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women and warfare, part 2: humans, bonobos, coalitions and care

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bonobos, or how to be good (without gods)

Shortly before I started writing the first part of this article, I read a sad and disturbing piece in a recent New Scientist, about an Iron Age citadel in modern Iran, called Hasanlu. Its tragic fate reminded me of the smaller scale tragedies that Goodall and others recount in chimpanzee societies, in which one group can systematically slaughter another.

Hasanlu was brutally attacked and destroyed at the end of the ninth century BCE, and amazingly, the massacred people at the site remained untouched until uncovered by archeologists only a few decades ago. One archeologist, Mary Voigt, who worked the site in 1970, has described her reaction:

I come from a long line line of undertakers. Dead people are not scary to me. But when I dug that site I had screaming nightmares.

Voigt’s first discovery was of a small child ‘just lying on the pavement’, with a spear point and an empty quiver lying nearby. In her words:

The unusual thing about the site is all this action is going on and you can read it directly: somebody runs across the courtyard, kills the little kid, dumps their quiver because it’s out of ammunition. If you keep going, there are arrow points embedded in the wall.

Voigt soon found more bodies, all women, on the collapsed roof of a stable:

They were in an elite part of the city yet none of them had any jewellery. Maybe they had been stripped or maybe they were servants. Who knows? But they were certainly herded back there and systematically killed. Its very vivid. Too vivid.

Subsequent studies found that they died from cranial trauma, their skulls smashed by a blunt instrument. And research found many other atrocities at the site. Headless or handless skeletons, skeletons grasping abdomens or necks, a child’s skull with a blade sticking out of it. All providing proof of a frenzy of violence against the inhabitants. There is still much uncertainty as to the perpetrators, but for our purposes, it’s the old story; one group or clan, perhaps cruelly powerful in the past, being ‘over-killed’, in an attempt at obliteration, by a newly powerful, equally cruel group or clan.

Interestingly, while writing this on January 4 2019, I also read about another massacre, exactly ten years ago, on January 4-5 2009. The densely populated district of Zeitoun in Gaza City was attacked by Israeli forces and 48 people, mostly members of the same family, and mostly women, children and the elderly, were killed, and a number of homes were razed to the ground. This was part of the 2008-9 ‘Gaza War’, known by the Arab population as the Gaza Massacre, and by the Israelis as Operation Cast Lead. The whole conflict resulted in approximately 1200-1400 Palestinian deaths. Thirteen Israelis died, four by friendly fire. And of course I could pick out dozens of other pieces of sickening brutality going on in various benighted parts of the world today.

Attempts by one group of people to obliterate another, whether through careful planning or the frenzy of the moment, have been a part of human history, and they’re ongoing. They are traceable as far back, at least, as the ancestry we share with chimpanzees.

But we’re not chimps, or bonobos. A fascinating documentary about those apes has highlighted many similarities between them and us, some not noted before, but also some essential differences. They can hunt with spears, they can use water as a tool, they can copy humans, and collaborate with them, to solve problems. Yet they’re generally much more impulsive creatures than humans – they easily forget what they’ve learned, and they don’t pass on information or knowledge to each other in any systematic way. Some chimp or bonobo communities learn some tricks while others learn other completely different tricks – and not all members of the community learn them. Humans learn from each other instinctively and largely ‘uncomprehendingly’, as in the learning of language. They just do it, and everyone does it, barring genetic defects or other disabilities.

So it’s possible, just maybe, that we can learn from bonobos, and kick the bad habits we share with chimps, despite the long ancestry of our brutality.

Frans De Waal is probably the most high-profile and respected bonobo researcher. Here’s some of what he has to say:

The species is best characterized as female-centered and egalitarian and as one that substitutes sex for aggression. Whereas in most other species sexual behavior is a fairly distinct category, in the bonobo it is part and parcel of social relations–and not just between males and females. Bonobos engage in sex in virtually every partner combination (although such contact among close family members may be suppressed). And sexual interactions occur more often among bonobos than among other primates. Despite the frequency of sex, the bonobos rate of reproduction in the wild is about the same as that of the chimpanzee. A female gives birth to a single infant at intervals of between five and six years. So bonobos share at least one very important characteristic with our own species, namely, a partial separation between sex and reproduction.

