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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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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 languages1

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 languages2

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 learning1

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

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

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

“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

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

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 impairment1

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

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

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”

The tower of babel

  • 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 apes1

Teaching Language to Apes

  • Basic signed communication

  • Taught explicitly

  • Apply signs to larger categories

  • Produce new strings of signs

Teaching language to apes2

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 apes3

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 apes4

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

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

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 change1

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

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

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

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

Indo iranian


  • 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

Hindi urdu


  • 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

Balto slavic


  • 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

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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