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Posts Tagged ‘language

language origins: some reflections

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Jacinta: So a number of readings and listenings lately have caused us to think about how the advent of language would have brought about something of a revolution in human society – or any other society, here or on any other planet out there.

Canto: Yes, we heard about orangutan kiss-squeaks on a New Scientist podcast the other day, and we’re currently reading Rebecca Wragg Sykes’ extraordinary book Kindred, a thoroughly comprehensive account of Neanderthal culture, which we’ve clearly learned so much more about in recent decades. She hasn’t really mentioned language as yet (we’re a little over halfway through), but the complexity and sophistication she describes really brings the subject to mind. And of course there are cetacean and bird communications, inter alia. 

Jacinta: So how do we define a language?

Canto: Yeah, we need to define it in such a way that other creatures can’t have it, haha.

Jacinta: Obviously it evolved in a piece-meal way, hence the term proto-language. And since you mentioned orangutans, here’s a quote from a 2021 research paper on the subject:

Critically, bar humans, orangutans are the only known great ape to produce consonant-like and vowel-like calls combined into syllable-like combinations, therefore, presenting a privileged hominid model for this study.

And what was the study, you ask? Well, quoting from the abstract:

… we assessed information loss in proto-consonants and proto-vowels in human pre-linguistic ancestors as proxied by orangutan consonant-like and vowel-like calls that compose syllable-like combinations. We played back and re-recorded calls at increasing distances across a structurally complex habitat (i.e. adverse to sound transmission). Consonant-like and vowel-like calls degraded acoustically over distance, but no information loss was detected regarding three distinct classes of information (viz. individual ID, context and population ID). Our results refute prevailing mathematical predictions and herald a turning point in language evolution theory and heuristics.

Canto: So, big claim. So these were orangutan calls. I thought they were solitary creatures?

Jacinta: Well they can’t be too solitary, for ‘the world must be orangutan’d’, to paraphrase Shakespeare. And interestingly, orangutans are the most tree-dwelling of all the great apes (including us of course). And that means a ‘structurally complex habitat’, methinks.

Canto: So here’s an even more recent piece (December 2022)  from ScienceDaily:

Orangutans’ tree-dwelling nature means they use their mouth, lips and jaw as a ‘fifth hand’, unlike ground-dwelling African apes. Their sophisticated use of their mouths, mean orangutans communicate using a rich variety of consonant sounds.

Which is interesting in that they’re less close to us genetically than the African apes. So this research, from the University of Warwick, focused a lot on consonants, which until recently seemed quintessentially human productions. Researchers often wondered where these consonants came from, since African apes didn’t produce them. Their ‘discovery’ in orangutans has led, among other things, to a rethinking re our arboreal past.

Jacinta: Yes, there’s been a lot of focus recently on vowel and consonant formation, and the physicality of those formations, the muscles and structures involved.

Canto: Well in this article, Dr Adriano Lameira, a professor of psychology who has long been interested in language production, and has been studying orangutans in their natural habitat for 18 years, notes that their arboreal lifestyle and feeding habits have enabled, or in a sense forced, them to use their mouths as an extra appendage or tool. Here’s how Lameira puts it:

It is because of this limitation, that orangutans have developed greater control over their lips, tongue and jaw and can use their mouths as a fifth hand to hold food and manoeuvre tools. Orangutans are known for peeling an orange with just their lips so their fine oral neuro-motoric control is far superior to that of African apes, and it has evolved to be an integral part of their biology.

Jacinta: So they might be able to make more consonantal sounds, which adds to their repertoire perhaps, but that’s a long way from what humans do, putting strings of sounds together to make meaningful ‘statements’. You know, grammar and syntax.

Canto: Yes, well, that’s definitely going to the next level. But getting back to those kiss-squeaks I mentioned at the top, before we get onto grammar, we need to understand how we can make all the sounds, consonantal and vowel, fricative, plosive and all the rest. I’ve found the research mentioned in the New Scientist podcast just the other day, which compares orangutan sounds to human beatboxing (which up till now I’ve known nothing about, but I’m learning). Dr Lameira was also involved in this research, So I’ll quote him:

“It could be possible that early human language resembled something that sounded more like beatboxing, before evolution organised language into the consonant — vowel structure that we know today.”

Jacinta: Well that’s not uninteresting, and no doubt might fit somewhere in the origins of human speech, the details of which still remain very much a mystery. Presumably it will involve the development of distinctive sounds and the instruments and the musculature required to make them, as well as genes and neural networks – though that might be a technical term. Neural developments, anyway. Apparently there are ‘continuity theories’, favouring gradual development, probably over millennia, and ‘discontinuity theories’, arguing for a sudden breakthrough – but I would certainly favour the former, though it might have been primarily gestural, or a complex mixture of gestural and oral.

Canto: You’d think that gestural, or sign language – which we know can be extremely complex – would develop after bipedalism, or with it, and both would’ve evolved gradually. And, as we’re learning with Neanderthals, the development of a more intensive sociality could’ve really jump-started language processes.

Jacinta: Or maybe H sapiens had something going in the brain, or the genes, language-wise or proto-language-wise, that gave them the competitive advantage over Neanderthals? And yet, reading Kindred, I find it hard to believe that Neanderthals didn’t have any language. Anyway, let’s reflect on JuLingo’s video on language origins, in which she argues that language was never a goal in itself (how could it be), but a product of the complexity that went along with bipedalism, hunting, tool-making and greater hominin sociality. That’s to say, social evolution, reflected in neural and genetic changes, as well as subtle anatomical changes for the wider production and reception of sounds, perhaps starting with H ergaster around 1.5 million years ago. H heidelbergensis, with a larger brain size and wider spinal canal, may have taken language or proto-language to another level, and may have been ancestral to H sapiens. It’s all very speculative.

