(Image: Thomas Wolter, Pixabay)

Horizon on Speech

(December 2009) Forthcoming in Skeptical Adversaria or Skeptical Intelligencer


Reproduced with permission

Television documentaries about language are few, and the story about the origins of speech and ‘why we speak’ on Horizon (BBC2, 10/11/09, 9 pm) was very welcome indeed. Much has been learned of late, and the programme was based on recent, largely sound research (mainly psycholinguistic) and should have been found very informative by non-linguists. Viewers’ comments on the web-forum [1] display great interest, although some of them understandably feature some confusion and naivety.

In one hour it is, of course, impossible to do full justice to such a massive and thorny subject, and much of what was said was excellent; but it is important, especially with non-linguist viewers in mind, to issue some caveats about the content of the programme:

1) Some of the information (e.g. about the vocal-tract features now known to be shared by humans and apes) was indeed novel and theory-changing; but much of the (psycho-)linguistic thinking presented was not as original or as unsettling to established views as was suggested. For instance, the reported recent conclusions on child language acquisition match those of extensive earlier work, some of it more broadly based. And some other material presented in the programme seems somewhat dubious: e.g. that involving very brief experiments with rapid change in concocted languages, which appears methodologically suspect and also implies undefended and possibly exaggerated assumptions about very early, pre-literate human language (of which no trace survives to be examined, of course).

2) As is the norm with ‘popular’ commentary on language matters, the major distinction between a) speech and b) language (including signed and written language) was not adequately drawn or used in discussion. Findings concerning the origins and nature of speech – especially concerning speech sounds per se, which are not structural units of language – do not directly relate even to the sound-systems of the languages in question, still less to linguistic structures at other ‘levels’ such as grammar. It is quite probable that when language first developed it was signed rather than spoken, but this would only marginally have affected its structure. A creature which cannot speak at all may still have language, and one which can produce human-like speech sounds (e.g. a parrot!) may prove not to have language. (This affects the significance of e.g. the findings on vocal tracts mentioned above.)

3) The point that no other species is known to possess a communication system of the vast order of complexity displayed by human language was well made (and was clearly unfamiliar to some viewers); but the crucial distinguishing feature of human language known as double articulation – the contrast between phonemes/sounds (meaningless in themselves) and meaningful words (or morphemes) composed of these sounds – was not foregrounded. (To illustrate: initial /n-/ in English nice, nasty, neutral contributes nothing of itself to the contrasting meanings of these words.)

4) As is again the norm in treatments of language by non-linguists (including both popular treatments and the work of ‘fringe’ writers), the focus was heavily upon words rather than on other types of linguistic feature, notably grammar. Grammar is again a crucial distinguishing feature of human language; and, contrary to some popular misconceptions, all human languages have complex grammars. This bias of focus may relate to the difficulty most non-linguists (even if otherwise well-informed) have with the explicit understanding of grammar and other structural aspects of a given language, as opposed to the relatively straightforward, largely unstructured vocabulary. Even if the producers of the programme were themselves competent in this area, they may have judged the concepts involved too complex for their lay (though thoughtful) audience. Nevertheless, a misleading impression of the subject was given.

5) The coverage of views and scholarly backgrounds was somewhat selective. As is once again not uncommon, there was arguably too little input from general linguistics as opposed to (here) psycholinguistics. More importantly, the general linguistics presented, and the associated psycholinguistic views, were squarely those associated with Chomsky and his followers such as Pinker. Chomskyan linguists have emphasised the uniqueness of human language (see 3 above) more saliently than have the members of other persuasions; but they are not alone in this. And, more crucially, their ‘nativist’ theory of an inherited, very largely species-uniform ‘language faculty’ which enables children to acquire their first languages as rapidly as they do, is by no means universally shared (though this view has received by far the most popular notice in the last few decades). Some non-American linguists, notably the British linguist Sampson, have argued strongly that the evidence actually supports the contrary view that we acquire language through our general intelligence. They interpret e.g. the data involving the ‘KE’ family (many of whom struggled with language all their lives) in this very different way, regarding the FOXP2 chromosome-code mutation as generating below-average general intelligence and thus causing difficulties with language but with much else besides; they would deny the claim in the programme that the members of KE were of normal intelligence in other respects. In this context, it should be noted that the conclusions of Vargha-Khadem’s team, featured in the programme, do not in fact favour the nativist view anywhere nearly as much as was suggested. This is a key area where the variety of views should have been made clear.

6) There were a few other more specific worries: e.g., it is difficult to believe that humans acquired language quite as recently as 50,000 years ago, given that people already speaking languages clearly related to other languages, used elsewhere, almost certainly migrated to Australia rather earlier than this.

However, even with these caveats, the programme was of great interest and use.

1. http://www.sagazone.co.uk/forums/thread/51709/#post3128778 [link no longer accessible – Nov 2019]

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