an autodidact meets a dilettante…

‘Rise above yourself and grasp the world’ Archimedes – attribution

Archive for the ‘language’ Category

How did we get language?

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a most persuasive hypothesis

                                          a most persuasive hypothesis

According to National Geographic there are, or were, at least 7000 languages globally. That was a few years ago and they say the numbers are dwindling, so who knows. There may also be a lumpers v splitters issue here – are they all unique languages or are some just variants of the same language?
There are organisations out there dedicated to preserving rare and endangered languages via recordings and analyses, but is this such a vital project? After all, when a language dies out it’s not because their speakers have gone dumb, it’s because they’ve died and their offspring are speaking one of the more common, viable languages of their region. And this of course raises the question of whether language diversity is a good in itself, in the way that species diversity is seen to be, or whether we’d be better off speaking fewer languages globally. It’s actually quite a dangerous topic, since language is very much a cultural artefact, and cultural suppression, often of the most brutal kind, is currently going on in various benighted parts of the world.

The diversity of language also raises another fascinating question – did it evolve once or many times? Was there an ‘ur-language’ or proto-language from which all these diverse languages sprung? Take for example, the Australian Aboriginal languages. Anthropologists claim that there were some 250 of them around when Europeans arrived with their much smaller number of languages. And Aborigines arrived here about 50,000 years ago. But how many, and with how many different languages? These are perhaps the unanswerable questions that Milan Kundera liked so much. However, linguists have been studying surviving Aboriginal languages intensively for some time, and are mostly agreed that they can be ‘lumped together’ in a small number of dispersed family groups with distinctive features, which suggests that, on arrival, the number of languages was much smaller.

Added to this evidence (if you can call this evidence), is the recent understanding that our species, Homo sapiens, spread out from the African continent in separate waves, from 250,000 years ago to 70,000 years ago. So it seems to me more likely that there was a proto-language, developed in Africa and moving out with one of those waves, and taking over the world, through breeding or cultural exchange, and diversifying with those migrations and their growing cultural diversity. Then again, maybe not.

We used to to describe the world before the emergence of writing as ‘prehistoric’, which seems rather arrogant now, and the word has fallen out of favour. And yet, there is some sense in it. Writing (and drawing) always tells us a story. It provides a record. That’s its intention. It’s the beginning of the modern story, and so, history, in a sense. All of what comes before writing, in the story of humans, is unrecorded, accidental. Scraps of stuff that require a lot of interpretive work. That’s what makes the development of writing such a monumental breakthrough in human affairs. It happened in at least three separate places, only a few thousand years ago. Human language itself, of course has a much longer history. But how much longer? Eighty thousand years? A hundred thousand? Twice that long? Currently, we haven’t a clue. The origin of language is regarded by many authorities as one of the toughest problems in science. It isn’t just a question of when, but of how, where and why. Good luck with answering that lot.

Written by stewart henderson

December 17, 2019 at 11:37 pm

Shakespeare and the English language

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Shakespeare’s reconstructed Globe Theatre (my pic) – without the 16th century atmosphere

Canto: I think from time to time about Shakespeare – in fact ever since I was given a complete works for Christmas when I was thirteen or fourteen, and I used to read it on the swing in our backyard – congratulating myself on getting some of Falstaff’s witticisms. The Abbey Library Shakespeare. I still have it almost fifty years later, though I can barely read its minuscule print these days.

Jacinta: Yes I know you’re an admirer, but what do you think of all this stuff about Shakespeare’s massive contribution to the English language? I’ve always thought it was a bit exaggerated.

Canto: Interesting topic, because in one sense I agree with you. But this relates to all those awful people – Derek Jacobi was unfortunately among them – who seem to think that Shakespeare was too low-class to have written the plays. As a not very upper-class bloke meself I feel deeply miffed. Shakespeare’s plays run the class gamut because he himself was about as déclassé as a fellow in Elizabethan England could be, son of a successful businessman, educated in a relatively déclassé school, and, like us, motivated to learn by ear and by the lessons of life – an autodidact and a dilettante.

Jacinta: The counter-argument I’ve heard – to the idea that he must’ve been some Lord or other – is that upper-class education of that time, and perhaps in most periods, just wasn’t all that good. Not to mention the generally cloistered lives of scions of the aristocracy, who not only wouldn’t have been much exposed to a lot of ‘street-talk’, but would’ve been inhibited by their class pride to admit to such knowledge. Writers like Edmund Spenser and Philip Sidney were more in the aristocratic mould, full of classical references, ancient legends, knight-errants and lords and ladies – not at all rough around the edges.

