LINGUIST List 3.171

Sat 22 Feb 1992

Disc: Genes and Language Disorders

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  1. jack, Re:registers, acquisition
  2. Joe Stemberger, Re: 3.164 Genes and Language Disorders

Message 1: Re:registers, acquisition

Date: Wed, 19 Feb 92 20:43:50 ESRe:registers, acquisition
From: jack <>
Subject: Re:registers, acquisition

I'm just about to leave for LSRL in El Paso, and should wait until I can
make a more studied answer to the post of 14 Feb on this topic. There is
reference there to "language-impaired individuals" who do not have
linguistic features such as 'plural' and 'tense'. Such individuals have
problems, it is claimed, with completion of test sentences such as "Everyday
(sic!) the man walks to school, yesterday he-----". I presume that in this
illiterate test item, it would be judged that filling in the blank with
"walk" would be taken to indicate language impairment.

 This is particularly distressing, since in much of the upper southeast
such forms are dialectally normal, and that's the way you learn them from
your peers who talk that way. Only fancy restaurants in the South serve
"Mashed Potatoes", the simple cafes have "Mash Potatoes", including often
university dining areas. I have also run into a case of a distressed
mother who had been told by the speech therapist at her first grader's
school that her child had a speech defect, being unable to pronounce final
'r' in words, and needed special training. Apparently these people have
no knowledge of the characteristics of American speech varieties, and are
willing to place the label 'handicapped' and 'inferior' on those who speak
certain of these varieties.

 Perhaps the most dangerous aspect of this (aside from the psychological
damage done to individual children and parents) is that it becomes a rationale
for racism. Many blacks, who come, or whose parents came, from the south
also speak varieties that lack final clusters of consonant plus /t/ or
consonant plus /d/, as to millions of other southern speakers. Since these
people say such things as /kep/ for /kept/, they must have a language deficit
of some sort, and since it often extends to a whole sub-community it must be
that these people are inferior in speech, and probably in other ways as well.
This is also an excuse for not bothering to try to teach the impaired. My
God, I didn't expect to see this sort of thing appear on a bbs dedicated to
communication among linguists, even though I had despaired of speech
therapists. But, after all, they come from schools of education, and
are probably beyond help. Chinese is also an inferior language of an
inferior culture and inferior race, since the Chinese _never_ put past
or plural affixes on -- we suspected this all along, of course.
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Message 2: Re: 3.164 Genes and Language Disorders

Date: Thu, 20 Feb 92 14:57 CST
From: Joe Stemberger <>
Subject: Re: 3.164 Genes and Language Disorders

There has been a lot of work in the past decade showing that language
disorders have a heritable component to them. I think that Gopnik is
the first to maintain that it can be localized to a single gene,

A few things to keep in mind, as regards the claim that specific language
impairment reflects a "grammar gene". (This term, by the way, is not meant
in a technical sense, and has not been used in the papers that Gopnik has
published; it's for popular consumption only. Gopnik means specifically
something affecting inflectional morphology, and not wh-movement, etc.)

1) Gopnik's subjects (and everyone with specific language impairment) have
a deficit in at least two, maybe three areas. In addition to inflectional
morphology, they have a problem with phonology. Nothing has been published
about what the phonological deficits of her adult subjects were like; in
general with specific language disorder, the phonological "errors" resemble
those of younger normal children (but we don't have enough specifics about
statistically common/uncommon characteristics of the phonology of either
disordered or normal kids to get real detailed about comparisons). The
"grammar gene" (and "feature blindness") hypothesis can't explain why there
is a phonological deficit as well --- or, in fact, why morphological
deficits in development are invariably accompanied by phonological
deficits. If there IS an explanation for this, it hasn't been proffered
yet. Third, there is evidence that children with specific language disorder
have some perceptual problems with the acoustic signal (though this hasn't
been tested with the family that Gopnik studied, and it is possible that
they don't have such problems). Neither of these other deficits by
themselves completely account for the morphological deficit; e.g., these
kids say /rak/ when ROCKS is appropriate, but pronounce BOX as /baks/, so
it's not JUST a matter of difficulty with e.g. consonant clusters.
But for the purposes of determining genetic underpinnings, you need to
explain the entire set of deficits, not just one part.

2) It is premature, to say the least, to claim that any gene that may
underlie this disorder is a "grammar gene" just because it messes up
grammar. In fact, it may an "anti-grammar gene" -- i.e., prevent people
from expressing inflectional morphology, which has an entirely different
genetic basis.

 We have to remember that everything that a human being does has a
genetic basis in one sense: if our genes don't give us the ability to do it
(either specifically or as part of some flexible learning mechanism), then
we can't do it; after all, we don't observe inflectional morphology or
bridge designing in rats. So, of course there's a genetic underpinning to
it. The question is how specific that genetic underpinning is, and what
other things are needed for it to be expressed. The "grammar gene" could
affect some general process used for inflectional morphology and a number
of other things; by removing a necessary part of the skill, inflectional
morphology is affected. (Of course, you have to say what that general
process is; myself, I think that it may reflect a greater amount of
inhibition between competing units at the lexical and phonological levels,
but that's a different story.)

 There is a lesson to be learned from work on developmental dyslexia
(problems with reading). This too has a heritable component, and one study
a few years ago actually located the gene responsible for it. There was no
attempt to call this a "reading gene", though. Why not? Because reading is
just too recent a skill. Nearly universal reading is a product of the last
century even in Western cultures; and, given that socioeconomic class
correlates positively with reading ability but negatively with offspring
(i.e., people in "lower" socioeconomic groups tend to have more offspring
but read less well), it is probably impossible to come up with an
evolutionary scenario where the ability to read is caused by a gene
THE PURPOSE OF WHICH is to allow people to read. Instead, reading seems to
depend on more general perceptual and language skills that can get messed
up by other genes --- and reading seems to be the task that is most
sensitive to such disruption, since dyslexics can often be highly
intelligent, great musicians, etc.

 The term "grammar gene" implies that the gene in question is THE gene
for inflectional morphology, and it doesn't do anything else. No case has
yet to be made for that.

3) The claims for the "grammar gene" have yet to be based on an explicit
and fully developed psychological theory of how inflectional morphology is
acquired by children or used by adults. The closest offering is by Steve
Pinker and his colleagues, but even they admit that most of the details are
mysterious. For example, they maintain the usual linguistic division
between morphological rules and phonological rules, with phonological rules
determining allomorphy; but have never investigated phonological
development and in fact have yet to suggest how a child sorts all the input
data out into that distinction. They have yet to address the morphological
difficulties (and, often, lack of difficulty) shown by Italian children with
specific language disorder, which at least on the surface contradicts their
claims; perhaps a different gene is involved? I have no doubt that that is
a possible task, but it's hard to evaluate any claims that may rely on
specific formulations about the acquisition process.

Anyway, the claims being made are presently very premature. They may turn
out to be right, but it's WAY too early to tell.

By the way, I agree with the comments made by Alan Prince that some of the
comments about this on LINGUIST have been rather too "sneering". The
literature on morphology during the past several years has degenerated into
a lot of sneering (see, for example, the papers addressing connectionism in
COGNITION in 1988). We should all just accept that there are differences of
opinion, and try to be more polite. (Hopefully, that change in attitude
will come before the Milwaukee Rules Conference in April, where these
issues will come up again in a public forum.)

---joe stemberger
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