The roots of language

If you are not searching for something, then you are unlikely see it. That has been so with language. There was an agreement on what language was and how it came to be. Any other way of looking at things was hardly considered. But now language is seen in a different light – part of the spectrum of animal communication. Recently there have been some very interesting papers – on dogs, birds, monkeys and cows.

Dogs: They understand our language very much as we do. They process separately the words or the phonemic sound from the non-word aspects or the prosodic cues. We do this. We separate the verbal information from the emotional sound envelop. And the dogs like us do the word-meaning work in the left hemisphere and the tone of voice work in the right hemisphere, in similar regions. This implies that the lateralization of aspects of communication is probably an old feature of the mammalian brain. The two abstracts below explain the experimental evidence.

Abstract: (Victoria Ratcliffe, David Reby; Orienting Asymmetries in Dogs’ Responses to Different Communicatory Components of Human Speech; Cell Current Biology Volume 24, Issue 24, p2908–2912, 15 December 2014) “It is well established that in human speech perception the left hemisphere (LH) of the brain is specialized for processing intelligible phonemic (segmental) content, whereas the right hemisphere (RH) is more sensitive to prosodic (suprasegmental) cues. Despite evidence that a range of mammal species show LH specialization when processing conspecific vocalizations, the presence of hemispheric biases in domesticated animals’ responses to the communicative components of human speech has never been investigated. Human speech is familiar and relevant to domestic dogs (Canis familiaris), who are known to perceive both segmental phonemic cues and suprasegmental speaker-related and emotional prosodic cues. Using the head-orienting paradigm, we presented dogs with manipulated speech and tones differing in segmental or suprasegmental content and recorded their orienting responses. We found that dogs showed a significant LH bias when presented with a familiar spoken command in which the salience of meaningful phonemic (segmental) cues was artificially increased but a significant RH bias in response to commands in which the salience of intonational or speaker-related (suprasegmental) vocal cues was increased. Our results provide insights into mechanisms of interspecific vocal perception in a domesticated mammal and suggest that dogs may share ancestral or convergent hemispheric specializations for processing the different functional communicative components of speech with human listeners.

Abstract: (Attila Andics, Márta Gácsi, Tamás Faragó, Ádám Miklósi; Voice-Sensitive Regions in the Dog and Human Brain Are Revealed by Comparative fMRI; Cell Current Biology Volume 24, Issue 5, p574–578, 3 March 2014) “During the approximately 18–32 thousand years of domestication, dogs and humans have shared a similar social environment. Dog and human vocalizations are thus familiar and relevant to both species, although they belong to evolutionarily distant taxa, as their lineages split approximately 90–100 million years ago. In this first comparative neuroimaging study of a nonprimate and a primate species, we made use of this special combination of shared environment and evolutionary distance. We presented dogs and humans with the same set of vocal and nonvocal stimuli to search for functionally analogous voice-sensitive cortical regions. We demonstrate that voice areas exist in dogs and that they show a similar pattern to anterior temporal voice areas in humans. Our findings also reveal that sensitivity to vocal emotional valence cues engages similarly located nonprimary auditory regions in dogs and humans. Although parallel evolution cannot be excluded, our findings suggest that voice areas may have a more ancient evolutionary origin than previously known.”

It has also been shown that some dogs (border collies) can learn a remarkable number of words, many hundred names for toy objects, some verbs and adjectives. This implies that the structures in our language are not unique. Objects, proper names, actions, attributes are all aspects of our perception of the world and seem to be basic to the mammalian brain’s way of thinking. The idea of an agent causing a change is how a working border collie earns its keep. Nothing new here – these are old architectural feature of the brain that language appears to have harnessed.

Birds: Recently 100+ researchers with use of 9 supercomputers analyzed the genomes of 48 species of birds. The results have just been published in 28 papers appearing together in various journals. There is now a complete outline of the bird family tree. There is a similarity between our genes and those of birds groups that have vocal abilities. Behaviorally there are similarities in the learning of vocalizations. Besides ourselves and the songbirds, vocal learners include dolphins, sea lions, bats and elephants; and in birds, parrots and hummingbirds as well as the songbirds. The genetic similarity is found in 55 genes shared by us and songbirds, a pattern found only in vocal-learners.

