On the Origin of Language - Eötvös Loránd University

On the Origin of Language - Eötvös Loránd University

Origin of Language: the Hardest Problem in Science? Ers Szathmry Collegium Budapest Etvs University The major transitions (JMS & ES, 1995)

* * * * * These transitions are regarded to be difficult Why is language so interesting? Because everybody knows that only we talk

although other animals may understand a number of words Language makes long-term cumulative cultural evolution possible A novel type of inheritance system with showing unlimited hereditary potential What is so special about human language? Basically, it is the fact that we make

sentences using grammar Languages are translatable into one another with good efficiency Some capacity for language acquisition seems to be innate THE HOLY GRAIL IS THE EMERGENCE OF SYNTAX Understanding language evolution is difficult

Three interwoven processes Note the different time-scales involved Cultural transmission: language transmits itself as well as other things A novel inheritance system Language is not Weismannian soma

germ soma germ protein DNA

germ sentence Neural germ representation protein

DNA sentence Neural representation Design features of language Compositionality (meaning dependent on how parts are combined)

Recursion (phrases within phrases) Symbolicism (versus icons and indices) Cultural transmission (rather than genetic) SYMBOLIC REFERENCE and SYNTAX A simple experiment (Hauser & Fitch) Finite state grammar (AB)n is recognizable by tamarins

Phrase structure grammar AnBn is NOT. Humans recognize both Our evolutionary relatives What has happened on our linage in the past few million years so that our genes allow for the

development of a brain that can sustain syntax? Words are symbols, Saussurean signs Object Concept TREE

Symbol Word representation is distributed and is related to the somatosensory handling of the designated object Principles and parameters Principle: a universal property of human

language, assumed to be innate. Parameter: a two (or more) valued choice determining a general property distinguishing one type of language from another. Syntactic processes and information Colourless green ideas sleep furiously Structure building (phrases, etc.)

Checking agreement (e.g. in German noun phrases must be marked for case) Mapping thematic roles (John loves Mary, Mary loves John) Complexity (the dog was chased by the cat) SYNTAX IS NOT WORD ORDER!!! The D- and S-structures The sentence is: Mary

was chosen The traditional view Brocas area: the seat of syntax Wenickes area: the seat of semantics (fluent aphasia) Double dissociation Unfortunately (?) not

quite true New data on Broca One can have syntactic deficit with intact Broca Affected Broca does not always produce problems in morphosyntax Some Broca aphasics have problems with semantics as well Broca lesion neither necessary nor sufficient for syntactic deficit

BUT may be essential for COMPLEX sentences (a problem with working memory?) Neuroimaging studies of syntactic processing By comparing syntactically complex to simple sentences By comparing sentences to lists of unrelated words By comparing sentences containing nonreal words to normal ones

Comparing sentences with syntactic violation to those without Semantic and syntactic violations Syntactic violation versus Correct sentences Semantic violation Other violation

Semantic violation versus Correct sentences Syntactic violation Where is syntax in the brain? In many areas These include some parts of the RIGHT hemisphere None of these areas is exclusively dedicated to syntax

Broca: semantics phonology, memory, music perception INCONSISTENT WITH A STRICTLY ANATOMICAL MODULAR VIEW Resolution (Kaan & Swaab, 2002)? Maybe there is a dissociation at the cellular level between these functions, below resolution Maybe the combination of these areas

forms a unique network Different parts of the network are recruited to different syntactical tasks MAYBE, BUT WHY NOT IN APES? An even more radical resolution: The Language AmoeBa (LAB) hypothesis Szathmry, E. (2001) Origin of the human language faculty: the language amoeba

hypothesis. In (J. Trabant & S. Ward, Eds.): New Essays on the Origin of Language. Berlin/New York: Mouton/de Gruyter, pp. 41-51. Recuerdos de mi vida (Cajal, 1917, pp. 345350) At that time, the generally accepted idea that the differences between the brain of [non-human] mammals (cat, dog, monkey, etc.) and that of

man are only quantitative, seemed to me unlikely and even a little offensive to human dignity. . . but do not articulate language, the capability of abstraction, the ability to create concepts, and, finally, the art of inventing ingenious instruments. . . seem to indicate (even admitting fundamental structural correspondences with the animals) the existence of original resources, of something qualitatively new which justifies the

psychological nobility of Homo sapiens?. . . . Species-specific differences in cortical microstructures do exist Differences in the primary visual cortex among primates (Preuss et al) In monkeys: the honeycomb

Modifications in evolution The difference in gene expression patterns Despite our close genetic relationship to chimps The epigenetic

difference in the brains seems enormous The evolutionary approach genes selection development

learning behaviour environment Impact of evolution on the developmental genetics of the brain! Crucial facts for LAB Localisation of language is not fully genetically determined: even large injuries can be tolerated before a

critical period. Language localisation to certain brain areas is a highly plastic process, both in its development and its end result. It does seem that a surprisingly large part of the brain can sustain language: there are (traditionally recognised) areas that seem to be most commonly associated with language, but by no means are they exclusive, either at the individual or the population level, during either normal or impaired ontogenesis.

Whereas a large part of the human brain can sustain language, no such region exists in apes. Crucial theses of LAB The language amoeba is the neuronal activity pattern that essentially contributes to processing of linguistic information, especially syntax. It is a dynamical manifestation of Chomskys language organ, as it were An appropriate and rather widespread connectivity

pattern of the immature human brain renders it a potential habitat for the emerging language amoeba. This condition does not require too many altered (probably regulatory) genes, but there are great risks involved, which make this major transition difficult indeed. Variation and selection in neural development Changeuxs version

There is vast overproduction of synapses Transient redundancy is selectively eliminated according to functional needs The statistics and the pruning rules for the network architecture are

under genetic control The structure of the visual system Partial crossing at the chiasm allows for stereoscopic vision Development of the columns of ocular dominance The initial overlap

decreases with time Visual input is NECESSARY for columnar development Genes and visual input make up for normal vision Synapses are pruned during development A blindfolded eye

does not send sensory information to the cortex Its column shrinks to negligible size Reversible within the CRITICAL PERIOD The FOXP2 gene is mutant in a family with SLI

SLI: specific language impairment In the KE family the mutation is a single autosomal dominant allele Another individual has one copy deleted TWO intact copies must be there in humans! The mutation affects morphosyntax: Yesterday I went to the church Possible regulatory modes of the

FOXP2 gene Interpreting the nature of SLIrelated conditions Sometimes SLI affects specifically grammar Sometimes if affects other linguistic functions Sometimes several other functions are affected Outcome must depend on

the region of expression of the (genetic) disturbance in the developing brain Nucleotide substitutions in the FOXP2 gene Bars are nucleotide substitutions Grey bars indicate amino acid changes Likely to have been recent target of selection

Coevolution of the language and the brain An old idea (Wilson): increased brain size leads to more complex behaviour Which in turn, due to increased environmental complexity, selects for

increased brain size Another crucial component: genetic assimilation Rapoport scheme applied to language One method of finding out (within ECAgents)

Simulated dynamics of interacting agents Agents have a nervous system It is under partial genetic control Selection is based on learning performance for symbolic and syntactical tasks If successful, look and reverse engineer the

emerging architectures Between linguistic input and output Transmission dynamics in simulated agents

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