Canto: Yes it seems to me Shakespeare was more drawn to real life, and plays were the perfect vehicle for him, to present, in what he imagined were their own terms, kings, commoners and everyone in between. Which brings me to your question about his contribution to the English language. Clearly this was a guy who loved language, almost for its own sake, and he had a finely-tuned ear for it. He certainly read plenty, for his history plays and classically-themed plays, and travelled in his mind and through reading to Venice, Verona, Rome, Athens, Padua, Paris, Ephesus, Alexandria, Navarre, Troy, Messina, Marseilles, Inverness, Illyria – and that’s not a complete list of venues outside of England. I won’t go on with the English settings. I think this need or desire to set his plays in such varied and far-flung places and eras is an indication of an all-encompassing mind, a wannabe space-time traveller, sampling human discourse and psychology in all its variety, and his interest in language was in keeping with that. As to his contribution to English, speaking quantitatively, the reason that I’m perhaps inclined to agree with you is that scholars, historians, lexicographers and so forth, probably tend to emphasise the written over the spoken language, and so under-estimate the inventiveness of the spoken word, and those who speak it. My uneducated guess is that many if not most of the new coinages we find in Shakespeare, including nouns from verbs and vice versa, may have been part of the ‘illiterate’ street discourse Shakespeare picked up in the London taverns where he conceived, and possibly even wrote, scenes for his plays. They just hadn’t been committed to writing before.

Jacinta: Yes, sounds like a class thing – the idea that the lower classes, not being formally educated, or literate as you say, couldn’t be inventive or creative…

Canto: Or simply indifferent to the ‘rules’ in their need to communicate. We know that new languages – creoles – are created by children, equipped by evolution with some unconscious sense of linguistic structure which allows them to bridge the gap between two distinctive language groups thrown together by chance or coercion. The urge to communicate overthrows any sense of linguistic purity or pride, which in any case is merely nascent in the child’s mind. I’m not saying that Shakespeare was tapping into anything so radical as a new language, and I’m not sure how polyglot London was in his time, but there was undoubtedly a diversity of classes and trades…

Jacinta: Some basic research gives a feel for the place:

The population of London had risen to 200,000 by 1600 and the city was evolving as the multicultural city that it is today. There was a Jewish community in Bishopsgate and a few thousand black people – servants, musicians, and dancers. There were also many Huguenot and Flemish refugees.

Southwark [site of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre] was London’s entertainment zone… . The theatres, surrounded by inns, taverns, cockpits, gambling houses and brothels were in Southwark. Partly because of the influx of crowds, Southwark was a dangerous place to wander about in after dark, with muggers, drunkards and pickpockets everywhere.

Shakespeare would almost certainly have visited the Royal Exchange on Threadneedle street – the world’s first shopping mall. It was similar to a modern shopping mall,  a huge arcaded building with banking facilities and accommodation for more than two hundred shops and thousands of businessmen. One could buy wigs, jewellery, perfume, hats, shoes, breeches, shirts, ruffles, feathers, silks, drugs, wine, spices, paper, ink, candles, toys, and anything else you could think of.

Public executions were Elizabethan Londoners’ most popular spectator activity. Londoners had a choice among the different kinds of executions: they could go to Tower Hill where the upper class condemned were beheaded with a broadsword or axe or head to Tyburn or Smithfield to see some hangings of ordinary traitors and common criminals. There were about a thousand hangings a year.

Canto: Yes, so you could imagine all sorts of raunchy patois ringing in Will’s ears as he constructed plays set throughout Europe but full of the bustling energy of the city he’d made his home. This richness of language had never been set down in language before. Chaucer should no doubt be cited as a precursor, but the language had changed markedly in the intervening years, what with the ‘great vowel shift’ and the transformations from Middle English. These two great artists were stand-outs in preserving, and no doubt imaginatively adding to, much of the richness of ‘ordinary’ speech of their time.

