The strangeness of English
In a way English is pretty straightforward, but ...
Irregular verbs: can - could, go - went, dive - dove, ..
Weird plurals: cacti, indices, brethren, deer, ...
Spelling: knight, nite, night, boatswain, Worcester, ghoti,
...
Of course, one might say that English is simply as it is and leave it at that. But if one starts to think about it, it does have really strange properties. And when I say
strange, then I’m referring to such features as ‘irregular’ (isn’t that a synonym of ‘strange’) verbs, weird nouns with irregular plurals, or the downright nasty spelling
conventions. Why should the past tenses of go and be be went and was, if they might just as well, and much more regularly, be goed and beed? Why are some
brothers brethren, why are not all cacti catusses, and why is <gh> sometimes pronounced /f/ as in laugh, and at other times not pronounced at all? Why is <orce>
pronounced /U/ in <Worcester>?
Like all natural languages, English abounds with quirks of this kind. What this course will attempt to do is ‘explain them historically’. That is to say, it will argue
that they are descendants of properties of prior stages of English, which have been passed down into Modern English even though they may have lost much or all of the
functionality which their ancestors may have possessed.
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Why is any L like it is?
This is our central question,
remember?
Because of:

The whims of fashion

The language module in the brain
Social Conventions
Universal Grammar

The efficiency and effectiveness with which it fulfils its
Functions

Prior languages of which it is an (imperfect) copy
Cultural Evolution
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Explanations:
Types:



Causal
Functional
Historical
Structure:
Explanans
That’s how good explanations
are structured
Why ... Y
Explanandum
Because...
Law
Condition
If X then Y
X
Therefore Y
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Manifestations of
Language


Elements in an explanation
(including the question)
need to be
‘empirically interpretable’



Texts (patterns, graphic or acoustic ...)
Behaviour (moving mind and body parts)
Competence (patterns in human minds)
Social institution (many patterns in many minds)
Some abstract essence that one
can know about (where is that supposed to
exist????)
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TEXTS
A
E
trigger
Theories,
ideas,
abstract
knowledge
result
in
‘of’
INSTANCES OF LINGUISTIC
BEHAVIOUR
B
(productive and/or receptive)
Spot the odd
manifestation ... !
informs
shapes
informs
constrains
C
INDIVIDUAL
consists of /
emerges from
LINGUISTIC
COMPETENCE
D
POOL/NETWORK
of
COMPETENCES
within a
COMMUNITY
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The Competence-Behaviour-Text Cycle
C1
B1
T1
changes into
informs
B
T
produces
informs
B
alters
changes into
produces
T
B
informs
alters
C
informs
changes into
informs
B
alters
C
informs
B
produces
C2
B2
T2
Manifestations of language all
seem to cause one another.
But is anyone of them
basic?
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informs
alters
X4
X5
X4
X5
X1
X3
X3
B
X2
X1
X1
X3
T1
X2
X2
X2
X1
C
informs
X4
X5
X3
B
produces
T2
X4
X5
Competence is.
Remember why?
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C on stitu en ts of a D arw in ian Sy stem
 R e p lic a to rs : e le m e n ts o f w h a te ve r n a tu re , w h ic h g ive n th e a p p ro p ria te
c o n ditio n s c an m a k e c op ies o f th em se lve s
 Im p e rfe c t C o p yin g F id e lity  g ivin g rise to V a ria tio n
 D iffe re n tia l re p lica tio n : s o m e re plic a to rs /c o p ie s m a y fo r w h a te ve r
re a s on tu rn o ut to b e be tte r a t rep lic a tin g a t
o th e rs .
E s ta blish e d c rite ria a re :
L o n g e vity
F e c u n d ity
C o p yin g F id e lity
This is what defines
DARWINIAN SYSTEMS.
Might language be one?
 E xte rn a l lim its o n th e nu m b e r of s us tain ab le re p lica to rs /co p ie s
‘L im ite d R e s o u rc e s ’
A ll the s e e lem en ts a m o u n t to ‚au to m atic s ele ction ‘ of b e tte r re plic a to rs a n d
yie ld
E V O L U T IO N
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Language (competence) as a Darwinian System
 Replicators: NEURAL CELL ASSEMBLIES that acquire their identities from
the way in which they are linked up with one another. They
‘represent’ linguistic elements from phonemes over words to
syntactic constituents or concepts. They govern linguistic
BEHAVIOUR and produce cultural artefacts, i.e. TEXTS.
YES.
BRAINS come equipped with a propensity to make sense of
Here’s why.
their environment, including (crucially) texts. When they do so
the neural networks of which they consist SELF-ORGANISE
INTO structures that contain COPIES of the Cell Assemblies
which originally produced the texts. Thereby the former have
replicated.
 Imperfect Copying Fidelity inherent in the special type of replication.
 Differential Replication: Ease of production, ease of perception, learnability,
usefulness ... legions of well established factors make some
competence properties better at replicating than others.
 External Limits on Sustainability: obvious limits on memory.
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Family trees:
Pan/Homo
Linguistic
West-Germanic
Homo/Paniscus
German
Homo
Bonobo
Biological
Common Chimp
English
Low-German
High-german
There are linguistic family trees
that look just like
biological ones.
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Cultural Evolution is
But there are differences as
well, of course.
different from
Biological Evolution
Biological Information is gene-based and transmitted via the
germ line.
Cultural Information is mind-based and transmitted via
behaviour, learning and imitation.
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Why and how may language have
evolved?



