language origins

Discussion in 'Linguistics' started by verhaegen, Oct 26, 2014.

  1. verhaegen Registered Member

    "Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution" (Dobshansky).
    (a) Darwin already suggested that early-hominoid (c 20 Ma) gibbon-like duets contained important elements of human speech: loud & variable sounds, rhythm & tone, dialog.
    (b) Much later, early-Pleistocene Homo (c 2 Ma) dispersed along coasts & rivers (e.g. barnacles, marine & freshwater molluscs at Mojokerto 1.8 Ma), where they parttime waded & dived (explaining voluntary breathing) for waterside & shallow aquatic foods (rich in brain-specific nutrients e.g. DHA) and got oral adaptations for sucking-swallowing soft & slippery foods (rather than biting-chewing): small mouth, globular tongue & smooth vaulted palate, closed parabolic tooth-row + incisiform canines, tongue bone descent etc., allowing production of labial, dental, palatal, uvular etc.consonants.
    In short, song + seafood = speech preadaptations.
    M.Vaneechoutte, S.Munro & M.Verhaegen 2011 "Seafood, diving, song and speech" pp.181-9 in M.Vaneechoutte cs eds 2011 "Was Man more aquatic in the past? Fifty years after Hardy" eBook Bentham Sci.Publ.:
    ... we present comparative data suggesting that the various elements of human speech evolved at different times, and originally had different functions.
    Recent work by Nishimura [1-6] shows that what is commonly known as the laryngeal descent actually evolved in a mosaic way in minimally 2 steps:
    (a) a descent of the thyroid cartilage relative to the hyoid, a descent also seen in non-human hominoids,
    (b) a descent of the hyoid bone relative to the palate, which is less obvious in non-human hominoids, and which is accentuated by the absence of prognathism in the short & flat human face.
    Comparisons with other animals suggest:
    (a) the 1st descent might be associated with loud & varied sound production,
    (b) the 2d might be part of an adaptation to eating seafoods, such as shellfish, which can be sucked into the mouth, and swallowed without chewing, even underwater.
    We argue that the origin of human speech is based on different preadaptations that were present in human ancestors:
    (a) sound production adaptations related to the descent of the thyroid cartilage associated with the territorial calls of apes,
    (b) transformation of the oral & dentitional anatomy, including the descent of the hyoid, associated with reduced biting & chewing,
    (c) diving adaptations, leading to voluntary control of the airway entrances & voluntary breath control ...
    Our papers & PPT on speech origins can be found at, &
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  3. Billy T Use Sugar Cane Alcohol car Fuel Valued Senior Member

    more related to origin of words is:

    This relates to how we learn words and their use(s) / relationships in sentences: roles in early language acquisition.pdf

    I found 2nd link when looking for documentation of interesting fact: With synthetic generator of vowel sounds you can slowly change say <a> into <e> (those brackets indicate the sound, not the name.) What is amazing is that as one of the component parameters (or set of them) is continuously varied the <a> remains an <a> but then with just a slight variation more becomes an <e> . (Unlike consonants, vowel sounds can continue indefinitely long and slowly vary.)

    That transition point is essentially the same for all humans regardless of their native tongue, but more astounding is that it is also the same transition point for many other animals, including most domestic animals! It seems to have been coded into DNA long before humans were using language, or even had evolved!

    Unfortunately, I could not quickly find link to these experiments.
    Last edited by a moderator: Nov 2, 2014
    Landau Roof likes this.
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  5. Landau Roof Registered Senior Member

    Thank you for one extremely fascinating post there, Billy! I liked it. I notice that Arabic and Mandarin speakers often confuse English <a> and <e>, the sound, the letter and even writing the letter. It seems the same to them. And I love those maps. It's interesting that many eastern European languages that don't use some variation on the English word apple, nevertheless call an orange something along the lines of a Chinese apple.
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  7. Billy T Use Sugar Cane Alcohol car Fuel Valued Senior Member

    On the surface that seems to conflict with part of what I posted, but a vowel in the context of a word definitely can seem to be the same for Americans and yet different for Chinese.

