Tuesday, January 18, 2011

How Did Language Come About? Part II

Human language, the language of bees, and of ants are more alike than any of them are to other animal communication systems ( henceforth, ACS).   How can that be?  We share about 98% of our DNA with  chimps, but chimps can't communicate the way humans can.  What is there about bees, ants, and humans that made their communication systems similar, and so different from other ACS?  In what way(s) are ACS different from human, bee, and ant languages?  I am here deliberately using the word language even when talking of bees and ants because, as we shall see, the difference between language and ACS is not one of quantity.  That is, it is not just that humans, bees, and ants can say more than other animals.  In fact, I'm not sure that  bees and ants can impart more messages than, say, wolves.  The difference is one of kind.  That is, bees, ants, and humans do things with their languages that no other animals we know of can do with their communication systems, and the things they can do can't be tacked onto other systems.  Language involved wholly new physiological and communication systems.

People, including scholars, often think of language as the culmination of ACS.  That is, it was the logical outcome of being intelligent.   As I will show, however,  humans became so smart because they began developing language.  Bees and ants aren't all that bright, however, although they have also developed language.  So, intelligence itself is not the catalyst for developing language.

ACS work just fine for the animals that use them.  That is why other animals never developed language. Evolution occurs when an adaptation allows a creature (or plant) to survive.  If there is no need for the things that language can do, then even highly intelligent animals, like chimpanzees won't develop it.  In fact, it may well be that the pre-humans who started on the path to language weren't much brighter than chimpanzees.  That is not an assertion.  We don't know how intelligent those pre-humans were, beyond knowing that they made tools for scraping and cutting, and that their diet  included meat.  

However, language didn't evolve in order to make tools.  Nor did it evolve in order to  hunt better.
Actually, tool-making hominids, 2,000,000 years ago, seem to have been scavengers more than hunters.  It would be a long, long time until hominids made spears and even longer until humans made bows and arrows.  There is nothing about tool-making that requires language.  The tool-maker need only demonstrate the actions needed to make a tool and then demonstrate how to use it.

As for hunting, wolves arrange hunting strategies in which different members of the pack play different roles, but they don't have language.  Wolves also assign different members of the pack different cub-rearing tasks, and they do that without language as well.  In a pack, only one female bears young.  The other females help raise them. Some even lactate without becoming pregnant so they can help nurse the litter.  It is said that you need language for culture, but ethologists show that wolves have a culture, and they have no language.  They pass it on by demonstration and discipline.  More amazing to me is that coyotes and badgers hunt cooperatively.  The badger digs deep into holes  or tunnels that prey are hiding in.  When the badger gets to the prey, it runs out, and the waiting coyote kills it.  Then the badger and coyote share the kill.  How did they work this out between them? They did, though, and neither species has language. (The Spirit of the Wild Dog:The World of Wolves, Coyotes, Foxes, Jackals, and Dingoes by Lesley Rogers & Gisela Kaplan (2003)

The point is that just because we use language for certain purposes, that doesn't mean that language evolved for those purposes.  As my previous post on evolution noted, the entire human body has been adapted for language. Such wholesale changes in anatomy devoted to producing speech can only be explained by a strong need.  In order to survive, humans--or more probably hominids--had to have been faced with a certain set of circumstances that required language. This doesn't mean that language evolved all at once.  Indeed, it couldn't because the anatomical changes it required had to have taken milennia to occur. 

However, the first steps to language must have occurred for the same reason bees developed their amazing dancing and ants developed their chemical messages to each other.  The impetus for bees and ants is that they have to find a food source, go back to the hive or anthill and recruit others to come help them gather the food and bring it back to the hive or anthill.  As Derek Bickerton has been saying for years, (for instance, in Adam's Tongue:How Humans Made Language; How Language Made Humans the same situation was encountered by pre-humans.  Climate change caused hominids to eat more meat.  They couldn't pounce on a prey animal the way a big cat could do.  In fact, they had no weapons with which to kill.  In fact, the first tools were those of scavengers: tools for cutting flesh and scraping it off skin.  However, hominids, who had neither deadly claws nor deadly teeth were in competition with scavengers like jackals, wolves and other carnivores. Even hunters will grab a tasty meal they didn't have to kill.  