Scientific American reviewed this research (here) “The similarity of the gene networks needed for vocal learning between humans and birds is not completely surprising. After all, all vocal-learning species can trace their ancestry back to the same basal branches on the tree of life, White says. Even though the ability evolved independently, it was influenced by a similar initial deal from the genetic deck of cards. Also, the broadly similar environment of this Earth created the evolutionary pressures that shape vocal learners. Just as multiple species came up with similar solutions to the problem of vision, species that evolved vocal learning seem to have settled on common strategies. Viewed from another angle, however, the convergence is striking. “This, to my knowledge, is the first time a learned behavior has been shown to have so much similar molecular underpinnings,” White says. The discoveries open up a host of potential avenues for future exploration: Can nonvocal learners acquire some traits needed for vocal learning simply by tweaking some key genes? Almost certainly, zebra finches have more to tell us about our own ability to babble, shout and sing. ”

Monkeys: We have been told that monkey’s use of calls is nothing like language, because they are fixed, neither learned or elaborated. But a new study examines the differences between the use of the calls in the same species but in difference places. The differences can be explained by established human language mechanisms. When two words compete and one (A) has a more specific meaning and the other (B) has a general meaning – then (B)’s meaning will change so that it doesn’t include (A) but only all other instances of the general meaning. There is a rudimentary ‘primate linguistics’ that is not non-language like. Here is the abstract.

Abstract: (Philippe Schlenker, Emmanuel Chemla, Kate Arnold, Alban Lemasson, Karim Ouattara, Sumir Keenan, Claudia Stephan, Robin Ryder, Klaus Zuberbühler; Monkey semantics: two ‘dialects’ of Campbell’s monkey alarm calls; Linguistics and Philosophy, 2014; 37 (6)) “We develop a formal semantic analysis of the alarm calls used by Campbell’s monkeys in the Tai forest (Ivory Coast) and on Tiwai island (Sierra Leone)—two sites that differ in the main predators that the monkeys are exposed to (eagles on Tiwai vs. eagles and leopards in Tai). Building on data discussed in Ouattara et al. (PLoS ONE 4(11):e7808, 2009a; PNAS 106(51): 22026–22031, 2009b and Arnold et al. (Population differences in wild Campbell’s monkeys alarm call use, 2013), we argue that on both sites alarm calls include the roots krak and hok, which can optionally be affixed with -oo, a kind of attenuating suffix; in addition, sentences can start with boom boom, which indicates that the context is not one of predation. In line with Arnold et al., we show that the meaning of the roots is not quite the same in Tai and on Tiwai: krak often functions as a leopard alarm call in Tai, but as a general alarm call on Tiwai. We develop models based on a compositional semantics in which concatenation is interpreted as conjunction, roots have lexical meanings, –oo is an attenuating suffix, and an all-purpose alarm parameter is raised with each individual call. The first model accounts for the difference between Tai and Tiwai by way of different lexical entries for krak. The second model gives the same underspecified entry to krak in both locations (= general alarm call), but it makes use of a competition mechanism akin to scalar implicatures. In Tai, strengthening yields a meaning equivalent to non-aerial dangerous predator and turns out to single out leopards. On Tiwai, strengthening yields a nearly contradictory meaning due to the absence of ground predators, and only the unstrengthened meaning is used.”

Cows: ScienceDaily reported (here) on a press release, “Do you speak cow?” on research led by Monica Padilla de la Torre from University of Queen Mary London. “They identified two distinct maternal ‘calls’. When cows were close to their calves, they communicated with them using low frequency calls. When they were separated — out of visual contact — their calls were louder and at a much higher frequency. Calves called out to their mothers when they wanted to start suckling. And all three types of calls were individualized — it was possible to identify each cow and calf using its calls.”

Many animals have been shown to recognize other individuals and to identify themselves vocally. But it is still a surprise that an animal like a cow has ‘names’. It could be a general ability among mammals.

Work like this on other animals is likely to further illustrate the roots of our language. It takes looking rather than accepting the idea that our language has no roots to be found in other animals.


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