Conversations On The Leading Edge
Of Knowledge and Discovery
With Dr. Jeffrey Mishlove
LANGUAGE AND CONSCIOUSNESS
Part III: THE EVOLUTION OF LANGUAGE
with STEVEN PINKER, Ph.D.
JEFFREY MISHLOVE, Ph.D.: Hello and welcome. I'm Jeffrey Mishlove. This is the third in our four-part series on "Language and Consciousness." With me is Dr. Steven Pinker, a professor in the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences at MIT, and director of the Cognitive Neuroscience Center at MIT. Dr. Pinker is the author of numerous books, including Visual Cognition, and most recently, The Language Instinct. Welcome, Steve.
STEVEN PINKER, Ph.D.: Thank you.
MISHLOVE: It's a pleasure to be with you again. We're going to focus in this half hour on the issue of the evolution of language, as well as exploring the diversity of languages and the question of what is proper language, and the relationship of language to social class. I guess the interesting thing, when we look at language, the thing that I suppose strikes most people, is how some languages are so very different from other languages.
PINKER: Yes. The first thing that occurs to you when you look at another language is, gee, you can't understand a word. All the words are different. The particular orders of words are often different. But a striking discovery of modern linguistics is that the plan underlying languages is remarkably the same from language to language. You go to, say, the Australian outback and look at one of the Aboriginal languages, and often they'll be able to scramble words in orders that you couldn't possibly do in English. You can say, "Man bites dog; dog bites man; dog man bites," and they all can mean the same thing, depending on the endings that you put on the words. But on the other hand you find that there are also rules in the language that are kind of familiar. They have auxiliaries; the auxiliary goes in the same position as in English. They've got case endings that are familiar from languages like Latin. And you get a sense that they're rearranging some of the little bits and subcomponents, but the bits and subcomponents and the overall logic are the same from language to language.
MISHLOVE: Is it true, as some people surmise, that more primitive people have less complex languages than high civilizations have?
PINKER: That's completely wrong, and that's another very interesting discovery that was made shortly after the turn of the century, when anthropological linguists first started to examine language. They'd go into so-called primitive Stone Age peoples, and they'd find the language far more complex than Greek and Latin and the languages that were supposed to be the epitome of grammatical complexity. And this is true everywhere. I don't think there is such a thing as a primitive or a Stone Age language.
MISHLOVE: That's very interesting. It suggests that even though primitive people may not be thinking about high-tech equipment or computers, that their language provides them with the precision that they need to describe their own world, in a way that we wouldn't even begin to.
PINKER: That's right. I mean, because I think they have the same brains that we have -- I think all humans basically have brains of the same design -- that they will naturally invent the words and the constructions that they need to communicate. Often they'll make distinctions that it sure would be handy to have in English. Like in English, when I say "we," I could be referring to me and one other person, me and you, me and you and one other person, me and several other people not including you, me and several other people including you, and English is completely ambiguous. We just have one word "we." In a language like Cherokee, for example, all of those concepts would have their own pronoun, and a speaker of Cherokee would look in pity at us for having such a primitive language as being unable to express these concepts. Even so-called non-standard English, that is, the English that's beaten out of kids in school because it's supposedly ungrammatical, often makes more distinctions than standard English does. The best example would be the second person plural pronoun, which in English we don't have anymore. You means you alone, or several of you; but in rural English and Southern English you have "you" versus "y'all," where "y'all" is a second person plural pronoun. And in many cities you've got "youse" as the second person plural pronoun. And we put our nose up and say, "Oh, that's just sloppy speech. But really it's the other way around. That's precise speech. And in that regard, standard English is less precise.
MISHLOVE: And isn't it the case that if one were to go to earlier forms of the English language, that things that we now consider to be vulgar or slang were considered standard?