Canto: Yes, I don’t think I’m much qualified to add anything more – and I’m not sure if anyone is, but of course there’s no harm in speculating. Sykes speculates thusly about Neanderthals in Kindred:

Complementary evidence for language comes from the fact Neanderthals seem to have had similar rates of handedness. Tooth micro-scratches and patterns of knapping on cores [for stone tool-making] confirm they were dominated by right-handers, and this is also reflected in asymmetry in one side of their brains. But when we zoom in further to genetics, things get increasingly thorny. The FOXP2 gene is a case in point: humans have a mutation that changed just two amino acids from those in other animals, whether chimps or platypi. FOXP2 is definitely involved with cognitive and physical language capacity in living people, but it isn’t ‘the’ language gene; no such thing exists. Rather it affects multiple aspects of brain and central nervous system development. When it was confirmed that Neanderthals had the same FOXP2 gene as us, it was taken as strong evidence that they could ‘talk’. But another, subtler alteration has been found that happened after we’d split from them. It’s tiny – a single protein – and though the precise anatomical effect isn’t yet known, experiments show it does change how FOXP2 itself works. Small changes like this are fascinating, but we’re far from mapping out any kind of genetic recipe where adding this, or taking away that, would make Neanderthals loquacious or laconic.

Rebecca Wragg Sykes, Kindred: Neanderthal life, love, death and art, pp 248-9

Jacinta: Yes, these are good points, and could equally apply to early H sapiens, as well as H ergaster and heidelbergensis. Again we tend to think of language as the full-blown form we learn about in ‘grammar schools’, but most languages today have no written form, and so no fixed grammar – am I right?

Canto: Not sure, but I understand what you’re getting at. The first English grammar book, more like a pamphlet, was published in 1586, when Shakespeare was just starting out as a playwright, and, as with ‘correct’ spelling and pronunciation, would’ve been politically motivated – the King’s English and all.

Jacinta: Queen at that time. Onya Elizabeth. But the grammar, and the rest, would’ve been fixed enough for high and low to enjoy Shakespeare’s plays. And to make conversation pretty fluid.

Canto: Yes, and was handed down pretty naturally, I mean without formal schooling. It’s kids who create new languages – pidgins that become creoles – when necessity necessitates. I read that in a Scientific American magazine back in the early eighties.

Jacinta: Yes, so they had the genes and the neural equipment to form new hybrid languages, more or less unconsciously. So much still to learn about all this…

Canto: And so little time….


Kindred: Neanderthal life, love, death and art, by Rebecca Wragg Sykes, 2021







Written by stewart henderson

July 19, 2023 at 6:36 pm

dyslexia is not one thing 3: problems with automaticity

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Q Canto: So the next hypothesised  basic source of dyslexia is ‘a failure to achieve automaticity’, that’s to say the sort of rapid, more or less unconscious processing of sounds into letters and vice versa, which probably means effective connection between brain regions or structures.

Jacinta: Perhaps because one of the structures is somehow internally dysfunctional.

Canto: wYes, and it often begins with vision. Researchers have found that many dyslexic individuals couldn’t separate two rapidly succeeding visual flickers as clearly as other individuals – an apparent processing problem. Similar research with dyslexic children found that, though they could identify stimuli initially as well as the non-dyslexic, they fell behind with added complexity and speed. This occurred more or less equally whether the stimuli were aural or visual. The connections just didn’t come ‘naturally’ to them.

Jacinta: So what about the connection between language – I mean speech, which is tens of thousands of years old – and reading and writing, a much newer development for our brains to deal with? Do dyslexic people have problems with processing good old speech? Are they slower to learn to talk?

Canto: Yes, a good question. Wolf describes research in which children with dyslexia in a number of languages, including English, ‘were less sensitive to the rhythm in natural speech, which is partly determined by how the sounds in words change through stress and ‘beat patterns’’ (Wolf, p177). Others have found breakdowns in processing in various motor tasks involving hearing and seeing. That’s to say, in the automaticity of such tasks. One psychologist who studies dyslexic children found an extensive range of problems with processing speed, especially a time gap or asynchrony between visual and auditory processing, and this observation has become commonplace.

Jacinta: But does this relate specifically to learning to speak? I’ve heard that Einstein was slow at that as a child.

Canto: Yes it’s said that he didn’t learn to speak full sentences before the age of five. But here we’re just talking about ‘naming speed’, and how it appears to use the same neurological structures as reading, as problems with one is predictive of problems with the other.

Jacinta: And the problem isn’t so much with naming per se, but the speed, the gap.

Canto: Yes, the lack of automaticity. Neurologists working in this field have developed ‘rapid automised naming’ (RAN) tasks which have become the most effective predictors of reading performance, regardless of language. Wolf herself has developed a refinement, rapid alternating stimulus (RAS), which, as the name suggests, gives more weight to attention-switching automaticity. Here’s an interesting quote from Wolf:

If you consider that the whole development of reading is directed toward the ability to decode so rapidly that the brain has time to think about incoming information, you will understand the deep significance of those naming speed findings. In many cases of dyslexia, the brain never reaches the highest stages of reading development, because it takes too long to connect the earliest parts of the process. Many children with dyslexia literally do not have time to think in the medium of print.

Jacinta: It makes me think of the unconscious, but not the Freudian one. A processing that you don’t have to think about. So that you can think about the info, not the form that encapsulates it.

Canto: Yes, and none of this explains why some have these problems with automaticity – which brings us back to neurology. Are dyslexic individuals using a different circuit from the rest of us, and does this explain their skills and abilities in other areas?  Remember the names – Einstein, da Vinci, Gaudi, Picasso… not that dyslexia guarantees genius or anything…

Jacinta: Yes, far from it, I’d say, but it’s a fascinating conundrum.

Canto: So, neurology. And this takes us to how the ‘reading brain’, a very new phenomenon, evolutionarily speaking, came into being. fMRI images appear to confirm hypotheses that the brain ‘uses older object recognition pathways in the occipital-temporal zone (area 37) to name both letters and objects’ (Wolf, p179). It’s a process described as ‘neuronal recycling’. And it takes us to brain regions associated with particular tasks. For example, the left occipital-temporal area is apparently more associated with object naming, a much older task, evolutionarily speaking, than letter naming, and one that takes up more cortical space. The more streamlined, specialised use of this region for letters, and the development of automaticity for that purpose, is a prime example of our much-vaunted neuroplasticity.

