The Marriage Between Language and Instinct

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Enra Traz
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Re: The Marriage Between Language and Instinct

Postby Enra Traz » 04 Jul 2016 18:22

To spice things up on this thread, I'm going to provide a counterargument by the linguist Daniel Everett against Noam Chomsky's thesis. Everett had gone to Brazil as a Christian to spread the good word of the Bible to the hunter-gatherer Pirahã people of the Amazon. But, having spent time with them, he ended up losing his faith and family.

As a missionary, Everett was required to learn the language of the indigenous people, which sparked his interest in linguistics and eventually led him to study the field at universities. He spent years with the Pirahã people and by learning their language he discovered the problems it poses for linguistic theories.

They also eventually made him doubt his religious beliefs and the paradigm shift culminated in de facto atheism---which he hid for nearly twenty years. (Theists, take heed, especially when you think scientists at heart ostensibly have good reason to believe in God!) When Everett finally told his wife Keren he was an unbeliever, she divorced him. As the linguist put it regarding the Pirahã:

'They lived so well without religion and they were so happy. Also they didn't believe what I was saying because I didn't have evidence for it, and that made me think. They would try so hard to understand what I was saying, but it was obviously utterly irrelevant to them. I began to think: what am I doing here, giving them these 2000-year-old concepts when everything of value I can think of to communicate to them they already have?'

But we're not here to argue about such paradigm shifts. More pertinent to this topic is the fact that he discovered the Pirahã people don't have fixed words for numbers or colours, and recursion in their language---the way we embed sentences containing other statements or concepts within sentences---is completely absent.

This goes against Chomsky's views, who said in a conversation with Everett:

'If you're right, there's no difference between my granddaughter and a rock; rocks don't learn language, so obviously the ability to acquire language is inbuilt.'

Chomsky has it that we have innate knowledge of a basic grammatical structure, or syntax, that is common to all languages. (As mentioned earlier.) Using a limited set of grammatical rules and a finite set of terms, we can produce an infinite number of sentences, including ones that have never been uttered before. Therefore, one of the fathers of linguistics postulates that without it, children could not acquire their native languages very quickly---hence his quote above. Recursion is the reason that there are unlimited possible utterances in any language, so it must exist in all languages! As Everett put it:

'If he is wrong, it shows that the human ability to communicate is not reducible to the kind of "mathematical" system that Chomsky envisions. It means that language is something we gain by interacting with our fellow human beings, people who share our culture with us. I'm claiming that culture shapes grammar, that it can even affect the nature of what Chomsky called "core grammar"---the part of grammar that's supposed to be innate. If it's innate, it can't be affected by culture. I say it can.'

His views are shared by others such as Geoffrey Pullum and Barbara Scholz of the University of Edinburgh, UK---who deem Chomsky's clique's linguistic approach to be 'confused'. Pullum and Scholz argue that nobody can demonstrate that any human language is infinite, a fortiori---a core attribute for Chomsky et al. Epistemologically, we can only say that grammar in languages only acts as though they are.

When asked where he thinks language comes from, Daniel Everett replied:

'I think there could be different sources, none of which involves universal grammar. We're smart and we have big brains; we can remember stuff and we can process information differently from other animals. Human beings evolve in social groups and they have to be able to point out objects to one another and to say something about those objects. There has to be hierarchical organisation of the information that's transmitted. But there is no need for recursion or hierarchical organisation to be a property of language per se---though it must be a property of the brain. If I'm right, all brains have recursion, but not all languages do.'

I'm on the fence between Noam Chomsky and Daniel Everett ... :geek:

Here's Everett for those who don't know him:
https://youtu.be/BNajfMZGnuo

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Summerlander
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Re: The Marriage Between Language and Instinct

Postby Summerlander » 04 Jul 2016 21:28

The question arises of why a language would not have recursion when the brain possesses it. But having researched Everett, he would say that the reasons could be cultural or other functional pressures. The linguist said:

'The Pirahã live almost entirely in the present so they have much less need for the complexity that recursion provides. I think I've shown that the Pirahã use recursive reasoning---for example, in their stories---but you don't find recursion at the level of grammar. Others have proposed that recursive structures evolve from the kind of structures that the Pirahã have---that they represent an earlier state---so there's nothing really unusual about the Pirahã language.'

