Re: Neanderthal "voice boxes"?

John A. Halloran (
20 Jan 1997 14:52:01 -0700

In article <> (MSCob) writes:

>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.

I guess this is an indirect response to my question about how accusative and
ergative viewpoints call into question the neural hardwiring of language.

Regarding the learning of language, consider how wolf-children and abused
children such as Genie who have passed the crucial years learn language but
not past a three or four year old level. How can you distinguish the crucial
years for language from the early years when the juvenile brain has an
abundance of synapses and is very plastic? These are the years when a child
becomes oriented towards his particular culture, whether that includes
language or not.

> 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 certainly could explain why the I-E languages are so different - with I-E
languages showing much greater rates of word loss or transformation over x
amount of time than lexicostatistical researchers have found to be true of
other 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.

Does this discuss the theory above, or is this your own theory?

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

I hope you are near a major university research library that has books such as
Studies in Language Origins, Vol. 2.


John Halloran