Jacinta: What they’ve called RAN is always faster for letters than objects – that’s perhaps because letters are a small, even quite tiny subset of the near-infinite set of objects.

Canto: Yes, and here I’m going to quote a difficult passage by Wolf at  some length, and then try, with your help, to make sense of it:

…culturally invented letters elicit more activation than objects in each of the other ‘older structures’ (especially temporal-parietal language areas) used for reading in the universal reading brain. This is why measures of naming speed like RAN and RAS predict reading across all known languages. It is also why, side-by-side, the brain images of the object- and letter-naming tasks are like comparative evolutionary photos of a pre-reading and post reading brain (Wolf, p181).

Jacinta: So this is a bit confusing. Culturally invented letters are new, evolutionarily speaking. And there are older language structures used for reading. Repurposed? Added onto? A bit of renovation? And what exactly is ‘the universal reading brain’?

Canto: Good question, and a quick internet research reveals much talk of a ‘universal reading network’. Here’s a fascinating abstract from a 2020 study, some ten years after the publication of Wolf’s book. It’s entitled “A universal reading network and its modulation by writing system and reading ability in French and Chinese children”:

Are the brain mechanisms of reading acquisition similar across writing systems? And do similar brain anomalies underlie reading difficulties in alphabetic and ideographic reading systems? In a cross-cultural paradigm, we measured the fMRI responses to words, faces, and houses in 96 Chinese and French 10-year-old children, half of whom were struggling with reading. We observed a reading circuit which was strikingly similar across languages and consisting of the left fusiform gyrus, superior temporal gyrus/sulcus, precentral and middle frontal gyri. Activations in some of these areas were modulated either by language or by reading ability, but without interaction between those factors. In various regions previously associated with dyslexia, reading difficulty affected activation similarly in Chinese and French readers, including the middle frontal gyrus, a region previously described as specifically altered in Chinese. Our analyses reveal a large degree of cross-cultural invariance in the neural correlates of reading acquisition and reading impairment.

So this research, like no doubt previous research, identifies various brain regions associated with reading ability and impairment, and finds that the same automacity, or lack thereof, is associated with the same regions, such as the middle frontal gyrus, in both alphabetic and ideographic reading systems. I think this is further confirmation of the research work Wolf is citing. Of course, I don’t know much about these brain regions. A course in neurology is required.

Jacinta: But what Wolf appears to be saying in that earlier quote is that you can get brain images (via fMRI) of object naming (older brain) tasks and put them side by side with images of letter naming tasks (younger brain), and it’s like seeing the results of evolution. Sounds a bit much to me. I suppose you can see a different pattern. Isn’t fMRI based on the magnetism of iron in the blood?

Canto: Yes yes. This is complex, but of course it’s true that the neural networking required for reading and writing is much more recent than that for language – and remember that of the 7000 or so languages we know of, only about 300 have a written form, which suggests that the Aborigines, before whities arrived, and the Papua-New Guineans, who have about 700 different languages on their island, were unable to even be dyslexic, or were all dyslexic without knowing it, or giving a flying fuck about it, because they had no writing, and no wiring for reading it.

Jacinta: So it would be interesting, then, to scan the brains of those language users – and there are no humans who aren’t language users – who don’t have writing. Take for example the Australian Aborigines, who became swamped by white Christian missionaries determined to ‘civilise’ them, more or less overnight in evolutionary terms, through teaching them to read and write. And then would’ve been characterised as backward for not picking up those skills.

Canto: That’s an interesting point, but it’s the same even in ‘cradles of civilisation’ such as Britain, where the vast majority were illiterate, and encouraged to be so, 500 years ago. At that time the printing press was a new-fangled device, church services were mostly conducted in Latin, and it was convenient to keep the peasantry in ignorance and in line. And yet, when it became more convenient to have a literate population, the change appears to have been relatively seamless, dyslexia notwithstanding. So it seems that, from a neurological perspective, little change was required.

Jacinta: Yes, that’s a good point, and it points to brain plasticity. Curiouser and curiouser – so it’s not so much about evolution and genes, but relatively rapid neural developments…. to be continued…


M Wolf, Proust and the squid, 2010



Written by stewart henderson

April 21, 2023 at 5:02 pm

dyslexia is not one thing 2: structural deficits

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the human brain- a very very rough guide

Jacinta: So we’re going to look at earlier ideas about dyslexia, before the recent revolution in neurology, if that’s not being too hyperbolic. These ideas tended to focus on known systems, before there were well-identified or detailed neural correlates. ‘Word-blindness’ was an early term for dyslexia, highlighting the visual system. This was partly based on the 19th century case of a French businessman and musician who, after a stroke, could no longer read words or musical notes or name colours. A second stroke worsened the situation considerably, eventually causing his death.

Canto: An autopsy revealed that the first stroke had damaged the left visual area and part of the corpus callosum, which connects the two hemispheres. It appears that what the man was seeing with his right hemisphere was not able to be ‘backed up’ by the left visual area, and/or connected to the left language area. The second stroke struck mainly the angular gyrus, a complex and vital integrating and processing region towards the back of the brain.

Jacinta: Yes, and before we go on, what we’re doing here is looking in more detail at the four potential sources of dyslexia set down at the end of the previous post. So in this post we’re focusing on 1. a developmental, possibly genetic, flaw in the structures underlying language or vision. 

Canto: Right, so there’ll be three more dyslexia posts after this. So this ‘Monsieur X’ case was one of ‘classic alexia’ or acquired dyslexia, and marked an important step forward in mapping regions in relation to the visual and processing aspects of language. Norman Geschwind described it as ‘disconnection syndrome’, when two brain regions essential to a function, in this case written language, are cut off from each other.

Jacinta: The auditory cortex became an important focus in the twentieth century, as researchers noted a problem with forming ‘auditory images’ – which sounds like a problem everyone would have! More specifically it means not being able to translate the images made by letters and phonemes into sounds.

Canto: Yes, so that a word like ‘come’ (which is actually quite complex – the hard ‘k’ followed by an ‘o’ which, orally, is neither the typically short nor long version, followed finally by the silent ‘e’ which has some quite strange effect on the previous vowel) would be quite a challenge. Perhaps the real surprise is that we have no trouble with it.

