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In 2010, orator Hans Teeuwen gave a lecture in London on the topic of speech dysfluencies
in the English language.
"...if I was in a peculickar- peculiar circumstance- what a -f-caw caw-it language you guys got.
"...if I was in a peculickar- peculiar circumstance- what a -f-caw caw-it language you guys got..."
Hans, a native Dutch speaker, appeared to be slightly frustrated by this peculiar English
word, but perhaps he'd be even more frustrated trying to learn other languages like this
Khoisan language of Kalahari, … or the language of the Pirahã of the Amazon
“Paoxai wants to see.
A whole lot (of people).
Thus a whole lot he wants to see.”
You ask “what's the word for head?” and they, the first thing they say is ʔapapaí
and you repeat it, and they say “that's right, kakakaí.” we told you that the word for “milk” is ʔíbogi.
But you can also say ʔí
or you can say
So, some languages may seem very exotic to English speakers, but is there some sort of
developmental reason for that?
For example, an analysis by Ian Maddieson and Christophe Coupé found that depending
on where you live, your language will have fewer or more consonants.
Koa hōʻea hou aku i Hawaii. Kūkā kou umi lua o lēʻī wae no a nā wahi u'i loa apuni...
შენთან თამაში სურს და თუ დრო გაქვს მოდი ჩემთან არისო
But, how did the first human languages develop?
And, Is language built into our brains, or do we have to learn it from scratch - Is it
a human invention?
Babies all over the world somehow go from not even knowing what language is, to fluidly
conversing about the advent of languages.
But, it takes a long while, and a lot of effort on both the parents' and babies' part
to get there.
despite babies being bathed in language from birth, it still takes the average baby 12
months for their first words to appear and 2 years to start making simple sentences.
If it takes that much effort to learn an already existing language, how could humans have collaborated
in such a way to create a language entirely from scratch?
Language is complex, and difficult to learn.
So complex that, one relatively popular theory, which comes from famous linguist Noam Chomsky,
is that language is prewired into the human brain, and language would have suddenly appeared
in the brain perhaps via a mutation in one individual within the past 100,000 years.
All language speaking humans would have then descended from that one individual.
However, Richard Dawkins argues something as bafflingly complex arising in nature must
have had always had a very simple starting point . For example, how could the human eye
have had a starting point like this.
He explains that all you need to get started on the path to the human eye, is a sheet of
cells sensitive to light.
Develop a cup, and a small hole, and you can actually make out a low quality image of what
is in front of you.
From here, arriving at the human eye becomes plausible.
A somewhat similar story of how language evolved, starting from the most basic type of communication,
is presented in Dr. Daniel Everett's book “How Language Began.”
So, what is the simplest form of communication - the first step?
According to the sign progression theory of language, the first step would have been indexes.
Intentionally or not, most things in the natural world communicate.
Indexes represent things that they are physically connected to, for example - hoofprints or
pawprints communicate that an animal was there.
A smoldering, isolated fire would be an index for humans being nearby.
Animal droppings would communicate what kind of animal was there and even how long ago.
The next step after indexes is icons - icons resemble things that may not have been physically
present, for example a portrait representing the real person, or the stick person on a
bathroom door communicating man or woman.
In fact, we use plenty of icons nowadays.
Onomatopeias would be an example of audible icons.
Another language from the Amazon, Wari', has several onomatopeias and partially onamatopoeic
words, for everything from “eat” and “cook” to “puncture” or “tear.”
The Japanese language is filled with several onamotopoeic-like words to describe all kinds
of things like the weather, the motion of objects and the way people move, laugh, eat
and drink and so on.
Maybe one of the first human words was just somebody imitating the vocalization of a commonly
hunted animal.
The third step after indexes and icons is the symbol.
"So in my perspective, the crucial difference between human communication and animal communication
is the use of symbols."
So, what is a symbol?
Everything you are seeing and hearing me say right now are symbols.
“All these spoken and written words have been mostly arbitrarily chosen with their
meaning tacitly agreed upon by English speakers.”
Without prior knowledge or some extra context, there is no way to intuit that the English
word “cat” refers to a feline or that the Dutch word “klinkers” refers to vowels.
Certain animals do have the capacity to interpret symbols, though.
"can you tell me if you'd like some surprises?"
"You would?"
"Kanzi, would you like a juice or some eminems or some sugar cane..."
However, humans are the only ones who actively invent and use them to the point that they
can read a book containing 90,000 symbols with no visual cues and know exactly what's
going on.