Bonobo sex and society, Scientific American, 2006.

Now, I’m a bit reluctant to emphasise sex too much here (though I’m all for it myself), but there appears to be a direct relationship in bonobo society between sexual behaviour and many positives, including one-on-one bonding, coalitions and care and concern for more or less all members of the group. My reluctance is probably due to the fact that sexual repression is far more common in human societies worldwide than sexual permissiveness, or promiscuity – terms that are generally used pejoratively. And maybe I still have a hankering for a Freudian theory I learned about in my youth – that sexual sublimation is the basis of human creativity. You can’t paint too many masterpieces or come up with too many brilliant scientific theories when you’re constantly bonking or mutually masturbating. Having said that, we’re currently living in societies where the arts and sciences are flourishing like never before, while a large chunk of our internet time (though far from the 70% occasionally claimed) is spent watching porn. Maybe some people can walk, or rather wank, and chew over a few ideas at the same (and for some it amounts to the same thing).

So what I do want to emphasise is ‘female-centredness’ (rather than ‘matriarchy’ which is too narrow a term). I do think that a more female-centred society would be more sensual – women are more touchy-feely. I often see my female students walking arm in arm in their friendship, which rarely happens with the males, no matter their country of origin (I teach international students). Women are highly represented in the caring professions – though the fact that we no longer think of the ‘default’ nurse as female is a positive – and they tend to come together well for the best purposes, as for example the Women Wage Peace movement which brings Israeli and Palestinian women together in a more or less apolitical push to promote greater accord in their brutalised region.

October 2017 – Palestinian and Israeli women march for peace near the Dead Sea, and demand representation is any future talks


Women’s tendency to ‘get along’ and work in teams needs to be harnessed and empowered. There are, of course, obstructionist elements to be overcome – in particular some of the major religions, such as Catholic Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism, all of which date back centuries or millennia and tend to congeal or ‘eternalise’ the patriarchal social mores and power structures of those distant times. However, there’s no doubt that Christianity, as the most western religion, is in permanent decline, and other religions will continue to feel the heat of our spectacular scientific developments – including our better understanding of other species and their evolved and unwritten moral codes.

The major religions tend to take male supremacy for granted as the natural order of things, but Melvin Konner, in his book Women after all, has summarised an impressive array of bird and mammal species which turn the tables on our assumptions about male hunters and female nurturers. Jacanas, hyenas, cassowaries, montane voles, El Abra pygmy swordtails (a species of fish) and rats, these are just a few of the creatures that clearly defy patriarchal stereotypes. In many fish and bird species, the females physically outweigh the males, and there’s no sense that, in the overwhelming majority of bird species – whose recently-discovered smarts I’ve written about and will continue to write about – one gender bosses the other.

Turning back to human societies, there are essentially three types of relations for continuing the species – monogamy, polyandry and polygyny. One might think that polyandry – where women can have a harem of males to bed with – would be the optimum arrangement for a female-centred society, but in fact all three arrangements can be turned to (or against) the advantage of females. Unsurprisingly, polygyny (polyandry’s opposite) is more commonly practiced in human society, both historically and at present, but in such societies, women often have a ‘career open to talents’, where they and their offspring may have high status due to their manipulative (in the best sense of the word) smarts. In any case, what I envisage for the future is a fluidity of relations, in which children are cared for by males and females regardless of parentage. This brings me back to bonobos, who develop female coalitions to keep the larger males in line. Males are uncertain of who their offspring is in a polyamorous community, but unlike in a chimp community, they can’t get away with infanticide, because the females are in control in a variety of ways. In fact, evolution has worked its magic in bonobo society in such a way that the males are more concerned to nurture offspring than to attack them. And it’s notable that, in modern human societies, this has also become the trend. The ‘feminine’ side of males is increasingly extolled, and the deference shown to females is increasing, despite the occasional throwback like Trump-Putin. It will take a long time, even in ‘advanced’ western societies, but I think the trend is clear. We will, or should, become more like bonobos, because we need to. We don’t need to use sex necessarily, because we have something that bonobos lack – language. And women are very good at language, at least so has been my experience. Talk is a valuable tool against aggression and dysfunction; think of the talking cure, peace talks, being talked down from somewhere or talked out of something. Talk is often beyond cheap, it can be priceless in its benefits. We need to empower the voices of women more and more.

