The tower of babel
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The Tower of Babel. Prof. Julia Nee Based on Ch. 8 of The Language Instinct by Steven Pinker. Are languages more similar or more different?. Martin Joos : “languages could differ from each other without limit and in unpredictable ways”

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The Tower of Babel

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The Tower of Babel

Prof. Julia Nee

Based on Ch. 8 of The Language Instinct by Steven Pinker

Are languages more similar or more different?

  • Martin Joos: “languages could differ from each other without limit and in unpredictable ways”

  • Noam Chomsky: a Martian scientist would conclude that earthlings, aside from their mutually unintelligible vocabularies, speak the same language

Are these similarities or differences?

  • Isolating languages vs. Agglutinating languages

    • Isolating: Use fixed words to mark the players in a sentence.

      • The dog bit the man.

      • The man bit the dog.

    • Agglutinating: Add affixes to mark the players in a sentence.

      • Person.marker+base+aspect-mood.marker (Mixe)

  • Fixed word order vs. flexible word order

Word Order

  • What are the possible orders for Subject – Object – Verb?

  • SVO and SOV account for the majority of languages

  • A few are VSO

  • Less than 1% OVS

  • OSV?

Theories explaining language universals

  • There is a “language gene” (the capacity to learn language is a part of our brain)

  • Language originated only once

  • Language developed out of a general learning strategy in our brain

Are we genetically wired for language learning?

  • What if language originated only once?

    • All existing languages come from the original source

    • Similarities come from that original language

  • Counter-arguments:

    • Creolization

    • New signed languages


  • When speakers of different languages are forced to communicate, they develop “pidgins”

    • Pidgin: strings of words borrowed from the component languages; variable in word order; little or no standard grammar

    • Hawaiian sugar plantations called for Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Portuguese, Philippinos, and Puerto Rican workers


  • Ex:

    • Me capé buy, me check make.

    • He bought my coffee; he made me out a check.

    • I bought coffee; I made out a check

  • When the second generation of speakers is exposed to the pidgin, they regularize it into a language, with a standard grammar

  • Ex:

    • Da firs japani came ran away from japan come.

    • The first Japanese who arrived ran away from Japan to here.

Signed Languages

  • Naturally occurring languages that are found wherever there is a community of deaf people

  • Signed Languages are not necessarily related to one another

  • Nicaraguan Sign Language

    • 1979: Establishment of the first school for the deaf in Nicaragua

    • Brought together deaf students from around the country never before exposed to sign language

Signed Languages

  • First students brought their own systems of gesture or homesign

  • Combined to form a pidgin – Lenguaje de SignosNicaragüense

  • Younger deaf students were exposed to the pidgin

  • Created a creole – Idioma de SignosNicaragüense

Signed Languages

  • ISN was more complex and had fixed grammatical structures

    • Greater number of verbs with a greater number of arguments

    • Greater number of inflections per verb

    • Greater agreement on each verb

  • New students learn the more complex system

Are we genetically wired for language learning?

  • What if language originated only once?

    • Creolization

    • New signed languages

  • What if language universals reflect universals of problem solving and thought?

    • Why would it be easier to conceptualize things one way or another?

    • Rules are arbitrary in an information sense, but not in a grammatical sense

Language Acquisition

  • Hypothesis that there is a “critical period” in language acquisition (before age 7)

  • Our general problem solving skills increase with age, but our language learning skills decrease with age

  • Children are excellent at figuring out language rules subconsciously; adults are terrible at figuring them out consciously

Critical Period in Language Acquisition

  • Need to be exposed to language input during the critical period before about 7 years old in order to develop language

  • Evidence for a critical period:

    • Immigrants

    • Children in captivity

    • Deaf children of hearing parents


  • Studied immigrants living in the US at least 10 years

  • Shown sentences:

    • The farmer bought two pig.

    • The little boy is speak to a policeman.

  • Immigrants arriving between 3-7 performed the same as US-born individuals

  • 8-15 performed worse

  • 17-39 performed worst

“Wild Children”

  • Genie

    • Mike paint.

    • Applesauce buy store.

    • I like elephant eat peanut.

  • Isabelle

    • Why does the paste come out if one upsets the jar?

