesss! Eureka! I know how I feel. I can tell you”.
All those things have to do with finding words, with using language, and I think they’re a part of our ability to grow as human beings. They’re also part of our… without language, we wouldn’t be able to listen, and learn to listen to others, which is very, very important to grow something in us, to grow more empathy, to be able to develop deep relationships, etc.
Then there’s also a lot of language that has to do with our growth, or our internal world, in terms of that inner dialogue that we have, sometimes. You know, for example, you’re trying to achieve something and you go, like. “Oh no, I’m stupid. I’ll never achieve this”. Or, “Like my mom used to say, I’m gonna be useless at this”, or whatever you’re thinking that you carry from childhood. And all those things use language. You’re talking to yourself most of the day, actually, more than you talk to others.
So they’re all part of our internal world and, like I said before, it’s also (in terms of our how we cope with reality) it can also be said to be an engine for creation or destruction depending on what we tell ourselves, what we conquer in ourselves, etc.
And this one a debated one: language is reflective of our perception, it has to do with thought and the question of “how much does our culture influence our language, and vice versa?” How much does our language influence our thoughts. That’s another topic for another series of videos, because there’s a lot of interesting stuff to tell you about it that you probably don’t know.
But basically, all of this has to do with thought, whether it’s a language of thought (like some linguists believe) or if thought is something separate. We use thought a lot when we use language, and language a lot when we use thought. The only difference is that when you speak it or write, it adds some kind of linearity to it. You could think in many terms, think of many things at once, but you can’t vocalize many things at once.
And then, again, debatable, is the idea that language forges habits of mind. It forces us to think about some things and not others. For example, if in English I tell you, “I spent the night at my neighbor’s house”, you don’t know if my neighbor is a man or a woman, if I’m trying to tell you something without saying something, or whatever. While in Spanish, I would be forced to tell you immediately whether my neighbor is a girl-friend or a male friend, see? Because Spanish is a gendered language, and “neighbor” is either masculine or feminine. So I would HAVE to add that information and all those little things. That’s just a small example, but all those little things may forge something in our minds that makes us view the world in slightly different ways. Sometimes not so slightly different, actually.
But that’s a topic for another video, and I would like to hear from you on the comments if you thought of any other functions that language has, and if you agree with any of this or disagree. And which one you think may be the most important one if there’s any. But I hope that now with this video and the previous one, and all the previous ones, you’re seeing how complex it is, how a simple definition of “language is just a means of communication” doesn’t really begin to describe what language is.
And I hope you see that it’s also very difficult to determine what we’re born with, and what we learn as we develop, as we grow. So I’ll leave it here and see you on the next part. Leave me your comments and please subscribe to my channel, and click on like and all the things you do on Youtube and share farm wide if you find this interesting. Bye!
I’m back! This one may be a bit more “nerdy”, but it explains some things about language that you may never have thought about. You’re a genius for speaking any language!
If you are a language nerd, you will like this one! How many parts of our bodies do we need to produce speech? Which is the only floating bone in our body, and how is it useful for speech? How do we use statistics all day long when producing language, and not even realizing it? What is Theory of Mind? What abilities do we need to put to use every time we speak, ranging from motor skills, to cognitive abilities and social aptitudes? All this and much more, to explain how everything in language is complex, and how its basic dictionary definition doesn’t even begin to explain it.
Hello! And welcome to Language with Chu.
Today we’re going to talk about something very simple, actually. Yet, I hope to show you that it’s a lot more complicated than it seems. If you’ve watched my previous videos about Sounds and Meaning, and about Language Complexity you already have an idea of where I’m trying to get to.
But I’ll start with the simplest question of them all: What is Language? And by working on that definition I hope that it’s not too nerdy and that you get a lot of ideas about how language works, and why the state of Linguistics, or the state of the “science of language” is kind of stagnant nowadays.
One of the problems is that, like in any science, most people try to find a very simple definition for something, so that the hypotheses that they are testing will make sense, will be able to be tested even, and the experiments replicated, etc. Well, Linguistics is a little bit in between, because it’s within the Humanities, but some currents of Linguistics have been trying for decades to make it more scientific.
So it’s a little bit between both sides, and you can forgive some linguists for being too “scientific” and missing the forest for the trees, or some others for being too “wishy-washy” in their definitions. But the problem is that, with language, I think, you can’t just focus on one simple definition. In fact, I hope that in the examples that come next, you’ll see that everything in language is complex, and everything in language requires more than one dictionary definition.
Ok, so, let’s start with “What is Language?”. If I were to ask you how many abilities you need to speak, and to use language in general… And here, just a note: When I’m talking about “Language”, I’m talking about the Language capacity, not each individual language, ok? So, what do we need to know from a physical point of view, from a mental or cognitive point of view, and from a social point of view? What is the set of skills that you need in order to speak? And I would suggest that you pause the video here, and think about it. Make you own little bullet points, and then resume watching, and see if you got them all. I probably missed many, but I think you’re going to be surprised. [Pause].
Okay, I’m assuming you paused the video and did that little exercise if you felt like it, but let’s start with the physical things that you need to have and to know: First of all, you have to have “parts” that work. You need to have lungs to breathe, you need to have a heart… If you’re not alive you’re not going to be talking! You need a functioning brain… You need everything that makes you a human being to talk.
That’s number one, and they need to work FOR language. For example, our breath is used in a specific way to materialize language. Otherwise you could just be breathing without making any noises, any vocalizations, and it wouldn’t be called “speech”.
Second, you need a neuromuscular complex, I would say: we have roughly 700 muscles in our bodies, and about 78 of them are muscles that we use for speech. Not just for speech, but mainly for it. So, that’s a lot! And you need every tiny muscle and nerve and everything to help you articulate the sounds you make (produce sound), they need to help you control how you articulate things (otherwise nobody could understand you), and they have to make it as easy as possible for you to produce sounds.
So all of that is an entire mechanism working in the background while you use speech. You have a lot of skills you don’t even realize you have, because they are subconscious [automatic], basically.
Then you need the larynx, and the larynx is basically the “voice box” that we have (some people call it the voice box), but it’s just 2 inches long, it’s not very big. And without it, we couldn’t speak either. But the interesting thing is that it’s involved in many functions apart from language. And you’ll see this more, and more, and more. There is hardly any unique thing that we could say, “this is ONLY for language”. For example, we use the larynx, all this part of our necks to swallow, to breathe, to cough… and there are minute mechanisms going on in the larynx to allow you to talk, or to swallow, not to choke, etc. So you need the larynx.
You also need something called the hyoid bone. I don’t know if you’ve heard of it. But it’s this floating little bone, kind of inside here… You cannot really palpate it, but it’s studied nowadays for problems with sleep apnea. It’s used in forensics for determining of somebody was strangled or not. And as a funny piece of trivia, I’ll let you that if anybody asks you, “which is the only bone in the body that floats?”, you can say it’s the hyoid bone. It’s not quite correct, because it’s floating on air, but it’s a bit like the patella, the knee cap. But this one is particularly… Here in the image you can see how it really looks like it’s floating. It’s connected by a bunch of ligaments and little muscles and stuff, but it doesn’t articulate with any other bone. So that’s why it is said to be floating.
Well, this little bone is interesting because it is in the right position to help the tongue move, to help the larynx open and close so that you can speak, or swallow or eat….
And animals have it… animals have a larynx too (many animals), but they don’t have them in the right position to allow for speech. It’s commonly believed that one of the things that made humans speak [in the course of evolution] was the descent of the larynx. In some animals it’s very, very high, so it doesn’t allow for the cavities that we have. Resonance cavities and such. And there is not much difference between the sounds that they can produce for vocalization, and the piping for eating or breathing. In our case, humans, our larynx is quite low and that creates enough room, levers and pulleys that allow us to do both: breathe and eat, and speak. But, I can tell you right now that that’s not really true, because many animals also have a lowered larynx, and it’s not because of that that they speak. So, it can’t be the only factor. None of these are the only factors, but they all contribute to speech.
You also need a bucco-nasal cavity. So, anything that resonates, from your nose, to your cheeks, to everything in your mouth, your teeth, etc. In my videos about phonemes and sounds I described how each sound in language is placed in the mouth, and they each have their names, etc. If you are interested, check that video too.
And then you have a brain. Obviously, you need to have a functioning brain. And again, there is so little that is known about it! You will hear that Broca’s area, or Wernicke’s area is for language. And although there is some specialization and language is mostly seated on the left hemisphere, there are many cases of injuries where the brain immediately kind of takes over, or compensates for the part that is injured and uses something else.
So, I don’t think it’s as simple as saying, “Here is my language center”, or whatever. Not to mention that, as we’ll see in a minute, we need so many skills to speak and to use language, that it seems that the whole of the brain is lighting up when we speak. Also, the studies that we CAN do nowadays, with brain scans and MRIs… They are quite limited, if you think about it, because all they are showing is brain activity as in electricity, and maybe some neurochemicals acting, and chemical activity. But it’s not the whole banana, because where is it all stored? How does it work? The amount of words you know, the amount of knowledge you have about the world…
I had an MRI done once, and my brain looked quite tiny, you know? And I speak three languages really well, and three others not so well, and I have no idea of how it could all fit into my small brain. Maybe you have a bigger brain! 😉 Anyway, I don’t think that explains language and how it works. I think it has more to do with the connection between brain and mind, so everything that is non tangible but that is usually equated with the brain.