    Near the end of my 30 year career, I got an academic year with full pay to spend as sort of a visiting professor (had my own office) at JHU. I spent it in the cognative science department (really just two real professors and about 25 graduate students, two of whom were Chinese. The Classes were just discussion groups that met only once per week for full afternoon. We had all read 3 or 4 papers the two professors had assigned from very current cognitive science literature. One afternoon, I forget why, someone noted that some Chinese words sound identical so the ambiguity had to be resolved from context. The Chinese girls said no - they don't sound identical at all - they are very different.

    So after getting some pairs written down, one girl would read a word from the list and then the next. To all the Americans she was saying exactly the same word twice, and we were really concentrating on the sounds. The other Chinese girl would write the words down as they were spoken - Dam-it she did not make one error - her list was identical to that read from. (There were several differently ordered lists, and we chose which to read. (Several times in different orders!)

    Many languages (Portuguese, for example) use 4 or 5 different accent marks to indicate in writing that the sound of <a1> which differs from that of <a2> which differs from that of <a3> etc. No wonder that even though I read Portuguese well after 20+ years, I can't write, correctly, any but the most simple words which don't need accents.

    What we concluded was that each vowel is made up (especially if artificially made electronically) by 4 or 5 distinct characteristic components and that the mix of these could be different yet to untrained ears would be processed to be the same <vowel> if neither was crossing the universal boundary into another vowel sound. I.e. for some of us <a> = <a1> = <a2> but for others (the two Chinese girls in our test), <a1> did not equal <a2> but both were not, for example, <e>.
    Last edited by a moderator: Nov 3, 2014
  8. Landau Roof Registered Senior Member

    Surely you know Mandarin and all the other Chinese dialects are tonal. So that wasn't the issue, correct?
  9. Billy T Use Sugar Cane Alcohol car Fuel Valued Senior Member

    Perhaps that is better explanation than <a1> not equal to <a2> for them, only us, but none of us (native Americas) could hear any differences.
  10. Landau Roof Registered Senior Member

    Yes. I had a Chinese girlfriend way back in my first semester as an undergraduate. As long ago as that was I distinctly remember her teaching me the four tones (sometimes there are five) with <e> as her example. In laughing frustration I told her they all sounded exactly the same to me. BTW, Chinese speakers, while they may not be anymore musically talented than any Western person who has never learned an instrument or has been trained to sing, are rarely if ever tone deaf. If Chinese is your native tongue you simply have to learn to distinguish the tones and at a very tender age too. I have also noticed that 'foreign accent' regardless of native tongue has everything to do with being unable to distinguish the vowel sounds, especially the <a>s and <e>s in the new language. In English this is the classic ship and sheep issue. Many speakers of many other languages may reach English working fluency and still be unable to hear, much less pronounce, the vowel sounds in the words ship and sheep. It is not context that enables them to make the distinction. "I arrived in New York from Spain after a ten-day voyage on a sheep." LOL
    Last edited: Nov 4, 2014
  11. Fraggle Rocker Staff Member

    Actually, Cantonese, Mandarin, Shanghai, Fujian, etc., are not dialects of a single language. They are distinct languages, having evolved from an original language two or three thousand years ago. For example, the word for "five" is ng in Cantonese, but wu in Mandarin--yet they are the same word after a couple of millennia of phonetic changes.

    Within these language communities, there are dialects. For example, the speech of Beijing and the speech of Sichuan province are considered dialects of Mandarin. A speaker of one can usually learn to understand a speaker of the other reasonably well within a couple of weeks, and learn to speak it adequately well after a couple of months' practice.

    But for a speaker of Cantonese to understand well the speech of a person from Fujian would take more than a year, and learning to speak it well would take even longer.

    That said, it is not quite as difficult for a speaker of one Chinese language to learn another, as it is for, say, a Frenchman to learn Russian. Cantonese and Fujian are more similar to each other than French and Russian, even though they are related. The reason is that the Chinese developed a written language a long time ago, and since it is written in logograms instead of phonetically, as the sounds of a language change, the symbols for the words do not. All Chinese form their sentences with the same words in the same sequence--well about 98%, anyway. So they can read each other's writing. This keeps them from veering away from each other in any way except phonetics.
  12. rcscwc Registered Senior Member

    Fraggle, ever studied Indian linguist like Panini and Gangesh Upadhya?
  13. Fraggle Rocker Staff Member

    No, sorry. I'm rather ignorant about the Indic and Dravidian languages.

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