This not a ‘fatalism lite’ argument; there’s nothing natural or evolutionarily binding about this trend. We have to make it happen. This includes, perhaps first off, fighting against the argument that patriarchy is in some sense a better, or more natural system. That involves examining the evidence. Konner has done a great job of attempting to summarise evidence from human societies around the world and throughout history – in a sense carrying on from Aristotle thousands of years ago when he tried to gather together the constitutions of the Greek city-states, to see which might be most effective, and so to better shape the Athenian constitution. A small-scale, synchronic plan by our standards, but by the standards of the time a breath-taking step forward in the attempt not just to understand his world, but to improve it.

References

Melvin Konner, Women after all, 2015

New Scientist, ‘The horror of Hasanlu’ September 15 2018

Max Blumenthal, Goliath, 2013

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

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gaza_War_(2008–09)

Written by stewart henderson

January 11, 2019 at 11:25 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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online shaming, some problems and perspectives

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Canto: So what exactly is online shaming, and do we need to worry about it?

Jacinta: It’s an extension of any kind of shaming, like in primary school when we picked on some misfit and ostracised her, because she was fat, or ugly, or ‘smelly’ or seemed somehow dysfunctional and a soft target. It was easy to do because we were in a group and our target was too weak to retaliate.

Canto: Did you really do that?

Jacinta: Mildly, peripherally, briefly, when I was very young. But the problem today with social media is this large-scale ganging up, because social media does tend to separate people into their own in-groups, which dehumanise those belonging to their out-groups. The example Jon Ronson gives in his book So you’ve been publicly shamed, and in various talks viewable online, is of a woman who makes a careless joke mocking views on AIDS and Africans is first taken to task by a ‘right-thinking’ in-group, and then character-assasinated in a sort of race to the top, or bottom, in terms of high dudgeon or indignation. All of this occurring on Twitter in a matter of hours, unbeknown to the target.

Canto: And you’ve given a fairly generic example there – a person tweets something careless, someone takes umbrage and retweets it, sometimes distorting it slightly, or adding some dark colour to it, and a kind of holier-than-thou hatred gets unleashed. But I must say, I’m not a Twitter user, so I’m very much out of this loop. What Ronson tells me is about the horrific power of Twitter, which makes me glad to be out of it. I like to think that I wouldn’t engage in that sort of thing myself, I’ve always been wary of crowds and of saying things to be popular, which is what this is partly about isn’t it?

Jacinta: Yes, part of it is about displaying your ‘virtue’ and allegiance to your in-group, but it often becomes very violent, and because of the online aspect, it can spread more rapidly and involve far more people than ye olde public square shaming. Reputations can be shredded and victims may find it difficult to recover.

Canto: But isn’t there good public shaming? I mean, I don’t know much about the Volkswagen scandal, how they duped the system and presented false data about diesel emissions, but you can imagine a scenario in which a car manufacturer tries to keep something dodgy about their data secret, and a disgruntled employee blows the whistle on Twitter, creating a firestorm of indignation and retribution.

Jacinta: That’s a good point but even that is very likely to get out of hand, with solid factual information mixing with bullshit and personal grievances. As a weapon, public shaming is always going to be a bit of a loose canon. Think of a company like Monsanto, which to a particular in-group is synonymous with Pure Evil, and just seems to bring out the worst of responses from the loopy left, no matter what it does.