How does language help an organism
survive and reproduce?
How may it have evolved gradually from
non-language?
Was there ever one proto-language and
This is a truly BIOLOGICAL
what may it have been like?
question?
‘language’ here means
the human ‘language
capacity’

What is the relation between universal
characteristics of human language
and its evolutionary origin?
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How does language increase the
fitness of an organism?
or rather: that of the genes in the organism?
• models reality
allows safe thought experiments
• communicates information about the world
allows individuals to profit
from experiences made by others
• conveys information about the speakers
allows quick recognition of friends and foes
• manipulates others
allows one to make others serve one’s own interests
• makes information tradable
allows one to give without losing
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Vervet alarm calls
Our relatives can also
communicate vocally.
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1: hardwired primate comunication
(examples invented!!)
Does this sound like
Proto-human to you??
„iuuuu“
„aaargh“
„ugh ugh ugh“
„wih wih“
Contact call: I‘m here, where are you?
Threat: I‘m ready to attack
Submissiveness: I‘m your servant
Alarm - snake: go for a tree!
„wuh wuh“
Alarm - eagle: leave treetops!
„wah wah“
Alarm - leopard: assemble in group!
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Did Early Homo Sapiens live
in groups of ~150?
What may the role of group
size have been for the
emergence of language?
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2: Sensitivity for differences among
individual styles of vocalisation evolves


In large groups it is necessary to keep track of who-is-who.
As grooming became increasingly vocal, acoustic/articulatory
cues became increasingly important for identifying and
recognizing individuals.
„iuuuu“
„ioooo“


I (John) am here, where are you?
I (Jim) am here, where are you?
SIGNS MUST BECOME LEARNABLE
COMPOSITIONALITY MAY HAVE EVOLVED
i = [am here], uuuu = [John], oooo = [Jim]
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3: The learnability of signs makes the
number of signs explode

Once signs (i.e. form-meaning realtionships) cease to be fully
hardwired and children have to learn them through observation
instead, it is conceivable that they might attribute new
meanings also to signs which had been hitherto been
comparatively meaningless or to acquire novel meaning
distinctions.
„myam myam
„uooa“
food
I’m tired
Once you
know how to interpret
signs, you won’t be
able to stop
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Physiological adaptations to the word
chimp
human
Language may have
undesired side effects ...
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4: The need for ever more signs leads to
physiological adaptations as well as to
the emergence of syntax and phonology



The human vocal tract acquires its present
shape, which is otherwise non-adaptive.
Sign-compositionality yields syntax
(AB = A + B)
??????
Duality yields phonology
(see next page)
(AB = C)
The number of possible signs and combinations of such
‚soon‘ becomes practically infinite
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[wa]
[la]
{man}
[wala]
{friend}
{nice}
[wal]
SYNTAX
[wa]
‘words
before
words [wa]
like
[la]’ [ta]
[la] Adj
[le] ‘words
after
[li] words
like
[wa]’
{friend}
PHONOLOGY
Remember?
N [fa]
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5: Linguistic signs become cultural
replicators



While vocal signs might once have been genetically
determined and neurally hardwired, they have now become
partly liberated from genetic and bodily control:
They are free to take a huge number of shapes and form a
huge number of patterns.
These patterns vary freely, and replicate independently of their
bodily substrates.
As systems of replicating and variable patterns, languages
become capable of having histories of their own.
Being passed on through imitation, languages
are free from the tyranny of genes. They can
have histories of their own.
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6: Summary
Once again, then.
Step 0: vocal signs hardwired
socialisation through grooming
Step 1: socialisation through vocal grooming
variable aspects of vocal signs become learnable
Step 2: vocal signs increasingly learnable
principle of signification generalised
info trade, thought experiments become possible
Step 3: language complexifies, acquires its modern shape
enormous number of possible signs and patterns
Step 3‘: possible signs compete for actualisation
language internal evolution begins
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What is the relation between universal
characteristics of human language and its
evolutionary origin?
The scenario outlines predicts that:

language should be variable in order to fulfil its social functions
(compatible with Chomsky but not in his spirit)

communicatively efficient and effective
(to minimise speaking costs and maximise speaking effects;
compatible with functionalist approaches)

able to represent information about the world
Does the story we have told
make these properties of
human languages easy
to understand?
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