Okay, and finally (I’ll go through these quickly), you need the vagus nerve. I’ve spoken about the vagus nerve in previous videos too. What is interesting is that, as I just said, the brain is not everything, and the vagus nerve, not only does it have the right branch that controls, or helps you regulate a lot of your facial movements, but it also has a very important pro-social role. And also, it reaches all the way down to your gut. Recently, or not so recently, scientists found out that 90% of the branches of the vagus nerve send signals up to the brain. And do you know what also is in the gut? Neurons. There are a lot of neurons. So again, nobody knows how we think, how we feel. Maybe most of the time we’re thinking with our guts? I don’t know. Anyway, you need that to speak as well.
And you also need gestures. For many linguists, gestures are at the beginning of the emergence of language. I don’t quite agree, and if you’ve watched the previous videos in this series, you know why. But gestures (gesticulating) is important for language, and the more you know who to use them, the more you can use them, the better for language.
OK? So that’s it for what you need to do physically, and if you notice, all of this is almost subconscious, or you don’t really have a lot of control over it. You’re not thinking, “I have 78 muscles in my face that are helping me produce language”, right? If you think about it, you might say so, but most of the time we use language spontaneously, without giving any of these things a thought. OK? So, I would say that this is part of the definition of language if you include what is required for language.
Next we have anything that is cognitive. So, what do we need in our brains or our minds to use language? Well, you need memory. And memory of several kinds. You need short-term memory. Because, say you forget everything I say 3 seconds after I’ve said it. You wouldn’t be able to watch anything, to listen to anybody, you wouldn’t be able to keep your train of thought, etc. You need long-term memory to remember all kinds of things about the environment, about the social situations, about a text, for example… Everything in your long-term memory helps you understand language, more so than we often think it does.
Then you need something kind of nifty, which is statistics. And we are all kind of experts at statistics, if you think about it, because when you learn a language, there are things that are allowed, and not allowed. When you listen to a foreign language, there are sounds that just don’t sound English to you, right? Why? Because you are doing all kinds of computations in your head that tell you, okay, these sounds are normal/allowed in English.
Not only that, but these sounds can also be combined in a specific order in different ways, and when you shuffle them around, they just don’t sound English anymore, right? Well, all those things are a kind of statistic work, because you are always working on probabilities. When you listen to somebody, your brain is calculating, “Does that make sense? Is this more likely than not?” And if it is more likely, then I can even not hear the sounds, and make up the word: If I tell you, “I like ‘omputers”, you didn’t hear the “c”, and maybe you didn’t even notice you weren’t hearing the “c”. “I like ‘omputers”. And you kind of made it up, because you know that, statistically, “omputer” is usually preceded by a /k/ sound.
OK, and that shows that there is a HUGE amount of complexity in what we say. We use language all the time, and it’s so easy, or it sounds so easy to us… It’s only when we meet somebody who is learning our language, our mother tongue as a foreign language that we realize how hard it is. And we don’t even realize all the knowledge we have.
For example, if you are a native speaker of English, could you conjugate the copula in the third person plural, simple past? I’d be interested in hearing how many of you did it, if you can post a comment. What I just said may have sounded like Chinese, but it’s just “they were”, as in “they were happy”. The verb “to be” is called the copula in linguistic jargon.
Or if I tell you the verb…. Give me the verb “to look” in the second person singular, in the present perfect. Can you do it? “He has looked”, or “She has looked”, or “It has looked”. So, see? I know that because I learned English as a second language, but you don’t need to know that. You have all these rules… phonological rules, morphological rules (so which word chunks can go together with which ones)… you know all the verb tenses, you know how to put sentences together… All those things, you have no idea how you do it, but you know it. And when some “annoying” foreigner starts asking you, “but why did you use this tense instead of that other one, blahblah”, you go like, “I don’t know, I just use it!”. So, there is a lot of complexity in what is going on in your mind.
You also need abstract thought, obviously, because not everything is concrete. You need abstract thought even for having a conception of time when you are speaking. You need abstract thought for everything, basically when you speak. It would be very hard to only focus on concrete thoughts to be able to have the type of communication we have nowadays.
And then you need a whole apparatus of encoding and transmitting: so, I’m encoding information and sending it to you; you’re decoding it and receiving all the information. Nobody really knows how that works. There is Information Theory based on some of these concepts, but from there to know how it works in the brain… Scientists have tried, and keep trying to find out how it all works, but like I said, there is so much that we have inside our brains, that it is very difficult to know why, and how language really happens.
OK, and then finally, from a social point of view, you need something that is quite human, although some animals have it to a certain extent too. And that is “theory of mind“. And “theory of mind” is just a term for describing when you can ascribe a mental state to somebody, and predict their reactions, and adjust your own behavior. So, say I tell you, “Hi! How are you?”, and you say, “I’m okay…” [with a sad face]. I already know from your expression that you are not really doing ok. So I can’t take you literally, and I may as you, “What’s wrong?”. Or when I’m about to make a request, if I’m a little nervous I may be trying to figure out first if you are in a good mood, if you’re not, etc. So, all those things are “theory of mind”, and in language it’s super important because we read a lot of non-verbal cues, sometimes more so than words.
Then, there is something that goes with it: we also have to take other people as agents. If you imaging that people are talking for the sake of talking (some people do, but…! 🙂 But if you imagine that nobody has anything to say, then you wouldn’t try to find meaning in a sentence. And because we see that each person is an agent of communication, we try to find meaning, we try to express meaning, we try to be clear, etc.
And finally, we have to agree tacitly, and also subconsciously many times, to a HUGE amount of conventions in language. You have like a whole rule book inside your head that tells you “This comes after this”, or if a person says “hello”, I respond, etc. You know that if I tell you, again, “How are you?”, and you tell me “The sky is blue”, I’m going to think that there is something wrong with you, right? It’s completely out of context. So, there are all kinds of social norms. In some languages it’s even more important when there are different personal pronouns, for example, depending on the social rank of the person, or the age, like in Japanese.
And all those things, you are doing within a millisecond. You are processing A LOT of information. All of this, basically, that you see on the screen, is working at the same time, every time you say anything. Practically anything.
And what is interesting is that, like I said on previous videos, these parts weren’t really designed FOR language, or don’t seem to have been designed for language. Because if you take any of those physical, and mental, and social traits or abilities, you could say that they are part of a much bigger cognitive complex, or you could say that they are part of a much bigger network of functions that we fulfil as human beings. And each of the little parts, physical or not, allow you to do a multitude of things, not just speaking. So that’s a bit puzzling when you are talking about evolution, because, well, which one came first, if we need them all at once?
Then, from a more cognitive point of view, language is integral to our lives, I think. There are cases of children who were born and left in the jungle, or from sadistic parents who left them locked up in an attic, for example, until they were teenagers and they were found. And you can see in those children that they actually don’t have, not just language, but they’re also missing a lot of other cognitive and social abilities that your average Joe has. So, I think that language has a lot to do with our general development. It’s not just a system of communication, as it is normally described.
And then finally, an interesting bit about language is that it is completely blind do demographics, to social status, to anything. You can speak differently, but every human being (except for exceptional circumstances like I said before)… every single human being has at least one language. In fact, monolinguals (just one language) are a minority in the world. Most people can learn 2, 3 or 5 language with no problem, from birth.
So that’s it for the abilities required in language. I hope it’s not too “nerdy”, as I said, but just think about how smart you are if you ever are in doubt, for being able to do all those things at once.
And here you can see why there is a debate between the camp that says that we are born with it all, because it’s so complex that we could never have learned that in such a short amount of time when we were children; and the others that say that we learn it all. That obviously we were born with a certain ability for speaking, but that learning has a lot to do with it. And well, the two camps sort of fight with each other. I think both of them are right, and both of them are wrong in that they limit their definitions.
We will hopefully talk about that in more detail later. But yes, we’re born with a certain capacity for language, for sure. And our environment is very important. But just saying that you were born with it doesn’t mean that it’s all in your brain or your genes. In fact, there hasn’t been a lot of progress made in that respect. And just because you say it’s social and it’s learned, it doesn’t mean that it’s only the caregivers that teach language to a child that will have the only say in how it’s done, or that will provide the biggest amount of input. I think it’s a lot more complex than that.
This is just the first slide, so I talked a lot, I think! But anyway, I hope you liked it. We’ll stop here for this “episode”, and we’ll move onto language functions next. So, what does language do? And the types of knowledge that you need to have. Hopefully then to move into these kinds of myths that exist around linguistics and around the idea of language, and which ones we can rescue, and which ones should really be tweaked a bit so that they match reality, finally.
OK, so let me know in the comments if you thought of other abilities that are required for language, if I missed any important ones (I was just trying to summarize), and if YOU think that language is innate, or if we learn it. See you next time.
Have you ever heard of the “ta-ta” or the “yo-he-ho” theories of language evolution? These and several others started off as jokes, yet, you can find them mentioned in serious textbooks nowadays. It is as if most of the mystery of language’s origins had been relegated to speculation, and as if jokes had become the new “science”. But we can do a bit better than that!
– (book) Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man, 1871
– (book) Allan Keith et al., The Oxford Handbook of the History of Linguistics, chapter 1 (by Salikoko S. Mufwene), pp.1-41.
Hello and welcome to language with Chu. I hope you’ve watched the previous parts of the series. This one is just to give you a little bit more detail about Darwin and the time he was writing at. And also to share with you some of the funny theories of language evolution in case you don’t know them. So we’ll go through it quickly, but it’s just for fun.