PINKER: Yes. Well, for one thing, many terms that start off as slang become part of the language, and people forget what they originally meant. So words like clever and banter and mob and bully, which are just sort of English now, at the time they were considered slang innovations that had to be stomped out because they were corrupting the language. And probably a lot of the slang terms that get introduced now, from, you know, MTV or Beavis and Butthead or whatever, some of them will be forgotten, some of them in fifty years will just have made their way into the language. Conversely, some of the so-called corruptions of English, some of the things that the experts, the grammar school teachers, think of as recent signs of decline or decay, have actually been in the language for hundreds of years. And if you go back, say, to the 1700s you'll find the very same complaints about the language declining that we have now -- things like "Everyone return to their seats." Any English teacher will tell you, or any copy editor will tell you, that it should be, "Everyone return to his seat," because everyone means every one; one is singular, so therefore it has to agree with the pronoun and be "his." And most of them will also tell you that people only started talking that way recently, because of, you know, Valley girls and jocks and MTV and rock and roll and so on. But if you actually go back, "Everyone return to their seats" has been in the language for hundreds of years, and it's been decried for hundreds of years.
MISHLOVE: Well, I know that I've often been faulted for using the phrase "between you and I," rather than "between you and me," and I happened to find that very phrase in Shakespeare at one time. I guess it raises the question, what is the standard of our language? And just as you explained a moment ago that people in very primitive societies use language that's just as complex as the language of an advanced civilization, is it the case that the different social classes use languages that are equally complex?
PINKER: I think so, to a large extent. Of course the standard language of literate, educated people is going to have a much bigger vocabulary, and any written form of a language is going to have idioms and constructions and sentence structures that are somewhat more complex than in spoken language. But in our spoken language I think that there isn't any clear difference in complexity compared to so-called ungrammatical English, if by that you mean, say, what someone from rural America would speak, or the inner city. I think that it makes some sense to say that we need a standard language, that in order to communicate with each other best in education and government and business and science and so on, we should have a standard form of English that all kids learn when they go to school. But what we're doing when we're teaching that isn't teaching kids to speak grammatically, as if they were speaking in random word salad before, but we're teaching them language that's slightly different from the language that they already speak. What we're teaching them really is a descendant of the language that was spoken around London at the time at which England became a world empire. The other dialects from other parts of England, which were carried over to the United States in other parts, were simply a different dialect, one that isn't clearly inferior.
MISHLOVE: One of the points that you make is that many of the vernaculars, whether it's rural Southern English, or black English, or pidgin English, or Creole, that these have their own rules of grammar which are quite as precise as standard English.
PINKER: And in some cases more precise, some cases less precise, but on average I think that a language will be as complex as you need to express the thoughts, and I think everyone expresses the same kinds of thoughts, and that there aren't going to be dramatic differences.
MISHLOVE: You make another argument, which I think is a very important one, and that is, in different dialects and patois where people begin to slur their words in one way or another, what you say is that there's always a compensation. For every loss of precision here, there will be a gain in precision elsewhere.
PINKER: I think so, and the reason is that every speaker in turn becomes a listener, and so you can't just slur at will. Otherwise no one will understand you and you won't understand other people when they slur to the same extent. So each dialect chooses areas in which speakers are allowed to slur, and other areas where they have to enunciate. What tends to happen is we listen to some other vernacular, we pick up on where they slur and we don't, we forget about where we slur and they don't, and we think that they speak in a sloppy way. There are a lot of jokes that make this point. I mean, everyone laughs at the Brooklyn accent, where you say "the boid" and "toity-toid." But in that same dialect you say things like "the terlet." So it's not as if there are fewer sounds in that language; they're just used in different places. Supposedly when a baseball player named Wade Hoyt was injured, one of the fans shouted out, "Hert's hoit." Likewise in Boston there's the famous Boston accent: "I packed my cah in Hahvad Yahd." And a person who doesn't speak that dialect would say, "Oh well, the working classes speak very sloppy."
MISHLOVE: They're losing their R's.
PINKER: "They're losing their R's." On the other hand, those same people will name their daughters Linder and Sheiler. It's just that there are different places where they put them.
MISHLOVE: They take the R out of one word and put in in another.