Even young children can rapidly decipher and make use of symbols with no explicit instruction.
Several months ago, when my niece was about 3 years old, I used the word “buffelhaus”
two or three times in place of the word “joke” as in “No you didn't, you're buffelhausing
Several days later, when her friend became upset with something she did, she said “It's
OK, I was just buffelhausing you...”
You can see the evolution from icons to symbols in some Chinese characters.
The character for light used to look like a torch, the one for mountain looked like
...a mountain, as did river, bow, dog, horse and deer.
But now they are completely symbolic.
In fact, in English, Words related to the nose may have had some iconic onomatopoeia-like
root, considering many of them start with a nasally sn- or sm- like snout, sniff, snot,
smell, snort, sneeze, snore or snarl.
"Many of you may be familiar with the form of humor or alleged humor called the 'LOL-cat.'
The humor in which resides in the fact that this cat is incompetent at English grammar."
So, what about grammar?
Dan Everett argues that all you need to do, is put your symbols, your words in the right
"So you say 'I'm going to put the subject first and the verb second and the object third'
- however you wanna do it, but as soon as you agree on it, you've got a way of interpreting
the symbols, you've got a grammar, you can say actually anything you want to say."
But still how exactly do you arrive at a language from just ordered symbols?
A key point is that speech doesn't happen in a void.
We all make utterances knowing that people share similar knowledge of the world.
Without the ability to speak and interpret speech based on context - we wouldn't have
Things, like intonation and cadence, are also very important, to communicate effectively-
Gestures, intonation and culture would all be key in making the noises coming out of
our mouths intelligible.
All languages rely on context, but some languages rely less on it, while some rely on context
much more.
In English, even if it's obvious you're inquiring about the person you're speaking
to, you would still say “Did you eat?”
yet in Chinese you would drop the “you” and just say「吃饭了没?」which means
“ate or not?”
And, there are languages that rely on context to a fantastic degree.
According to David Gil, in the Riau language of Indonesia, ayam makan, “chicken eat,”
could mean any of the following based on the context:
-The chicken is eating, will eat, or ate something -Something is eating the chicken
-The chicken that was eating -The chicken that was being eaten
-Someone is eating with the chicken
-When the chicken is eating
It might sound like it would be hard to get anything properly communicated in Riau, but
on the other hand, we of course don't take this sign to mean “There is no litter available
for purchase here,” nor do we interpret “No Shirt, No Shoes, No Service” to mean
“We are unable to provide shirt or shoe repair services.”
Using existing languages like Riau or Pidgin languages as examples, Ray Jackendoff argues
in this lecture that you can say alot without syntax or grammar and that connecting speech
sounds with meaning would have had to have to come before grammar.
Grammar can refine an existing communication system, but would be useless on its own.
For a while now, linguists have posited that grammar is the essence of language and is
innate to the human brain, but Jackendoff argues that would be like evolving the system
of muscles necessary for moving the eye ...before actually being able to actually see.
ʔáooí ʔaóo hi ʔahoái sahaʔáí ʔapaitíiso hi ʔahoaáti ʔabaʔáígio
The Piraha language made a big stir in the linguistic community when it was found that
the language lacked something called “recursion.”
In 2002 Noam Chomsky, sometimes called the “father of modern linguistics,” proposed
that recursion is the basis for all human language - that all human languages have recursion
built into the grammar.
Simply put, recursion is combining an endless number of ideas in a single sentence
. Thanks to recursion, we can have the nursery
rhyme “The House that Jack built.”
It starts out with “This is the house that Jack built” and by the third verse says
“This is the rat that ate the malt that lay in the house that Jack built” and goes
on to pack more and more information into each verse.
"If in a language you can show there is a largest sentence and you can't make it any
larger, that language doesn't have recursion and Piraha is such a language."
So, because the Piraha language lacks recursion, you would have to translate this line as:
“Jack built a house.
The malt is in the house.
This is a rat.
The rat ate the malt.”
Similarly, the earlier mentioned Riau language of Indonesia and the Iatmul language of New
Guinea both lack recursion.
However, it's estimated that Piraha has been an independent language for around 2500
100 generations seems like enough time to develop something as useful as recursive grammar
in the language - so why would it still lack recursion?
Biological evolution is filled with tradeoffs - you can find examples all over your body.
People have been tripping forward, putting their arms out to break their fall and probably
fracturing these bones right here, ever since we could stand on two feet.
So why not just make these bones thicker?
Well, if they're too thick, you can't rotate your arm as easily.