But let’s be serious for a minute and let me remind you that Darwin wrote first “The Origin of the Species”, where he started talking about random mutations and evolution, etc. in 1861. And he kind of left a thread dangling, which is, what about man? He explained animal species and plants, but he kind of left the human being alone because he didn’t have an explanation at the time. And people like Müller (Friederich Max Müller) started making fun of him for many things, including that. But then…
So there comes 10 years later the response from Darwin, in 1871, with “The Descent of Man”. And he explains what I told you on part one of the series. But basically, for Darwin evolution of language was parallel to the evolution of mind and of man, and it was thanks to language that man was able to have more complex thoughts. And it was language and words that made a complex thought possible, because language is linear, so it allows us to organize our thoughts, etc. But you could argue that thought is MORE complex than speech then, because we can think without that linearity, we can dream without that linearity, necessarily. Never mind. At that time, that’s what they thought.
Also, given the context, this was not too strange, but now we know how ridiculous it is. When the Europeans were conquering left and right, and “meeting” with other cultures, they got to interact with their languages too. And for them, they were savage languages, and everything that wasn’t like European languages was too primitive.
For example, if a language had too complex a morphology (that means that their words were much more complex than European ones) that was because they didn’t have enough abstract thought, they didn’t know how to organize their thoughts in their heads, etc. So they needed more chunks of words, right? Except that nowadays we know the complexity of those words, and you realize how ridiculous that claim is.
If they had no morphology, like isolating languages (languages that have, like Chinese, one character per meaning or word, almost) then those people were primitive as well. They didn’t have the capacity to make beautiful French sentences or something. And it was also thought that they didn’t have any abstract terms, that all they knew how to talk about was “Me love you”, and “Me eat bison”, or whatever. That, of course, was the ignorance of the time, the imperialistic motives of the time. Now we know that that’s not correct.
But Darwin did say that language was an instinctive tendency to speak, not an instinct per se, but an instinct to learn, to learn anything. Well, okay, that still prevails today, that we have an instinct to learn. Why not? I think culture also plays a role, but obviously, we do have an instinct to learn. That’s not rocket science. But okay, let’s give him credit for that.
On the other hand came this Max Müller, and he was making fun of Darwin all the time. He said, “There’s no way you’re going to find the link between an ape, a primate, and a human being. Their difference is just too big.” I agree. He added that humans are different because they have an inner faculty for abstraction, which animals don’t have. Not so much for speech, speech comes afterwards for Müller.
But on the other hand…, they were… Supposedly they were enemies, or Müller really, really made fun of Darwin. On the other hand, he thought the same thing about the “primitive” languages. And he also thought that language had started from emotional cries that we shared with animals, and only then had rational language appeared with rationality for humans, etc. So, really, he stayed within the ideology of the times. The only thing he dared to do was criticize Darwin for jumping from primates to human beings.
BUT, thanks to Müller (and I think all of them he invented, or if not, most of them) we have some funny theories of evolution of language.
The first one is the “bow-wow” theory. And it says that speech arose from people imitating sounds that things make. So, mooo, baaahhh, etc. Very logical for when you think about the subjunctive in language, sure! Then, the “poo-poo” theory. It was automatic responses to pain, to fear, to surprise, to other emotions. So laughing became a word, gasping became a word… Don’t ask me how, but that’s how, if you follow Darwin’s logic, that’s what would have happened.
Then you have the “ding-dong” theory, according to which speech reflects some mystical resonance or harmony connected with things in the world. Well, I wouldn’t make too much fun of this one, because of what we talked about in the Sounds and Meaning series. There may be some truth to that, that speech is a reflection of something else in nature, in the universe, etc., and that we are connected to it somehow. Obviously it’s not because of that you should call a bell “dingdong” or whatever, but the idea in itself may not be so bad. That’s not Darwinian, though. Darwin was super materialistic, and so are all the academics that followed him up to this date.
Number four is the “yo-he-ho” theory, and it was rhythmic chants and grunts to coordinate physical actions when people worked together. So, I always think of the dwarves in Snow White, and how they sang together when working. “Ay-ho, ay-ho…”, etc. So, yeah, that’s supposedly how, again, a complex grammar and things like the dative case would have come about.
Number five: the “ta-ta” theory. Language came from gestures (and many linguists today still believe that it came from gestures). So, in the same way that you say “ta-ta!” to say goodbye, all languages started like that, Sure! And then finally, the “la-la” theory: when they were a little more advanced, human beings wanted to use it not just for reproduction, but they wanted language to play, to love, for poetic reasons, etc. So language evolved from singing and being poetic, etc.
I hope you see that none of these really make sense, and that from what we’ve seen up until now, it just can’t be so simple. And that we have to keep exploring and finding out where the theory doesn’t hold water, and what other possibilities there may be.
I summarized all of this up to this point by saying that I really believe that there is a design. Who the designer is (or the designers), how it came about, how it all works… I still don’t know, and I think many of you may be wondering the same. And we need to keep exploring this, because if you look at any linguistic text, you won’t find this. And if you look at many other disciplines, you won’t find it.
Archaeology, biology, psychology… there’s always a mystery. And language is one of the main mysteries of science. I’m biased, maybe, but I think it is the origin of language and who we are, and how we came to be the complex human beings that we are, why we are so different from animals, etc. And these scientists are not even looking at the complexity, from the tiniest flagellum, like Behe said, to the most complex part of language.
In language, we explored sounds before, and I barely touched on the basic principles. And you see already how complex the sound system is. That to me is almost like the equivalent of the bacterial flagellum. And as I told you before, it’s not mainstream linguistics or common knowledge, even. So let’s keep exploring, and let’s see if we find out more in the next videos.
Thanks for watching, thank you for liking the video and subscribing to my channel. See you next time!
In this short video, you get to hear about what Michael Denton, author of “Evolution: Still a Theory in Crisis”, has to say about the problems of language evolution as it is commonly understood. Questions such as these should inspire us to let go of the dogmas and beliefs that have taken hold of the Academia for decades. How likely are random mutations applied to language? How come all humans share the same capacity in spite of living in completely different environments? Sure, you can dismiss all the arguments in this video and say that Language started earlier, and THEN spread out, but then you are only pushing the same problem to an earlier date, and you haven’t explained a thing…
- (book) Michael Denton, Evolution: Still a Theory in Crisis, Discovery Institute, 2016.
- (article) Joseph Warren Poushock, “Language-Wonder: Theory, Pedagogy, and Research”, 1998.
- (Book) J. C. Sandford, Genetic Entropy and the Mystery of the Genome, FMS Publications, 2015.
Hello, and welcome to language with Chu. This is part four, and it’s a little bit of a bonus to recommend to you another book. It’s by Michael Denton, “Evolution: Still a Theory in Crisis”. Michael Denton is one of the researchers who inspired Michael Behe. And he has a chapter specifically on language.
You know? It’s very, very hard to find texts about intelligent design, or design in general and language in the way I’m talking about right now. There is one paper that I’ll link to at the bottom, which is very good. But it’s not even famous or anything. I just found it by looking and looking. So, it’s all new, and I hope that we discover more together. But I just want to give you the basic questions to be thinking about.
So let’s look at Michael Denton here for a second. One of the first questions he asks is, why did aspects of language develop if they weren’t advantageous? Remember Darwin and his idea that it has to be advantageous for survival, for reproduction, etc. Well, he gives this funny sentence. Would you imagine a caveman using what is called “complex clauses” or “subordination”: “Beware of the short beast whose front hoof Bob cracked when, having forgotten his own spear back at camp, he got in a glancing glow with the dull spear he borrowed from Jack.”
Obviously, what’s the purpose, what’s the advantage of that for reproduction or survival? You can just say, “Hey, watch out for the beast!”, or whatever. And there’s also the idea of recursion in Linguistics.
[Text on screen: Example of recursion (infinite embedding): “Mary said that Patrick said that John said that Robert thought that he had forgotten the spear he had borrowed from Jack.”] And mainly Chomsky was the one that said that recursion is a universal trait, that all languages have it, and that it’s the same as the language of our thoughts. Therefore, it must be true. And it’s somewhere biologically explainable, except we don’t have any explanation for it, and not all languages use recursion as he claims.
We’ll talk about that later. But anyway, that’s just a funny way of asking, why would we evolve sentences like that? Why would we want to speak like that when it’s not evolutionary advantageous?
Second is that all modern humans have an equal language capacity. If you take a child from, I don’t know, China, when he’s born, and he goes to live in Chile he’ll understand and learn perfect Spanish, and viceversa. There’s no genetic differences in the way we learn languages.
But given that that’s the case (you’re talking about the origin of language being 200,000 years ago, let’s say, give or take 50 000), it would be the most striking case of parallel evolution. Meaning that if they all left from Africa, as the theory goes, (which archaeology actually is demonstrating is not really the case, but anyway, that’s for another video)… then how come that people in different environments, with different living circumstances, basically develop the same capacity? Why don’t we have more differences amongst groups of people and different populations in our capacity for language, even in the structure of our languages?
So, it would be an amazing case of parallel evolution, meaning that one mutation that occurred here in Asia has to have occurred here in South America, for example. It’s crazy. And if it was gradual, then why is it that we’ve had the same capacity for hundreds of thousands of years, and it hasn’t changed, it hasn’t really evolved? Why aren’t we using, I don’t know, telepathy or something? So those are really good questions, I think.