This, of course, does not imply that those people are evolutionarily less advanced than the rest of us. We must consider the feasibility that their language perfectly fits their cultural needs and constraints. If the way they communicate fits the context in which they live in, then there is no sense in which they are inferior. This is supported by the fact that when Pirahã have been kidnapped and raised outside the village, they do just fine and even speak Portuguese, with plenty of recursion.

They even thought Everett was incredibly stupid for not knowing his way back to the village when he walked with them in the jungle. The linguist also couldn't recognise the behaviour of different animals, or kinds of trees---common knowledge to all Pirahã children. :-P
"Empty cognizance of one taste, suffused with knowing, is your unmistaken nature, the uncontrived original state. when not altering what is, allow it to be as it is, and the awakened state is right now spontaneously present."

- Padmasambhava

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deschainXIX
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Re: The Marriage Between Language and Instinct

Postby deschainXIX » 10 Jul 2016 02:47

Summerlander wrote:I imagine they'd have the same level of reception which requires guidance somewhere down the line as they are error-prone. If, for instance, they perceive that most past tense verbs end in 'ed', they might assume that it's 'goed' until they learn 'went'. Perhaps it's similar with mathematics.


You’re right. Math takes more than computerized rule application. You have to be able to think creatively.

What a read. I may be jumping to conclusions, but I think I'm with Everett. I don’t think the human mind has an ingrained grammar, but, like I said, our particular consciousness requires the “this is this, that is that” function: as Everett put it “to be able to point out objects to one another and to say something about those objects.” This is social conceptualization, and it’s preceded by the conceptualization that is consciousness. There’s no reason to assume that, embedded within humanity anatomy, is the ability to use a specific kind of grammar.

The Pirahã aren’t necessarily less evolved on a genetic level, and they aren’t less evolved on a memetic level either. Their memes, their cultural ideas, have evolved based on the Darwinian pressures of their society. And they function well in their environment. :D
Well said.

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Pilgrim
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Re: The Marriage Between Language and Instinct

Postby Pilgrim » 10 Jul 2016 08:23

http://youtu.be/vjGo03YOKMc

The place where Everett got initial exposure to language training was The Summer Institute of Linguistics (SIL). Its sister organization is Wycliffe Bible Translators. It is the same institution where Don Richardson, or the above video, got training. Richardson is the author of the popular book, Peace Child.

A significant work within SIL, which seems a challenge to the methods of handling Scripture throughout seminaries and theological institutions, came in 1981--Semantic Structure of Written Communication, by John Beekman, John Callow, and Michael Kopesec. A series of related books (Semantic Structure Analysis, SSA) apply this theory to books of the New Testament.

Meaning, at the fundamental propositional level, is what is more universal than language grammar conventions. The discussion of "core grammar" is somewhat misleadingly, because it carries connotation to grammar book rules. Propositions are not constrained to rules of grammar. How does the term "kingdom" go into languages that do not have a word for "kingdom"? The noun is simply a collapsed proposition--someone rules over someone.

Participle, gerund phrases, relative pronoun phrases...as language tools, are entirely unnecessary. They are merely a tool to collapse propositions, and sometimes key the referent and relation.

The key distinctive of the SSA approach is less importance to one to one correlation of words or sentence structures. The text is propositionalized and the relations between the propositions are defined (cause/effect, purpose, etc.). The relations between larger units (paragraphs and larger discourse units) are also mapped out, ultimately tying back to the theme of the particular book.

The semantically prominent information stands out from such analysis, and is a guide for translation/interpretation of authorial intent.

The problem with language translation is greater the more one feels tied to literal translation. Meaning to meaning uses as many words or phrases as necessary to convey thought. "Mix of red and yellow" or "color similar to ______" are examples of orange.

