Emerging languages

natsu's picture

Something that came to my mind when I was thinking about emergence was language. I think that most people would agree with me that most languages are extremely complex, and at the same time they have to be very ordered to be used effectively for the purpose of communication. It seems unlikely that such a system could emerge; however, there is evidence that languages can emerge. For example, the Creoles. In the late 18th century, immigrants from mulitiple countries (e.g. China, Puerto Rico, Japan) came to Hawaii (to work in the sugar industry). At first, they did not have a way to communicate, but very soon the Hawaiian Pidgin English emerged, which was a simple communication system with minimal vocab, that they used to get by in a day to day basis. What is even more amazing is that during the next few generations, the Hawaiian Creole developed into a complex language that became widely used. Researchers is believe that it was the immigrant children that invented this language. I find it fascinating that a complex system like language can actually emerge from the interactions of young immigrant children. Also, it is known that when deaf children are brought up in a home where they are not exposed to sign language (or sometimes even discouraged to do so), they still invent their own sign language system (homesign). In a study that I read, when deaf children with unique homesigns were brought together, a language that they could all understand emerged spontaneously! 

rocky's picture

Thanks Jim Damascus

Jim Damascus Many thanks man, you really quiet intelligent, very nice points you have mentioned here.... Thanks again

biophile's picture

Language

Yes, it is very amazing. I firmly believe that linguistic ability has a solid biological basis; that is, language is an instinct. It's governed by unconscious rules which are part of our universal grammar. I love linguistics just because it enables one to study modern and extinct languages and see the common rules (semantic, phonological, syntactic, etc.) at the heart of all languages.

Another really fascinating thing is that children will reject unnatural, simplified languages. Past attempts to teach children very simplified language that was constructed by "experts" failed miserably because the language centers of our brains are wired a certain way. Whorf's hypothesis that one's native language influences (even determines) the way one views the world has no real evidence. The particular language we learn does not determine how we process the world around us (i.e. a person whose first language has no word for red will still see light in that wavelength and won't just ignore things in that color). Aside from the need for some type of linguistic input (and barring neurological abnormalities), children don't need anything in order to develop language (albeit reading and writing are a different story). Children are predisposed to language. It's really amazing how predictable (for the most part) and systematic language development is

And on a random note, this makes me think of a project a linguistics major once told me about: a classmate of his made a phylogenetic tree of the world's major languages for a historical linguistics class. That's another fascinating aspect of language: seeing how individual ones have evolved and changed over time and culture.

Jim Damascus's picture

Emerging Languages

Hi Natsu,
I’m also interested in the development of language. In the case of Creole, however, I would argue that the language itself did not involve the invention of a completely novel linguistic system, but rather the modification of preexisting linguistic conventions in a social space inhabited by speakers of different languages. This process was probably more gradual than spontaneous (in a temporal sense), in that it didn’t develop in the space of a few weeks or months, but rather over the course of years and decades, through the everyday interaction of different groups of people. I think this is how languages evolve and develop over time- in response to social interaction and circumstances.

In the example of the deaf boy who learned to gesticulate towards his family, one might question the extent to which the invented sign language constitutes a complex language system as compared with more traditionally conceived systems (languages). Also, if the boy were absent from the social companionship constituted by his family, would he still have developed the ability to use hand signals? Here, I think, the “critical age hypothesis” is worth mentioning, if for no other reason that it suggests an inborn biological component to language acquisition. This hypothesis suggests that the first years of a child’s life constitute a critical period for language acquisition- Within this timeframe, a child will naturally acquire language in a social setting; After this time period, the individual will be less able to acquire language in a social setting.
There is some reading available on the internet pertaining to so-called “feral child syndrome” in which case children growing in the absence of human contact will be either
for periods superceding the “critical period” (roughly, the first four to five years of a child's life) of language acquisition, the individual has severely limited language and communicative faculties, and is minimally able develop socially and linguistically thereafter. One well-known (and tragic) case study was that of “Genie”, a child left alone for a number of years, and thereafter brought into contact with linguists/scientists who tried to help as best they could. Here is the first link found on Google when searching for “Genie”, but if you are interested, there is quite a bit of reading on both the critical period hypothesis and feral child syndrome:
http://www.feralchildren.com/en/language.php
Another interesting series of observations relate to stroke victims and aphasiacs, whose language disorders have been causatively linked with damage to specific regions of the broca’s center, a region of the left cerebral hemisphere linked with motor mechanisms governing articulated speech.

That said, language might not be an all-or-nothing ‘biological vs. social’ phenomena, and there are observations and theories that suggest to suggest that both anatomy and social setting contribute to early language acquisition and subsequent use patterns. I’m not sure whether this is at all relevant to messages other than Natsu’s, but her original message made me think about language as a biological or social construct. I’m interested in reading more rigorously scientific material, if anyone has any suggestions for a textbook or articles explaining specific aspects of brain anatomy as they relate to language use and motor skills.

A more tangential (but interesting) topic that comes to mind when thinking about neurobiology and language is that of the evolution of language and handedness as interpreted through the fossil record. When I was in college, a current topic in archaeology and physical anthropology was the development of the biological capacity for language use, as marked by morphological variation in our archeologically unearthed ancestors (Archaic Homo Sapiens ). One argument suggested that the increasing complexity of brain anatomy correlated with the development of handedness and language systems. While it seems fairly straightforward to suggest that, as our brains became more complex, they were better able to perform the mental functions associated with language use, the interest in handedness involved analyses by archaeologists that suggested the preferential use of left or right handed instruments, based on tooth decay patterns in individual skeletons, as well as on wear patterns on stone tools, which corresponded, chronologically, to changes in brain anatomy (or at least cranial anatomy) and remnants of writing. There was also some speculation about the correlation of handedness and language use, but it might be best to consult anthropology or archeology journals for a more accurate account of the research. I also think Janet Monge, who used to teach at Bryn Mawr may have done some relevant research.