Jacinta: Okay, two cheers for autodidacts and dilettantes…

Written by stewart henderson

July 6, 2019 at 3:49 pm

algorithms, logarithms and biorhythms

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Wilhelm Fliess with Sigmund Freud (you guess)

In a recent conversation I was talking about the algorithms used by organisations like Facebook and Google to get people hooked into reading or listening to or otherwise attending to a whole host of stuff related to what they attended to yesterday. My interlocutor continued the conversation, but inadvertantly replaced the word ‘algorithm’ with ‘logarithm’ throughout, which I didn’t correct, perhaps not so much out of politeness but because, though I knew enough about the difference to use the right word, I would have difficulty in defining either term, in case he asked. As for biorhythms, I threw them in just for fun.

Mathematics is probably my weakest subject, and for that reason I’ve often been drawn to it in my dilettantish fashion, as to a kind of secret society I’ve been excluded from due to lack of the requisite. So I’ll start with my extremely limited and probably wrong working understanding of algos and logos (and bios), then provide a more informed account through a bit of research.

An algorithm, I think, is a largely computer-generated aggregate of a person’s data-gathering which provides some predictive power about their future data-gathering, or future interest, so that the data can be presented to them for gathering. Or something like that. A logarithm, I think, has something to do with exponentials. So that if something increases exponentially, it also increases logarithmically. Or logarithmickly? Or maybe a logarithm is some mathematical relation between a number and its exponent. Or something like that. A biorhythm is something to do with your supposed natural cycle of activity/inactivity throughout the day. It was new age stuff of the seventies, my early teen years. It seems to have died the death.

So now for the details and correctives.

An algorithm is indeed most associated with computing and data processing, though it may be used in a broader sense, mathematically or not. In fact it can be used to describe the process to get any result. In that sense a cookbook is a set of algorithms. But even in computing, the term is broader than my working understanding of it implied. I was thinking of particular algorithms, the ones used by certain web presences like Google, Facebook and Netflix to get you hooked into continuing to use them. To get you addicted, in a sense. So that’s all that needs to be said here about algorithms in general. In another post I’ll look at those particular algorithms that have worked so well for their creators (or the hirers of those creators) that they’ve become some of the richest folk in the world. That should be much more interesting. 

A logarithm is also something like what I thought it was, but of course my understanding was very vague. It’s described as the inverse function to exponentiation – just as I sort of thought. For example, take the number 64, and think of it as 2 x 2 x 2 x 2 x 2 x 2, or 2. The 6 here is the exponent (n), while the 2 is the base (b), so the general formulation is bn. The exponent (n) is also called the power, as in two to the sixth power, 26. Now, say that you want to know what power to raise the number two to get 256. That’s to say, 2n = 256, find n. This number that we want to find is the logarithm. So the question or equation can be restated thus:

log2(256) = n , find n

and the answer is n = 8. So the logarithm is the power that we have to raise a specified (base) number to, in order to get to another specified number. That’s all we need to know as a beginning. Obviously it gets more complicated with higher powers – but then, with higher powers, anything’s possible.

A biorhythm chart is a development of ideas concocted by one Wilhelm Fliess, a good mate of the only slightly less eccentric Sigmund Freud, back in the late 19th century. I well remember this fad gaining super-popularity in the seventies, with a paperback on the topic floating around our household. That and ‘speed reading’ were all the go. The basic hypothesis was that our lives – presumably in terms of energy, ‘clarity’ and competence – go in cycles, which can be charted as sinusoidal waves. The standard model argued for a 23-day physical cycle, a 28-day emotional cycle and a 33-day intellectual cycle. I’ve actually met someone who drew up these charts for herself back in the day. You live and learn. Needless to say, there’s no evidence whatever to back these ideas up, but they’re claimed often as ancient learning which has been eclipsed by the monstrous juggernaut of modern science, much like that other font of cyclical predictive wisdom, astrology…..

References

https://computer.howstuffworks.com/what-is-a-computer-algorithm.htm

Khan academy video: intro to logarithms

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Biorhythm

https://keisan.casio.com/exec/system/1340246447

Written by stewart henderson

June 6, 2019 at 9:55 am

downtown, uptown, upstate, downstate, qu-est-ce que c’est?

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photo taken in uptown Port Pirie, South Australia

A spot of holiday writing. The other day I was stopped in Adelaide by a foreign fellow with kids in tow, who asked ‘excuse me can you tell please where is downtown from here?’ I was momentarily discombobulated, but after translating the question, answered, ‘ahh, the city centre is thataway’, pointing towards Rundle Mall.