PINKER: And the same thing happened in England. In England, we think of the accent without the R as sophisticated and refined, but in fact the R used to be British English several hundred years ago, and then it was lost. When we hear it on Masterpiece Theater it sounds sophisticated, but when we hear it from someone in Boston it sounds crude, but it's really the same kind of process.
MISHLOVE: It seems as if this discussion is raising many questions. One is the question of who gets to define what is proper language and what is improper. But there's a larger question also, which has to do with the evolution of language itself. It doesn't seem that language is exactly a static thing. Every generation seems to add its own nuances.
PINKER: That's right. There is no such thing as a language that stays put -- no exceptions. We've studied hundreds of languages on the planet through many periods in history, and it is just always true that a language will change. So in fact there's not really anything to argue about, in terms of arguing whether and how we should preserve the English language. It's like talking about how to prevent people from ever dying. I mean, it's just a fact of life that language is going to change, and it's just a question of recognizing that fact for what it is. And it's not necessarily a bad thing. I would hate to be forced to have to speak the way they did, and write the way they did, in the eighteenth century. In some ways modern English, as different as it is from eighteenth-century English, is just as good, and in some ways better.
MISHLOVE: Gee, I think that's interesting, because when I do read eighteenth- and nineteenth-century English it seems as if they took such care in the shaping of each sentence. Maybe it had to do with the pace of life being a little different. Today everything seems to go so fast.
PINKER: Right. Well, remember too that if you're reading something that has survived from the eighteenth century, you're reading probably the best that was written at that time. One also has to remember that at that time the vast majority of people couldn't read or write at all. So when we look at horrible examples of prose from, you know, high school students who don't write well, or some mechanic who makes some spelling or grammatical error, the thing to realize is that a couple of hundred years ago they wouldn't have been reading or writing at all. So the comparison should be between the best writers and speakers now, say, and the best writers and speakers a couple of hundred years ago.
MISHLOVE: Well, isn't it the case that in most periods of history there have been the guardians of the language who have complained about its decay? As I recall, some of the earliest hieroglyphics translated from ancient Egypt were complaining about the corruptions of the youth.
PINKER: Absolutely. And in fact it's kind of a nice convenient fact for linguists, because if you go back, say, to writings in the Roman Empire, when the experts then were complaining about the horrible forms of Latin, that tells us how they really did talk in those days. Since there weren't any tape recorders, sometimes that's our only source of evidence for how people on the street really did communicate. But it is certainly true that for as long as there has been attention to language there has been the claim that language is deteriorating. And since we're not exactly hooting and grunting like Tarzan, obviously language can't have been on a steady decline for hundreds of years. It's just, I think, that any moment in history you pick up on what other people do that you're not doing, and you think of it as a sign of decay, whereas it's just an inevitable process of change.
MISHLOVE: Well, it's interesting that you brought up the ancient Romans, because clearly, although English is not considered a Romance language, it evolved, and we can trace many, many of the roots of the words that we speak back to the Roman language, and back even earlier. It's as if languages have an evolution almost the way species do.
PINKER: In fact Darwin claimed to have gotten his ideas about the evolution of species by looking at how languages evolve, because they really follow the same kinds of laws. The reason that, say, we have English and German as two different languages is that originally there was one tribe, the Germanic tribe, that spoke a single language. Then two groups went their separate ways; each one developed its own fads and slangs and innovations and new ways of talking. They weren't in contact with one another, and enough time passes and they're different languages. Likewise in species you might have, say, a group of canine ancestors that got separated by a mountain range or by a river. In one group they got bigger; in one group they got smaller. Enough time passes and you recognize them as different species, like a wolf and a fox. Darwin was very clear that the way that languages change gave him some of his ideas for the way species change.
MISHLOVE: I suppose it would be the case then that the languages of what's called the Indo-European family, which goes all the way, I suppose, from English to Sanskrit, and some of the languages of the Indian subcontinent, are all more similar to each other than, let's say, English and Chinese.
