LINGUIST List 11.2252

Tue Oct 17 2000

Disc: Does "Language" Mean "Human Language"/Last Post

Editor for this issue: Karen Milligan <>


  1. Zylogy, Re: 11.2237, Disc: Does "Language" Mean "Human Language"?

Message 1: Re: 11.2237, Disc: Does "Language" Mean "Human Language"?

Date: 16 Oct 2000 02:33:32 -0000
From: Zylogy <>
Subject: Re: 11.2237, Disc: Does "Language" Mean "Human Language"?

Larry is right when he contrasts biological loss of morphology with
linguistic loss of morphology. But having several means to the same
end is not limited to language- indeed, massive redundancy is a
hallmark of biological systems. Not everything is so organized, but
enough is. And languages sometimes find themselves in a position
similar to that of parasitic organisms (no value judgement implied
here): in language obsolescence situations there is often lexical and
morphological reduction- functions once in-house are now carried out
by other languages. Organelles within cells often carry their own
remnant genetic strings- end-products of a long reduction, with genes
either traveling to the dominant nucleus, or function replaced by
genes from there.

I agree that that "small adjustments" are the basis of most evolution
of complex systems, but not always. Massive chromosomal rearrangement,
for instance, is inferred for our species on the basis of comparison
with the chromosomes of apes (fusion, inversion, etc.). But we really
have to be careful by what we mean by small- one DNA-level
point-mutation may be neutral, another might kill the organism, a
third might confer advantage. Some mutations have small chemical or
physical ultimate effects, others quite large. All depends on where
they are, what they are.

And it may turn out that some mutations, because of the organization
of the system in which they occur, have pseudo-quantum effects. The
angle the legs jut out from the body, for instance, in
quadrupeds. Fossil and extant amphibians and reptiles have their legs
sticking out laterally, the joints then allowing the next part to
hang/swing vertically, while many dinosaurs, and all birds and
mammals, have their legs straight down. No fossils known with
intermediate condition. Doesn't mean a putative transitional form
didn't exist, just that such a form is unknown. Perhaps the control of
form and function within the genome is such that such axial
alterations, at right angles, is available as an option. Certainly
such mechanisms exist, as is seen in the formation of body-plan axes
in the developing embryo. If there are other similar mechanisms within
the genome and its external supports, then it is also possible that
they are coherently organized together as a system. Push me pull
you. That would allow saltation of macro-morphology without automatic
dooming (of course the social and physical environments retain the
ultimate decision).
Adjustments to biological systems can be additive, subtractive, both
(replacive), at the genetic and all higher levels of organization. The
point I was trying to make was that most laypersons see evolution as
additive, making the finished product somehow "more" x,y, or z than
the ancestor. Probably our culture to blame, with its linear temporal
"prejudice". You build a finished product out of parts- bricks, legos,
blocks, logs, whatever. And the finished product is bigger. More. but
sculptors can create subtractively as well, or combine the two
processes. Transformation. I'm saying that an already existing,
functioning system can be so transformed to create what one sees
today. Its taken a long time. And very likely the original
"lump-combination" was the ancient creation of a segmented ancestor-
we're talking billions of years ago.

All the interesting head and neck structures which allow us to speak
(and chew) arose through modification of this segmental structure- we
didn't really "add" anything at the macro level, though there have
been large numbers of gene duplications/modifications and
distributional shifts of materials intermediately. Most of the
interesting evolution at the biochemical level took place before the
rise of multicellular organisms, which is why we are so similar to
yeasts, at the genetic-functional level (even though gene sequences
continue to drift, the jobs genes do remain the same or extremely

Our remarkable vocal tract is neotenic. Prior to the rise of chewing
there was no need for a soft or hard palate, or velum- and amphibians,
reptiles, and birds don't have one (although there is some rudimentary
"alveolar" shelf development- perhaps to keep food out of the
nostrils, originally only for smelling but not breathing)- these
structures act as a separation table, allowing the organism to follow
the degree of food processing, pick out unfinished bits for
re-working, etc. Without a separated nasal tract ancestral vertebrates
were also subject to choking to death, and some developed compensatory
adaptations (such as an extrusable larynx as seen in snakes- it hangs
out the side of the mouth (the way a dog's tongue does) as it
negotiates its jaws around food, which it is obliged to swallow
Animals which could pre-process their food into smaller bits by
shearing or yanking apart, nipping, etc., or which merely took smaller
items in the first place, were less likely to choke, and so show less
spectacular adaptations. Our larynx is placed much like that of a
frog or salamander (who also have very mobile tongues by comparison to
many "higher" animals), which as members of lissamphibia are somewhat
neotenic themselves (with all sorts of reductions of fossil
ancestrally attested structures-parallel evolution? Reeedeeep!).
We have a tendency to look only nearby when we make comparisons. This
is usually profitable, as its always easier to hold most things
constant and compare/contrast one or a handful of remaining things. We
look at apes and not further. Might be a mistake. Sometimes broader,
deeper views can be just as informative. Understanding how animals
have evolved their communicative structures and functions out of
former materials-processing ones can tell us of major trends which may
have played important roles in the origin of language. May threaten
our "uniqueness", but so what? Haven't we learned enough to let go of

I don't want to nitpick endlessly over terminological turf- so a
suggestion here: Let's choose names for different stages/levels of
complexity within communicative systems, AND for typological skews
which may crosscut them, etc. A language (L) will be a subset of
LANGUAGE (L'), which will be a subset of LLAANNGGUUAAGGEE (L"), and so
on, all at the same level of overall complexity. If we ever meet
space aliens, maybe they'll be using some sort of sub-subset from L".
We'd have a multidimensional space to play with, and to place the
communicative systems of different organisms within. Human languages
would occupy merely one zone within the system. 

Just an idea.
Jess Tauber
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