The point is, ‘downtown’ and its derivatives have never been a part of my vocab, because I’ve never really understood the terms, though as a kid I sang along to ‘Downtown’, a 1964 number one hit sung by Petula Clark and written by Tony Hatch. Both Clark and Hatch are English, which is interesting as I’ve long considered ‘downtown’ etc to be Americanisms. Another popular reference of course is Billy Joel’s ‘Uptown Girl’. But is there a downtown and uptown in, say, Adelaide? And if there are uptown girls (or boys) are there also downtown peoples? The terms carry no coherent meaning for me, which is why I don’t use them. I think in terms of inner city and, maybe, outer city, and certainly inner suburbs and outer suburbs. So I think in circles rather than ups and downs.

A few months ago, after listening to an American commentator talking about ‘upstate New York’, I had another head-scratching moment, powerful enough to send me to Dr Google for enlightenment. I mean, why does nobody mention downstate New York? And isn’t New York a city? I’ve always been a little confused by US geography, but now I realise that New York is a state and that New York City is down the bottom. Upstate New York represents virtually the whole of the state apart from NYC.

A little research tells me I’m not the only one who’s confused. It seems that downtown and uptown regions vary in placement from city to city, though ‘downtown’ generally refers to the CBD and also the shopping precinct, though interestingly the “Downtown” song refers to the lights being much brighter there, and listening to the music, so I tended to imagine it as a nightclubbing spot. Uptown girls, at any rate, are supposed to be sophisticates with expensive tastes so that would suggest that ‘downtown girls’ are a little more – down to earth? But there’s no such term.

It’s argued by some that these terms are as ancient as cities themselves, and that they first meant the geographical peaks and valleys. The patricians of the city lived in the heights, both for safety, so that they could look out over the threatening mob, the hoi polloi, the canaille, the low-bornand of course to symbolise their Olympian status. And in a recent conversation I was referred to Nob Hill, a mansion-strewn suburb of San Francisco, with its double entendre of a different kind, reminding us that the very term ‘nob’ means someone in a socially high position.

Of course there are other ways of distinguishing parts of cities, which always have class elements. I’ve mentioned inner and outer. The more ‘inner’ you are, the closer you are to the ‘core’, the action, the power etc. In Adelaide, and far more so in Sydney, there is eastern and western (I’ve actually met Adelaide people who shudder at the thought of venturing into our western badlands). In London they have eastenders and westenders, though I can’t remember, if I ever knew, which are the goodies and which are the baddies (the west, though, has a general tendency to be wild). And nowadays the crooked or otherwise rich like to live in gated communities, which I suspect are mostly on the rises. So, with all these ups and downs, it seems we’re all still a little obsessed with status, though with some ambiguity, as we like to get down and get with it and we don’t like to be up ourselves too much. And which is better, to be stood up, or stood down? Ca dépend…

Written by stewart henderson

December 24, 2018 at 10:52 am

Posted in cities, class, history, language

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some thoughts on the importance of nations

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America – the most important country in the world (Fareed Zacharia)

There have been many most important countries in the world throughout human history. Usually self-styled. They become important through economic and military success. And they think, everyone of them, that this success gives them moral authority. This is the fundamental error of every powerful state in history, so tedious to relate. The fact is that Americans are no way morally superior to Mexicans, Australians or Koreans, or whoever. Every country, or state, or tribe, is full of individual humans striving equally to thrive – like every other life form.

If you believe, however, that you’re a member of the most important country in the world, that may play on your mind a little. It may move you, just a little, to believe, just a little, that you’re just a little more important than people from less important countries.

What does it mean though, to be more important? Is it about power? We can think of an elephant being a more powerful animal than a squirrel, but does that make her more important?

Maybe importance can be measured by imagining the country, or animal, not existing. If the USA, and all its people, disappeared tomorrow, that would have a much bigger impact than if, say, Fiji and all its people disappeared, and presumably not just because this compares 325 million with less than one million. A better comparison would be between the USA and China or India. Both these countries have more people than the USA but are less important, according to Zacharia. 

I’m guessing that Zacharia’s presumably offhand description of US importance has mostly to do with that country’s impact on the world. This surely gets to the nub of the matter. But this surely has no moral dimension. I’m not sure whether Zacharia meant to suggest a moral dimension to the USA’s importance. 