PINKER: Yes. It was an astonishing discovery, when it was made a couple of hundred years ago, to see that Sanskrit, of all languages, had all of these rules and words that immediately remind you of Greek, Latin, the Celtic languages, the Romance languages, English, and so on. Like "father" in English is pitr in Sanskrit, is pater in Latin. And the only way you can explain that -- this massive coincidence, hundreds and hundreds of words -- is to assume that there must have been some people or tribe that spoke a single language now called proto-Indo-European, that their descendants spread out in various directions, and that the languages of Europe and western Asia now are descendants of that single language. So you can reconstruct prehistoric movements of people, not necessarily by even doing the archaeology, but just by comparing the languages, because people carry words around when they move, and they did that throughout history.
MISHLOVE: I understand there's even been an effort, using that kind of methodology, to attempt to reconstruct the language that might have been spoken by the very earliest human beings -- the notion of the primeval mother, the original Eve, of the human race.
PINKER: The mother of all languages. Yes, following the same kinds of logic you can say, "Well, if we can figure out what the word must have been in proto-Indo-European, and we can figure out, say, what the words were in the ancestor of all the Semitic languages, can we compare those two ancestors and reconstruct the ancestor of that -- keep going back farther and farther?" The problem is, though, I take these things with a grain of salt, because eventually there are so many changes in a language that all traces of the ancestor disappear. There's an old story about the carnival huckster who was selling Abraham Lincoln's axe. If you look at it, it's a brand new axe, and he said, "Well, yeah, the head had to be replaced three times, and the handle had to be replaced twice, but aside from that it's Abraham Lincoln's axe." And that's what happens with languages too. If enough time passes all of the words will eventually change, and whatever language was spoken before that time will be gone forever.
MISHLOVE: Well, let me ask you this, though. Is it your thinking that languages were invented at one point in time, and maybe before that time humans didn't have language?
PINKER: Well, I don't think it was invented by anything we would call biologically modern humans. I think it arose spontaneously the same way, probably, the sign languages arise spontaneously among groups of deaf children. You just can't help but communicate in symbols arranged in grammatical orders. The question is, before our species, in Homo erectus, in Homo habilis, in the Australopithecines, did they have language, and if so, how did they get it? And that's something that is a bit in the realm of science fiction. We don't know for sure, although we can take some guesses. If I was forced to guess I'd say that some form of language goes back millions of years. Certainly to the extent we reconstruct the lifestyle of Homo habilis, two and a half million years ago, they seemed to cooperate; they seemed to have technology in terms of their stone tools; they seemed to work together in teams. And so it makes you think that they certainly could have had a primitive version of language. But it's really a guess.
MISHLOVE: So when we look at the proto-Indo-European language, do we have any sense as to how that might have emerged?
PINKER: Not really, and when we look at languages that we can reconstruct, like proto-Indo-European, we're talking about something much, much, much more recent than the evolution of the language circuitry of the brain in the human species. Proto-Indo-European, depending on which expert you talk to, is maybe 5000 years old, at most 8000 years old. But modern humans are more like 100,000 to 200,000 years, and hominids, that is, human-like creatures, are three to five to seven million years old, depending on your definition. So what we can reconstruct is just a tiny part of the story. And no one knows where proto-Indo-European would have come from, although people try to guess what that tribe must have been like from the kinds of words that were in the language.
MISHLOVE: So there's a mystery about that.
PINKER: There is a mystery.
MISHLOVE: And I suppose equally a mystery as to the origins of some of the other distinct language groups.
PINKER: That's right. I mean, you can only go back so far, and then the trail vanishes, really. But you can divide the world's languages into, depending on how ambitious you are, anywhere from eight to maybe twenty-odd different families. So for example, all the languages of Africa, and there are hundreds and hundreds of them, fall into probably four families. The languages of Europe, as you mentioned, fall mainly into proto-Indo-European and into a few others. And those probably represent very, very ancient tribes or peoples that first populated those continents when our species first left Africa and started to spread over the planet. And the traces of that expansion are in the words.
MISHLOVE: And some languages appear to be unrelated to any other. They truly developed in isolation.