Canto: So what’s the solution?

Jacinta: Not surprisingly, finding solutions is far easier than creating problems. But before I get into that – and you’ll probably guess what they are – thinking before you tweet, giving the benefit of the doubt, respecting diversity, watching out for mob behaviour… before I get into that, let’s look at the various forms or techniques of public shaming.

Canto: Well, there’s doxing – which comes from documents. Publishing or posting documentary info on someone, often private info, to harass, shame or expose something about them. This can be done for good or ill of course. There’s naming and shaming, which is often used against paedophiles or people released on parole or after serving a sentence, who are perceived as a danger to the public by some vigilante group or individual. There’s revenge porn – nude or ‘compromising’ photos often posted by jilted lovers, but also by computer hackers for various nefarious purposes. This, along with doxing and other forms of online targeting, can have permanent effects on the target’s career and reputation.

Jacinta: Yes, and there’s the ‘shaming’ of restaurants or products, often done in an organised way, and groups like ‘GetUp’ and ‘change.org’ who drive online petitions against companies or decisions they don’t like, and as you can see, this shaming can shade into ideological disputes such as environmentalism v big business, or even conspiracy theories. But I do notice that, in terms of individual shaming, women usually come out of it worse than men. The Justine Sacco shaming is an obvious example. The tweet she sent was extremely mild compared to those sent about her…

Canto: Apparently some black people found it offensive…

Jacinta: Well, come on, the ironic nature of the tweet has been explained countless times. It wasn’t hilariously funny, sure, but if you remain ‘offended’ then you’re one of those serially offended people who blight the lives of everyone who likes to engage in a bit, or a lot, of self-and-other-mockery.

Canto: But I’ve read that Sacco has recently been reinstated in the job she was sacked from as a result of the tweetstorm, and before that she was doing well in another job of a similar sort. So she hasn’t suffered much.

Jacinta: Clearly she’s very talented in her line of work, and good luck to her, but the level of abuse she suffered – often sexualised – tends to be reserved for women. And take the case of Adria Richards, also dealt with in Ronson’s book, which I haven’t read, but there’s an interesting online article about her. She was at a conference and heard two guys nearby having a private but loud conversation which included such sexual terms as ‘I’d fork his repo’ (I’ve no idea what that means) and ‘big dongle’ (not a term I would use – I prefer cock and prick). She found this offensive and tweeted as much, including a photo of the guys. One of the guys was sacked as a result, but when he himself tweeted about what he considered the underhand nature of what she did, the Twitter world turned on Richards big-time. She was sacked after a campaign by hackers launched a ‘distributed denial of service’ attack on her employer, and internet trolls gave her a horribly hard time with the usual disgusting invective that tends to get directed at women.

Canto: Well, I’ve read the article, and I agree that she was treated horribly, but I would say the over-reaction was on both sides. I must say that, to start with, if she was so offended by the lads’ remarks, why not turn round and ask them to shut up? And second, I don’t understand what’s so offensive about forking and repo and dongles, whatever they are. I presume they’re sexual terms but like you, I was brought up in a working-class environment where a cock was called a cock, a cunt a cunt and a fuck a fuck. Most euphemisms aren’t even comprehensible to me, let alone offensive.

Jacinta: Well I can only agree. I think it’s an American problem. But the first thing she should surely have done was ask them to desist if she was offended. It’s quite likely that they would have complied. There’s no mention of her ever doing that. And posting photos of someone online without their permission should be a big no-no. I already have friends who refuse that permission – they’ve become very wary of social media and I don’t blame them. So it was a ‘classic over-reaction’ as one commentator out it, but then to go after Richards in revenge was also wrong.