My view is that nations are like animals. Large animals tend to leave a larger footprint, metaphorically speaking. The main focus of any animal or nation is to sustain itself, and more. Other nations, or animals, are seen as a means to that end. So nations will see other nations as either exploitable (prey), helpful in the exploitation of others, dangerous (predators), or simply irrelevant. True, there are symbiotic relationships, and exploitation is perhaps a loaded word, but the world of the living goes on living by consuming other living beings. At least, that’s how it has gone on so far. 

Important countries consume more. Maybe that’s a negative, but they may do so by being smarter, or by hitting upon some clever and effective ruses before anyone else. So size isn’t everything, though it helps. Also, their cleverness or effectiveness teaches others – their prey as well as interested observers. They make the world wise up, quicken up. Remember the Mongols, an important nation of the past, or Hannibal, an important general. 

But I feel I’m being too male, thinking too much on destruction and aggression. The importance of nations today should be, and generally is, based on a different kind of cleverness, ingenuity, innovation. Yet we find this everywhere, as ideas spread more quickly than ever before. A young African boy generates wind energy for his village through internet-based DIY. This is important, and a great leveller. 

The internet is still largely American, and so on that basis alone, the USA should rightly view itself as the most important nation in the information age. Or is it simply the English language that has become most important? Science and technology are international, of course, but must be translated into English, if required, for best effect. This has been so for some time – think Mendel’s 1865 paper on the laws of segregation and independent assortment. It didn’t appear in English until 1901, years after Mendel’s death, as a result of some pioneers finally lighting upon it. English is surely an important language. 

So what would happen if the USA suddenly disappeared under the waves, with all its people, its weaponry and other technology, its industry? This would be a terrible tragedy, of course, for those loved and loving ones left behind. And yet, in the information age, surprisingly little, if any, of the technology and industry would be lost. The internet would survive, and with it the means for making bombs, multiple examples of beautiful or other people having orgiastic fun for the tutelage of our youth, the Khan Academy’s video lessons on physics, chemistry and assorted other subjects, and an endless variety of examples of dog, cat, bird, elephant, octopus and other cleverness, or silliness. In short, the human world would certainly progress, or continue, more or less unabated, proving that, however important the USA is, it isn’t indispensable.

But surely, if the USA disappeared, another country would take its turn as the most important country in the world. And what then, and which? 

That’s a very interesting question. The USA won’t, of course, disappear below the waves, and many if not most Americans firmly believe that their country must remain the most important for a long long time into the future. As did the British in their heyday, and the Romans, and the Egyptians, and the Sumerians, no doubt. And yet, our human world goes on, and seems to progress, with all its rises and declines.

They say that China will be the next most important country. I don’t see that happening in my lifetime. I’m skeptical of it happening as long as China retains its current political form. The age of major military conquest is over, I believe, so conquest will have to be of a different type, a much more subtle type, perhaps more subtle than I’m capable of foreseeing at present. Too many nations have sampled, for too long, the flavour of freedom, participation and dissent to be guiled by China’s top-down, controlling approach to administration. China will become more and more of an outlier. In any case, I don’t see the USA relinquishing its prominent position ‘any time soon’, as the Americans like to say. Ever the optimist, I’m hoping that the USA will bounce back from the Trump debacle with a much-reformed political system (especially with respect to presidential power and accountability), a renewed commitment to international relations, and a chastened sense of its failings and fragility, and the limits of its democracy.. 

But it’s important, always, to remember that nations are not people, and that people are always more important than nations. 

Written by stewart henderson

October 21, 2018 at 4:46 pm

When was the first language? When was the first human?

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Reading a new book of mine, Steven Pinker’s The sense of style, 2014, I was bemused by his casual remark on the first page of the first chapter, ‘The spoken word is older than our species…’. Hmmm. As Bill Bryson put it in A short history of nearly everything, ‘How do they know that?’. And maybe I should dispense with ‘they’ here – how does Pinker know that? My previous shallow research has told me that nobody knows when the first full-fledged language was spoken. Furthermore, we’re not sure about the first full-fledged human either. Was it mitochondrial Eve? But what about her mum? And her mum’s great-grandad? Which raises an old conundrum, one that very much exercised Darwin, and which creationists today love to make much of, the conundrum of speciation.