And then the next one is that the unlikelihood of a good mutation happening, given that at the time…and Chomsky will repeat that, he’ll tell you, “Oh, but it was reduced populations, it was tiny tribes, and they reproduced… never mind inbreeding, never mind the complications with mutations…All that is contrary to a good recipe for language evolution. You need to have diversity, you need to have complexity, in order for the capacity to have evolved.
And there’s another really good book about entropy [Text on the screen:”Genetic Entropy and the Mystery of the Genome”, by J. C. Sandford], and how good mutations are soooo, so rare in nature… I’ll link to it at the bottom of this video, so you can see. Basically, it’s almost impossible to get a good mutation that lasts even if, by chance, you have one, it’s most likely, like 99.9 percent sure, that it won’t last, it won’t be transmitted from one generation to the other.
And finally, he says: “How could blind unintelligent cumulative selection the blind watch-maker have a symbolic device -the language organ-” that we mentioned before “of such complexity and sophistication that intelligent humans cannot intelligently simulate these unique abilities in a machine? I already mentioned that in the last part. If it’s so simple that a blind watch-maker- a blind force with the purpose of helping species survive and reproduce did it, why can’t we do it on a simple computer? Why can’t we use our intelligence to reproduce it? Think about it.
Okay, so that was just a short one to give you a bit of Michael Denton’s questions. And I hope you’re still interested. Thank you for watching, and see you next time.
And now we connect biology and Michael Behe’s work to the complexity of language, and the theories of its emergence. From physical apparatuses that serve multiple intricate purposes, to the connection between language and mind, we explore some of the questions that remain unanswered. And at the end, you get to hear a fairy tale… about how, according to Darwin, language emerged. It’s up to you to decide which theory seems the most plausible.
– (book) Michael Behe, Darwin’s Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution, Free Press, 2001.
– (article) W. Fitch, David Reby, “The descended larynx is not uniquely human”, 2001: https://royalsocietypublishing.org/do…
– (book) Michael Denton, “Evolution: Still a Theory in Crisis”, Discovery Institute, 2016.
– (book) Stephen Mithen, “The Prehistory of the Mind”, Thames & Hudson, 1999.
– (article) T. Fitch, “Musical protolanguage: Darwin’s theory of language evolution revisited”, 2009. (On the occasion of Charles Darwin’s 200th Birthday)
– (video) What does Language Teach Us about Intelligent Design? – Dr. Paul Nelson https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_DvCc…
Hello, and welcome to Language with Chu. This is part three of this series and now, after having seen Darwin’s theory of evolution and Behe’s arguments against it, I’m going to try and add language to it, so that you can start seeing how complex language is.
So, do you remember the slides from the last video? If not, you can you can watch that one first. I’m going to reuse them but with language added, okay? And you’ll see how complex it is, and how beautiful language actually is.
So, we had five arguments before. The first one was that design is a purposeful arrangement of parts and that we infer it from everything. Everything we see in nature, we say, “Okay, look at that, there’s a design there,” right?
Well, in language, when you look at the vocal apparatus alone, or the auditory apparatus, or the way our brain uses language and how it connects to mind, which is not even tangible… the complexity is insane! Really. Supposedly we boycotted or piggybacked on capacities that we already had for breathing and eating, etc. and started using language for communication purposes. Except, okay, so supposedly just one little mutation or a big mutation, maybe, made this smart ape want to talk, like I said in the first part.
And then, all these parts that were only designed supposedly… (I shouldn’t say “designed”
) that only evolved for the purpose of eating and breathing, suddenly became the perfect mechanism with which to produce vocal sounds, with which to talk. The hands became the perfect tool for writing [and signing], etc. It’s quite a stretch, if you think about it. I think it’s more reasonable to think that it was designed like that from the beginning, with all its complexity.
Then we have, in language itself, the sounds, the phonemes of each language, morphemes (chunks of words that have meaning), we have phrases, and sentences. We have the entire grammar, we have the entire meaning that we convey. The fact that from a finite set of sounds, we can produce an infinite amount of words and of sentences.
So if that wasn’t designed or downloaded from somewhere, I don’t know how it could have come to exist. So you add the physical complexity to the non-physical complexity of languages and language itself…
And then you also have the richness that languages have when it comes to meaning in context, the way our culture alters (quite a bit actually, but not definitely) what we see. We’ll talk about that in another series of videos. And how thought and language marry, combine together. So that is insanely complicated for it to have developed out of grunts and, like we said in the beginning, a random mutation from something that was designed to eat or to breathe, if you ask me.
That’s regarding the first argument. Regarding the second one, “everybody agrees that aspects of biology appear to be designed”. We saw the plane and the eagle. Again the complexity of grammars seems to have been designed by somebody. And remember that the grammarians, especially in the 1600s, put it all in writing. Basically they described the grammars, but the languages already existed. They may have given fancy terms to what declensions were, and each of the cases and things like that, but the complexity was already there.
Who created it? Why? Especially if you think about our ancestors as being primitive. It’s quite difficult to explain that there is no design to begin with in languages. And on top of that, you have the complexity that not only are we the users of this… an extremely complex system, but we also do have a say in what we produce in terms of language. We do have a say, albeit small, in how we change language. So in a sense, we’re kind of like the products of the design, and the designers or users or contributors to the design, if you wish, which adds another layer of complexity to the whole story.
If you look at this… this is just an example from the Indo-European family of languages. Usually they look like this [on the right] and you know there’s a chronology of how they evolved. Now we’re talking about specific languages, not the capacity for language. But if you look at the one on the left, this one is programming languages. And you know how many thousands of programmers need to be involved for something like this to exist, how much intelligence needs to be involved and how much design has to be involved. So why would it apply to programming languages and not human languages? [Text on screen: [And programming languages are MUCH simpler than human language!]
Again, that’s another example of how, what you see in nature is indicative of design, not random… silly ideas like, they started singing and imitating sounds of animals. To get to the complexity of languages that we have today, there’s got to be more than just random mutations and simple purposes, very simple “I want to reproduce”/”I want to survive”. There’s got to be a lot more to language than that, I think.
Then in our brain… you may have seen these trees, or maybe you studied them at school. Usually at school most children say “Oh, what’s the purpose of this? It’s useless!” When you separate the subject from the predicate and blah blah blah. All these components. Well, I happened to like doing that kind of stuff, but you probably don’t. But anyway, that shows you how, in the brain, you’re computing a lot of information just to create a simple sentence. Explain to me how that happens in the brain, because they don’t really know, biologists or linguists alike. They don’t really know. These are just theories of how we compute a single sentence like the one you see on the screen.
And then, we have the problem of defining language even to begin with. Here is the most standard definition. Actually, I think I took it from the Encyclopedia Britannica. And it says: “Language a system of conventional (so, human-made) spoken manual or signed or written symbols by means of which human beings as members of a social group and participants in its culture express themselves. The functions (now we’re onto functions) of language include communication, the expression of identity, imaginative expression, and emotional release”.
Well, the definition doesn’t even describe all that language is, but let’s say this is the most complete one. In blue, we have that the means by which we express ourselves (spoken, manual, etc.) In orange is the fact that it’s a cultural thing. For this definition, language is a cultural thing, even though many linguists would say: “No, it’s actually all innate, culture doesn’t matter much”. And then you have the function: so it serves to express our identity, imaginative expression, etc. Well, the function is a lot bigger than that, I think. It’s to allow us to think. It is to allow us to make new discoveries, to make Youtube videos like I’m doing now… [It serves to love or to hate, to create or destroy…]
It’s soooo many things, that the function of language is not just one, but many. And if it’s already difficult to come up with one function via random mutations, how do you suppose that a complex function such as a language’s function would have arisen without any design being involved?
Not only that, but when you think about language, you have to add all these other factors: how do you create meaning, and with which algorithms in your head? How does thought combine to language? What is the relationship between the input (what you produce) and the output (what the other person gets)? The differences in language between a child and an adult. All these components (physical components) of language (the vocal tract, the auditory tract, the mind, the brain, the hands, etc. etc. etc… the list is long). And how it relates to the senses. Why do we use some senses, and not the sense of smell, for example? So it’s all super complicated when you actually try to just simply define language. And of course, there’s a difference between different languages and language itself. Why don’t we all have the same kind of language? Nobody knows.
This is another way to look at the complexity of language. We saw this diagram on the Sounds and Meaning series. These are all the layers of what one single language has, and to that you have to add not only all these skills, all these components (meaning in context, phrases, sentences, words, phonemes,)… all of that for reading, for writing, for listening, and for speaking. So four different kinds of skills that involve a lot, a lot of other micro skills, if you want. And we also use language when we think, when we feel, for metaphor, when we dream, etc. And on top of that, like I said before, the same organs are used for breathing, smelling, learning, moving, etc.
So again, it’s so complex that I don’t think random mutations would have made it possible. But let’s go back to Behe.
When he talked about irreducible complexity, and how each part… if you remove any part of a symbol simple organism, and it destroys, it stops functioning, it’s irreducibly complex, meaning that each part is essential for its functioning and most likely evolved at the same time, not little by little.
Well, like I said before, the latter is just not possible for language, because if it was that simple to create language even from grunts or onomatopoeia, then why can’t we even program good translators online? Why can we even program language on a computer and make it have the richness and the subtleties and the meaning and context that language has? If it’s as simple as simple mutations, then go ahead and program it on a computer. And you can’t! Human beings are still much, much better than computers at creating it. So there’s something there that speaks of design, again.
