[PLUG-TALK] Speaking of linguistics ...

John Jason Jordan johnxj at gmx.com
Mon Jun 1 10:36:17 PDT 2020

On Mon, 1 Jun 2020 07:37:50 -0700 (PDT)
Rich Shepard <rshepard at appl-ecosys.com> dijo:


An interesting article, to which I can add a couple of thoughts.

First, let me address the discussion about how human language evolved.

Any linguist will assure you that human language is innate and hard
wired. However, while I agree with that statement, I must point out
that we have no proof of it. Suppose we took two babies at the point of
birth and provided everything for them except allowing them to hear any
human language. Would they develop a language between themselves? We
will never know, because the ethics of such a test would result in the
scientist doing hard jail time.

Nevertheless, we have some information on point. There have been
several incidents of children who developed to physical maturity
without hearing language. From these cases we conclude that there is an
age, roughly age 10, by which time language must be learned in order to
be fluent. After that age the children could learn to speak, but their
language would never be completely fluent. However, there are few such
cases, and sometimes interpretation of the data is controversial.

If you want to read further on the evolution of human language I
recommend Stephen Pinker, The Language Instinct, available everywhere
as an inexpensive paperback.

Regarding non-human communication, to quote the article:

>Animal communication, by contrast, is only able to convey a limited
>number of thoughts (the location of a source of food, for example, or
>the presence of a predator).

There has been considerable research on animal language. The vervet
monkey (Chlorocebus pygerythrus, composed of several susbspecies), is
native to Africa, although they have been introduced to North America
and the Caribbean. Most of the research on them involves the fact that
they exhibit anxiety, among other very human traits. Linguists are
chiefly interested in the 30+ calls that they use with each other. The
part that has the interest of linguists is that they combine these
calls to create new 'words,' something that no other animal can do. For
example, they have a call to warn of a snake and another call to warn
of a hawk. If there is a snake overhead in a tree they combine the two
to make a call 'snake from above.'

I might also mention our communication with domestic pets. I have a cat
who has a cat door so he can go in and out at will. Several years ago
after hearing the cat door flap I heard him produce half a dozen very
loud meows, which he modulated by volume, almost as though he was
trying to imitate my speech. Since then every time I hear him produce
those meows I know that he has just come in from outdoors.

While he and I have only his "I am back from outdoors' verbal
communication, we have many more signs that we use. If he wants to jump
up in my lap but I don't want him to do so at the moment, I just look
down at him and shake my head. I don't have to say anything; he just
walks away. There are a few others as well. Animals seem to do better
with sign language than speech, no doubt due to their lack of mouths
capable of the range of sounds that we humans can produce.

And now to the main issue of the article: music, of which I will
discuss only our use of tones in language, a topic the article left
out. Did you know that over two thirds of human languages are tone
languages? I mention this because I am aware that very few on this list
can speak anything other than an Indo-European language, and of the
400+ Indo-European languages only a couple use tones. Everyone is aware
that Chinese is famous for using tones, but I need to point out that a
language like English that does not use tones is actually the anomaly.

There are two ways a language can use tone: lexical differentiation, or
syntactic function. Lexical distinction refers to the use of tone as
way to make words with different meanings - change the tone and you've
said a different word. Grammatical differences are also possible. For
example, Ancient Greek has three tones, and if you use a certain verbal
inflection with one tone the tense of the verb is one thing, and if you
use another tone with that inflection you've said the verb with a
different tense. Some tone languages use tones only for lexical
distinction, some only to denote syntactic function, and others use
tone for both.

And finally, I should address the main point of the article - are music
and language part of the same thing, or are they different? To me, each
uses things from the other's toolbox, but I think of them as distinct
fields. Yet, we humans are forever rearranging how we categorize human
knowledge. When I was a teenager linguistics was almost uniformly
considered a sub-field of anthropology. Today it is usually considered
its own separate field, yet there is a movement nowadays to combine it
with physical psychology and artificial intelligence into a new field
to be called cognitive science. So be it. You can rearrange things all
you want; it doesn't change what they are.

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