Bickerton gives the scenario of foraging hominids coming across carcasses of animals like rhinos and elephants.  Their skin was so thick that other scavengers had to let it rot a while before they could get to the meat within.  Hominids, however, could use their cutters and scrapers to get at the meat before the carcass rotted.  Therefore, Bickerton says, hominids must have scouted widely to find such a carcass.  When one did, he would go back to his home den and recruit others to come and to bring certain tools.  He would also tell them where to find the kill. Then, with all those able to cut into the elephant, the entire band would be able to collect enough meat to last for many days.

Similarly, foraging bees come back to the hive and, by a dance, show the others where to find the pollen, the quality of the pollen find, and the kind of pollen. The workers in the hives can tell the foragers that the hive needs water, not pollen.

Why is this language? How is it like human language and how is it unlike ACS?  ACS communicates only emotions and desires, but it doesn't name anything in the external world.  That is, there are no referents to things of any kind.  In fact, the studies of chimps and gorillas who were supposedly trained to use chips or computer keys to emulate language show that it took as much as a thousand trials  before they realized that communication could refer to visible objects--or invisible ones, for thatmatter.

Human language, like that of bees and ants, must have started with referents to kinds of animals, tools, and perhaps even  names of others in their groups.  Ants and bees can't be creative in their languages. They are limited to a set of messages.  Human language is characterized by allowing speakers of any language to create an infinite number of messages, messages that had never been created before.  This difference probably came about because hominids were in an especially dangerous environments.  They were prey to many carnivores.  Hominids had reason to express new dangers and also, once they had some referents for things in the environment, they must have started naming even more. The women who gathered fruits and nuts would make up words for those and, again, use those words to indicate to others that they found that certain fruits were now ripe, and where to find them.  The next step was to parents passing on to children lore about where certain carcasses could be found or how to escape from predators.  Those homininds whose brains grew larger could store more information about survival; hence, they survived.

Once language could be used to speak of one's experiences, and as brains grew larger to store the experiences of others, homo sapiens with his and her full, creative language could evolve.  Language grows the mind.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Comment on Comments

Neil asked if I'd given more thoughts on how words affect society, or the beliefs of the members of a society.  How could I not?  In fact, if any reader thinks of words they think are culturally loaded, I'd love to hear them.  I'd rather write about examples from my readers than my own.

The whole problem of stating that words inevitably shape thought is that new words can be formed in any language, so a "counter-word", so to speak can be coined, or an old word can extend meaning to include more instances.  For instance, the word actor used to refer only to a male.  Now it refers to a female as well.  I notice in movie reviews the gender-marked actress is rarely used nowadays.  Notice that the word for the male is used for the female as well, but the word for the female never refers to a heterosexual male.  Similarly, names that originally were used only for males like Beverley, Shirley, Adrian, Dorian, Terry, Jordan, Marion, even Michael have come to be used for male. Despite the song A Boy Named Sue, female names don't transfer to females.  In other words, cultural attitudes, in this case that males are superior to females, prevail in naming practices.

I have changed my mind since I wrote the first 3 editions of Language: the Social Mirror on the matter of how words affect our thoughts.  I still believe that the vocabularies of our languages reflect our beliefs, and that those words can change if the beliefs do.  However, I now think that words affect our everyday thinking and our actions far more than I used to.  It seems to me that, along with acquiring vocabulary, children acquire the cultural attitudes reflected in that vocabulary.  That is the stance I take here--and in the 4th edition of my book.

Robin Lakoff, in an astute pamphlet way back in the 1970's entitled Language and Women's Place, showed how attitudes towards women were passed on via the English lexicon.  I did quote her in all the editions of Language:The Social Mirror, but said only that this showed how vocabulary reflected social attitudes. 

For instance, Lakoff noted that words for female talking were all negative.  For instance, women gossip,  an undesirable activity, which is also trivial.  When, in classes, I used to note that men also gossip, males in the classroom always protested.  "So," I'd say, "do males 'shoot the breeze,'?"  'Oh, yes," was the reply.  Well, what is shooting the breeze except gossiping?  Males talk about other men--and women--all the time.  We have restored three old houses, during which times, we had months where males were renovating, rewiring, and replumbing.  In every instance, and each instance was years after the other, the male workers talked incessantly, and they talked about other people, sports, and sometimes their thoughts on the day's headlines.  How is this different from gossip? The only difference is that shoot the breeze carries  a semantic feature of [+power], but gossip, what women supposedly do is [-power.] To give another example, outside of academia, if a woman lectures someone, she is talking out of turn and/or tiresomely going on about someone's behavior.  If a man lectures, he's putting forth worthwhile ideas.  (Do you agree? Let me know.)