Enra, as far as pretend beliefs, it carries more scholarly credibility to pose as an unbeliever for commenting on the Bible. Either direction of pretending, I dont like it. I see little value at guessing motives, though. Ideas are what can be evaluated, regardless of motives. :ugeek:

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Summerlander
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Re: The Marriage Between Language and Instinct

Postby Summerlander » 11 Jul 2016 21:49

deschainXIX wrote:What a read. I may be jumping to conclusions, but I think I'm with Everett. I don’t think the human mind has an ingrained grammar, but, like I said, our particular consciousness requires the “this is this, that is that” function: as Everett put it “to be able to point out objects to one another and to say something about those objects.” This is social conceptualization, and it’s preceded by the conceptualization that is consciousness. There’s no reason to assume that, embedded within humanity anatomy, is the ability to use a specific kind of grammar.

The Pirahã aren’t necessarily less evolved on a genetic level, and they aren’t less evolved on a memetic level either. Their memes, their cultural ideas, have evolved based on the Darwinian pressures of their society. And they function well in their environment. :D


I'm starting to agree more with Everett than Chomsky, too. Everett believes Chomsky should have done more in terms of field research rather than just reading previous articles to form his theory. He also found it surprising that Steve Pinker defied the theory that culture affects grammar when he hasn't even investigated it. He's talking about intellectuals here who are arriving at premature conclusions which reminds me of the Hitchensian dictum: 'Picture all experts as if they were mammals.' :)

I wouldn't be surprised if Chomsky undergoes a slight paradigm shift over the years if he hasn't already. But this would require intellectual honesty from him, the kind of honesty I believe Everett possesses. When asked if he ever thinks about the possibility that he might be wrong about the Pirahã, the former theist replied:

'I admit the possibility, but I don't lie awake at night because I have done my very best. I've been honest about what I have claimed. The only thing that would keep me awake at nights is if I felt guilty that I had fibbed about something and was going to be found out. I think that what we need is more research programmes that look for exactly the connection between culture and grammar that I'm talking about.'

Pilgrim wrote:The place where Everett got initial exposure to language training was The Summer Institute of Linguistics (SIL). Its sister organization is Wycliffe Bible Translators. It is the same institution where Don Richardson, or the above video, got training. Richardson is the author of the popular book, Peace Child.


Oh yeah ... he did mention eventually going to 'proper' universities to study linguistics. :mrgreen:
"Empty cognizance of one taste, suffused with knowing, is your unmistaken nature, the uncontrived original state. when not altering what is, allow it to be as it is, and the awakened state is right now spontaneously present."

- Padmasambhava

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Pilgrim
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Re: The Marriage Between Language and Instinct

Postby Pilgrim » 11 Jul 2016 23:16

An institution can be "proper" secular university and find great value in cooperating with SIL and using SIL in faculty. One such example that I considered long ago is University of Texas in my location. One of the dissertations for PhD from UTA was a discourse analysis of the letter to Hebrews, by David Allen.

If the seminaries had better scholarship in language, I would say so. They do not, in my own little opinion.

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Summerlander
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Re: The Marriage Between Language and Instinct

Postby Summerlander » 12 Jul 2016 01:06

I agree about cooperation. I just repeated something that he said regarding his education, that's all. :mrgreen:
"Empty cognizance of one taste, suffused with knowing, is your unmistaken nature, the uncontrived original state. when not altering what is, allow it to be as it is, and the awakened state is right now spontaneously present."

- Padmasambhava

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Pilgrim
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Re: The Marriage Between Language and Instinct

Postby Pilgrim » 12 Jul 2016 01:57

K :)

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Summerlander
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Re: The Marriage Between Language and Instinct

Postby Summerlander » 12 Jul 2016 16:52

Pilgrim wrote:A significant work within SIL, which seems a challenge to the methods of handling Scripture throughout seminaries and theological institutions, came in 1981--Semantic Structure of Written Communication, by John Beekman, John Callow, and Michael Kopesec. A series of related books (Semantic Structure Analysis, SSA) apply this theory to books of the New Testament.