Jacinta: Yes, I prefer cum myself, but that’s a bit off-topic. Anyway, psycholinguistics, much derived from the work of Noam Chomsky, which came into prominence from the 1970s, tended to treat dyslexia more as specifically language-based rather than audio-visual. Taking this perspective, researchers found that ‘reading depended more on the linguistically demanding skills of phonological analysis and awareness than on sensory-based auditory perception of speech sounds’ (Wolf, p173). This was evidenced by the way impaired-reading children treated ‘visual reversal’ in letters (e.g p and q, b and d). They were able to draw the letters accurately, but had great trouble saying them (sounding them). This appears to be a spoken language problem, which carries over to writing.

Canto: Indeed, it highlighted a problem, which apparently had nothing to do with intelligence, or basic perception, but was more of a specific perception-within-language thing:

These children cannot readily delete a phoneme from the beginning or end of a word, much less from the middle, and then pronounce it; and their awareness of rhyme patterns (to decide whether two words like ‘fat’ and ’rat’ rhyme or not) develops much more slowly. More significantly, we now know that these children experience the most difficulties learning to read when they are expected to induce the rules of correspondence between letters and sounds on their own.

Phonological explanations of dyslexia have resulted in a lot of effective remedial work in recent decades, and a library of research in the field of reading deficits.

Jacinta: Yes, these are called structural hypotheses, noting deficits in awareness of phonemic structure, and phoneme-grapheme correspondences. And these deficits presumably have their home in specific neural regions and wiring. The executive processes of the frontal lobes may be at play, in terms of organised attention, the fixing of memory and the monitoring of comprehension, but also the more ‘basic’ processes of the cerebellum, involving timing and motor coordination. And co-ordination between these regions may also be an issue.

Canto: And, as Wolf points out, these structural hypotheses have sheeted home problems to so many brain regions – the frontal executive function region, the speech region close by, the central auditory region, the language and language/visual integration regions, the posterior visual cortex and the cerebellum – that it would be fair to say that ‘many of the collective hypothesised sources of dyslexia mirror the major component structures of the reading brain’ (Wolf, p176).

Jacinta: Which sounds pretty serious. Why is it happening? And why not for others…?


M Wolf, Proust and the squid: the story and science of the reading brain



Written by stewart henderson

April 16, 2023 at 4:50 pm

dyslexia is not one thing, apparently

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Canto: So I’ve been reading Proust and the squid, by Maryanne Wolf, a book I bought back in 2010, when it was published, and apparently read at the time, though I remember very little about it. Did I really read it? I suspect I didn’t finish it. Anyway, it’s subtitled Science and the reading brain, and since we do a lot of reading, mostly still in the old-fashioned way (stuff written on paper), the subject is of obvious interest.

Jacinta: Yes, it’s interesting to reflect that though writing, of various types, came into being four to five thousand years ago, it’s only in the last few centuries that reading has become anything like universally adopted. And our brains have had to adapt to reading…

Canto: Yes, think of reading to ourselves, in a language that’s based on sound. Which not all languages are, if I’m not mistaken. So I imagine that non-phonological languages (is that a meaningful term?) use the brain in a different way…

Jacinta: It’s more complicated than that – for example, there’s a difference between phonetics and phonemics, in which the letter ‘t’ is sounded differently depending on its place within a word and what letters surround it, for example in ‘th’ words, and that phoneme is sounded differently, for example in ‘the’ and in ‘beneath’, if you listen carefully. We generally don’t notice these differences until they’re pointed out to us. And the English language is full of them. Phonemes can be divided into allophones, as they’re called. But getting back to dyslexia…

Canto: Well, first it needs to be made clear that dyslexia has nothing to do with lack of intelligence. Both Einstein and Leonardo da Vinci, the names most often trotted out as examples of genius, were likely dyslexic, or maybe I should say they suffered from some form of dyslexia – because it’s really really complex and multi-faceted, and seems to involve right-left brain differences. The last two chapters of Wolf’s book, ‘Dyslexia’s puzzle and the brain’s design’ and ‘Genes, gifts and dyslexia’, are fiendishly difficult for someone like me, with very little background in neurology, but fascinating, and I think it’ll take several posts to cover not only what’s in the book but the ongoing research since it was written.

Jacinta: Yes that reminds me of Sapolsky’s statement in Behave, that more neurological papers have been published in the 21st century than in all previous centuries combined – and that book was published five years ago.

Canto: Well, it’s not surprising, it’s a burgeoning area of research, looking for neural co-ordinates for various disabilities, proficiencies, tendencies… As well as genetic correlations. And epigenetic too, maybe. Anyway, to begin somewhere, Wolf describes a hypothesis that derives from the thinking of a famous and apparently prophetic 20th century neurologist, Norman Geschwind:

The genes that form the basis for a strengthened right hemisphere could have been highly productive in preliterate societies, but when these same genes are expressed within a literate society, they put structures in the right hemisphere in charge of the precise, time-based functions of reading. These functions would then be performed in the unique ways of the right hemisphere, rather than in the more precise, time-efficient ways of the left hemisphere. In the case of reading, that situation would lead inevitably to difficulties.

M Wolf, Proust & the squid: the story and science of the reading brain, pp205-6

Now, I had no idea that the left hemisphere was more precise and time-efficient than the right…

Jacinta: But this quote doesn’t quite make sense to me. We’re all descended from pre-literate societies after all, so with ‘highly productive right hemispheres’. And then, when literacy came along – what? The right hemisphere took on these ‘precise, time-based functions of reading’ in its ‘unique way’, when it would’ve been better to use the left hemisphere, which is better adapted for the purpose, apparently. Wouldn’t this make us all a bit dyslexic?