Canto: It’s a classic example of what’s being called the ‘weaponising’ of social media, people’s lives getting messed up because they can’t engage in straightforward communication, and need to parade their offendedness to the world. Let me tell you a story about trash-talking from my younger days. I was at a party with my girlfriend and we ended up staying the night, sleeping on the floor in a spare room, along with another girl, an old friend of my girlfriend, whom she hadn’t seen in ages. The two women ended up talking much of the night, or rather my girlfriend’s friend held forth in a long monologue about her high-octane sex life, describing a host of encounters in detail, comparing tackle and performances ad nauseum, all with a degree of contempt and mockery that made me wonder why she hadn’t switched to a more enjoyable hobby. However, it never once occurred to me to complain. I was no doubt fascinated at first, but the relentless inhumane carping soon turned me off. Now imagine if this hadn’t occurred way back in the eighties, imagine I was a different sort of person, and I’d recorded the whole thing on my smartphone and posted it online…

Jacinta: She would’ve suffered hell, which even she wouldn’t have deserved. Which brings us again to solutions. And really, at the moment it’s self-imposed solutions. I don’t know if there are any laws preventing us to post images of others without their permission, but they might have to be created. And of course it would be just about impossible to impose laws preventing people from making false or injurious statements about others online. Laws about hate speech are endlessly controversial, for obvious reasons. We’re only just waking up to the power of these social media sites to destroy reputations based on the tiniest of infractions, often misunderstood. The Adria Richards case perfectly illustrates this. Of course the owners and managers of these sites need to be part of the solution, but they’re loath to impose severe restrictions. I suspect it’s going to get worse before it gets better.

etcetera etcetera etcetera etcetera

Written by stewart henderson

March 31, 2018 at 5:17 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

adventures in second language acquisition – input matters

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“SLA history is not 2,000 years old but almost as old as human history and that throughout this long period, people have acquired rather than learned L2s, considering the rather short history of linguistic sciences.”
– Ellidokuzoglu, IJFLT 2008

So Minna Kirjavainen ended her talk by emphasising the similarities between L1 and L2 learning. It’s a long hard slog, and we all make plenty of embarrassing faux pas along the way. Marjo Mitsutomi then began her elaborations on L2 learning by mentioning in passing the host of theories and approaches to SLA over the past few years – behaviourism, Chomsky’s universal grammar, Krashen’s hypotheses etc – before listing what they all generally agree on, and that is, firstly, that the first stage of L2 is necessarily different from that of L1, due to L1 influence; secondly that L2 learning generally starts later, and the critical period hypothesis might play a role, along with other biological or neurological constraints, and thirdly that there’s generally an issue of ‘interlanguage’, the sort of make-do syntax that’s neither quite L1 or L2.

Mitsutomi then introduced the ‘newest theory’ (and it’s new to me) in the field, chaos theory. As the name suggests, it proposes that language and its acquisition is multi-faceted and enormously complex. She quotes a proponent of the theory, A J van Lier, describing language as a complex adaptive system involving endless and multiform interactions between individual and environment. Another proponent describes it as dynamic, non-linear, adaptive and feedback-sensitive, self-organising and emergent. No doubt each of those terms could be fleshed out at great length, though whether it all amounts to a theory might be questionable. In any case Mitsutoni makes the obviously correct point that there are many many factors, with different loadings for each individual learner, that make SLA a very difficult long-term task. And of course it makes the task of the teacher difficult too, because every learner is in a different place with different issues. Nevertheless Mitsutomi identifies some key concepts:

  • negotiation for meaning – try to get learners to say something original and unrehearsed, to produce language that’s owned by the learner
  • noticing a gap – being aware, as a learner, of the gap between what you want/need to do and what you can do (the next step, which you should be taking in an encouraging environment, with the expectation that mistakes will be made again and again and gently corrected)
  • variables – for the educator, trying to take account of the many variables among learners, such as motivation, anxiety, production experience (many learners come from Asian ‘school English’ backgrounds where their production of English has been very limited, practically non-existent), L1 competence, etc, is a monumental task, and fossilisation is likely to always be a problem
  • rate and type of input, control of learning, and many other internal and external factors contribute to a sense of ‘chaos’ in the class with every learner varying in what they allow in, and what effort they expend.

