Notes on Language Origin

          Regardless of to what extent the ability of language is instinctive, the fact is that language per se is an invention—or more accurately, individual languages are inventions.  Whatever the “language instinct” is, it does not provide specific words, grammatical structures, or degrees of concreteness and abstraction.  These vary too widely to be instinctive.  It thus seems to me that the efforts of evolutionary psychologists to pinpoint the “modules” responsible for various aspects of language are, to say the least, unilluminating.

          Just a small example:  Because of the importance of the Nile to their lives, the ancient Egyptians used the same word for “south” and “right” and the same word for “north” and “left” (Intellectual Adventure of Ancient Man).  The aboriginal language Guugu Yimithirr of Australia does not have cognates of our right and left; instead, it uses the cardinal directions to indicate relationships of objects in space:  Things are north or south, east or west of each other, not right or left, in front of or behind. 

          Why are these the case in their respective cultures?  Because as the languages were being invented, their users chose correspondences to the landscapes in which they lived to devise ways of denoting physical relationships.  To the ancient Egyptians, the Nile was the center of their world, both physically and mythically, so it made perfect sense to them to describe position in terms of the north/south orientation of the river; to the aborigines, inhabiting a vast landscape with few distinctive features, orienting themselves by the cardinal directions (sun rises in east, sets in west, etc.) made eminent sense as the basis for describing the relative positions of objects and destinations.  In both examples, experience rather than instinct provided the starting points for the specific language.

          Similarly, the English word “right” is rooted in meanings of correct, strong, which derived from the fact that for most people the right hand is dominant; “left” derives from roots meaning weak, lame, etc., again based on the fact that for most people the left hand is weaker and less dexterous than the right.  It is likely that the Egyptians eventually came to use “north” and “south” and the aborigines the cardinal directions with as little consciousness of their origins as English speakers today use “left” and “right.”  While it might seem odd to us to say “Move to your south” or “Place the bowl on the eastern table,” so might it seem odd to them to say “Place the bowl on the weak side of the table” or “Move to the strong side.” 

          A fanatical evolutionary psychologist might want to argue that nevertheless these are examples of instincts at work, because the concepts of direction are programmed into our brains.  But I do not see the necessity for this, as our experience as bodies in the world is sufficient to explain our concepts of direction.  We must after all move in one direction or another and other objects and beings must do so as well, and when we observe moving objects or beings, we note their direction in relation to ourselves and/or in relation to our perceivable environment.  All the brain needs to be able to do is register and organize these experiences.  It does not need pre-formed concepts of them.  In fact, too many true instincts would be a disadvantage to most vertebrates; as creatures who move through a physical environment, often covering large ranges, vertebrates encounter many unforeseeable situations and must therefore have the flexibility to respond to (rather than react to) novel events as well as unexpected encounters with other creatures.  Vertebrates need, to at least some degree, the ability to reason about novel events in order to respond to them appropriately.  Mobile animals need minds because genes cannot itemize specific responses to every possibility presented by ever changing real-world experiences.  Because plants are rooted in place, they don’t need minds—there is nothing they could do with them.

          Even animals do not always need much of a mind, but the more behaviorally flexible an animal is, the less its behavior is determined by instinct.  An instinct directs the sea turtle back to the beach where it was hatched many years previously; a human visiting the same beach has made a choice to do so, likely after much research and planning.  He could have gone to a different beach, indeed to any beach on the planet; he was not directed by instinct to this particular beach.  A spider spins its web by instinct, so that a juvenile spider does not need parents or teachers to tutor it in how to weave its species’ characteristic web.  It does so on its own for the first time from the inherited instincts passed down to it through genes rather than education.

          All creatures, even ones as heavily dependent on instinct as spiders or sea turtles, relate to and navigate their environments through their senses.  Block the sense or senses on which an animal is most dependent, and even great intelligence is in trouble.  Note that in a completely darkened room or cave, or even on a moonless, cloud-covered night, we can quickly become disoriented and head off in the wrong direction, with no correction from our brains—until we encounter a physical object which, upon tactile sensing, we recognize and thereby know where we are (or, if the object is unfamiliar or has been moved from its usual position, become even more confused).

          An example of this type suggests also why AI may not be possible, or at least much harder to achieve than geekish types imagine.  A computer cannot know north or south, right or left, up or down, without the spatial experience of bodies.  It can have these words in its database, along with data that states that, for example, Minnesota is north of Iowa, or that in a typical bedroom, the bed is placed at the center with lamp tables to the right and left of the head of the bed—but it has no idea what any of that actually means.  It has never physically traveled from one place to another nor has it ever lain down to sleep on a bed or a sofa.

          On the other hand, and ironically, humans can imitate computers:  I can know that Rome is in Italy, but unless and until I actually visit Rome, my knowledge is merely a data point.  Thus it is not all that surprising that Watson won the Jeopardy tournament—as a massive databank, it of course outperformed its human competitors.  But they knew things; Watson did not.  Unfortunately for the humans, Jeopardy is largely a database contest, not an intelligence test.  Watson demonstrated this difference in his sometimes bizarre mistakes.

          Perhaps it’s also worth suggesting the human knowledge is layered.  We can know certain things through direct experience, but we can also know things vicariously, through the exchange of information (including narratives and gossip) directly with other individuals or indirectly through reading books and blogs or through other media.  If I read about an occurrence in my home town in the local newspaper, I can visualize the neighborhood referred to because I have been there or know the layout of the town sufficiently well to mentally locate where the incident occurred; but if I read about an event in Tokyo in the New York Times (online version), I can say that I know that such and such an event occurred in Tokyo but I do not have direct knowledge of the event or of its location because I have never been to Tokyo.  Nevertheless, I do have concepts that enable me to understand what a “Tokyo” is; consequently, on my first trip to that Tokyo, I would not be surprised to see that it is a large and populous city with many tall buildings.  I might even, with the aid of a map and a travel book, know what hotel to go to and roughly how to get there, and am likely in fact to arrive at the hotel successfully, despite not knowing the Japanese language.  Instinct would not be of much use to me in such a situation.

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