Canto: Yes, maybe that’s the point. But there’s also no doubt that the reading brain – which may one day become obsolete in the digital and post-digital world – has transformed our society more or less completely. So having serious reading/writing deficits can be a major problem, perhaps especially for highly intelligent people who might feel the disadvantage more.
So dyslexia, as the word suggests, is a broad and negative term which essentially covers all deficiencies in grasping and producing written text. Wolf presents, inter alia, the definition of The International Dyslexia Association:

Dyslexia is a specific learning disability that is neurological in origin. It is characterised by difficulties with accurate and/or fluent word recognition and by poor spelling and decoding abilities. These difficulties typically result from a deficit in the phonological component of language that is often unexpected in relation to other cognitive abilities and the provision of effective classroom instruction. Secondary consequences may include problems in reading comprehension and reduced reading experience that can impede growth of vocabulary and background knowledge.

Note that the only reference to causes here is that it’s ‘neurological in origin’.

Jacinta: Well mention has been made about right and left sides of the brain – does it get any more specific?

Canto: Of course – but as one researcher points out, dyslexia isn’t a reading disorder, as there are no reading centres in the brain. It’s rather a disorder in one or more regions of the brain that have been co-opted for reading and writing. Wolf describes a pyramid of nested connections regarding the disorder. First we observe a behavioural problem, in the act of getting words wrong in reading and writing, or an abnormal slowness and struggle in gaining proficiency in acquiring those skills. Next comes the observation of a pattern of disability, such as seeing/writing/speaking particular letters or phonemes incorrectly. Then there’s the connection between these deficits and neural structures. The next step is homing in on particular neurons and neural circuits, and finally taking this back to the level of particular genes.

Jacinta: But there aren’t any specific genes are there?

Canto: Well, not in the sense of genes for height or eye colour, or even language, which may go back to the earliest Homo sapiens. Literacy is a cultural invention. To quote Wolf:

Across all written languages, reading development involves: a rearrangement of older structures to make new learning circuits; a capacity for specialisation in working groups of neurons within these structures for representing information; and automaticity – the capacity of these neuronal groups and learning circuits to retrieve and connect this information at nearly automatic rates.

M Wolf, Proust and the squid, p 170

Genes aren’t specifically mentioned here – but neurologists are understandably asking whether this ‘rearrangement of older structures’, and possible failures in this rearrangement, have a genetic basis, just as the development of language itself presumably has (though this development too is shrouded in mystery). Wolf goes on to outline four ‘potential basic sources for dyslexia’. I’m going to set them down here because, frankly, I barely understand them. See what you make of them.

  1. a developmental, possibly genetic, flaw in the structures underlying language or vision (e.g. a failure of working groups to learn to specialise within those structures)
  2. a problem achieving automaticity – in retrieving representations within given specialised working groups, or in the connections among structures in the circuits, or both
  3. an impediment in the circuit connections between and among these structures
  4. the rearrangement of a different circuit altogether from the conventional ones used for a particular writing system

Jacinta: Hmmm. I don’t know what she means by ‘working groups’ – of neurons? The fourth one is the only one that I half comprehend. That some forms of dyslexia have harnessed a different circuit which isn’t quite as effective but gets there in the end? Or not?

Canto: Yes, on reflection I half-comprehend the others, and see them as rather connected. For example, failure to achieve automaticity sounds similar to having an impediment in the connections. With some it feels seamless – or doesn’t feel anything at all. I can’t remember ever learning to read or having problems with it, and loved school spelling bees, being very good at them. Anyway, Wolf elaborates on each of these four principles, and I think we should try to follow them in the next blog post. We’ll be better human beings for the process, I’m sure. Because, difficult though it is, I’ve found this to be one of the most intriguing and stimulating books I’ve read for some time.

Jacinta: Okay, let’s go for it.


Maryanne Wolf, Proust & the squid: the story and science of the reading brain, 2010

Click to access memorialminute_geschwind_norman.pdf



Written by stewart henderson

April 11, 2023 at 9:13 pm

Posted in dyslexia

Tagged with ,

a bit about writing and reading origins

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We’ll perhaps never know – but I should never say never. We’re still a long way from knowing when we first developed language. After all, what exactly is language? How do we define it? Chimps and bonobos, and other apes and monkeys, not to mention cetaceans and perhaps other species, perhaps in the class of cephalopods, have more or less sophisticated ways of communicating which at least partially resemble language…

But that’s not what I wanted to focus on in this essay. I want to focus on the origin of writing, and its corollary, reading. I’m reading Maryanne Wolf’s 2010 book Proust and the squid for the second time, this time perhaps a little more carefully, while thinking on what constitutes a writing system and how writing and reading changed the human world. Terms such as logogram, syllabary, cuneiform, abecedary and hieroglyph, as well as peoples – the Sumerians, the Egyptians, the Akkadians and the Ugaritic people of the northern Levant – these are all floating around in my head like so much flotsam and jetsam at present, and I’m hoping that some writing of my own might make sense of it all.

There are questions, of course, about the first writing system. For example, when we find impressions on clay, or daubs on walls which appear to have some structure that we can’t decode, how can we know if it is writing? There appears to be some agreement – though it’s contested by some Egyptologists – that the first writing was Sumerian, from the lower Mesopotamian, which evolved into something called cuneiform about 5400 years ago. But it’s also generally agreed that writing was invented independently as many as four times. And there may yet be more early forms to discover. And there should be no reason to believe that these independently-created writing systems would resemble each other.

So let’s have a look at some of them. First, cuneiform, shown above:

The word ‘cuneiform derives from the Latin word cuneus, ‘nail’, which refers to the script’s wedge-like appearance. Using a pointed reed stylus on soft clay, our ancestors created a script that looks, to the untutored eye, a lot like bird tracks.

Maryanne Wolf, Proust and the squid, p32

Around 5000 of these clay tablets have been found, in temples and palaces but also in ancient warehouses, used mostly for accounting. What’s most important to note with these figures is that a sufficient number of people would need to know how to interpret – ‘read’ – them to make the process worthwhile. And that this writing-reading system would require new neurological connections, or the adaptation of existing ones. This would require time, a gradualism from a more painstaking pictorial representation to more abstract, easily constructed and comprehended forms. It’s been argued that many written languages retain the vestiges of pictorial forms, though clearly some more than others. Wolf makes this observation:

Soon after it originated, Sumerian cuneiform, mysteriously and rather astonishingly, became sophisticated. Symbols rapidly became less pictographic and more logographic and abstract. A logographic writing system directly conveys the concepts in the oral language, rather than the sounds in the words. Over time many of the Sumerian characters also began to represent some of the syllables in oral Sumerian. This double function in a writing system is classified by linguists as a logosyllabary, and it makes a great many more demands on the brain.

