Re: Neanderthal "voice boxes"?

MSCob (
20 Jan 1997 18:20:29 GMT

John Halloran wrote:
Language would be ancient only if shaving and driving are ancient

I did not adequately explain the argument I was making, and in fact I
don't think I am able to, because I have not kept up with the literature
in neuropsychology, and my notes and photocopied articles were all lost in
a house fire a couple of years ago. Perhaps someone else reading the
thread is more up to date on this material.

But I believe there is a strong argument here. There are two very
different types of memory in the human brain, one a conscious memory for
facts and events, the other an unconscious memory that is learned by doing
or experiencing without thinking about it consciously (such as learning a
route by walking it, or learning how to do a puzzle by doing it). I
referred to amnesiacs because the typical amnesia for facts dramatically
shows the separation between these two types of memory, not because I
meant to argue that amnesia would automatically wipe out more recently
evolved functions, and not older ones. The unconscious type of memory, as
I recall, is importantly controlled in parts of the brain that are quite
old (what's called the "reptile brain" in popular literature). However,
at this point, I don't even remember where in the brain the locus is. The
pioneering work in this was done by a psychologist named Schiffrin, I
think, and I believe the basic facts above are quite generally accepted
today. Schiffrin found that a number of actions which are of course
learned, but which rapidly become, if they are not from the beginning,
habitual and unconscious - so that if one tries to think about how one
does them it can interfere with the performance - are held in the older,
unconscious type of memory. Many of these, such as walking and talking,
are learned at extremely young ages, when conscious memory and reasoning
are perhaps not as operational as they are later.

Furthermore, there seems to be a wired-in propensity to do these
activities - not, of course, for the precise details of shaving and
driving and using particular grammatical systems, but for something more
specific than than just generalized learning. Language is found in all
cultures, and in almost all people, so that if language is not mastered we
assume there has been brain damage. And while language is variable, and
highly flexible (we unconsciously alter our pronunciation and grammar to
mimic what we hear around us), there are also strong constraints on the
variations that are possible. All languages break up the sounds of the
language into phonemes, all have individual meaningful items that we call
words, which can stand alone or which can be strung together into larger
units, all have various combinations of about six different ways of
altering the meanings of these words (which we call morphology and
syntax). Clearly, there are strong contraints built into our learning of
language. We must be born predisposed to look and listen for certain
patterns. It is precisely the complex patterns that are strongly
constrained and held in the unconscious memory. Vocabulary, on the other
hand, is for the most part held in the conscious memory. As our capacity
for conscious memory has evolved, possibly we've been able to acquire
larger vocabularies.

At the same time, there is flexibility built in, so that we can learn
new languages. The parallels with birdsong (constraints but flexibility)
are very strong. This flexibility is a basic human trait. We
unconsciously mimic gestures and behaviors of people we identify with. It
is useful, I assume, for highly social animals to be able to adapt to new
cultures, and yet to tend to develop distinctive behavior and speech to
keep away strangers and identify their own group. This mimicry is very
natural to our species and usually unconscious.

John Halloran also wrote:
> Linguists reconstruct the phonemes, not all the phonetic variations,
>of ancient languages.
This is true. Would you accept, however, the assertion that with just one

vowel phoneme, vowels lacked semantic significance in the earliest version

of this particular proto-language?

Yes. I agree that a language with only one vowel phoneme depends
entirely on consonant differences (and intonation) to distinguish meaning
at the level of phonology. The vowel sounds would only function to
separate the consonants and make them more recognizable. Consonants seem
to have been awfully prominent in Proto-Indo-European, compared to many
language families today where single consonants, rather than clusters, are
the rule. If language evolved only quite recently, this certainly might
provide clues to earlier stages of its evolution.

John also wrote:
In his book on language evolution and in the two articles to which I
Bernard H. Bichakjian has shown that Indo-European and its neighboring
language families have evolved to be more efficient tools for
over the last 6,000 years.
You should read and respond to his articles before making statements such
the one above.

I will do so.

The 2000 BC date is associated with the hypothesis that PIE was
spread by a small conquering elite who took advantage of expertise in
breakthroughs in weaponry (mainly the wheeled, horse-drawn chariot). In
that case, the change of PIE into its daughter languages such as
Proto-Celtic, Proto-Germanic, early Greek, Italic, the Vedic language,
etc. could have occurred very rapidly. If various populations speaking
different languages all learned PIE, they would probably come out with
very different dialects due to the interference of their native languages.
This would produce regular sound correspondences, just like the gradual,
slow evolution of different proto-languages (which Bichakjian is probably
assuming, and which linguists have traditionally assumed). A good
presentation of the small elite hypothesis is in Robert Drews, The Coming
of the Greeks, Princeton UP, 1989. It is based on archaeological and
linguistic evidence. The hypothesis has the advantage that it accounts for
the absence of evidence of large-scale migration into Europe after the
Neolithic, which Renfrew has called attention to. But the main point is
that are different hypotheses, and 4000 BC for PIE is not writ in stone.

I will look up Bichakjian. His ideas sound stimulating and
imaginative. Thanks for the exchange.

Best wishes, Mary Coberly.