The Treasure Chest

Three New Vistas on Language

By Paul Bouissac

For decades the field of linguistics research was saturated successively by structural functionalism and generativism. Pockets of insurgency against the epistemological imperialism of these two paradigms always existed in the margins of mainstream language science, some explicitly inspired by a semiotic approach such as Roman Jakobson’s reliance on C.S. Peirce’s ideas in his assault on the Saussurean notion of arbitrariness, or Thomas Sebeok’s downgrading of the semiotic theories that derived their inspiration and models exclusively from linguistics to a “minor tradition”. In spite of these skirmishes, semioticians have always agreed that natural languages are semiotic phenomena par excellence while recognizing that existing theories were falling short of explaining their origin and evolution. A full understanding of language still appears to be elusive. In the context of contemporary advances in the formal and biological sciences, a new generation of researchers has started tackling the tough “why” issues regarding language. Their successes, or failures, are bound to have an impact on semiotics itself. The three books briefly reviewed below are only a very small, albeit representative sample of the extraordinarily abundant literature that is currently redefining our understanding of language, and may be the harbinger of a radical paradigm shift. It should be noted however that they all acknowledge that their efforts are tentative, and often raise more questions than offer definite answers. But it is the provocative novelty of these very questions that makes their works worth pondering.

Self-Organization in the Evolution of Speech

By Pierre-Yves Oudeyer. Translated by James R. Hurford. Oxford University Press. 2006.

Two features seem to characterize various contemporary approaches to the understanding and explanation of language: a radical questioning of the assumption of rational systematicity that motivated earlier search for sui generis laws of language, and a reliance on the principles of evolutionary biology at a time when the coming of age of Darwinism casts a new light on human cognition; communication; and, more generally, languages and cultures. Pierre-Yves Oudeyer, a researcher at the Sony Laboratory in Paris, is representative of this epistemological movement.

His slender but comprehensive book (150 pages) frames the issues involved in the evolution of speech within the wider context of the “self-organization revolution in science” and the Darwinian theory of evolution. It does so with exemplary clarity. This work focuses on speech, and retraces its virtual development from holistic and unarticulated vocalizations to combinatorial systems of discrete elements regulated by emerging simple phonotactic rules. To demonstrate this scenario, according to which speech would have emerged naturally “without presupposing the existence of any convention whatsoever” (p. 29), he engages in simulations that show “how a conventional code could bootstrap itself without the need to assume any capacity for cultural interaction equivalent in complexity from an evolutionary point of view” (p.145). Basically, Oudeyer’s project exploits the idea that highly complex structures and systems can be accounted for by much simpler laws.

In the author’s own words: “[D]espite [the] poorly organized circuits in the initial brains of the agents, a spontaneous structure, a speech code, could form in a population of agents.[…] It was perhaps after all not so difficult for natural selection to find a genetic program enabling agents to develop a speech code, in the case where this capacity has adaptive value. The simulation shows that it is not necessary to explore the immense space of complicated genetic programs which would generate complex innate neural structures like those proposed by the cognitive nativists. On the contrary, small manipulations of very simple cerebral structures, like the random connections between acoustic perceptual networks and phonatory networks, by adaptive changes following a Hebbian law, are sufficient” (p.145-146).

In his conclusion, Oudeyer emphasizes that his research opens a vast theoretical space that has not yet been fully explored in the quest for the origin of speech. Explicitly using Peirce’s logic of abduction, he asserts the right of using at an early stage of the research “speculative premises, even false premises” as long as they are useful. He claims however that the premises upon which he based his artificial system, and the conclusions he derived from his simulations are at least plausible.

Action to Language via the Mirror Neuron System

Edited by Michael A. Arbib. Cambridge University Press. 2006.

The discovery, some ten years ago, in monkey brains of mirror neurons, that is, neurons which fire both when the monkey performs a grasping hand movement and when it sees this movement performed by other monkeys as well as by humans, is generally considered to be an important revolution with wide-ranging implications. During the last decade, cumulative evidence has shown that this phenomenon can also be observed in human as well as in songbird brains with respect to acoustic information. The fact that the F5 region of the monkey brain in which such mirror neurons have been observed is homologous to the Broca area in the human brain has triggered speculations concerning the nature and origin of language.