    • Do you go to Miss Mason’s school at the university?

Deaf Children of Hearing Parents

  • Deprived of language input if they are not exposed to a signed language

  • Develop gesture or homesign

  • When exposed to signed languages, they can learn, but if they are too old when they’re first exposed, they never gain fluency

Specific Language Impairment

  • Inability to inflect (plural, tense)

    • The boy eat three cookie.

    • Yesterday the girl pet a dog.

  • Could not pass the “wug” test

    • Sass  sasss

    • Wug  wugness

    • Zat  zackle

  • Given intensive speech and language therapy, but it didn’t solve the problem

Specific Language Impairment


  • Damage to Broca’s area  Broca’s aphasia

    • Understand what is said but have difficulties speaking (slow, ungrammatical)

    • Me…build-ing…chairs, no, no, cab-in-nets. One saw…then, cutting wood…working…

  • Damage to Wernicke’s area  Wernicke’s aphasia

    • Fluent speech, but doesn’t make sense

    • [“What kind of work have you done?”] “We, the kids, all of us, and I, we were working for a long time in the…you know…it’s the kind of space< I mean place rear to the spedwan…”

Aphasia and ASL

  • Speakers of ASL are affected the same way by aphasia!

  • Can use their hands for purposes other than signing

  • Can pantomime

Teaching Language to Apes

  • Allen and Beatrice Gardner taught a chimp named “Washoe” a version of sign language

  • Francine Patter raised gorillas “Koko” and “Michael” with signs

  • Herbert Terrance worked with the chimp “NimChimpsky”

  • What discovery marked the beginning of “comparative linguistics”? / ¿Cuál descubrimiento inició el campo de “lingüística comparada”?

  • What is the strongest factor used in defining a language as a “language” or as a “dialect”? / ¿Cuál es la consideración más decisiva en etiquetar un habla como “lengua” o “dialecto”?

  • Why is African American Vernacular English considered only a dialect of English? / ¿Por qué se considera que el inglés vernáculo de los africanos-americanos es nada más que un dialecto de inglés?

  • Identify the following rules as “prescriptive” or “descriptive”:

    • Double negation is used in African American Vernacular English.

    • You shouldn’t use double negation in English.

    • The second person singular past tense inflection in Spanish is –aste or –iste; these are the only acceptable forms.

    • In Mexican dialects of Spanish, -astes, -aste, -istes, and –istes are all used as second person singular past tense inflections.

      Identifiquen las siguientes reglas como “prescriptivas” o “descriptivas”:

    • Se usa negación doble en inglés vernáculo de los africanos-americanos.

    • No se debe usar negación doble en inglés.

    • La inflexión para la segunda persona singular, tiempo pasado, en español es –aste o –iste; no se aceptan otras formas.

    • En dialectos mexicanos del español, -astes, -aste, -iste, y –istes son aceptadas como inflexiones para la segunda persona singular, tiempo pasado.

  • Describe the process of creolization. / Describan el proceso de criollización.

  • Is it possible that language originated only once? Consider creolization and the presence of new signed languages in your response. / ¿Es posible que el lenguaje se originara una sola vez? Consideren criollización y las nuevas lenguas de signos en su respuesta.

Teaching Language to Apes

  • Basic signed communication

  • Taught explicitly

  • Apply signs to larger categories

  • Produce new strings of signs

Teaching Language to Apes

  • Apes’ use of signs suggests:

    • They have concepts that are structured similarly to ours

    • They can attach concepts to external symbols (signs)

  • Do they have a mental grammar?

    • Have basic word order (“Roger tickle Lucy” vs. “Lucy tickle Roger”)

    • Very redundant (“give orange me give eat orange me eat orange give me eat orange give me you”)

Teaching Language to Apes

  • Don’t acquire vocabulary the same way as human children

  • Ape language learning more similar to learning a written language system like Chinese

  • Acquisition of signs may be the result of general learning strategies; language learning is different

Teaching Language to Apes

  • Can apes communicate?

  • Can they acquire grammar?

  • Is their communication like the human use of language?

Why is this significant for comparative linguistics?

  • Look for similarities and differences that are significant

  • Some linguistic traits are common, so they may have arisen by chance

  • Traits that are more unique are more reliable for comparing related languages

  • If we are genetically wired for language, all languages are likely to have SOMETHING in common

Why do languages change?