Ibid, pp33-34

It’s a difficult passage, for me at least. How do we know today the ‘syllables in oral Sumerian’, a language nobody has spoken for millennia? I understand that a logographic writing system, like Chinese, is conceptual, but a concept can also be pictorial in some sense. A website called WikiDiff puts it this way:

Strictly speaking, a “pictogram” represents by illustration, an ”ideogram” represents an idea, and a ”logogram” represents a word: Chinese characters are all logograms, but few are pictograms or ideograms. Casually, ”pictogram” is used to represent all of these: it is a picture representing some concept.

So, to put it, mildly, it’s complex. I’m not sure if there’s anything ‘strict’ about it – a piece of writing, in the alphabet I’m now using, is read as sounds, images and/or ideas, or none of these (if we don’t know the word). Do we think of ‘the’ and ‘and’ as sounds when we read them (as opposed to hearing them)? Perhaps, but so fleetingly… The word ‘and’ surely conveys an idea of continuation or plurality depending on context, and ‘the’ conveys the concept of definiteness as opposed to ‘a’ or ‘any’. But all of these are composed of sounds, or ‘sound representations’, of course, barely noticed due to their familiarity.

My own brain, and the brains of virtually all my acquaintance, is wired for the alphabet, derived from Ancient Greek. A Chinese reading brain is apparently quite different. Quoting Wolf again:

Unlike other writing systems (such as alphabets), Sumerian and Chinese show considerable involvement of the right hemisphere areas, known to contribute to the many spatial analysis requirements in logographic symbols and also to more global types of processing. The numerous, visually demanding logographic characters require much of both visual areas, as well as an important occipital-temporal region called area 37, which is involved in object recognition and which [the French cognitive neuroscientist Stanislaus Dehaene] hypothesises is the major seat of  ‘neuronal recycling’ in literacy.

Ibid, pp35-36

I have no memory whatever of leaning to read. It’s as if I could always do so, and grammar and spelling came very easily to me. I was never read to as far as I can recall, though our home, in one of Australia’s most working-class neighbourhoods, was always full of books. The Sumerians, of course, didn’t have books in our sense, and their writing systems, and those of today’s Chinese, took years to learn. The Sumerians – those of the upper class – learned their symbols off clay tablets, which they would copy on the reverse side. It took years of self-discipline, and harsh discipline from above, to learn long lists of words and how to convey them, phonetically and conceptually, in symbols.

I’m trying to understand this, to get it under my skin. What the Sumerians were doing wasn’t just learning a handed-down alphabetical, phonemic system, they were creating such a system – not alphabetic in our sense, but based on phonemic and morphological symbols that needed to be agreed upon and bedded down. Morphemes being those essential additives that indicate plurality or tense. And this, according to Wolf and many others, was a decisive breakthrough in our intellectual history:

For the first Sumerian teachers this resulted in a long-lasting set of linguistic principles that facilitated teaching and learning and also accelerated the development of cognitive and linguistic skills in literate Sumerians. Thus, with the Sumerians’ contribution to teaching our species to read and write, the story began of how the reading brain changed the way we all think. All of us…

Ibid, p39

But Sumerian died out, as languages do. By 1600 BCE no-one was left to speak it. By that time the Akkadian language was in the ascendant in Mesopotamia. The Sumerian writing system and teaching methods, though, had been incorporated in various forms by the early Persian and Hittite civilisations, among others, and the Akkadians continued the tradition, helping to  preserve something of that system over the next millennium.

Akkadian script, however, became increasingly syllabic, retaining only a few significant logographic (pictorial) elements. We have managed to uncover a lot of Akkadian texts, including the first great adventure story in literature, the Epic of Gilgamesh, which seems to have refined and greatly elaborated upon earlier Sumerian and Old Babylonian tales. It’s likely that it had a stylistic influence on the later Homeric tales – looking forward to reading it.

As to how different reading and writing systems affect the brain, and associated thought processes, I recall when I obtained my first computer in the 1990s. I’d been writing regularly, in diaries, since the late 70s, crabbed non-cursive writing in foolscap books, about 14 in all. Changing to a computer slowed things down as I’d never learned to type and I still can’t touch-type. It’s hard to say how this change affected the content and style of my writing, but I know it did. Editing, of course, became much easier, though I sometimes felt guilty, or a cheat, for so easily erasing my first thoughts for more ‘improved’ ones.

But that’s another story. How did the alphabet we use today come about? One of the first alphabetic or proto-alphabetic systems was the north Semitic alphabet from the region of what is now northern Syria. The term ‘Semitic’, often these days associated with Jewishness, actually refers more accurately to a language group widespread throughout Western Asia and Northern Africa. The north Semitic alphabet is the first known alphabetic writing system, ancestral to the Phoenician and later Greek alphabets. The term ‘north Semitic’ now seems questionable, as the oldest inscriptions in the language were recently found at Wadi el-Hol, a site near the Nile in Egypt. The topic of early or earliest alphabetical scripts anyhow seems very tangled and contested, and no doubt mixed up with national and regional pride as well as scholarly reputation. Still, I might have a go at at in a future post…


Maryanne Wolf, Proust and the squid, 2010





Written by stewart henderson

March 2, 2023 at 4:21 pm

me and Montaigne

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Montaigne’s better half


I have no more made my book than my book has made me

Michel de Montaigne 

Before I start on Montaigne, some remarks on the title of this essay. Many English teachers are wont to correct it to ‘Montaigne and I’, hohum, but as an English teacher myself and an iconoclast of minuscule proportions, I beg to differ. The idea is that ‘me’ is an object pronoun, and that using it as a subject pronoun (as in ‘me and Montaigne is good mates’) is simply incorrect. This is bullshit, technically speaking. There’s no such thing as correct English, or correct any other language. I’ve had run-ins with fellow teachers on this, and it’s very headache-inducing. One argument is ‘How can you call yourself an English teacher if you don’t believe in the rules?’ But the rules of grammar aren’t delivered from on high, by lofty teachers or grammarians. They emerge in a community of like-minded souls who want to communicate effectively. There are some 7000 languages (and falling) in the world, setting aside dialects within particular languages. Less than half of these have a written form that’s utilised regularly by the language-users. So they don’t have grammar books telling them what the rules are. The first English grammar book, which was little more than a pamphlet, was published in 1586, obviously long after the language started on the evolutionary path that it’s still on.