Recently, palaeontologists discovered human-like remains that might be 300,000 years old in a Moroccan cave. Or, that’s the story as I first heard it. Turns out they were discovered decades ago and dated at about 40,000 years, though some of their features didn’t match with that age. They’ve been reanalysed using thermoluminescense dating, a complicated technique involving measuring light emitted from escaping electrons (don’t ask). No doubt the dating findings will be disputed, as well as findings about just how human these early humans – about 100,000 years earlier than the usual Ethiopian suspects – really are. It’s another version of the lumpers/splitters debate, I suspect. It’s generally recognised that the Moroccan specimens have smaller brains than those from Ethiopia, but it’s not necessarily the case that they’re direct ancestors, proof that there was a rapid brain expansion in the intervening period.

Still there’s no doubt that the Moroccan finding, if it holds up, is significant, as at the very least it pushes back findings on the middle Stone Age, when the making of stone blades began, according to Ian Tattersall, the curator emeritus of human origins at the American Museum of Natural History. But as to tracing our ancestry back to ‘the first humans’, we just can’t do this at present, we can’t join the dots because we have far too few dots to join. It’s a question whether we’ll ever have enough. Evolution isn’t just gradual, it’s divergent, bushy. Where does Homo naledi, dated to around 250,000 years ago, fit into the picture? What about the Denisovans?

Meanwhile, new research and technologies continue to complicate the picture of humans and their ancestors. It’s been generally accepted that the last common ancestor of chimps and humans lived between 5 and 7 million years ago in Africa, but a multinational team of researchers has cast doubt on the assumption of African origin. The research focused on dental structures in two specimens of the fossil hominid Graecopithecus freybergi, found in Greece and Bulgaria. They found that the roots of their premolars were partially fused, making them similar to those of the human lineage, from Ardepithecus and Australopithecus to modern humans. These fossils date to around 7.2 million years ago. It’s conjectured that the possible placing of the divergence further north than has previously been hypothesised has much to do with environmental factors of the time. So, okay, African conditions were more northerly in those days…

So these new findings and new dating techniques are adding to the picture without clarifying it much, as yet. They’re like tiny pieces in a massive jigsaw puzzle, gradually accumulating, sometimes shifted to places of better fit, and so tantalisingly offering new perspectives on what the whole history might look like. I can imagine that in this field, as in so many others, researchers are chafing against their own mortality, as they yearn for a clearer, more comprehensive future view.

Meanwhile, speculations continue. Colin Barras offers his own in a recent New Scientist article, in which he considers the spread of H sapiens in relation to H naledi and H floresiensis. The 1800 or so H naledi fossil bones, discovered in a South African cave four years ago by a team of researchers led by Lee Berger, took a while to be reliably dated to around 250,000 years (give or take some 50,000), just a bit earlier than the most reliably dated H sapiens (though that may change). Getting at a precise age for fossils is often difficult and depends on many variables, in particular the surrounding rock or sediment, and many researchers were opting for a much earlier period on the evidence of the specimens themselves – their small brain size, their curved fingers and other formations. But if the most recent dating figure is correct (and there’s still some doubt) then, according to Barras, it just might be that H sapiens co-existed, in time and place, with these more primitive hominids, and outcompeted them. And more recent dating of H floresiensis, those isolated (so far as we currently know) hominids from the Indonesian island of Flores, has ruled out that they lived less than 50,000 years ago, so their extinction, again, may have coincided with the spread of all-conquering H sapiens. Their remote island location may explain their survival into relatively recent times, but their ancestry is very much in dispute. A recent, apparently comprehensive analysis may have solved the mystery however. It suggests H floresiensis descended from an undiscovered ancestor that left Africa over 2 million years ago. Those who stayed put evolved into H habilis, the first tool makers. Those who left may have reached the Flores region more than 700,000 years ago. The analysis is based on detailed comparisons with many other hominid species and earlier ancestors.

I doubt there will ever be agreement on the first humans, or a very precise date. We’re not so easily defined. But what about the first language? Is it confined to our species?