So they also apply linguistics to try to decipher scripture. But shouldn't the word of God be straight forward? I mean, look at Daniel Everett! He's an atheist now and a linguist. He's clearly not holding on to the tenets of Christianity and challenging the hermeneutics of his former parish. Instead, spending time with the Pirahã made him renounce his faith.

Pilgrim wrote:Meaning, at the fundamental propositional level, is what is more universal than language grammar conventions.


Definitely. As a species, we all share the factor that experience always means something to us; even when we think something means nothing to us---that's meaning something. :-)

Pilgrim wrote:The discussion of "core grammar" is somewhat misleadingly, because it carries connotation to grammar book rules. Propositions are not constrained to rules of grammar. How does the term "kingdom" go into languages that do not have a word for "kingdom"? The noun is simply a collapsed proposition--someone rules over someone.


Good point. Semantics appear to arise from our direct experience with the environment and its events. Meaning in the brain seems to arise from an assessment of how the organism is affected by its interaction with the environment and the methodical formulation of how to best adapt to the conditional surroundings. This also enables the function of consequential predictability.

Pilgrim wrote:Participle, gerund phrases, relative pronoun phrases...as language tools, are entirely unnecessary. They are merely a tool to collapse propositions, and sometimes key the referent and relation.


In other words, language is still a tool we devised for communication. How did its blueprint arise in the brain? Was it a consequence of organised complexity? When it comes to language, is it possible that, to put it in Sartre's nomenclature, an existential essence preceded its existence and now (post-evolution) a grammatical blueprint exists prior to a full-fledged essence? :shock:

Pilgrim wrote:The key distinctive of the SSA approach is less importance to one to one correlation of words or sentence structures.


How do they square this approach with etymology?

Pilgrim wrote:The text is propositionalized and the relations between the propositions are defined (cause/effect, purpose, etc.). The relations between larger units (paragraphs and larger discourse units) are also mapped out, ultimately tying back to the theme of the particular book.


So this is a possible way in which language evolved bearing in mind mnemonic limits and the demand to curtail lexical invention.

Pilgrim wrote:The problem with language translation is greater the more one feels tied to literal translation.


I see where your going with this. Literalism can lead to miscommunication of the intended message if the recipient is unfamiliar with the communicator's metaphoric style. This makes the case for all exegeses being wrong in the context of scripture. You reckon Everett overlooked the possibility that divine revelation was lost in translation? But then again, why would God reveal His word only to see it anthropically scrambled?

Pilgrim wrote:Meaning to meaning uses as many words or phrases as necessary to convey thought. "Mix of red and yellow" or "color similar to ______" are examples of orange.


And sometimes words are insufficient to convey certain hues. So illustration comes to the rescue to make up for failures of the imagination.

Pilgrim wrote:Enra, as far as pretend beliefs, it carries more scholarly credibility to pose as an unbeliever for commenting on the Bible. Either direction of pretending, I dont like it. I see little value at guessing motives, though. Ideas are what can be evaluated, regardless of motives. :ugeek:


But there is value---or significance, I should say---in motives if you purport to be making a scientific claim. If a scientist says, with absolute conviction, that the universe was intelligently designed, we don't expect that this is merely a personal belief of his. He is making a claim about reality because the claim itself implies the detection of intelligence in nature. As a scientist, if he's just making an assumption with a convicting tone but no foundation whatsoever, he's a fool.
"Empty cognizance of one taste, suffused with knowing, is your unmistaken nature, the uncontrived original state. when not altering what is, allow it to be as it is, and the awakened state is right now spontaneously present."

- Padmasambhava

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Pilgrim
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Re: The Marriage Between Language and Instinct

Postby Pilgrim » 14 Jul 2016 03:09

Summerlander wrote:So they also apply linguistics to try to decipher scripture. But shouldn't the word of God be straight forward? I mean, look at Daniel Everett! He's an atheist now and a linguist. He's clearly not holding on to the tenets of Christianity and challenging the hermeneutics of his former parish. Instead, spending time with the Pirahã made him renounce his faith.


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