Here’s another example of how complex just in the brain language is. I won’t even read you all the technical terms, but that’s just one schematic way of putting it. And that’s not even taking into account brain injuries, for example, where the whole area of the brain gets injured, and the person manages to replace those areas with something else. So the brain is very plastic in that sense. Or cases of hydrocephaly, where the person’s brain is half its normal mass and the rest is full of fluid, and they have perfect skills, they can speak, they can write, they can do math, for example. So, obviously, it’s not just in the brain, even though the brain itself is already quite complicated.
Here are some examples of how complex the auditory system is. Each of these parts… for them to have evolved separately is quite a stretch of the imagination, I think. The subtle sounds that you can hear, the effect it has even on your health, overall, it’s all interconnected. If you have crystals in your ear, you suffer from vertigo. There’s so many, many little details in each of these components that make up for such a network of functions, that I don’t think it could have evolved separately. And language is included in this.
The same with the vocal tract. Just this tiny bone, the hyoid bone… I’m going to talk to about it on another video. It’s super interesting, actually, how it helps you with speech. The micro-movements of the tongue, the teeth, the palate, the nasal cavity…. all that supposedly was originally just to eat and smell and breathe, and look at what we do with it now! We can speak 20 languages with the same vocal apparatus, if we want to. So something is fishy there, in Darwinian evolution, if you ask me.
Some people will say that it is because… “Oh, well, we came from primates (as Darwin would say), and primates have a larynx that is very high up, while in humans it descends during our childhood”. But the thing is that they discovered that even some animals like the koala, and I can’t remember others… the jaguar, I think… Several animals have a low larynx as well and they’re incapable of language. [And some birds have a high larynx and can utter words.] So obviously that’s not the main factor at all. Again, it’s all very complex and very intricate and connected together.
This is another good book, if you want to read it: The Prehistory of the Mind by Stephen Mithen. He talks about the mind as being a cathedral, and he’s a darwinian actually, but his idea of how the mind has compartments, and how they connect (one for social interactions, the other one for survival, for tool making etc.) is very, very interesting. It just gives you an idea of how complex just the mind part is, not even the brain, not even the vocal tract. Just the mind that allows us to speak as well. So, in short, everything is complicated!
And then just a final note: you have to separate between what is the complexity of languageS (the grammar, the phonemes, the writing, blah, blah) which is already super complex, from the complexity of language (singular), the capacity. So you have the language capacity. How did it come to exist? How did it evolve? Etc. Language evolution, which we’ve been talking about until now, and all the language parts as I described them, every physical part that helps us to talk [and write]. Where did all that come from, and when, and how? Gradually? I don’t think so.
Number four was that it was pure imagination, basically fairy stories, how Darwin described evolution. And we’re going to talk about that in a future video, but there are many funny theories of how language evolved, called bow-wow, ta-ta, pooh-pooh, etc., and I’ll leave it for later. But you’ll see that even at the time of Darwin, some people made fun of the simplicity of his theory.
Anyway, final point: when Behe talked about the strong evidence for design, once again we have a complexity of physical and mental traits (mind) when you’re combine them together that is mind-boggling. The complexity of grammars, on top of that, of sound systems, of everything in language, of semantics, the meaning behind each word, and how one word can have like 30 meanings if you want. And that’s not even talking about other languages like Chinese with ideograms, and how the same sound but with different tones could have 50 words attached to it. It’s just that language is a trait of super complex organisms. So I really don’t buy the whole single mutation at all.
But finally, let me tell you a fairy tale, a story. These are Darwin’s words. He said: “The mental powers in some early progenitor of man must have been more highly developed than in any existing ape before even the most imperfect form of speech could have come into use”. So okay, a smart progenitor, right? A smart monkey.
Second, “The attachment of specific and flexible meanings to vocalizations required only that some unusual wise ape-like animal should have thought of imitating the growl of a beast of prey… And this would have been the first step in the formation of language”. So, what we have now was just a person imitating the growl of a beast. Yeah, right.
“As the voice was used more and more, the vocal organs would have been strengthened and perfected”… Yeah, just like by magic, during the person’s life, during several generations, and why is it so complex if it was just that? Anyway… “Additionally, language would have reacted on the mind by enabling and encouraging it to carry on long trains of thought, which can no more be carried on without the aid of words, whether spoken or silent, than a long calculation without the use of figures or algebra. Thus began the interactive evolutionary spiral that led to modern humans.”
So, basically he’s saying that language helped to create long trains of thought, except, you could say the opposite, because thought doesn’t need to be linear. You can be thinking about many things at the same time, while language imposes that linearity on you [Text on the screen: Because we can only produce one sound, one word at a time.] Well, of course, you could say, “But that adds to the complexity of the thought because you can organize it.” It’s just that nothing makes sense in here. You can reread it, pause the video and reread it, and you’ll see that nothing makes sense, or at least it can’t be explained by this.
And there you go, that’s the end of the story. If you want to believe that that’s all there is to it, you’re free to do so. I don’t. But I’ll leave it at this for this one, and we still have a long way to go, combining biology and evolution and language, and trying to see if you’re already curious about it. I look forward to your questions or comments, and please like this video. Thank you for watching!
Can Language be the product of random mutations and gradual evolution? I don’t think so. And in order to help you see it from another perspective, in this video we talk about Michael Behe’s work on Intelligent Design and Irreducible Complexity. Some observable principles are completely ignored by official science. But without them, we cannot explain Life as a whole, much less the emergence of language. So, let’s go on a little excursion into biology to find out more!
– (video) Amazing Flagellum : Michael Behe and the Revolution of Intelligent Design : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MNR48…
– (video) Darwin’s Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xht_b…
– (book) Michael Behe, Darwin’s Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution, Free Press, 2001.
– (book) Douglas Axe, Undeniable: How Biology Confirms Our Intuition That Life Is Designed, HarperOne, 2016.
– (book) J. C. Sandford, Genetic Entropy and the Mystery of the Genome, Feed My Sheep Foundation, Inc., 2008.
– (book) Ruchard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene: 40th Anniversary edition, OUP Oxford, 2016
Hello, and welcome to Language with Chu. I hope you watched the previous part, where we did a review of Darwin’s theory of evolution and his theory about language, which leaves much to be desired. And we’re going to see how and why.
So in this part, I want to go a little bit into biology to recommend a book that you may not have heard of, but that in my opinion changes your entire view about evolution and brings back the wonder that we can feel when we look at nature, when we look at living organisms, when we look at ourselves… and that is usually very often missed in the academia or whenever you hear or read anything about biology.
So this is a book by Michael Behe. There are many others (I’ll put the bibliography at the bottom of this video), but this one is particularly good and easy to understand. Here we go:
It’s called Darwin’s Black Box, and it’s going to take you through a journey about evolution and about things that are very tiny, tiny, tiny in nature, but very complex. When we extrapolate that to language later, you’ll see how ridiculous darwinian theories look in comparison. But let’s start with something simple.
He says (I’m basing myself on this book, but also in a talk that I’m going to link to at the bottom as well if you want to listen to it)… Basically for him and for many others evolution does not seem like something unguided, unplanned, random, that just happened by chance.
Why? Because… well, you can forgive Darwin because at the time he was writing, there was no genetics, they didn’t know the content of the cell. In fact, that’s what the “black box” that Behe mentions in the title is. Something unknown that does wonderful things, but we don’t know where it comes from, how it works or anything. At the time of Darwin, the cell was considered a “blob”, a “jello”, and now we have diagrams like this one that you’re seeing on the screen. And every single part of the cell is part of a giant factory, actually.
It’s so complex that it’s difficult to imagine why it would have arisen from random mutations with no purpose at all. Basically, that’s the premise of the book. Okay, but let’s see some of the arguments: The way you define, or he defines, design, is a purposeful (I can never pronounce that word) a purposeful arrangement of parts.
Basically, if it looks like it was done for a purpose, and when the parts are all organized, like in an engine, like a watch, etc., then there is a design. When we look at it, we say there is a design, right? Somebody or something designed it and we usually infer that whenever we see something that is made to accomplish a function… If you look at a car, you know that it was designed, that its parts are arranged for a reason in the way they are, and that they need to accomplish a function, i.e. driving the car.
Okay so when you look at it in nature or anything else, you will see for example: if I show you this picture of these mountains, you could say, well how did they come to be? Maybe was a shift in tectonic plates and something happened in the Earth’s atmosphere, and the mountains came to be, right? [A design is not so obvious from looking at them.]
Well, but what happens if I show you this picture now? Would you be able to give it any random mutation explanation? Or imagine that it came to exist without any designer without any builders forming the shapes? Obviously not.
Okay, so that’s a funny example that he gives kind of to give you the idea that when you look at nature, many, many things… you’re going to say, “Wait a minute, that ought to be designed! It’s intricate, it has a purpose, it has a different definite traits that somebody would have thought about, or something. That’s number one.