  • Freeman Dyson: “it is nature’s way to make it possible for us to evolve rapidly” by creating isolated ethnic groups in which undiluted biological and cultural evolution can proceed swiftly

    • But linguistic evolution does not have foresight

Why do languages change?

“The formation of different languages and of distinct species, and the proofs that both have been developed through a gradual process, are curiously parallel…we find in distinct languages striking homologies due to community of descent, and analogies due to a similar process of formation…Languages, like organic beings, can be classed in groups under groups; and they can be classed either naturally, according to descent, or artificially by other characters. Dominant languages and dialects spread widely, and lead to the gradual extinction of other tongues. A language, like a species, when extinct, never…reappears.” -Darwin

Factors in Language Change

  • Related languages are the result of evolution from a common language or proto-language

  • Languages change through:

    • Variation: linguistic innovation

    • Heredity: ability to learn

    • Isolation: migration or social barriers

Learning in Language Evolution

  • Why do we need to learn languages? Why isn’t the language innate?

  • Communicative – we need to share our code with our communicative partners

  • Generation to generation, there are changes  learning language rather than having fully innate language allows us to adapt

  • Takes a lot of hard wiring to have a genetic component for EVERY linguistic element

Variation in Language Evolution

  • Borrowing

  • Coining new words

  • Reanalysis: listener interprets language differently from the speaker

    • “naranja”  “norange”  “anorange”  “an orange”  “those oranges”

    • “hammer-did”  “hammered”

  • Syntactic Changes: optional things become obligatory

    • “Give him a book” and “give a book him”


  • The majority of the language is preserved each generation

  • Colin Renfrew: Indo-European spread as farmers began cultivating more and more territory




  • Was spoken in present-day Turkey

  • Date back to 16th or 17th century BC!


  • Discovered in 1900 in China

  • Two distinct dialects

  • Texts that were found are incomplete


  • Indic

  • Iranian


  • Oldest is Sanskrit, specifically the Vedic language of the Vedas

  • Panini wrote grammar in 4th century BC

  • Sanskrit used (like Latin) long after it was no longer spoken

  • Developed into languages of modern India (Hindi, Urdu, Bengali, Marathi, Gujarathi, Sinahlese, Romani)

  • Originated in Punjab, then spread to the south


  • ایک

  • دو

  • تین

  • एक

  • दो

  • तीन


  • Avestan – language used in the “Bible” of teachings of Zarathustra

  • Old Persian – language of King Darius of the Persian empire


  • Slavic

    • Old Church Slavonic – oldest from c. 865 AD

    • First use of Cyrillic alphabet

    • East Slavic – Russian, Ukrainian

    • South Slavic – Bulgarian, Macedonian, BCS

    • West Slavic – Polish, Czech, Slovakian, Sorbian

  • Baltic

    • Lithuanian and Latvian

    • Old Prussian (now extinct)

Balto-Slavic Numbers


  • Originally from Central Europe

  • Became extinct on the continent

  • Only “Insular Celtic” survived

    • Celtic

    • Welsh

    • Cornish

    • Breton


  • Latin

    • Italian

    • Spanish

    • Catalan

    • Portuguese

    • French

    • Romanian

    • Occitan

  • Extinct languages of the Italian Peninsula (Umbrian, Oscan, Faliscan, South Picene)


  • South of Norway and Sweden, Denmark and Germany

  • East Germanic (Gothic)  extinct

  • North Germanic (Scandinavian languages)

  • West Germanic (English, Frisian, Dutch, German)

    • Angles and Saxons went to England, where they spoke “Old English”

    • Frisian is the closest relative of English because Angles, Saxons, and Frisians were a community in NW Germany before the migration to England


  • Languages of the world have profound similarities despite surface differences.

  • This leads us to believe that we have an underlying “language instinct” that is hard-wired into our brains.

  • Language evolves in a way that is similar to species evolution: innovation, heredity, and isolation contribute to new language traits.



Extra Credit: Name any three languages that are in the same language family listed here!

Credito Extra: Nobratreslenguas de la mismafamiliade uno de lasfamiliasnombradasaqui!










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