As we look at  English vocabulary, we find that words specifically for women, designate weakness and undesirable behavior, but male counterparts don't.  When I was growing up, besides gossiping, women's talk was called yakkety yakking, chattering, babbling, and running off the mouth.  There wasn't one term for females saying important or worthy things.  I looked up the word eloquent in the OED back in 1982, and discoverered that every example it gave for eloquence was attributed to a male.  There was one exception, "She was eloquent only with  her eyes." All the men were eloquent with their words.  (I'm happy to  report that current examples for that word are no longer attributed only to men.) What all this added up to was my--and other English speakers'--acquiring the attitude that male speech was worthy, but female speech was inconsequential.

For other examples, quoting Lakoff again, notice that words for powerful people may have both male anfemale gender marking.  Consider, for  instance: king,queen; prince, princess; sir, madam; master, mistress .

In every pair, the word for the female has taken on a negative connotation.  A male homosexual who acts very effeminatively is a queen.  In older Rhode Island speech, a queen could also mean a man's mistress.   A princess is child or, if an adult, a spoiled, petulant person.  Sir is a term of respect, but a madam is the head of a whore house.  A master is one with power or one who excels, but a mistress belongs to a man.  She is master of nothing.  In fact, the word is usually used only as a possessive, as in "Roger's mistress."

Consider the double-whammy term Jewish American Princess.  To call someone a Jew implies that they are not nice and think only of money, as in the expressions "Jew someone down," and "Jew somebody out," (which I got from the movie Kill Bill 2).  So, if a woman is a Jewish American Princess or JAP, she is spoiled, wants to spend money on luxuries, doesn't cook, doesn't like sex, and is a trivial, rather nasty person.  I got that profile from hearing a slew of "JAP" jokes.  For instance, "How does a JAP prepare dinner? She orders it." Or, "What is a JAP's dream house?" "One with no kitchen or bedroom." 

Needless to say, I hope readers realize that there is no foundation for the belief that Jews are more greedy than anybody else, nor are they any more likely to want a good bargain.  In fact, they give more of their money to charity proportionately than any othe ethnic group in America. Far from being "princesses",  middle-class Jewish women are more likely to work outside the home than any other ethnic group.  Jewish women are earn PhD's, MD's, and law degrees far out of proportion to their numbers.   The sociological picture doesn't support the  stereotypes at all. 

Women are defined by their sexuality. Men by their competence.  Consider "She is virtuous" vs. "He is virtuous."  Or consider terms like tramp or the adjective easy.  If  she is a tramp, she has sex with anybody. If he's a tramp, he just bums around. (Actually, it seems to me that tramp referring to males is rarely used today,)  If he's easy, he's good-natured.  If she's easy, it's easy to get her in bed for sex.

When I was growing up, "He's a professional meant 'he's a doctor, lawyer, or professor'." However, "she's a professional" meant she was easy, or even a whore.  When I first began teaching in college, in 1971, it still had that meaning for my classes. However, by the 1980's it began to  mean that she was a doctor,  lawyer, or professional."  So, as social conditons change, some words change too.

Still, to a degree, it is true that men's words are more likely to be heeded, and that women are judged by their sexuality.  The latter is seen in the way women are described.  I have been amazed that an old lady like me has been called "hot" so fequently.  Hence, the name of this blog--only I mean it not to evaluate my sexuality, but my ideas and my passionate beliefs. And I don't mean passionate in the sense of sexuality.

Studies have shown that when a paper is sent to scholars with either a male's name, like John Smith or a female's like Joan Smith, the article under the man's name is highly praised, but the one under the woman's was ridiculed or severely criticized.  Any female scholar knows that if she puts  forth a new idea, she will meet with far more resistance than male scholars do.  If a woman had put forth Freudian notions, noody would have listened.  The same is true of Skinner's theory of operant conditioning.  Neither theory rested on valid evidence or any evidence at all, but both became dominant models for thought in the 20th century. 

Skinner's followers said if you knew every single thing that a person or animal had experienced from birth on, you would be able to explain his or her behavior at any time, and even predict future behavior.  As I told my psych professor at Brown in 1952, if you knew every single experience a person had, maybe you'd find that they don't explain behavior.  The professor was outraged and stuck to his gun,willing to base his assertions on a completely unprovable premise. After all, B. F. Skinner was a male and taught at Harvard.