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Notes by Alan Dix on "The Talking Ape: How Language Evolved"

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The Talking Ape: How Language Evolved


Burling's "The Talking Ape" is another book abut the development of language, but focused on the pre-human pre-requisites. A particular early focus in "The Talking Ape" is on the need to understand the reception/comprehension of language. Burling argues that most accounts of language are heavily production oriented, however whereas you can get a long way interpreting other creatures more accidental signs, producing language when there are no listeners is somewhat vacuous! He notes that infants learn to understand very early, long before they can effectively produce language, although maybe misses the equally important role of parents actively interpreting early infant sounds creating a more continuous curve of positive feedback in early language production, very critical for learning.

Burling has quite extensive discussions of primate concepts and (general lack of) syntax. Particularly interesting is that even chimpanzees that have learnt substantial vocabulary, significantly underperform against small children in tasks that require ordering -- language (or the cognitive ordering needed for language) appears to be very important in helping us plan and perform complex task sequences.

In several places I was struck by the relationship between the issues of language syntax and order, and those for task sequence inference, an issue I've looked at over some years, particularly with collaborators in Rome (refs). I often argue that language syntax is far less hierarchical than is commonly assumed, but instead more a mixture of 'sequential unfolding' (basically what makes sense, if you say "eat" you are looking for an "eater") and semi-fixed schemas (simplified grammar). However, this is exactly the same for actions, which are sometimes driven ecologically (an empty cup beside a tea pot says "fill me") and sometimes require more explicit ordering (put tea in teapot before adding hot water). Burling is effectively saying language helps the latter ... but maybe it is a bit of each, is it that in becoming better at complex non-ecologically-driven tasks we acquire the sequencing needed for complex communication?

In a few paces Burling's discussion of language drifts into related issues of consciousness (the topic of Donald's book). Although it is only mentioned in passing, I noted Burling discussed briefly the role of language in argumentation (p.185); which struck chords for me. For a long time I've been of the opinion that logic/rationale thinking is a product of social intercourse: in order to decide on a course of action associative thinking is sufficient, but the need to convince others of a course of action requires some form of argumentation. It is only later that we internalise this and recruit it for solving problems that are too complex for intuitive decisions, but still rationale argument is more about communicating and testing decisions/opinions, not the way we arrive at them.

At a deeper level Burling cites Humphrey who "suggested that the self-insight that consciousness gives us helps us to interpret the behaviour of others." Here I would put things entirely the other way around: in understanding the behaviour of others, we need to understand their models of us -- that is, it is through social intercourse that we are forced to have a model of self (almost as 'other') in order to have a model of other's model of ourselves. We understand ourselves, because we understand others.



putting comprehension first … but understudied (me) c.f. linear unfolding


Kanzi - ape comprehension of human language


syntax "so utterly unlike anything used by other animals" - but (me) what about the natural syntax of action?


discrete nature of language (c.f. music notation book)


V-victory vs. 'finger - c.f. Harvey Smith


quotable vocalisations (e.g. "uh hm") like words, need to be learned in community


vervet alarm calls for 'leopard', 'eagle' distinct (see p.54 top, discreteness)


calls - note collaborative action and communication linked

p.59 (end of page)

syntax - lack in non-humans, but (me) so critical? ancient Greek?


chimpanzee concepts (categories or properties) c.f. Whorf


joint attention


chimps have theory of mind


mimicry vs imitation - the goal. mimicry is copying alters actions, imitation copying them in order to attain a goal


(me) what about interpretive role of parent


discussion of prerequisites of language, but (me) c.f. task sequence inference


the use of hands => rapid change => advantage of imitation


adjective order explained (mare specific closer to the noun)


- pick rise with questions (associated with high tension, arousal, etc.)


lifetime learning - ontogenic ritualisation


conventionalisation "the history of the producer … over the receiver" (me) maybe better to think of mutual-reinforcement, if recipient struggles communication fails - both producer and receiver important


music and language c.f. Mithin


(RB) storage capacity for words high, but (me) greater than for recognition of physical objects?


single matrilineal ancestor - why?


Baldwin effect - behaviour drives selection


feedback: language <=> selection


strings of words (me) but primitive word order reflects task/action order … except also agent-command sequences in language and object-adjective (ac - "John, go", o-a - "rock hot")


temporal order ~ action order


grouping with intonation (me) what abut spatial grouping like modern sign language and not uncommon in para-linguistic gestures


pidgin (me) what if we put together people without shared languages, but with vocal cards - would syntax emerge? f so wold it be driven by their own languages, or more innate?


language for interpersonal argumentation (briefly mentioned)


attractive trays for human sexual selectivity. RB suggests that (because of single pairings) these are effectively non-gendered (me) does this suggest that monogamy engenders homosexuality?


an exception - a touch of male badness good for material success!


brain doubles in size in last 2 million years, but no major technology change during this period - RB suggest sexual selection - better tins to do than chip flint!


words to rehearse actions - Vicky, chimp, worse than small children in sequence rehearsal tasks - need language to track decisions


Jaynes: no consciousness until the Greeks!


deaf => consciousness doe snot require language but (me) (i) may require language brain and (ii) does not require spoken language - what is cog. dev. of deaf children who do not learn sign language early?


Humphrey - consciousness to help us to interpret others as ourselves - or (me) to help us understand ourselves in other's eyes


Whorf and meta-Whorf - do linguistic universals (not details of vocabulary) shape thought?


the need for solitude alien to the Garo (Bangladesh)