Much of the speculation on this question focuses on our Neanderthal cousins as the most likely candidates. Researchers have examined the Neanderthal throat structure as far as possible (soft tissue doesn’t fossilise, which is a problem), and have found one intriguing piece of evidence that makes Neanderthal speech plausible. The semi-circular hyoid bone is located high in the human throat, and is found in the same place in the Neanderthal throat. Given that this bone is differently placed in the throat of our common ancestors, this appears to be an example of convergent evolution. We don’t know the precise role of the hyoid in speech, but it certainly affects the space of the throat, and its flexible relationship to other bones and signs of its ‘intense and constant activity’ are suggestive of a role in language. Examination of the hyoids of other hominids suggests that a rudimentary form of language may go back at least 500,000 years, but this is far from confirmed. It’s probable that language underwent a more rapid development between 75,000 and 50,000 years ago. It’s also worth noting that a full-fledged language doesn’t depend on speech, as signing proves. It may be that a more or less sophisticated gestural system preceded spoken language.

a selection of primate hyoid bones

Of course there’s an awful lot more to say on the origin of language, even if much of it’s highly speculative. I plan to watch all the best videos and online lectures on the subject, and I’ll post about it again soon.

References

https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2017/05/170523083548.htm

https://www.vox.com/science-and-health/2017/6/7/15745714/nature-homo-sapien-remains-jebel-irhoud

Did Neanderthals Speak?

http://www.isciencetimes.com/articles/6557/20131220/neanderthals-speak-like-humans-hyoid-bone-study.htm

https://www.newscientist.com/article/2128483-mystery-human-hobbit-ancestor-may-have-been-first-out-of-africa/

https://www.newscientist.com/article/2128834-homo-naledi-is-only-250000-years-old-heres-why-that-matters/

Written by stewart henderson

July 9, 2017 at 11:14 am

good vibes: a conversation about voiced and unvoiced consonants and other speech noises

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and-carolines-first

“When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’

’The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’

’The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master — that’s all.”
― Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass

Canto: Okay, so now we’re getting into phonetics, is it? I’ve heard recently that some consonants are voiced, some unvoiced. Can you tell me what that means?

Jacinta: I think phonemics is the word. Or maybe phonology. Or maybe it is phonetics. Anyway don’t worry about the terminology, let’s look at your question. If I tell you that these five consonants are unvoiced: t, s, f, p, k, and that these five consonants are voiced: d, z, v, b, g, play around with those consonants in your mouth, that magnificent musical instrument, and see if you can work out the difference.

Canto: Okay, wow, I’ve noticed something. When I put my hand in front of my mouth and utter the first five, the unvoiced, I feel a blast of air hitting my hand. It doesn’t happen with the voiced consonants, or not nearly so much. Well, actually, no, ‘s’ isn’t like that, but the other four are. So that’s not it, though it’s an interesting thing to observe. But thinking voiced and unvoiced, that gets me somewhere. The voiced consonants all seem to be louder. Compare ‘z’ to ‘s’ for example. I seem to be forcing a sound out of my  mouth, a kind of vibration, whereas ‘s’ is just a ‘ssss’. A vibration too, of course, but softer. Unvoiced, I get that. ‘t’ seems to be just a mere touching of mouth parts and pushing air past them to make this very soft sound, ‘whereas ‘g’, ‘d’ and ‘b’ are more forceful, louder. And ‘v’, like ‘z’, makes a loud vibration. It’s funny, though – even as I make the sounds, and focus on how they’re made in my mouth, I’m damned if I can work out clearly the mechanics of those sounds. But of course researchers have got them thoroughly sorted out, right?

Jacinta: Well you’ve got the distinction between voiced and unvoiced pretty right. The key is that in a voiced consonant the vocal chords vibrate (actually, they’re vocal folds – they were mis-described way back in the day, actually as vocal cords, and the n
ame has stuck, with a musical embellishment). Here’s a trick: take the pair of consonants you mentioned, ‘s’ and ‘z’, and sound them out, while putting your hand to your throat, where the voice-box is…

Canto: But it’s not really a box?

Jacinta: The larynx, responsible for sound production among other things. A housing for the vocal folds. So what do you fee?

Canto: Yes I feel a strong vibration with ‘z’, and nothing, or the faintest shadow of a vibration with ‘s’.

Jacinta: So now try ‘f’ and ‘v’. Then t/d, p/b and k/g.

Canto: Got it, and never to be forgotten. So that’s all we need to know about voiced and unvoiced consonants?

Jacinta: It’s something that could be done with learners – without overdoing it. I’d only point it out to learners who are having trouble with those consonants. And it’s intrinsically interesting, of course.