All of this is not to say that language teachers are redundant. Sticking with English, what we teach is standard English, the English that’s found in current grammar books and written in works of fiction and non-fiction currently. It has two slightly divergent forms – British and United Stater English. Now anyone who’s an avid reader of English literature, going back to Shakespeare, Chaucer and so on, and forward to Milton, Austen and Eliot (George or T S), will notice subtle and not-so-subtle shifts in the language – in orthography as well as syntax. And with the spoken form we’re less structure-driven, we change our language depending on who we’re talking to, and we accompany our speech with a variety of paralinguistic features. Language is as alive as we are, it grows and changes, and in ye olde days grammar texts and dictionaries had to be renewed regularly to keep up, but now we have the magic of the internet…

But getting back to ‘me and Montaigne’, this is now acceptable in speech, and mostly in writing, because it involves no ambiguity whatsoever, and, more importantly, because it has become common usage. On the contrary, to say ‘me went for a swim’ also involves no ambiguity, but it sounds wrong, for the sole reason that it hasn’t become common usage, though it might, sometime in the future. To argue that ‘me went for a swim’ is simply wrong because me is always an object pronoun is just a statement about current usage. ‘You’ is currently used as both a subject and and object pronoun, why not ‘me’? Of course, saying ‘me and…’ is more plebeian, while saying ‘…. and I’ means you’re more likely to have a six-figure income and live in a gated community (not a gaol), but unfortunately ‘speaking the King’s English’ won’t guarantee you a place at court, so don’t worry about it.

So, getting back to Montaigne and me, I first read a selection of his essays in my early twenties, and he’s been a touchstone for me ever since. I need to thank him for encouraging me to become a writer. His mixture of me me me together with reflections on history, politics, science (insofar as there was much decent science in his time) and human behaviour really struck chords with me. I think he once wrote something like ‘I write not just to explore myself but to create myself’, though I can’t now find the reference – but the epigraph to this essay comes close enough. Anyway, I think he also wrote something like ‘whenever I learn of another’s good or bad behaviour, I think ‘how is it with me?”, and if he didn’t write that, it’s clear from his writings that this ‘egoism’ is a major focus. It’s what inspired me – a positive egoism – and I’ve followed him in trying to create a better self through reading, learning, and writing about it all.

There’s a vas deferens, of course, between me and him. He inherited a castle and a whole lotta land from his dad, who was clearly the dominant parent for him. My dad once bought me a motorbike, and to my shame I never thanked him for it. By that time my parents had separated. My mother was the head of our household, the breadwinner, the disciplinarian and influencer, and sadly for me, very much the enemy. To use the phrase of the day, I came from a broken home. The major result of the various minor traumas I experienced at home and school was an excessive hatred of being told what to do. My mother, sensing that I needed some ‘male discipline’, and with a mortal fear that I might be homosexual, tried to interest me in a manly career in the military, or the police perhaps. I would have preferred a quick, painless death. Sometimes mine, sometimes hers. All the same she was a hard-working, successful woman, who turned her children into feminists without ever saying a word on the subject.

Anyway, I read, and lived in the different countries of the past. And so it continues, though over time I’ve moved from the worlds of Hardy, Austen and Stendhal (fond memories) to the Big Issues of politics, science and How We Are to Live, and I started to write, and to like myself as a writer, while always being a bit ashamed of my hubris.

And I encountered Montaigne. Thoroughly egoistic and yet kind of self-effacing. Que sais-je?, his Socratic motto, sort of summed it up, especially as it was worn as a medallion around his neck (but perhaps this was a conceit of the artist who painted his portrait). It made so much sense to me – I loved it. Now I’m trying to mine his essays for anything faintly bonoboesque, with little success so far. Montaigne, typically for his time, was absorbed in the affairs of men, and in his essay-writing retirement he loved to consult the ancient classics, all written by men. Montaigne did marry and have children, but we know little more than that. His father seems to have been a much more significant influence on him, at least as far as he understood it, than his mother, whom he barely mentions – but then, he seems to have been the subject of his super-rich dad’s humanist experiments. He was literally farmed out as a baby to one of the peasant families his father owned, presumably to experience the sweated labour of the indigent, but it’s doubtful that he learned much since he was back in the castle by age three. Another of his dad’s brilliant ideas was to force the lad to learn Latin by having all his servants and teachers speak to him solely in that language. Then at age six he was shuffled off to a boarding school headed by the leading Latin scholar of the day. He apparently performed well in his studies, perhaps on pain of death, albeit a very humane one. So with his aptitude, and especially his connections, he became a rising star in the legal and administrative world of his day, and was a member of the French king Charles IX’s court before he was thirty. He hob-nobbed with the aristocracy, finessing the then-toxic Catholic-Protestant skirmishes, and earned the respect of Charles’ successor, Henry III, as well as the future Henry IV, France’s greatest monarch.

Now when I look at Montaigne’s life and achievements, I think ‘how has it been with me?’ But seriously, what has always attracted me in Montaigne’s writing and outlook (exemplified also in Rousseau’s Reveries of a Solitary Walker – I had considered using a variant of Rousseau’s title for these essays, just altering one letter in the word ‘walker’), mutatis mutandis, is its discursiveness, its apparent willingness to follow a thought into all sorts of by-ways, so that you look up from the screen – in my case – and wonder, Jeez, how did I get here?