“ it's a tradeoff isn't it?-” The trade off of our oral cavity being suitable
for language is that we are susceptible to choking.
A descended larynx made it so we could produce a wider variety of speech sounds, but the
tradeoff was losing the ability to not choke on food.
So, could recursive grammar be an example of a linguistic evolutionary tradeoff that
wasn't worth it for the Piraha?
I spoke about this topic with Dan Everett over Skype.
"Clearly they are capable of recursive thinking, but then,"
"Yes" "Why wouldn't they see the utility in building
recursion into the language at some point."
"OK, so recursion packs more information into a single sentence.
You can communicate the same information without recursion in the sentence, but the interpretation
requires recursion, which I have always claimed.
However, if there's a lot of noise in the environment, among other things.
There's a number of reasons why you might not have recursion, but if there's a lot of
noise in the environment, having short sentences that don't have other sentences built into
them makes it a lot easier to recover the information if there's a lot of noise.
You lose less information if a sentence is not heard.
And there's a lot of noise in the Piraha environment."
This idea of wanting to avoid information loss is also evident in the fact that the
Piraha repeat themselves alot while talking.
In his other book about life in the Amazon Jungle, titled “Don't Sleep, There are
Snakes,” Everett transcribes a story told by one of the Piraha.
The first 6 lines all essentially say the same thing: A black Jaguar pounced on his
dog, killing it.
This all ties into the data I brought up at the start of the video - how language develops
depends on ecology.
Song birds have regional accents - compared to birds in the countryside, birds in the
city will tweet at a higher pitch to reduce echo bouncing off the walls.
It's surprising that some human languages can be communicated through whistling, but
perhaps not all that surprising is the fact that whistle speech has been mostly found
in mountainous regions where people need to attempt to communicate across vast distances.
Whistle speech is also found in dense forests like the Amazon where the acoustic environment
isn't very good and there is plenty of background noise to overcome.
The Piraha language in fact, has whistle speech - yet another way for them to maintain clear
Everett explains that another reason for the absence of recursion in Piraha is something
he calls the “immediacy of experience principle.”
That is, the Piraha are far less concerned about the past or future.
"... not that they can't think about the past or they can't think about the future, but
they prefer not to talk about things in the distant future and the distant past for which
there is no evidence.”
"So every verb has to have on it the source of the evidence.
Did you hear about it?
Did you see it with your own eyes?
Or did you deduce it from the local evidence?
So, as a Christian missionary, which I no longer am...
I remember telling them about Jesus one time and they said uhm, so Dan, Jesus - is he brown
like us or is he white like you?
"Uh, I don't know, I haven't seen him."
"Well, what did your friends say who saw him?"
"Why are you telling us about him then!?"
Getting along in life never being able to say something as simple as “By the way,
Jack said he sold the boat that you bought from Bill two days ago” might be inconceivable,
but what about 1,2,3,4,5,6?
You couldn't talk about times, money, your height or weight, how many days you'll be
gone for...
The Piraha language lacks numbers.
and just have words for “a little,” “some,” and “alot.”
They do understand relative quantities, so they prefer to trade with traders who give
them bigger piles of stuff, but experiments have established that without outside influence,
they truly lack the ability to accurately keep track of quantities greater than 3.
But the thing is, they don't need recursion or numbers to be great hunters and fishermen,
have encyclopedic knowledge of the flora and fauna of the jungle, or maintain a social
That is, their culture values first and foremost what is necessary and useful to thriving in
the jungle and this value appears in the structure of the language.
So the point is: Humans would have developed a set of speech sounds based on ecology.
"...peculiar circumstance!"
And, they would start to come up with icons and symbols to use for communication, which
would be supported by gestures and intonation.
And, culture would provide much needed context to the communication efforts, and influence
the way the language and its structure develops while at the same time acting as the vehicle
that preserves and transmits the language to the next generation.
Since cultures and cultural values can differ so much, it's not a shock that
Evans and Levinson wrote in a 2009 paper that ….languages differ so fundamentally from
one another at every level of description (sound, grammar, lexicon, meaning) that it
is very hard to find any single structural property that they share.
In this paper, Evans and Levinson give counterexamples to virtually all features proposed to be universals
across languages suggesting that the only thing innate to the human brain is a bag of
cognitive tools that allow you to realize that people are making noises with purpose
that follow a specific pattern, and then those cognitive tools allow you to learn that pattern
"...and he's gonna
do all the things that he needs to do..."
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How did the First Language Begin? The Mystery of the Pirahã

57 Folder Collection
Courtney Shih published on November 13, 2019
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