Number two is that even the hardcore darwinists agree that certain aspects of biology appear to be designed. In fact, many of them (if you read Richard Dawkins, for example)… they’ll say, “What we look at appears to be a designed, and we have to explain it. Our role is to explain it via random mutations, gradual evolution, etc.” So they’re not saying that they don’t see the design. What they’re saying is, “We believe that it has to be the way Darwin explained it”. So, when they look at wings, for example…
A wing is super, super complex. Each tiny component of a wing has a function and it all works together. But for them, for the darwinists, it all came about very gradually. Maybe one type of feather started existing because of a certain reason that allowed for better reproduction or survival. And then, the other parts started working. Except that, as we’ll see later, that doesn’t happen very often, in fact, hardly ever.
And in the same way, when you look at a plane, for example… I mean, we know it’s designed, we know it’s engineered. We know it took many, many human beings to produce it. But look at the simplicity of a plane compared to the wings of the tiniest bird in existence. So there’s something there that doesn’t really match, because if you can acknowledge that there’s design in this plane, for example, why wouldn’t you acknowledge it in a bird? That’s just one example.
Number three is that there are structural obstacles to darwinian evolution. Let me quote Darwin here first: He said, “If it could be demonstrated that any complex organ existed which could not possibly have been formed by numerous successive slight modifications, my theory would absolutely break down, but I can find no such case”. Again, at the time of Darwin there was no serious work done in microbiology, but now there is. Now we don’t have an excuse to continue believing in this. We’ll see why.
One of the main principles that Behe brings up is the idea of irreducible complexity, which he defines as “a single system which is composed of several interacting parts that contribute to the basic function, and where the removal of any one of the parts causes the system to effectively stop functioning”.
Well, he always gives the example in his talks and in his book of the mousetrap, because it’s the simplest kind of machine that you can think of, where, if you remove any of the parts, it stops working it completely. It breaks down, or you can use it for something else, maybe, but it won’t be a mousetrap anymore. If you remove the hammer, the spring, the board, etc.
So that to him is an example of an irreducibly complex organism (or machine in this case) and he shows little by little that many, many things in nature… Well, he doesn’t want to say it. He only talks about microorganisms, so I’m saying this: everything in nature is irreducibly complex, or at least most of it.
So why is this important? Because if natural selection had waited for all these parts that worked together to fulfill a function to exist, then it wouldn’t have been necessary anymore. The timing is off: if you need part A to make part B work, and vice versa, then they both have to have come about at the same time. Otherwise, there would be no purpose for part A to exist to begin with. If its only mission is to help part B, which came later, then why would it be selected by natural selection, see? So that’s where the whole darwinian theory kind of breaks down if you really think about it.
And that’s also where many “enemies”, I would say, or deterrents of Michael Behe and other authors show that darwinism is not really science. It’s an ideology, it’s not biology, as Behe says. They’re so fervent about opposing this simple principle that they say it’s all about religion, and we shouldn’t even look at it. There’s always an explanation in gradual evolution. Except they can’t really give it. It’s just theories and explanations for why one thing happened or the other [with no detailed progressions or data]. So, keep this idea of irreducible complexity in mind, because we’re going to use it also for language.
One of the examples he gives in his book is the bacterial flagellum. Now, this is just the tiniest… the tail of a bacteria. And we’re talking about super microscopic organisms. This little guy has like 40 components, 20 or so of which that are not in any other organisms, or wouldn’t fulfill any other purpose than what they do in this particular movement. It makes the bacteria swim, and it all works exactly like a motor, like an engine in a boat. And each of the parts work together. If you lose one, the whole system breaks down, and if you don’t have all of them, the whole system doesn’t work. So, for it to have been [a darwinian] evolution is impossible.
Maybe you can say, “Well, all the parts evolved at the same time, by several random mutations. But [that would be too much of a coincidence!] And then you still have the same problem that there would have had to be something, or somebody, that decided what the purpose of the organism was going to be. Otherwise, what’s the point in creating all those parts, right?
So, ultimately it comes down to the fact that it’s all fairy tales. When darwinians explain evolution in the way they do, it is not very unlike stories like Kipling’s. You know, Just so Stories. If you are Anglosaxon, you probably know them. The idea is that, you know, how zebras got their stripes. They were hiding under a tree and the shade blocked part of their body, and then they realized that they camouflaged better, or something like that, as the story goes. But anyway, basically it’s not science, because there’s no evidence for how these random mutations would occur and why they would occur.
And finally, Behe says that everywhere in nature there’s a strong evidence for design, as I mentioned in the beginning, and we should use the “in-duck-tive” (obviously it’s misspelled here), inductive reasoning, which means that, you know, if something looks like a duck, and walks like a duck, then it may be a duck, right? Well, if something looks designed, and acts like it’s designed, then it’s probably designed.
But darwinians will say, “No, that’s all random mutations, natural selection, chance”. And we come from apes… So that’s it for Behe’s theory of… not theory of evolution, but what he’s trying to explain is that not everything in nature… Some of it may be explained in darwinian terms, but not everything in nature can be explained that way. And he sticks to microbiology, and he gives the example of the flagellum of the bacteria, or some cells in the immune system. He explains to you how it all works, and how it’s impossible for it to have arisen little by little.
In my opinion, it’s not too much of a stretch of the imagination to say that if you can find that in microorganisms, then it’s way more likely that you’ll find it in the whole in more complex organisms, in human beings, and in our language capacity. When we talk about each biological component, the brain, the vocal tract, etc., we’ll see that it’s extremely complex, and that for it to have arisen little by little is a fairy tale. Thanks for watching, see you next time!
In this video, I summarize Darwin’s Theory of Evolution, and most particularly, Darwin’s writings about how the language capacity evolved. We begin questioning some aspects of this theory, and seeing how complex this subject is. And we end with several of the questions that need to be asked if we wish to understand how language emerged.
Some references used:
– Allan Keith et al., The Oxford Handbook of the History of Linguistics, chapter 1 (by Salikoko S. Mufwene), pp.1-41.
– Tom Wolfe, The Kingdom of Speech, Vintage, 2017.
– W. Tecumseh Fitch, “Musical Protolanguage: Darwin’s Theory of language evolution revisited”, (2005?)
– W. Tecumseh Fitch, “Descent of the larynx”: https://blogs.ntu.edu.sg/hg3040-2014-…
– David Stove, “Darwinian Fairytales: Selfish Genes, Errors of Heredity and Other Fables of Evolution”, Encounter Books, 2006.
– Leading Evolutionary Scientists Admit We Have No Evolutionary Explanation of Human Language: https://evolutionnews.org/2014/12/lea…
Hello, and welcome to language with Chu. This time around we’re going to go a little bit into biology. I’m not an expert biologist by any stretch of the imagination, but if you’re like me and you studied Linguistics, you probably never had to do any biology course, and that’s a problem, and I’ll tell you why in a minute.
The majority of us have a vague idea of Darwin’s theory of evolution, and in Linguistics it’s pretty much the most common belief (it IS a belief, believe me!) that things happened in evolution the way Darwin described them. So we need to question some of these things in order to understand language in its whole complexity. And I’ll mention other theories with which we’ll see how it applies to biology, and how it applies to language. So, let’s have fun! I promise it’s not going to be hard because I’m not an expert and I just want to give you a global idea, so that YOU think about language in these ways.
So let’s get started:
You probably already know that Darwin’s theory of evolution is based more or less on trees that look like this, which, by the way, looks very similar to language trees. The tree of evolution was based on what linguists were doing at the time with languages, with families of languages. So it’s kind of…obviously it’s very simplified in this drawing, just to refresh your mind about it. But basically, Darwin had five main ideas or principles to his theory of evolution:
First of all, evolution itself, meaning that species come and go through time and they change within their existence, within generations. Sometimes it could take many, many, many generations to change, but they change, and they multiply. And at some point they diversify into two species, and that has occurred over and over and over again since the Big Bang. So, it started from nothing, practically, a bunch of molecules/proteins got together and then everything came to be, right? That’s the theory. The idea of common descent is that ultimately, every single living organism comes from a common ancestor, or sometimes several, depending on the how they mixed along the line of evolution.
Gradualism is one of the main characteristics of Darwin’s theory, and that is that changes happen in very small incremental stages, one mutation, one random mutation at a time, and it’s not possible according to Darwin for a species to kind of “sprout” out of nowhere. It has to be a very slow and gradual evolution.
And finally, natural selection is this invisible force some people call the “blind watchmaker” because… when you see a watch, you notice that it’s complex and that it has a purpose and a mechanism, but somehow a blind watchmaker decides what each part is going to do, and how to put them all together. Well, according to Darwin, natural selection would be this force that selects the members of a certain species that are more apt to survive and to reproduce. That’s basically Darwin’s theory of evolution, and I hope to show you that it’s not only not possible, but it’s actually a fairy tale.
The main problem with this is that there are many, many missing links, one of the most important ones being the transition from primates to men. And it’s still a dogma nowadays. He wrote in 1861 for the first time, The Origin of the Species and still today, he’s quoted as the truth, basically. But in reality it’s kind of a dogma, and we’ll see why in a minute. So basically that’s it, just to refresh your mind about Darwin.
But let’s move on to language now, just for a minute. What did he say about language? In 1871, he wrote a second book, The Descent of Man, 10 years after his first theory. And supposedly, he was trying to kind of make it tie… to explain how human beings came to be. But it was a quite a stretch, and well, obviously, he said that we came from primates, right?
So, if you look at his theory of how language came to be, he had to say something because people were asking him at the time. What about language? How come? We’re so different from apes that you have to explain how such a change could have occurred. Well, this is his idea:
First of all, there was some kind of “smart ape” that one day was born, and with a lot more intelligence and with more complex mental abilities. So, for example, maybe abstraction, or the capacity to hold thoughts in his mind for a while, etc. So this was this genius primate ancestor, let’s say. That’s the first stage.