In any case, Montaigne’s marriage is a bit of a black box, and he has little to say of women in general. The upper aristocracy in those days tended not to marry for love of course, and his relations with his wife appear to have been cordial – if overly diluted cordial. There is at least one extant letter to her (Françoise de la Chassaigne by name, of doubtless unimpeachable pedigree), a short piece enclosing, for her own consolation, Plutarch’s consolatory epistle to his wife upon the death of their young daughter (Françoise ultimately gave birth to six daughters from two marriages, but only one lived to adulthood, and none outlived her). It’s a friendly if rather formal letter, and includes the line ‘Let us live, my wife, you and I, in the old French method’. I believe the French method may refer to cunnilingus, but perhaps not in this instance.

But this merry thought brings me back to bonobos. We’re emerging from millennia of patriarchy, in which men have been instructing their female inferiors how to behave. Plutarch, in the above-mentioned epistle, praises his wife for her womanly restraint in attending to her baby’s funeral – no over-the-top female caterwauling, an obvious sign of vainglorious insincerity etc etc. For some reason it all made me think of those bonobo females biting the penises of uppity males. And of the SCUM manifesto….

Written by stewart henderson

October 13, 2021 at 6:20 pm

a bonobo world etc 28: finding connections through difference

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some of the language and cultural groups in modern China

Our human world is divided into many nations – 195 or so according to the UN, but this all depends on how you define the term. We know that there are many peoples who see themselves as separate and distinct from the nations they happen to inhabit, and prefer to consider themselves a nation of some sort, and some have named their nation – the Uyghurs of East Turkistan, the Kurds of Kurdistan, the Catalans of Catalonia, the Basques of Cantabria (and many other names) and the Samaritans of Samaria, to name a few – while others, such as the Hazaras, the Rohingyas, the Yorubas and the Tamils, may or may not have specific named territories they would like to claim as their own. In Australia, some have spoken of hundreds of Aboriginal nations, generally associated with language groups. And since we know of about 7,000 existent languages, each associated with particular cultures, there seems to be something of a barrier to any simplistic notions of globalism and global problem-solving. 

This is the difference between human apes and other apes. We have divided into distinct groupings, which it seems, our ancestral hominins, going back to CHLCA – the chimpanzee (and bonobo)-human last common ancestor – didn’t do. But is this true? Could it be that the neanderthals and others formed separate cultural groupings within themselves? And how is it that language, which creates such barriers among peoples today, became so diversified as we went forth and multiplied? 

Clearly language is a near-unique human capacity. The neanderthals, though, are now known to have possessed a hyoid bone – a horseshoe-like bone in the neck – which may argue for speech capacity. Hyoid fossils have also been found attributed to Homo heidelbergensis and dated back half a million years. If these extinct hominins had language, was it the same language? Language is a means not only of communication but of instilling and handing down cultural praxis, so who knows? The idea of sub-dividing Homo heidelbergensis, Homo neanderthalensis and perhaps others into distinct language and cultural groups really makes the brain spin. 

Today, with the greater ease of travel, and with the general tendency of humans, and most other species, to migrate from regions of great danger and few resources to regions of greater resources and fewer dangers, we find that the most economically successful countries are becoming increasingly multicultural, and naturally those countries seek to make a virtue out of necessity. 

There are clearly positives and negatives about multiculturalism. Minority cultures understandably seek the comfort of their familiars, leading to ghettoism. They also have vulnerabilities that are exploited by the dominant culture, taking on low-paid or under-the-counter work eschewed by others, and accepting poorer housing and other conditions. Discomfort with difference works both ways of course, and it has been the case that, going back to the days of the early slave-dependent cultures of Greece and Rome, slaves were considered something less than human even by the intelligentsia (and women in somewhat similar ways). The difference today is, or should be, that we know how nonsensical those attitudes were. And yet they persist, in muted form. 

There’s also the view, put forward for example by Sam Harris in The moral landscape and, in different form, by David Deutsch in The beginning of infinity, that some cultures are objectively superior than others, especially in terms of law, science and progress. Their general argument is that those cultures that are static or archaic in terms of lore and ideology need to ‘get with the program’ being followed by most developed countries in terms of the pursuit of deeper and richer knowledge and the tools and technologies that flow from that knowledge. And yet, paradoxically, some of that knowledge and research informs us that indigenous cultures in particular, such as existed for tens of thousands of years in Australia, developed practices and technologies over that period which allowed them to live in relative comfort in a landscape that new arrivals from Europe found inherently inhospitable – though of course those new arrivals didn’t by any means give up, and eventually found ways to exploit enough of the land and resources to become populous and dominant. 

In reflecting on all these differences and tensions, we need, I think, to always keep in mind how situated we are. None of us chose the cultures we were born into, and this heavy fact should help determine our sympathy for those born into more or less different cultures, as well as those born better or worse off in our own. And there are many features common in our humanity. As a teacher of international English, I’ve taught students from scores of different nations and cultures, and clearly from a range of different positions within those cultures, and I’ve been struck by the broad lines of humanity they share, in terms of humour, ambition, anxiety, desire and wonder. All of these emotions or traits are a kind of human substrate, a permanent foundation upon which human cultures, which come and go and transform and so forth, are constructed, sometimes obscuring the view of the basic humanity that really connects us. 

The language barriers may be about to erode, by means of technology – at least the barriers between major languages, such as Mandarin and English (the minority languages will inevitably get the rough end of this particular stick). Electronic translators are a long way from the Babel fish thought up by Douglas Adams in The hitch-hikers guide to the galaxy, a device like Apple’s AirPods which instantly translates every language in the universe into your own, but earpiece translators are already with us, and are bound to improve. It’s surely better than having everyone learn the same, dominant language. But the real promise of this technology is the promise of collaboration, and the reduction of truly artificial, or human-created, differences, and strengthening that human foundation that underlies those differences. Something to hope for. 



Madelaine Bohme, Rudiger Braun & Florian Breier, Ancient bones, 2020



Written by stewart henderson

February 9, 2021 at 2:13 pm

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

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.


Melvin Konner, Women after all, 2015

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

Max Blumenthal, Goliath, 2013



Written by stewart henderson

January 11, 2019 at 11:25 am