LINGUIST List 11.2237

Mon Oct 16 2000

Disc: Does "Language" Mean "Human Language"?

Editor for this issue: Karen Milligan <>


  1. Larry Trask, Re: 11.2232, Disc: Does "Language" Mean "Human Language"?
  2. A A, Re: 11.2233, Disc: Does "Language" Mean "Human Language"?

Message 1: Re: 11.2232, Disc: Does "Language" Mean "Human Language"?

Date: Mon, 16 Oct 2000 14:18:49 +0100
From: Larry Trask <>
Subject: Re: 11.2232, Disc: Does "Language" Mean "Human Language"?

Jess Tauber writes:

> Yet its pretty clear that simplification often follows complexity. Neoteny is
> just one example from evolutionary biology (there are plenty of others, such
> as parasitic crabs that start out as complex, mobile babies and end up as
> simple jelly-like reproductive masses). And similarly in language- paradigm
> leveling, for instance, or reduction of morphology (think Aleut). Lots of
> other examples.

Well, I query this analogy.

When a formerly free-living species adopts parasitism, it typically
undergoes the wholesale loss of functional structures, which are not
replaced: organs of motility, mouth parts, sensory structures, digestive
tract, defensive structures, and whatnot. It becomes absolutely simpler,
even degenerate, with respect to its ancestors.

But a language which loses morphology does nothing of the kind. A language
which loses some morphology does not become absolutely simpler, and it
certainly does not become more 'degenerate' or more 'primitive'.

Rather, the expressive load carried by the lost morphology is simply
transferred to other parts of the linguistic system: to the syntax,
to the lexicon, even to new morphology. 

For example, Vietnamese has wholly lost the morphology which its ancestor
once had, but Vietnamese is no less functional, and no less complete,
because of that. It has merely found other ways of carrying out the
functions which its ancestral morphology once performed.
> One of the things that had bugged me for a long time in considering how to
> bridge the gap between non''language"-bearing animals and humans was how to
> account for all the streamlining and connectivity that seemed to have
> developed between various articulators- the oral cavity with tongue and lips,
> glottis, velum, breathing, etc. Building this all up step by step just didn't
> seem right (its like the problem of the evolution of the eye). That's the
> prejudice we have now in science, that the complex kluge we see today must of
> necessity have accrued in pieces- a kind of uniformitarian conceit.

I confess I am flabbergasted to see the words 'prejudice' and 'conceit' here.
Complex biological systems *invariably* arise in an incremental fashion,
by small adjustments to existing systems. This is so because it cannot
be otherwise: a saltation (a giant leap) has practically no chance of
producing anything useful, and is virtually doomed to produce only
a non-viable monstrosity. 

As for the evolution of the eye, this is not a problem. Computer modeling
has shown that *any* presence of light-sensitive cells can lead to the
evolution of a fully functional eye within a startlingly small number
of generations.

Most people, I gather, now accept that our remarkable human vocal tract
has evolved in order to make speech easier. It has done so even though
the result leaves us in great danger of choking to death on our food --
something which is effectively impossible for other living primates.
If this interpretation is correct, then it is a powerful piece of evidence
that speech, and perhaps therefore also language, emerged only in the
hominid line after our hominid ancestors had diverged from the line
leading to the living African apes.

Larry Trask
University of Sussex
Brighton BN1 9QH

Tel: 01273-678693 (from UK); +44-1273-678693 (from abroad)
Fax: 01273-671320 (from UK); +44-1273-671320 (from abroad)
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Message 2: Re: 11.2233, Disc: Does "Language" Mean "Human Language"?

Date: Mon, 16 Oct 2000 05:53:13 -0700 (PDT)
From: A A <>
Subject: Re: 11.2233, Disc: Does "Language" Mean "Human Language"?

Subject: 11.2233, Disc: Does "Language" Mean "Human Language"?

A A mentioned Martinet's idea of 'double articulation' and I'm
wondering if he or she has a reference.

Joseph Tomei
Kumamoto Gakuen Daigaku
Department of Foreign Languages
Oe 2 chome, 5-1, Kumamoto 862-0911 JAPAN
(81) (0)96-364-5161 x1410
fax (81) (0)96-372-0702

>Martinet expounds the theory of the double articulation of language
in his �l�ments de linguistique g�n�rale (Paris, 1960), although he
first enounced it in a 1949 article, "La double articulation
linguistique" (T.C.L. Copenhague, V, 30-37). Charles Hockett also
referred to it in his Course in Modern Linguistics (NY, 1958), by the
name of "duality (of patterning/structure)".
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