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The Sudden Evolution of Language? -- Pillar #6. Brian MacWhinney Psychology Carnegie Mellon. The Seven Pillars of UG. Grammar Gene Speech is Special Language Organ and Modularity Critical Periods Poverty of the Stimulus Sudden Evolution of Language Recursion - LND. Data Sources.

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The sudden evolution of language pillar 6 l.jpg
The Sudden Evolution of Language? -- Pillar #6

Brian MacWhinney


Carnegie Mellon

Collaborative Commentary - MacWhinney

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The Seven Pillars of UG

  • Grammar Gene

  • Speech is Special

  • Language Organ and Modularity

  • Critical Periods

  • Poverty of the Stimulus

  • Sudden Evolution of Language

  • Recursion - LND

Collaborative Commentary - MacWhinney

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Data Sources

  • Direct Evidence

    • Genetics

    • Fossils, reconstructions, comparative physiology

    • Settlement patterns, habitat range

    • Tools, artifacts, art

    • Climactic changes - glaciation, eruptions

  • Indirect Evidence

    • Human ontogeny, language acquisition

    • Neurology

    • Linguistics -- function, gesture, phonology, recursion

    • Evolutionary Psychology

    • All of the above across other primates and other species

Collaborative Commentary - MacWhinney

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Core Issues

  • Saltation vs. Coevolution

  • Developing an account that is consistent with the observed data

  • Recent focus by Hauser, Chomsky, Fitch on recursion as the core of language

  • Can we use this account to predict new findings and results in:

    • Comparative behavior

    • Comparative neurology

    • Fossils, tools, settlement, genetics

    • Evolutionary Neural Networks

    • Evolutionary Psychology

Collaborative Commentary - MacWhinney

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Lessons from Child Language

Language learning involves linking a series of abilities

  • Audition

  • Segmentation

  • Imitation

  • Articulation, Timing

  • Attention

  • Lexicon

  • Combination

  • Recursion

  • ….

Collaborative Commentary - MacWhinney

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Lessons from Functional PsychoLinguistics

  • Language is grounded on cognition in

    • Direct perception

    • Space/Time/Aspect deixis

    • Causal Roles

    • Social Roles

  • Each level is organized by perspective

  • Incremental processing starts from embodied core -- McNeill

  • Compilation relies on item-based patterns and recursion

Collaborative Commentary - MacWhinney

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Lessons from Evolutionary Theory

  • Adaptations must lead to individual reproductive advantage

  • Group advantages are secondary

  • Advantages can be linked to disadvantages (sickle cell, autism)

  • Populations are dynamic

  • Changes are gradual and emergent - but this is still debated

Collaborative Commentary - MacWhinney

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Skill Network

  • Each attainment builds on previous ones.

  • Each relies on abilities that are found in a more limited form in our primate cousins.

  • Each ability can in turn be decomposed into subcomponents.

  • Given this, simple saltation is impossible.

  • However, some key changes could foster productive co-evolution of the network.

  • What forces could support continued progress?

Collaborative Commentary - MacWhinney

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Continued Support

  • The shift to bipedalism continued across three million years.

  • The role of the freed hands changed over time, but was a continuing drive.

  • Social forces exerted continual pressure.

  • Social forces combined with the role of the hands.

Collaborative Commentary - MacWhinney

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A Grounded Social Climber

  • As a bipedal, man is like the kangaroo.

  • Unlike the kangaroo, hominids were climbers who used their hands.

  • The hands were then used to control tools, but …

  • Forced into face to face contact, the hands could also contribute to social interaction.

Collaborative Commentary - MacWhinney

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  • Bipedalism opens up face-to-face contact

  • The hands operate in the contact area

  • This produces proto-mimesis (Zlatev) with pointing and teaching

  • Vocalization locks in attention

Collaborative Commentary - MacWhinney

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Partial Differences

  • Some ape lexical learning, but incomplete

  • Some ape planning abilities (Goodall straws), but incomplete

  • Some ape intersubjectivity, but incomplete

  • Some ape pointing, but incomplete

Collaborative Commentary - MacWhinney

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Sharper Changes

  • Cortical control of vocalization

  • Duality of patterning - Recursion?

  • Brain expansion

  • Physical changes

    • Articulation - teeth, mouth

    • Phonation - vocal cords, bent vocal tract

    • Thumb

    • Posture, parturition, neotony

Collaborative Commentary - MacWhinney

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Problems with Saltationism

  • Only deals with the last 100,000 years, not the last 6 million years

  • Ignores 300% increase in brain size

  • Ignores many morphological changes

  • Ignores homo erectus expansion.

