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The Scientific Notion of Language and Structure (part 1)

This is part 1 of the chapter. Go to part 2.

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Words from the Academic Word List have been hidden in this transcript. Watch the video, complete the gaps on a piece of paper, then check your answers.

  1. This class today is about language. And language is, to a large extent, where the action is. The study of human language has been the battleground over different
    theories
    of human nature. So, every
    philosopher
    or
    psychologist
    or humanist or neuroscientist who has ever thought about people has had to make some claim about the nature of language and how it works. I’m including here people like Aristotle and Plato, Hume, Locke, Freud and Skinner. I’m also including modern-day
    approaches
    to
    computational
    theory
    , cognitive neuroscience,
    evolutionary
    theory
    and
    cultural
    psychology
    . If you hope to make it with a
    theory
    of what people are and how people work, you have to explain and talk about language. In fact, language is
    sufficiently
    interesting that, unlike most other things I’ll talk about in this class, there is an entire field
    devoted
    to its study, the field of linguistics that is entirely
    devoted
    to studying the nuances and
    structures
    of different languages.
  2. Now, I’ll first, before getting into details, make a definitional point. When I’m talking about language I’m meaning systems like English and Dutch and Warlpiri and Italian and Turkish and Urdu and what we’ve seen and heard right now in class in the
    demonstration
    that
    preceded
    the formal
    lecture
    . Now, you could use language in a different sense. You could use the term "language" to describe what dogs do, or what chimpanzees do, or birds. You could use language to describe music, talk about the — a musical language or art, or any
    communicative
    system, and there’s actually nothing wrong with that. There’s no rule about how you’re supposed to use the word "language." But the problem is if you use the word "language" impossibly, incredibly broadly, then from a scientific point of view it becomes useless to ask interesting questions about it. If language can refer to just about everything from English to traffic signals, then we’re not going to be able to find interesting generalizations or do good science about it.
  3. So, what I want to do is, I want to discuss the scientific
    notion
    of language, at first
    restricting
    myself to systems like English and Dutch and American sign language and Navajo and so on. Once we’ve made some generalizations about language in this narrow sense, we could then ask, and we will ask, to what extent do other systems such as animal
    communication
    systems relate to this narrower
    definition
    . So we could ask, in this narrow sense, what properties do languages have and then go on to ask, in a broader sense, what other
    communicative
    systems also possess those properties.
  4. Well, some things are
    obvious
    about language so here are some; here are the questions we will ask. This will frame our discussion today. We’ll first go over some basic facts about language. We’ll talk about what languages share, we’ll talk about how language develops, and we’ll talk about language and
    communication
    in nonhumans.
  5. I began this class with a
    demonstration
    of — that
    illustrates
    two very important facts about language. One is that languages all share some deep and intricate universals. In particular, all languages, at
    minimum
    , are powerful enough to convey an
    abstract
    notion
    like this;
    abstract
    in the sense that it talks about thoughts and it talks about a proposition and spatial relations in objects. There’s no language in the world that you just cannot talk about
    abstract
    things with. Every language can do this. But the
    demonstration
    also
    illustrated
    another fact about language, which is how different languages are. They sound different. If you know one language, you don’t necessarily know another. It’s not merely that you can’t understand it. It could sound strange or look unusual in the case of a sign language. And so, any
    adequate
    theory
    of language has to allow for both the commonalities and the differences across languages. And this is the puzzle faced by the
    psychology
    and cognitive science of language.
  6. Well, let’s start with an interesting claim about language made by Charles Darwin. So, Darwin writes, "Man has an instinctive tendency to speak, as we see in the babble of our young children, while no child has an instinctive tendency to bake, brew or write." And what Darwin is claiming here, and it’s a
    controversial
    and interesting claim, is that language is special in that there’s some sort of propensity or