Control of learning is a key issue Mitsutomi focuses upon, by emphasising how L2 ‘learners’ can control for not learning, in a way that L1 learners can’t, because learning L1 is learning language itself, and without that skill we’d be lost in the human world. So the L2 learner, safely aware of her full humanity as an effective L1 user, can and generally does choose how much effort to put into L2 acquisition.

So how can we motivate them to focus on L2 learning, considering the many distractions they’re dealing with? Mitsutomi  employs a quote from one of the early proposers of chaos theory, Vera Menezes:

… the edge of chaos will be reached if students can get rich input, interact with proficient speakers, and if they can use the second language for social purposes, dealing with different oral, written or digital genres in formal and informal contexts.

So we need to provide learners with rich, stimulating, relevant content in a motivating environment. And the most motivating environment of all is one that’s embodied, that connects with feeling and action. And Mitsutomi emphasises authenticity, the creation of original thoughts in the L2, and the deciphering of meaning in unpredictable contexts – where, again, embodied clues will help.

So what are some examples of embodied teaching? Well one way is to recognise language that’s difficult for students and to see if there’s an embodied way of teaching it, of acting it out. Take the preposition ‘into’. I’ve noticed that EGP and EAPP students almost invariably don’t think of this in tests where prepositions are specifically asked for, they often write ‘in’ and get a half-mark, but ‘into’ is a kind of action preposition, which almost always goes with an action verb, specifically ‘go’ and ‘come’, but also ‘put’, so it’s perfect for a bit of embodied teaching. It’s a word containing two morphemes obviously, and its opposite is two words, ‘out of’, and these opposites might best be taught together. Ask students to take a pencil out of the pencil-case, and then to put the pencil into the case. Go out of the room, through the door, and come into the room, through the door. Ask the students what they’ve just done. Hopefully the actions will reinforce the language. If nothing else, they tend to be more stimulated, more engaged, when combining action with words in this way.

Some expressions used, and often abused, by learners in argument and comparative essays can often benefit from being taught in an embodied way. ‘On the one hand/on the other hand’ is a notorious example. Ask students to put something slightly heavy on one hand, and then to think of something equally heavy that might be put on the other hand to balance the argument. This might work wonders but then again maybe not, no harm in trying. Similar tricks might be tried with ‘furthermore’, ‘moreover’, ‘on balance’ and any terms which have a physical sense of distance or weight or proportion to them. Of course there are limits, and abstract connecting words (conjunctions) such as ‘although’ and ‘whereas’ and their differentiation are fiendishly difficult to illustrate or adequately explain (though we should always try to have explanations handy). Alternatively, we should be actively discouraging the use of these kinds of terms – ‘whereas’ ‘although, ‘despite’, ‘in spite of’, because these are the sorts of terms that L1 users only get a handle on later. You won’t find too many five or six-year-old L1 speakers using them, yet in EAP classes we cram them in, or try to, when learners are still getting a handle on basic grammar and trying to build their basic vocabulary. In most cases ‘whereas’ can be replaced with ‘but’ in a straight swap. Words like ‘despite’ can be avoided through rearranging the sentence, and then only slightly. Let’s look at an example:

Despite having lived in Norway for ten years, he never got used to the cold.

Change to:

He had lived in Norway for ten years but had never got used to the cold.

The word ‘but’ could be replaced with ‘yet’, but using ‘yet’ in this way is also too abstract, and too confusing. Keep it simple – they will learn this through input in their own time. Advice to learners would be to use the simpler conjunctions, unless they’re quite certain about how to use the more abstract ones.