The second stage was that primates, or the ancestor of the human being, started using sounds and singing for courting, for territoriality, to express some emotions… Basically it was to attract a mate, and natural selection made it so that the ones that were the most able to sing and attract a partner survived longer, and continued evolving.
And stage number three from that is that they started adding meaning to those songs that they were singing. That nonsensical (or maybe not nonsensical, but at least purely emotional, instinctive singing) started acquiring meaning. First it was by imitating sounds in nature and imitating sounds in animals, kind of like onomatopoeias, you know? Like “splash”, which sounds kind of like what it does. That was the first stage, and then, little by little, people decided to separate that string of sounds into words and syntax and all the complex grammar that we have today.
That’s basically Darwin’s theory about language, and many, many linguists quote his theory as it being completely rational and plausible. Except that nobody has found…. we don’t have any records of language as it was a hundred and fifty thousand years ago, so it’s all pure guesses, right?
Well, there are some alternatives. For example, some linguists… I believe for example Corballis, he says that evolution would have been even more gradual. There wouldn’t have been a sudden smart ape, but a gradual evolution in humanity that led to having complex thoughts, abstraction, etc. But we still have that missing link that nobody can explain, and nobody explains how it could have been so gradual. I’ll get to that in a minute. Some things that you could theorize were gradual, happen to be necessary all at once. So you couldn’t start with one single mutation or one single change if you want to achieve a specific result. But I’ll get to that later.
Second, for the idea that it was actually selected…. There are other papers, other theories about how it could have been not so much for reproduction, but because human beings started needing to teach their young very early on. [Text on the screen: If it was sexually selected, explain why humans learn language from an early age!] [Kin communication] Human babies are actually not independent like other babies in nature. Animals become independent very quickly, while human babies need a lot of care and attention for the first years of their lives. So maybe people figured out that they needed to teach their young, and what better way to teach their young than through language? And then they started developing.
Another problem with selection for reproduction is that language…. if it was for mating [pair bonding], usually…. think of a peacock. You know, the male peacock has its tail, and the female and the male usually have different traits especially when it comes to singing or dancing and things like that in birds. But in our case, males and females have the same language capacity they speak just as well. So that destroys the idea, because it doesn’t really add much. Many aspects of language don’t add much to our reproductive interests, there’s no reason for it to have evolved if it was just for reproduction or survival. We’ll come to that we go into that in more detail later as well.
And then, finally, for the idea that from strings of words came meaning, there are also several other theories. One was by Otto Jespersen, I think. A famous linguist. He said that actually, it all started…. instead of first a word, a song and imitating the sound of an animal or something, it all started as the full song, and then people attributed meaning to the chunks of that string of sounds. So Darwin would say, no, first we started with grunts and small chunks, small songs, while other people would think it started as a whole song and then they attributed meaning.
But it still doesn’t explain anything if you ask me, because why did the songs come about, and who decided to split them into meaning separately, nouns and verbs and all the complexity of grammars nowadays? And on top of that, the complexity of grammars, whether you’re talking Darwin or any other theory, is so vast and so intricate that it’s very difficult to imagine how it came to be if you follow this progression.
So that’s it for what Darwin has to say about biology, and what Darwin has to say about language. The problem here is that, okay, we have to define some terms before we move on to more biology:
There’s a confusion between “language evolution”, which is basically Historical Linguistics, and how each language evolved: French from old French, and Latin, English from old English from Germanic, blah blah blah. That’s language evolution. But there’s also “Evolution of Language”. Those terms are kind of interchangeable. I’ll probably mess up too and say “language evolution”, but it doesn’t matter just as long as you know that you have to separate it because it’s going to be a lot more complex on this second little bubble that I’ve got here. That’s about the species (“philogenetic” so, the species).
And there are many questions that linguists ask (or don’t, actually, many times). One is, Is it God or is it Darwin? And I don’t mean… Well, some people would mean “god” as in the Christian god, or the Buddhist religion or whatever. But is there a supreme force that created language all in a package as it is today, or was it a gradual progression like Darwin said? That’s question number one.
Question number two is, was there a monogenesis or polygenesis? Meaning, was there one language in the beginning (this mother tongue that every linguist is looking for, that would have been there at the beginning, and only that language), or did human beings speak many languages and create many languages even from the very beginning? That would give you different families of language and different reasons for why languages are in the end quite similar, even though they may have sprouted from different places. So that’s another question that we’ll explore.
Again, was it gradual or abrupt? This is more in terms of language per se. Did it start with musical sounds, with grunts, gestures, or was it created as we speak today, more or less, (obviously with minor differences)? But that’s not all. There are also more questions.
There’s the question of whether we have a “language organ” or not. That’s a term used by Noam Chomsky, the most famous linguist nowadays. And for now sixty some years, they’ve been trying to look for something in the brain that would explain language. And supposedly, it’s universal, and supposedly we all have it, and one day we’ll discover it in the genes. Except that so far, they haven’t, and the few genes they have discovered are problematic. I’ll talk about that in the future. But anyway, that’s a legitimate question, and it’s a question that goes around in linguistic circles a lot.
Then, there’s how language related to thought in terms of evolution. Did we start thinking first? Did we start by speaking and thinking? Did we have language only because we were able to have abstract thought or not? Etc, etc. There are lots of questions there.
In relationship to communication, is one of the main functions of language to communicate, or to think? How much the motivation to communicate made us have language? Again, lots of questions within that little point.
And then, is it nature or nurture? Meaning, are we born with all our language capacity like Chomsky would say, or is the cultural aspect, us learning when we’re children, more important? There are two camps there, and I think it’s quite a little bit of the one, and quite a little bit of the other one, actually. But we’ll mention that later. And all of that ties up with how we acquire language as children. Is it important? For some linguists, it’s not important. You basically have it, except for a period where if it’s not stimulated, you’ll never learn it. But basically that’s it, otherwise. Culture and teaching and parents and all that, for them are not so important.
So, those are the main questions, and that just covers the ideas behind language evolution and the evolution of the language capacity. As you can see just from this diagram, Darwin kind of falls short, because there’s no writing about, you know, many of these questions in Darwin. In fact, it was very vague at the time. So that’s what we’re going to explore, all these questions in the diagram, going from biology to linguistics back and forth, and see if we can come up with some possible responses. Thanks for watching! See you next time.”
In this video I do a short recap of the previous parts of this series, I explain the reasons for why I started sharing this line of research with the study of sounds, and what my general plan is for future videos. Let’s be like Sherlock Holmes, and find secrets in the tiniest molecules of language!
Interviews mentioned: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d4AiG…
The full Sounds and Meaning series: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Bkbw3…
Hello and welcome to language with Chu. It’s been a while. Since I made the series on sounds, I was at two interviews, so check them out on my channel, for expanding on the topics that I covered then. But on this video I wanted to do a bit of a recap of what I’ve done so far, tell you why I started off with sounds, and where I’m going next. Hopefully to pique your curiosity even more.
So as a recap for the previous series:
On part one we covered the idea that sounds could be like molecules, the tiniest components of language in more ways than it is usually understood.
Then in part two, we saw how one sound like /b/ or /p/ could contain a whole range of meaning that we’re usually not aware of, or not conscious of, but that is there, kind of lurking in the background and giving color and meaning to proper words.
On part three, we explored that even more with the idea that even particles, parts of words, syllables, could also do that. Specifically, we did it for names of places (toponyms), but not only.
Then, on part 4, we saw how parallels between sounds and languages across the board, not even amongst families of languages, could tell us something about a hidden history and stories that people told each other throughout the years, the way our ancestors understood the world in the past.
And finally, on part 5, I introduced the idea that shapes, whether it’s in sounds or in written symbols, could also express some meaning. All of those to me are just are clues about something bigger, something bigger that we’re usually not aware of, and something hidden, part of the big mystery of language. One of the biggest mysteries for science is considered to be the origin of language and our capacity for language, because we differ so much from animals in that respect, that it the jump is not understood. And we’re not yet at the point where we can fully understand why it came to be, why we use it, how we use it, etc.
But then you’ll say, “Well, why did you start with sounds?” Why not grammars, why not types of languages, why not the origin of language?
Well, the first reason is that sounds have always been my passion. I love sounds, whether I’m learning a foreign language or not. So it was just a matter of preference, but also because it’s one example of how something so obvious, that we use all the time, is often neglected, in Linguistics in this case. Many mysteries in life may be staring us in the face, but we just don’t see them because we take them for granted, like the air we breathe. So sounds to me are a little bit like that, and the poor sounds are really neglected in Linguistics, and I’m tired of it!
Reason number three for choosing sounds was that sometimes, if you focus on sounds, you’ll see parallels among languages that usually shouldn’t be there or are not considered important. For example, Spanish belongs to a branch of the Indo-European languages, Greek to another. And then you have Basque which is an isolate, it doesn’t belong to any family. Yet, their sound systems across the board are very, very similar. So the sound system in Basque is more similar to Spanish and Greek than, say, French and Spanish.
And the fourth and most important reason, I think, is that when you look at sounds and explore the meaning behind these tiniest pieces of language, you find that there’s a big parallel with biology. Instead of imagining, like at the time of Darwin, that the cell was a blob, a jello, and that somehow from that came evolution, etc., biologists now know exactly the content of a cell. Well, what that gives us (and in language too, I believe) is a clue about something intelligent, a design, if you want. Something very complex (I don’t know what it is) that tells us that random mutations and materialism as it’s understood nowadays don’t cut it, don’t explain the whole thing.
