The Incredible Shrinking Language Faculty

[From Bill Powers (2003.02.1721 MST)]

Bruce Nevin (2003.0209 05:50 EST) --

Very interesting post, Bruce. Clearly, I have come down on the side of the
FLB, in that I propose that language is a way the "11" levels of the
control model can be used for communication, as they are used for
everything else. No special language facility. Have you ever tried to
correlate the things these levels are supposed to do with the functions
generally found to be needed for language? For example, control of
sequences or ordering If you can see how each level is required for
language, then perhaps you can come up with something that is required for
language that is _not_ included in the levels as so far defined.


Bill P.

[From Bruce Nevin (2003.0209 05:50 EST)]
On January 5 in the Boston Globe I read an article by Christine
Kenneally reflecting on “The Faculty of Language: What Is It, Who
Has It,and How Did It Evolve?” by Marc D.Hauser, Noam Chomsky, &
W.Tecumseh Fitch, Science Vol 298 (22 November 2002). Hauser and
Fitch are biologists at Harvard. Chomsky, of course, is a philosopher at
MIT. Subsequently, two colleagues sent me the PDF of the article. I can
make this available to anyone who wants it.
Chomsky has supposed that something as complex as language could not
possibly be learned, on the basis of incomplete and inconsistent
exemplification, by a child with its limited cognitive capacity. There
are three legs to the tripod of argument: complexity of grammar, paucity
of data, and limited cognitive abilities of children. The cognitive
abilities of children are now known to be very much greater than was
supposed when Chomsky argued with Piaget about these matters. The ‘input’
to children has been shown to provide highly structured guidance to
children, what Brunner (Child’s Talk) called a ‘language
acquisition support system’ (LASS) in parallel to Chomsky’s then-called
‘language acquisition device’ (LAD). And a least grammar is very much
simpler and less abstract than the systems proposed by Generative
This article distinguishes a ‘broad faculty of language’ FLB (cognitive
capacities used for language that are acknowledged to be shared by
diverse species other than humans and used by humans for purposes in
addition to language) from a ‘narrow faculty of language’ FLN (the
residue that is still claimed to be uniquely human).
FLN has shrunk to just one attribute: recursion. And even that is not
uniquely for language - the article points out that recursion applies to
numbers and proposes that it developed for the calculus of social
relations. (The discussion is framed in terms of evolution. (They do cite
Dunbar, Grooming, Gossip, and the Evolution of Language, among
others. Dunbar presented the argument that monkeys’ adaptation to eat
unripe fruit forced our pre-hominid ape ancestors from their forest
habitat, compelling larger group size and consequent exponential growth
of social relations.) Among critics, Lieberman argues that motor control
e.g. for locomotion is the root of recursion, and sees non-linguistic
recursion in e.g. a creative and potentially infinite string of dance
steps. Certain lines of research support Harris’s view of language (with
its recursive properties) as a self-organizing system: I am told that
mathematical models developed by Simon Kirby at Edinburgh indicate that
“syntactic structure can instead be explained in terms of the
dynamics arising from the cultural evolution of language.” His
research shows “how recursion arises naturally in a language
community, as children construct a new language each generation from the
evidence provided by their parents. In this view, language acquires the
structure that makes it learnable.” (This last is a comment of
Stephen Johnson at Columbia.)
Recursion may be represented by rewrite rules in which the same symbol
appears on the right side as on the left (X -> aXb). It appears to me
that there has been the confusion that recursion is such rules.

Perhaps a capacity for recursion is exemplified in part by interruption
and resumption: The eating of a banana interrupted by looking at a
neighbor, interrupted by moving away from the neighbor, followed by
resumption of gaze at the neighbor, followed by resumption of eating the

The other thing that seems necessary for a capacity for recursion is
merely categorization, such that what interrupts is or includes
“another of” that which was interrupted: Eating a banana
interrupted by eating a nut. Or a sequence whose parts are themselves
sequences of “like” kind. Which is determined of course not
necessarily by how the observer categorizes things.



[From Bruce Nevin (2003.0209 05:50 EST)]

On January 5 in the Boston Globe I read an article ....... I can make this available to anyone who wants it.

Please put me on the distribution list.

If I properly understand the argument you are making, I think it is very appealing-- for this reason. If there is a continuity in the development of faculties (including language) and if one accepts evolution there would seem to be good reasons for doing so, then language would be a development of some more basic behavioral process. One of the well documented properties of perception and behavior is the limited span of attention. When I was doing flight instruction, one of the most important things a student had to acquire was an awareness of the danger of becoming fixated on one aspect of the different tasks involved to the exclusion of all ther rest. And, as a part of this, a student had to realize that some tasks were more important than others. Decisions had to be made about what to perceive and do first, when everything couldn't be done all at once. Thinking would seem to have the same structure. Do we think because we can't understand things all at once??? So, if I understand it, language would also have the same structure with the addition of some conventional shortcuts to speed things up. We don't ordinarily speak by reporting all the recursive steps involved in what we are thinking. Actually we usually seem to use short-cut's in our thinking too. LIke linguists can be counted on to begin an argument by saying "Faskljfa
on Chomsky." This gets things started in the right direction. Faskljfa is a term of unspeakably obscene abuse in Croatian

  Bill Williams


-----Original Message-----
From: Bruce Nevin [mailto:bnevin@CISCO.COM]
Sent: Sun 2/9/2003 4:50 AM
Subject: The Incredible Shrinking Language Faculty