In the last paragraph I slipped in the word input.  This is a key term in second language acquisition, according to the linguist Bill van Patten of Michigan State University.  In this lecture van Patten claims that ‘after four decades of L2 research what has become crystal clear is language in the mind and brain is not built up from practice but from constant and consistent exposure to input’. He goes on to define input as ‘what readers hear or read in a communicative context’. He then makes a further, perhaps shocking claim that this language that they hear or read in these contexts is responded to ‘for its meaning not for its form or structure’. Meaningful input is essential for SLA, – that’s to say for the language to begin to exist inside the learner, as a mental thing, sensed and felt – and practice is not a substitute. Of course this raises issues for teaching, especially as  van Patten argues that role-playing within class is no substitute for real communication where meaning is negotiated. If it’s all about input and meaning, can L2 be taught in a classroom at all?

This raises questions about whether there is a difference between classroom learning and immersive acquisition, or rather (because there’s obviously a difference) whether classroom learning can ever substitute for the immersive circumstances of L1-type learning. In order to explore this further I want to engage with some of the highly influential ideas of Stephen Krashen, who apparently takes a dim view of much conventional second language teaching. Is what we’re doing a complete waste of time, or can we do it better? How should we be doing our job, considering the constraints and the expectations of ‘English for academic purposes’ in which we’re supposed to be transforming relatively low-level English users into potential university essayists in English?

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Written by stewart henderson

February 6, 2017 at 11:33 pm

adventures in second language acquisition – an intro to the usage-based hypothesis of language learning

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don't you just hate it when slide presentations on grammar contain grammar errors

don’t you just hate it when slide presentations on grammar contain grammar errors

So now I’m going to describe and reflect on a rather more interesting video by two academics and teachers, Marjo Mitsutomi, a specialist in SLA, and Minna Kirjavainen, who researches first language acquisition. They’re working in the teaching of English in Osaka, and they’re describing the uni course they’ve just set up there. Kirjavainen, the first speaker, describes her research as being on ‘the acquisition of syntax and morphology in monolingual, typically developing children, from about the ages two to six’. So now for some definitions. How does syntax differ from grammar, and what is morphology? A rough answer is that a grammar involves everything about how a language works, which includes syntax, which is essentially about how words are ordered in sentences. Morphology is often described as the corollary of syntax. Grammar can be divided into syntax, the external economy of words (i.e. in sentences), and morphology, the internal economy of words (i.e. from morphemes). For example, ‘robbed’ contains the verb ‘rob’ plus the unit of meaning ‘-ed’, or ‘-bed’, which means ‘in the past’. But presumably ‘went’ is made up of two morphemes, ‘go’ and ‘in the past’, both of which are in a sense hidden in the word?

Kirjavainen describes herself as coming from the ‘usage-based, constructivist view-point’, and says

‘this means that I don’t assume there’s innate syntactic components in the child’s mind like many first language and second language acquisition researchers do. Instead, the usage-based viewpoint assumes that language exposure and general cognitive processes result in language acquisition in children.’

A slide accompanying this anouncement indicated that Michael Tomasello is one of the major developers of this approach. So I’ll need to familiarise myself with Tomasello’s work, especially as I’m currently reading Steven Pinker’s The language instinct, which appears to be an attempt to popularise Chomsky’s universal grammar theories. Chomsky and Pinker argue that there is something innate about grammar, though just what it is is hard to capture.

Kirjavainen is of the view that a child’s general cognitive processes (e.g. pattern finding, analogy-making and categorisation) together with exposure to language, lead to competent language acquisition. She argues that these processes are effective for non-linguistic tasks, so the same mechanisms are sufficient for decoding the language they hear and want to use. She divides her inquiry into first language acquisition into three questions:

  1. how do children learn to speak their native language?
  2. what kind of things do children pay attention to when they learn their native language?
  3. how do caregivers talk to children? What effect does it have on children’s language development?

Firstly, children pay a lot of attention to language input, and apparently research is starting to show that it’s not just lexical items but grammatical structures that children mirror from caregivers. The most frequently used grammatical structures of caregivers are the ones used earliest by children, and they then become the most used by children. So the ambient language heavily influences the child’s language development. The constructivists also argue that syntactic constructions are built on the language that children already know. So they chunk things together and try them out for effective communication with those around them, they absorb responses and corrections and adjust their language accordingly. Examples are ‘Mummy’, ‘I want mummy’, ‘Mummy do it’ ‘I want mummy do it’, ‘I want mummy to do it’.