Canto: So this raises questions about speech generally, and that great musical instrument you mentioned. Is the regular patterning of sound by our lips, our tongues and so on to make speech, is that very different for different languages, and is this a barrier for some people from different language backgrounds to learning English?

Jacinta: Well you know that there different ways of speaking in English, what we call accents and dialects, so there are different ways of saying English. For L2 learners, especially if they take up their L2 – in this case English – later rather than sooner, it’s unlikely that they’ll lose their L1 accent, but this is unlikely to affect comprehension if they can get the syntax right.

Canto: I’ve noticed that Vietnamese speakers in particular have trouble producing some English word endings. What’s that about?

Jacinta: The Viet language, like a lot of Asian languages, doesn’t have consonantal word endings. So that’s why they ‘miss’ plurals in speech (s,z), as well as saying ‘I lie’ for ‘I like’, and the like. They have the same problem with t, v, j and other consonants. They also have trouble with consonantal combos in the middle of words. And according to the ESLAN website, they ‘struggle greatly with the concept of combining purely alveolar sounds with post palatal ones’.

Canto: Eh?

Jacinta: Okay let’s learn this together. An alveolar consonant is one that employs the tongue against or close to the superior or upper alveolar ridge. That’s on the roof of the mouth getting close to the upper teeth, and it’s called alveolar because this is where the sockets of the teeth – the alveoli – are. You can feel a ridge there. English generally uses the tongue tip to produce apical consonants while French and Spanish, for example, uses the flat or blade of the tongue to produce laminal consonants.

Canto: So can you give me an example of an apical alveolar consonant?

Jacinta: Yes, the letter is called an alveolar nasal consonant. Try it, an
d note that the tongue tip rests on the alveolar ridge and sound is produced largely through the nasal cavity. The letter t is a voiceless alveolar stop consonant. It’s called a stop because it stops the airflow in the oral cavity, and it’s voiceless as there’s no vibration of the vocal folds. On the other hand the letter d is a voiced alveolar stop, differing from in that it involves a vibration of the vocal folds, a ‘voicing’.

Canto: Mmm, but I notice that with the tongue is a little less forward in where it hits the upper palate – behind the alveolar ridge, whereas with you’re almost at the base of the upper teeth.

Jacinta: Well, there are four specific variants of d. Your specific variant is postalveolar, whereas the other three are more forward – dental, denti-alveolar and alveolar.

Canto: So there’s this complex combinations of stops – stopping the airflow – voiced and unvoiced, where the vocal folds come into play (or not), nasalisation and other soundings, all of it pretty well unconscious, and delivered with various levels of stress (in both senses of the term). It’s all pretty amazing, and it’s no wonder that those interested in AI and robotics have realised that embodied consciousness is where it’s at, because we’re surely a long long way from developing a robot that can manage anything equivalent to human speech. And that’s just in terms of phonology, never mind syntax and morphology. But I’ve got a few other ‘sound’ terms knocking around in my head that I’d like explained. Tell me, what are fricatives and plosives?

Jacinta: Okay, well this is all about consonants. The letters p,t,k (unvoiced) and b,d,g (voiced) are all plosives in that ‘air flow from the lungs is interrupted by a complete closure being made in the mouth’. With fricatives – unvoiced f and s, voiced v and z – ‘the air passes through a narrow constriction that causes the air to flow turbulently and thus create a noisy sound’. I’m quoting from the World Atlas of Language Structures (WALS). So for example, the difference between rice and rise is that the former uses an unvoiced fricative and rise uses a voiced one – very peculiar because rise uses ‘s’ which sounds like ‘z’ and ‘rice’ uses ‘c’ which can lead learners astray with the ‘k’ sound. If you’re interested in learning more…

Canto: We both are.

Jacinta: WALS online is a great database with 151 chapters describing the structural features of the world’s languages – phonological, grammatical and lexical. It’s published by the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology and should be a gr
eat starting place for an all-round knowledge of human language.

Canto: Just another of those must-reads…
phonemic-chart

References:

http://wals.info

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Voiceless_dental_and_alveolar_stops

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Voiced_dental_and_alveolar_stops

https://www.englishclub.com/pronunciation/phonemic-chart.htm

http://englishspeaklikenative.com/resources/common-pronunciation-problems/vietnamese-pronunciation-problems/#error1

Written by stewart henderson

February 12, 2017 at 7:09 pm