Arbib’s hefty volume (550 pages) includes fifteen dense articles by specialists in the neurosciences, cognitive science, computer science, psychology, and linguistics, that offer state of the art accounts of the impact of the mirror neurons discovery for the understanding of a wide array of issues: from the origin of language to the evolution of cultures, and including gestures, imitation, and the Theory of Mind. Note, however, that some articles express dissenting views, and question the relevance and significance of mirror neurons for understanding higher cognitive functions, or simply stray away from the program suggested by the title, Action to Language.

Nevertheless, mirror neurons, and what can be extrapolated from the empirical evidence that has been gathered so far, are the main focus of this book. The editor, Michael Arbib, is one of the main proponents of the new vista on language origin ushered in by this discovery. He is the author of the first chapter and co-author of three of the articles. This first chapter (3-47) fully introduces and details “the Mirror System Hypothesis” (MSH) according to which language evolved from the circuitry involving mirror neurons in the vocal-manual-facial complex that can be assumed to have existed in the common ancestor of the primates, and formed the basis for proto-languages and further selections leading to fully articulate languages. The early steps suggested by Arbib include: (1) grasping and manual praxic actions (actions directed toward a goal), (2) imitation of grasping and manual praxic actions, (3) pantomime of grasping and praxic actions, (4) pantomime of actions outside the pantomimic’s own behavioral repertoire, (5) conventional gestures used to formalize and disambiguate pantomime, (6) conventionalized manual, facial, and vocal communicative gestures through “protowords” distinct from pantomime (34).

The tell-tale chapters which Arbib co-authored are entitled: “Neural homologies and the grounding of neurolinguistics” (with Mihail Bota) (136-173), “From mirror system to syntax and Theory of Mind: Attention and the minimal subscene” (with Laurent Itti) (289-346), and “The development of grasping and the mirror system” (with Erhan Oztop and Nina Bradley) (397-423). Most other chapters deal with imitation from evolutionary, comparative and developmental points of view.

A concise account of the functional properties of the system formed by mirror neurons, and their relevance to the understanding of human communication can be found in "The Mirror-Neuron System" by Giacomo Rizzolatti and Laila Craighero, The Annual Review of Neuroscience, 2004, Vol. 27 (169-192).

Selfish Sounds and Linguistic Evolution

By Nikolaus Ritt. Cambridge University Press. 2004.

The title of this book y Nikolaus Ritt, a specialist of historical linguistics who teaches in the Department of English at the University of Vienna, echoes the title of Richard Dawkins’s landmark work The Selfish Gene (1976) in which the word “meme” was somewhat casually coined to refer to hypothetical units of cultural transmission by analogy with genetic replication. Dawkins’s musing was a renewed attempt to bring human cultures into the fold of Darwinian evolutionism. His neologism fired up the imagination of a host of philosophers, and the resulting “memetic” speculations spawned countless publications and controversies. This literature is rife in analogies and anecdotes but poor in empirical evidence.

The author of Selfish Sounds, noting that all the philosophical excitement about memes appears to have receded, thought that the time had come to carefully examine language changes in the light of the meme hypothesis, and to determine whether this hypothesis can account for such changes better than the traditional approaches found in historical linguistics. The result is a 327-page volume broadly organized into two parts: a presentation of the Darwinian approach and its application to an evolutionary theory of language, and a series of case studies in which some of the changes that have occurred in the English language from Old English to Modern English are examined in great detail, and explained in terms of memetics.

The core issue of this approach is: can there be linguistic replicators at all? Another, equally important question is: what kind of linguistic entities, from phonetic and phonological components to sentence and discourse, can be construed as replicators?

A long, substantial chapter entitled “Towards an evolutionary theory of language” (122-239) struggles with these issues and offers plausible, albeit tentative answers. Ritt’s exposé is cautious and methodical, and always introduces examples to support his claims. Every aspect of his theoretical proposals is examined, and his arguments are sufficiently precise and explicit enough for being open to possible refutations. In brief, the book is exemplary not only through the novelty of its approach, but also through its author’s scientific modesty, a welcome change from the apodictic, if not apocalyptic style of earlier memetic literature..