So that brings me to why before returning to sounds, we need to explore other mysteries: the mystery of why and how the language capacity originated, why we are able to produce language, and how that came to be. The mysteries of how why languages differ amongst each other, why languages are so complex too. The capacity for language is complex, and languages themselves are. So you’re looking at a whole web of complexity that is very, very hard to simplify into something banal, or some kind of random mutation here and there. We’ll talk about that.
We also have to cover other mysteries: the mysteries of grammars and how they work, and why they are different. The mystery of language acquisition, how we acquire language, whether it’s our mother tongue or a second tongue. The difference in typology of languages, these families. And the problem with modern Linguistics and materialism, and seeing what we can keep from that, and what we should expand on because some things are really not explained with materialism.
That doesn’t mean that we need to turn into religion all of a sudden. We need to find out the boundaries of what is really material and what may be immaterial, and which we need to explain somehow else. Language includes everything that is physical: the brain, our vocal apparatus… But it also includes our minds, our thoughts, and all that is intangible.
So we need to find the balance between that, which brings me to the next topic that we need to cover: how language affects thought and culture, and vice versa. Is it because of our culture and our thoughts that we speak in a certain way, or does the way we speak affect, alter, our culture? That’s a very old debate and nobody has the solution. There are two camps. So I’ll talk a bit about that.
And finally, I want to bring up the idea that we won’t get unstuck unless we use a multidisciplinary approach. We need several disciplines to explain, to start explaining, languages and language. You need sociology, psychology, neurology, archaeology, biology, information theory… you need a lot of disciplines to make sense of the complexity of language. And usually Linguists (in the same way as other scientists depending on their discipline do it) get stuck into their field, and they don’t look at anything else. So we’ll try to do that, and I think that we’ll find out that even though sounds are possibly one of those types of molecules, there are others in language. Otherwise we wouldn’t have the complexity we have in sign languages, for example.
So I think we’re going to find out that there are many tiny molecules, and all of them make up for the complexity of language. And ultimately, my hope is that in the same way that many of you wrote to me saying how the sounds series had piqued their curiosity and made them want to learn more about sounds, we will all become a bit like Sherlock Holmes. Because ultimately, the mysteries hide in the details. Sherlock Holmes or any detective story, really, is based on the fact that the clues about a mystery are always hidden in plain sight, but in the details. So that’s kind of what we’re doing.
And as a long-term goal, why not use Linguistics as a step towards understanding who we are, why we’re here, what we’re here for? Those are all philosophical questions, if you wish, that have a lot to do with language, I think. Usually philosophers will just reflect on that or throw in ideas, but language, I think, is a big, big component. And yeah, I just find it fascinating, and I think that you will too, whether you’re interested in language because you are, or because you use language. And who doesn’t use language, right?
So stay tuned, and let’s hope that we can discover…we can walk through it like in a labyrinth. Don’t be surprised if I go in a tangent sometimes. It may seem to you that I’m talking about language trivia or a language mystery that doesn’t have to do much with sounds. But hopefully in the end, or globally, it will make sense if you keep these goals in mind. Thank you for watching!”
So far, we have seen that phonemes and sounds can carry meaning. In this part, you will learn about other possible clues: Do frequencies have shapes? Does the shape of a letter relate to its sound? And what do the shapes of our letters convey about our remote past and legacy? We’ll connect these pieces of “trivia” with the rest of the series. And hopefully after watching, you will see your letters and the sounds of your language in a whole new light.
– Cymatics: https://www.cymascope.com/cyma_resear…
– Nora Turoman, Suzy J Styles, “Glyph guessing for ‘oo’ and ‘ee’: spatial frequency information in sound symbolic matching for ancient and unfamiliar scripts” https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/28989…
– TED Talk, Genevieve von Petzinger, “Why are these 32 symbols found in caves all over Europe” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hJnEQ…
Hello, and welcome to Language with Chu. This is part five of the series on sounds and meaning, this is just a bit of a wrap-up to show you a bit of trivia, or actually extra things that could make you think that sounds are not all they’re made out to be. Let’s just have a couple of slides to show you that sounds maybe even have shape. Do you think so? Let’s see:
Well, this is just to remind you that the human auditory field goes from 20 to 20,000 Hertz, so that means that all the frequencies that I’m going to show right after are within what humans can hear.
There’s something called Cymatics, and it shows that sounds, or rather, to be precise, frequencies, have shapes. You can look it up on Youtube, and you can see that if you put sand or salt or whatever on a loudspeaker, and you emit a certain frequency, the sound will form these shapes. These are just three examples. Remember 20 to 20,000 Hertz. This, we can hear. These are frequencies we can hear, and they all form these interesting shapes. Nobody knows why. As far as I know, it hasn’t been really talked about, but they’re there. So maybe frequency has to do with something, with the essence of things, and maybe each sound in language conveys that.
In fact, here are some pictures of a female voice, and you can see the different vowels, /a/, /o/, /u/, and how they change in shape. It’s almost like a fractal, like a like a pattern that repeats itself over and over and over again. This hasn’t been studied much, but I think it may be just a little clue, although it’s just about frequency here. So I don’t want to get carried away, because I think there’s a lot more to sounds than just the frequency. It’s basically about your pitch, the pitch of your voice, so it can´t be all of it. But it’s interesting nonetheless. [And we each have a unique pattern, like what happens with our fingerprints.]
Another thing about shape is that, in this study, for example, they took a bunch of couples of letters from different languages, some languages that nobody would know. In fact, if you knew them, you were eliminated from the test for that couple of graphemes, those two letters. And they made people guess whether it was an /u:/ sound or an /i:/ sound. And what was interesting was that some of them were really, really easy to guess, even though the person really swore that they didn’t know the letters. It had to do with the amount of ink used, and the space between the traits. The more ink, for example, the more it was likely that the sound would be an /u:/. And this is not just people guessing, but the people who created the letters, the graphemes, also may have decided to represent that sound by something like the /u:/ being heavier, let’s say. So there’s something about letters that usually, again, seems arbitrary, but perhaps it’s not, and it has to do with the meaning of sounds.
I don’t know, I find it very, very interesting, because when you look at old alphabets, usually they tell you, well, you know, the origins are different, or this one blended in with this one, not that one… And you hardly ever see them together, really, you study them separately. But aren’t they kind of similar? Just look at these, and you’ll see that there are similarities. It’s not completely different.
But not only that, when you see some of them more closely, that are supposedly from not even the same family, and they have similarities, you start wondering, well, why is this kind of crooked here and this is kind of crooked here? Hmm, hieroglyphs, Arabic, supposedly they’re not related. Well, let me see. And why does this one look like a bull, and then in Proto-Sinaic again, and you’re talking a long, long time in history. And they changed, but not that much. So what today is the letter “A”, perhaps in the past meant a bull, an ox. Isn’t that interesting? We take the letters to be just random: “a-b-c-d-e”, but what if they actually initially meant something like they did with the hieroglyphs?
Not only that, but when you see prehistoric caves like the one in Lascaux, it’s amazing. This one is from 17,300 BC and supposedly, it depicts a world myth, how the world was created. And these people are supposedly primitive, right? They didn’t have the technology we have now, etcetera. They were just counting herd, or counting people, or whatever. Except the patterns, the designs, repeat over and over in different territories, in different countries, from people who couldn’t have been in touch. Not only that but there’s a researcher, I forget her name now [Genevieve von Petzinger] who discovered that there are 32 geometric sign or symbols that are usually ignored in these caves, because it’s just like a little line, a little circle, or whatever, but that repeat over and over across these caves. And there’s something about the shape of what is depicted that resembles the old alphabets. So what if there was some kind of resemblance between sound and meaning, or the shape of letters or symbols and meanings? It’s something that I don’t think is too far out, because you see it already in Chinese.
You see sounds and graphemes and you see that part of the ideogram sometimes has a phonetic part, so it picks what sounded like one character and it puts it into another character to make it sound similar. Other times, you have just the idea in a character. But there’s always this kind of combination and correlation between sound and meaning, even though we think Chinese is so difficult, and there’s nothing in it that tells you the sound from the word. Well there is a little bit. There’s not a lot like in Latin languages or in English, but you can find this way of grouping. You can find ways of grouping things by their essence too.
In Chinese, you use classifiers to talk about something… flat objects, for example. And you say one classifier for flat (a sheet of paper, for example ). So that essence in Chinese is conveyed by the classifiers. [1/2/3… + flat thing + sheet of paper]. But maybe it’s also conveyed across all languages in the sounds. Maybe we choose different sounds because they mean something different, like I explained with phonosemantics.
So, again, I hope that I’ve given you some questions to ask yourself about why this topic could be interesting. I really don’t have the answer, but I’m going to continue researching because I think it’s fascinating, and that it gets ignored, even though it could be telling us about the “molecules of language”. Basically, the genetic imprint, if you want. We do that a lot in biology, and we haven’t done it in language, so I find it a real, real pity. Anyway, I hope you like these videos, and please subscribe to my channel if you like this, or like this video or these videos, or share or leave me a comment with what your questions about language and sounds are. And see you next time for more videos about linguistic curiosities and language complexity. Bye bye!