  • Fails to deal with gesture

  • Fails to deal with skill network

  • Etc…

Collaborative Commentary - MacWhinney

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Five Periods

  • Bipedalism 7-4 MYA

  • Social Cohesion 4-2 MYA

  • Mimesis 2-.2 MYA

  • Phonology 300,000 - 50,000

  • Creativity 50,000 - now

Collaborative Commentary - MacWhinney

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Cognitive Attainments

  • Bipedalism

    • Basic imagery, tool use, spatial recursion

  • Social Cohesion

    • Cortical control of vocal-auditory channel

  • Mimesis

    • Gestural item-based pattern, prosody

  • Phonology

    • Phonemic system, phonological loop

  • Creativity

    • Item-based, perspective

Collaborative Commentary - MacWhinney

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1. Bipedalism

  • Coppens East Side Story 10-7 MYA

  • Jungle -> savannah (lakes?)

    • Handedness and affordances for arboreal

    • Deixis for terrestrial

  • Tool use and locomotion (primary)

  • Communication (secondary)

  • Groups needed for protection against predators

Collaborative Commentary - MacWhinney

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Neuronal Support

  • Parietal reorganization at 4MYA- Holloway

    • Body image projection

    • Navigation and deixis

    • Spatial images support recursion

    • Facial recognition (supramarginal)

  • Tools, navigation, social cohesion

Collaborative Commentary - MacWhinney

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2. Social Cohesion

  • Expansion at 4MYA, contraction at 3.5MYA

  • Habilis/ergaster vs. australopithecus

  • Competition was won by the most cohesive and planful groups

    • Good social partners

    • Sexual arms race

    • Dominance vs. external aggression

    • Role of dialect marking

    • Dunbar, Power, Worden social accounts

Collaborative Commentary - MacWhinney

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Cortical Control of Vocalization

  • Primate system links

    • Arousal (amygdala, brainstem)

    • Motivation (basal ganglion)

    • Memory (limbic, hippocampus)

  • The primate external striatum was absorbed by the neocortex, giving cortical control

  • Control is now from the supplementary motor and anterior cingulate

Collaborative Commentary - MacWhinney

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3. Mimesis

  • Parallel evolution

    • The gestural channel contained the content

    • The vocal channel contained the social glue

  • Disorganized nature of mimetic processes

  • Inefficient gestalt encoding

  • Mechanisms:

    • Imitation

    • Pointing

    • Joint attention (Intersubjectivity)

    • Perspective-taking

Collaborative Commentary - MacWhinney

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Monkey See, Monkey Do

  • Whiten 2003 Patteson 1978

Collaborative Commentary - MacWhinney

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Early Gestalts

  • Mimetic patterns do not separate verbs and nouns

  • Me-hand-grab-axe-up-swing-down-cut-chips-sound

  • This can be imitated as a Gestalt, but Gestalt storage is expensive

  • I chop wood.

Collaborative Commentary - MacWhinney

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Satisfied Preconditions

  • Hands were free

  • Hands were controlled by complex plans

  • Spatial maps had evolved for self and group

  • The visual system could generate and store images

  • Visual images encoded hierarchically and open to recursion

  • Vocalization and eye-gaze controlled attention in face-to-face interaction

Collaborative Commentary - MacWhinney

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Neuronal Support

  • Tripling in brain size (some allometric)

  • Earlier growth was in specific areas

    • Parietal

    • Cortical control of vocal channel

  • New pressures

    • Need for full simulation of the body for mimesis

    • Storage of mimetic sequences

    • Processing of mimetic operators

    • Teaching of mimetic sequences by mothers

    • Perspective-switching

Collaborative Commentary - MacWhinney

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How successful?

  • Expansion to all of Eurasia

  • At the expense of other hominids

  • Big, unorganized brain

  • No vocal systematization

  • Climate changes of the Pleistocene led to new pressures

Collaborative Commentary - MacWhinney

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4. Phonology

  • Phonological patterning

    • MacNeilage and vocal gesture

    • Gupta and MacWhinney and the phonological loop

  • Making efficient use of lexical storage

  • Capitalizes on evolution in TOM and perspective

Collaborative Commentary - MacWhinney

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Vocal Adaptations

  • Lower larynx and hence larger (and distinct) pharynx

  • Longer local cords (at least in adult males)

  • Aerodynamical streamlined conus elasticus (underside of vocal cords

  • Expanded neuronal control of intercostals at 300,000

    These adaptations produce loud, efficient, and low-pitched vocalizations (but not necessarily speech itself).