    capacity
    or instinct for language unlike the other examples he gives. Not everything comes natural to us but Darwin suggests that language does.
  7. Well, why should we believe this? Well, there are some basic facts that support Darwin’s claim. For one thing, every
    normal
    — every human society has language. In the course of traveling, cultures
    encounter
    other cultures and they often
    encounter
    cultures that are very different from their own. But through the course of human history, nobody has ever
    encountered
    another group of humans that did not have a language. Does this show that it’s built in? Well, not necessarily. It could be a
    cultural
    innovation
    . It could be, for
    instance
    , that language is such a good idea that every
    culture
    comes across it and develops it. Just about every
    culture
    uses some sort of utensils to eat food with, a knife and a fork, chopsticks, a spoon. This probably is not because use of eating utensils is human nature, but rather, it’s because it’s just a very useful thing that cultures discover over and over again. Well, we know that this probably is not true with regard to language. And one reason we know this is because of the
    demonstrated
    case studies where a language is
    created
    within a single
    generation
    . And these case studies have happened over history.
  8. The standard example is people
    involved
    in the slave trade. The slave trade revolving around tobacco or cotton or coffee or sugar would tend to mix slaves and laborers from different language backgrounds, in part deliberately, so as to avoid the possibility of revolt. What would happen is these people who were enslaved from different cultures would develop a makeshift
    communication
    system so they could talk to one another. And this is called a "pidgin," p-i-d-g-i-n, a pidgin. And this pidgin was how they would talk. And this pidgin was not a language. It was strings of words borrowed from the different languages around them and put together in sort of haphazard ways.
  9. The question is what happens to the children who are raised in this society. And you might expect it that they would come to speak a pidgin, but they don’t. What happens is, in the course of a single
    generation
    , they develop their own language. They
    create
    a language with rich syntax and morphology and phonology, terms that we’ll understand in a few minutes. And this language that they
    create
    is called a "creole." And languages that we know now as creoles, the word refers back to their history. That means that they were developed from pidgins. And this is interesting because this suggests that to some extent the ability to use and understand and learn language is part of human nature. It doesn’t
    require
    an extensive
    cultural
    history. Rather, just about any
    normal
    child, even when not
    exposed
    to a full-fledged language, can
    create
    a language.
  10. And more recently, there’s been case studies of children who
    acquire
    sign language. There’s a wonderful case in Nicaraguan sign language where they
    acquire
    sign language from
    adults
    who themselves are not versed in sign language. they’re sort of second-language learners struggling along. What you might have expected would be the children would then use whatever system their
    adults
    use, but they don’t. They "creolized" it. They take this makeshift
    communication
    system developed by
    adults
    and, again, they turn it into a full-blown language, suggesting that to some extent it’s part of our human nature to
    create
    languages.
  11. Also, every
    normal
    human has language. Not everybody in this room can ride a bicycle. Not everybody in this room can play chess. But everybody possesses at least one language. And everybody started to possess at least one language when they were a child. There are exceptions, but the exceptions come about due to some sort of brain damage. Any neurologically
    normal
    human will come to possess a language.
  12. What else do we know? Well, the claim that language is part of human nature is supported by neurological studies, some of which were referred to in the
    chapters
    on the brain that you read earlier that talk about dedicated parts of the brain that work for language. And if parts of these brains — if parts — if these parts of the brain are damaged you get language deficits or aphasias where you might lose the ability to understand or
    create
    language. More speculatively, there has been some fairly recent work studying the genetic basis of language, looking at the genes that are directly responsible for the
    capacity
    to learn and use language. And one bit of
    evidence
    that these genes are
    implicated
    is that some unfortunate people have point mutations in these genes. And such people are unable to learn and use language.