PINKER: That's right. It may just be that those languages' older cousins were overwhelmed at some point in history, so we simply can't trace back the ancestry. But Japanese doesn't seem to be related to any other language on earth, and Basque doesn't seem to be related to any language on earth, and there are a bunch of other orphans.
MISHLOVE: I see.
PINKER: If you could take a time machine and go back, you'd probably find that their neighbors spoke similar languages, but through history the neighbors were killed or converted or adopted the language of a conqueror, and so all the intermediate forms are lost to history.
MISHLOVE: Now, we talked earlier about the universal grammar that seems to underlie all of these language, and is the basis for Chomsky's argument about the innate qualities of the human biological system that allow for language production. And yet if you look at these language families, they seem so very, very diverse in many ways, and I don't know that most of our English-speaking audience could appreciate the extent of that diversity. So maybe we could elaborate on that somewhat.
PINKER: Yes, it's really a question of whether the glass is half full or half empty. On the one hand, of course, there are big differences among languages, in terms of the orders of the words, and in terms of the sounds that they use. But on the other hand, it's not complete chaos. There are commonalities you can find. There are hundreds of universals, things that you find in every language that's ever been studied, and some of those universals probably reflect the parts of the brain that the child uses in order to learn languages to begin with.
MISHLOVE: I'm struck by the Asian languages that use the pictographs, I guess they're called, to express the words, and that different languages like Mandarin and Cantonese will use the exact same pictures so that people reading the language can understand it. But when it's spoken it sounds completely different.
PINKER: Right. Well, written language is very different from spoken language, because even though there's a universal grammar to spoken language, and it may be invented spontaneously by children, that's certainly not true of written language. Written language really was invented at a certain few points in recent history, and has to be taught with lessons, and is kind of an artificial contraption.
MISHLOVE: Much more formal than the spoken language.
PINKER: Much more formal. But it is interesting that again it's not complete chaos. And you point out that the ideograms of Chinese, where one symbol for one word, even though it strikes us as completely illogical -- you need a computer keyboard that's, you know, this big by that big, to have enough keys for all the different characters --
MISHLOVE: Thousands of characters.
PINKER: But on the other hand it does have some advantages. As you point out, different dialects that have diverged over time, so much that they can't understand each other, can all use the same symbols and read each other's writings. And modern Chinese can understand ancient texts, way past the point at which the sounds would have been recognizable, but because the symbols are the same. That's even true to some extent of English, and one of the reasons that people always complain that English spelling is so crazy -- that, you know, you have fight with -ght, and bite with b-i-t-e, and so on; you know, dead and lead, and so on -- but on the other hand, by having a fixed set of letters for each word that isn't tied exactly to pronunciation, people with different accents can use the same spelling. If we literally had to spell every word exactly the way it sounds, then people with different accents -- people in the South versus the North, people in Boston versus people in Philadelphia -- would spell all their words differently. The word that I spell p-e-n in the South would be spelled p-i-n. It's a good thing that the spelling doesn't track the sound too, too closely.
MISHLOVE: And you've pointed out that many of the efforts to revive English, and reform it, to create a rational language, or things like Esperanto, or other efforts, have all failed -- that they lose the organic quality of the language.
PINKER: That's right. I think language is essentially a creation of the mind of children, and so if you have something that's put together by a committee, like Esperanto, maybe it'll have some use as a second language, but I doubt that it'll ever have a significant role, because it just doesn't have the expressive power of something that grows out of children's interactions with each other and with their parents. And that's really where I think most of the logic of language comes from.
MISHLOVE: Well, you seem to be saying once again, Steven, that language is biological -- it emerges from our organism; it's organic. And that seems to be more fundamental than any of the rules or strictures that we might attempt to place on it.
PINKER: Yes, I think that the basis underlying language is biological. But of course there's the social component that I've got to speak the same language that you do, and so we've got to listen to each other, and kids have got to listen very carefully to other kids and their parents when they're growing up so they don't speak some idiosyncratic language of their own.
MISHLOVE: Steven, we're out of time, but thank you so much for being with me.
PINKER: Thank you.
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