All of this makes a lot of sense to me prima facie. Mitsotomi, who next takes up the talk, is of Finnish background like Kirjavainen, but with a more pronounced accent, having learned English later in life. She begins by mentioning the critical period hypothesis for SLA, which might be the subject of a future post. Her concern is in how SLA is affected not only by the towering presence of the learner’s L1, but by many other life experiences. So given these influences and possible constraints how do we create a space and an atmosphere conducive to SLA? Also, what does SLA mean to the identity of learners, and how is it that some acquire an L2 more quickly and effectively than others?

Kirjavainen then continues by introducing what might be seen as the obstacles to a collaboration between first and second language theorists. First, some linguists argue that there are inherent differences between first and second language learning. She lists three (out of many) common assumptions about these differences:

  1. all (typically developing) children learn to speak their L1 natively, whereas most people (with normal cognitive skills) don’t learn their L2 to a native-like standard
  2. children learn their L1 very quickly whereas it takes L2 learners years to master their target language
  3. L1 learners make few errors in comparison to L2 learners, i.e. children find it easier to learn the grammatical rules of their language, whereas L2 learners find it difficult to learn these rules

Kirjavainen questions the first assumption, first on the basis of vocabulary – a child’s L1 vocab will depend on her socio-economic background, the level of education, experience and language competence of those she’s learning from and other such factors. These factors also affect syntax, and she described a study of native speakers’ knowledge of and proficiency in the passive construction. The study compared the proficiency of university teaching staff (academics) with non-teaching staff. They were tested on their understanding of active and passive sentences based on pictures, a fairly easy test, and it was found that while both teaching and non-teaching staff had full understanding of the active constructions, only the academics had full understanding of the passive construction. The non-teaching staff were significantly below full understanding. The general point here is that not all native speakers know all the grammatical rules of their L1, and that it depends more on regular usage than is sometimes admitted.

Next Kirjavainen gets stuck into the claim that children learn their native language quickly. She points out that an average 5 year old is quite a competent L1 user, but far from having adult proficiency. She then does a breakdown of how many hours a day children have spent, up to the age of five, exposed to and using the L1. That’s 5 years@6-14 hours a day of exposure, and about 3.5 years@8-14 hours a day in using the language. Conclusion: it takes children years to reach a relatively high level of L1 proficiency.

All of this strikes me as really thought-provoking stuff, and some of the thoughts provoked in me are memories of my callow youth – for example an occasion when as a 15 year-old or so I found myself at a party full of uni students types, all a few years my senior, and was awed by their vocabulary and language proficiency, and fearful that I’d get roped into conversation and be mocked for my verbal incompetence. So, again, I’m finding Kirjavainen’s arguments persuasive here at first blush.

The third assumption is more or less demolished by Kirjavainen as she cites research by herself and others to show that children make lots of errors, especially between the ages of 18 months and 4 years – these include pronoun errors, omission of infinitival to, agreement errors, subject omissions and verb inflection errors. Even at five and upwards there are mistakes with past tense, relative clauses and complement clause constructions. A complement clause? I’ve only just heard of them, but let me explain.

Here are two examples of complement clauses, taken from Kidd et al, 2007.

(1)  That Rufus was late angered his boss.

(2)  Rufus could see that he had angered his boss.

The complement clauses are underlined. The first here functions as the subject of an ‘argument’ sentence, the second as the object. The second sentence is described as an unmarked case, in which the complementiser that is optional and generally not used in naturalistic speech. There are many other forms of complement clause construction, so I won’t get bogged down by exploring them here.

So this has been an enlightening post for me, and an enlightening view of a new (to me) usage-based constructivist view of language acquisition. Next time I’ll report on the latter part of this talk, which will focus more on the implications for SLA.

just a thought to end with

just a thought to end with

Written by stewart henderson

January 30, 2017 at 3:25 pm