Collaborative Commentary - MacWhinney

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Facial Musculature

Collaborative Commentary - MacWhinney

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Ears, Teeth

Collaborative Commentary - MacWhinney

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Vocal Cords

Collaborative Commentary - MacWhinney

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Source-Filter Theory

Collaborative Commentary - MacWhinney

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Bent Vocal Tract

Collaborative Commentary - MacWhinney

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Possible Vowels

Collaborative Commentary - MacWhinney

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Neanderthal and Cro-Magnon

Collaborative Commentary - MacWhinney

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Neuronal Support

  • Broca’s for lip-smacking becomes Broca’s for CV syllabic framework

  • Phonological loop involving superior temporal stores lexical items

  • Lexical items have access to all of the brain, but not dynamically

Collaborative Commentary - MacWhinney

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Reuse of earlier mechanisms

  • Phonological store allows vocal rehearsal

  • Hippocampus stores the episodic basis of lexical meanings

  • DLPFC stores plans for tools use and mimesis

  • Integrated frontal function constructs group relations: kinship, reciprocals, hierarchy

Collaborative Commentary - MacWhinney

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5. Phoenix

  • Narrowing of evolutionary window at 70,000

  • Computed through females, but males must be similar

  • Perhaps due to Toba Batak, perhaps to a pandemic

  • Survivors were an interesting subset of the earlier population

  • Phoenix from the Ashes

Collaborative Commentary - MacWhinney

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Creativity Explosion

  • Artifacts at 50,000 - carved bone, amulets

  • Cave paintings at 30,000

  • Burial at 30,000

  • Opposition to Neanderthal

  • Mithen theory of demodularization

Collaborative Commentary - MacWhinney

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  • Perspective

  • Recursion

  • Priesthood

Collaborative Commentary - MacWhinney

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Perspective Hypothesis

unified embodied image

language as a functional neural circuit











Collaborative Commentary - MacWhinney

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Evolution and Perspective

  • The five periods do not match the four cognitive levels

  • But each level was constructed as a part of this process

  • Each was progressively refined over time

  • The phonetic revolution underlies the grammar, but the grammar maps to cognition, not phonology

Collaborative Commentary - MacWhinney

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  • TOM is developed in chimps

  • Perspective was important during mimesis

  • Imitation was present

  • Imagery was present

  • Mirror neurons are in monkeys

Collaborative Commentary - MacWhinney

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  • Next talk: What Chomsky means by recursion reduces to item-based patterns

  • Item-based patterns require

    • Items

    • Slots

    • Features

    • Clustering

Collaborative Commentary - MacWhinney

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Patterns from Combinations

  • cookie =

    “would you please open the cupboard door and bring me down a cookie”

  • want ##### cookie

  • want # cookie

  • want cookie

  • Nim Chimpsky, Washoe, Sara, Lana

Collaborative Commentary - MacWhinney

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Item-based Patterns

  • my + X

    • Position

    • Meaning relation

    • Possible fillers

    • My little dolly

  • Where + X

    • Where the wheel goes?

    • Where goes the wheel?

Collaborative Commentary - MacWhinney

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--- breaks

__kick __

__ running


__give__ __

Sockets are action-based

Collaborative Commentary - MacWhinney

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Feature-based patterns

  • big + X, nice + X ….

  • Adj + X

  • Adj + N

  • But what about?

    • Actor + Action

    • Subject + Verb

    • Topic + Comment

Collaborative Commentary - MacWhinney

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Patterns to Creativity

  • Item-based patterns provided full recursion

  • Recursion linked dynamically to perspectival systems

  • Articulate language users became priests

  • Priests constructed the afterworld and myth

Collaborative Commentary - MacWhinney

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Syntax and Perspective

  • Tim saw the Grand Canyon flying to New York.

  • Jessie stole a picture of *her/herself.

  • Jessie stole me a picture of her/*herself.

  • The adults in the picture are facing away from us, with the children hidden behind them.

  • Did the bicyclist appear to fall?

  • Tim couldn’t find Mary’s beloved cat.

Collaborative Commentary - MacWhinney

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Social Perspectives

I claim that reason is a self-developing capacity. Kant disagrees with me on this point. He says it’s innate, but I answer that that’s begging the question, to which he counters, in Critique of Pure Reason, that only innate ideas have power. But I say to that, what about neuronal group selection? And he gives no answer.

Collaborative Commentary - MacWhinney

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  • Language evolution was gradual, relying on coevolution of language, thought and gesture.

  • We can distinguish five major periods.

  • Recursion was important in recent changes, but relied on earlier spatial patterns

  • Most recent changes involves coordination of recursion and lexicon with perspective

Collaborative Commentary - MacWhinney