  1. This class today is about language. And language is, to a large extent, where the action is. The study of human language has been the battleground over different theories of human nature. So, every philosopher or psychologist or humanist or neuroscientist who has ever thought about people has had to make some claim about the nature of language and how it works. I’m including here people like Aristotle and Plato, Hume, Locke, Freud and Skinner. I’m also including modern-day approaches to computational theory, cognitive neuroscience, evolutionary theory and cultural psychology. If you hope to make it with a theory of what people are and how people work, you have to explain and talk about language. In fact, language is sufficiently interesting that, unlike most other things I’ll talk about in this class, there is an entire field devoted to its study, the field of linguistics that is entirely devoted to studying the nuances and structures of different languages.
  2. Now, I’ll first, before getting into details, make a definitional point. When I’m talking about language I’m meaning systems like English and Dutch and Warlpiri and Italian and Turkish and Urdu and what we’ve seen and heard right now in class in the demonstration that preceded the formal lecture. Now, you could use language in a different sense. You could use the term "language" to describe what dogs do, or what chimpanzees do, or birds. You could use language to describe music, talk about the — a musical language or art, or any communicative system, and there’s actually nothing wrong with that. There’s no rule about how you’re supposed to use the word "language." But the problem is if you use the word "language" impossibly, incredibly broadly, then from a scientific point of view it becomes useless to ask interesting questions about it. If language can refer to just about everything from English to traffic signals, then we’re not going to be able to find interesting generalizations or do good science about it.
  3. So, what I want to do is, I want to discuss the scientific notion of language, at first restricting myself to systems like English and Dutch and American sign language and Navajo and so on. Once we’ve made some generalizations about language in this narrow sense, we could then ask, and we will ask, to what extent do other systems such as animal communication systems relate to this narrower definition. So we could ask, in this narrow sense, what properties do languages have and then go on to ask, in a broader sense, what other communicative systems also possess those properties.
  4. Well, some things are obvious about language so here are some; here are the questions we will ask. This will frame our discussion today. We’ll first go over some basic facts about language. We’ll talk about what languages share, we’ll talk about how language develops, and we’ll talk about language and communication in non-humans.
  5. I began this class with a demonstration of — that illustrates two very important facts about language. One is that languages all share some deep and intricate universals. In particular, all languages, at minimum, are powerful enough to convey an abstract notion like this; abstract in the sense that it talks about thoughts and it talks about a proposition and spatial relations in objects. There’s no language in the world that you just cannot talk about abstract things with. Every language can do this. But the demonstration also illustrated another fact about language, which is how different languages are. They sound different. If you know one language, you don’t necessarily know another. It’s not merely that you can’t understand it. It could sound strange or look unusual in the case of a sign language. And so, any adequate theory of language has to allow for both the commonalities and the differences across languages. And this is the puzzle faced by the psychology and cognitive science of language.
  6. Well, let’s start with an interesting claim about language made by Charles Darwin. So, Darwin writes, "Man has an instinctive tendency to speak, as we see in the babble of our young children, while no child has an instinctive tendency to bake, brew or write." And what Darwin is claiming here, and it’s a controversial and interesting claim, is that language is special in that there’s some sort of propensity or capacity or instinct for language unlike the other examples he gives. Not everything comes natural to us but Darwin suggests that language does.
  7. Well, why should we believe this? Well, there are some basic facts that support Darwin’s claim. For one thing, every normal — every human society has language. In the course of travelling, cultures encounter other cultures and they often encounter cultures that are very different from their own. But through the course of human history, nobody has ever encountered another group of humans that did not have a language. Does this show that it’s built in? Well, not necessarily. It could be a cultural innovation. It could be, for instance, that language is such a good idea that every culture comes across it and develops it. Just about every culture uses some sort of utensils to eat food with, a knife and a fork, chopsticks, a spoon. This probably is not because use of eating utensils is human nature, but rather, it’s because it’s just a very useful thing that cultures discover over and over again. Well, we know that this probably is not true with regard to language. And one reason we know this is because of the demonstrated case studies where a language is created within a single generation. And these case studies have happened over history.
  8. The standard example is people involved in the slave trade. The slave trade revolving around tobacco or cotton or coffee or sugar would tend to mix slaves and labourers from different language backgrounds, in part deliberately, so as to avoid the possibility of revolt. What would happen is these people who were enslaved from different cultures would develop a makeshift communication system so they could talk to one another. And this is called a "pidgin," p-i-d-g-i-n, a pidgin. And this pidgin was how they would talk. And this pidgin was not a language. It was strings of words borrowed from the different languages around them and put together in sort of haphazard ways.
  9. The question is what happens to the children who are raised in this society. And you might expect it that they would come to speak a pidgin, but they don’t. What happens is, in the course of a single generation, they develop their own language. They create a language with rich syntax and morphology and phonology, terms that we’ll understand in a few minutes. And this language that they create is called a "creole." And languages that we know now as creoles, the word refers back to their history. That means that they were developed from pidgins. And this is interesting because this suggests that to some extent the ability to use and understand and learn language is part of human nature. It doesn’t require an extensive cultural history. Rather, just about any normal child, even when not exposed to a full-fledged language, can create a language.
  10. And more recently, there’s been case studies of children who acquire sign language. There’s a wonderful case in Nicaraguan sign language where they acquire sign language from adults who themselves are not versed in sign language. they’re sort of second-language learners struggling along. What you might have expected would be the children would then use whatever system their adults use, but they don’t. They "creolized" it. They take this makeshift communication system developed by adults and, again, they turn it into a full-blown language, suggesting that to some extent it’s part of our human nature to create languages.
  11. Also, every normal human has language. Not everybody in this room can ride a bicycle. Not everybody in this room can play chess. But everybody possesses at least one language. And everybody started to possess at least one language when they were a child. There are exceptions, but the exceptions come about due to some sort of brain damage. Any neurologically normal human will come to possess a language.
  12. What else do we know? Well, the claim that language is part of human nature is supported by neurological studies, some of which were referred to in the chapters on the brain that you read earlier that talk about dedicated parts of the brain that work for language. And if parts of these brains — if parts — if these parts of the brain are damaged you get language deficits or aphasias where you might lose the ability to understand or create language. More speculatively, there has been some fairly recent work studying the genetic basis of language, looking at the genes that are directly responsible for the capacity to learn and use language. And one bit of evidence that these genes are implicated is that some unfortunate people have point mutations in these genes. And such people are unable to learn and use language.

Paul Bloom, Introduction to Psychology (Yale University: Open Yale Courses), https://oyc.yale.edu (Accessed 10 June 2013). Licence: Creative Commons BY-NC-SA. Terms of Use