Thursday, August 27, 2015

A test of the language vs communication contrast

One of Chomsky's more controversial claims regarding language is that it is not a communication system, rather that it evolved as a system of thought which was then externalized and used for communication. It's perfectly understandable why this would be controversial, as it seems false on its face. We use language all the time to communicate. In fact it may seem like that's all we use it for. If we think about it briefly we can come up with many non-communicative uses of language. We talk to ourselves to help ourselves think, we use it for play, we use it to aid our memory, and so on. It's uncontroversial both that language is used communicatively and non-communicatively, but the question is: Which came first?

While there are arguments on either side of the debate, there isn't a tonne of evidence that speaks directly to it. We don't have time travel to go back and observe the early development of humanity, and our tools for objectively testing either claim on present-day humans are still too blunt to be of any use. What we can do is compare language to an unambiguously communication-first system: physical gestures. We certainly use gestures to augment language, but we certainly can use language without gestures and gestures without language. When we gesture without language we are certainly communicating but we aren't using a language.

So, If you're on board with me so far (language and gesture are distinct systems, and gesture is communicative), we can get some evidence that language is not inherently communicative. If it were communicative, we would expect it to operate like a communicative system (i.e., gesture) in a context where communication is not called for.

The test is as follows: First, be alone (the next time you find yourself alone in a room would be a good time to try it out). Second, don't be reading, watching TV/Movies, or listening to anything (Isolate yourself from virtual people). Once you're isolated, say something aloud. It doesn't matter what, whatever comes naturally. Next, gesture. Point at something, shush the room, make an obscene gesture. But make sure it's not accompanied with any language. Consider how unnatural one of these tasks felt compared to the other. If you're like me, one will feel a bit odd, and the other will feel like one of the strangest things you've ever done.

Monday, August 24, 2015

A tiny note on language as communication technology

In The Language Myth Vyvyan Evans presents the proposal that human language is a species of communication technology like writing systems, telephones, or computer networks. Just as we have no innate capacity for reading/writing, dialling phones, or clicking on links, we have no innate capacity for language. Instead, we humans were endowed with increased general cognitive ability, which allowed us to iteratively develop language, writing, telephony and computer networks. We know from archaeology, historical records and our own memories that communication technologies such as writing systems, telephony, and networked computing (along with a host of non-communication technologies) have undergone periods of exponential improvement. Science, philosophy, and math has shown in some cases that certain technologies (e.g., computer programming languages) have advanced to their logical or physical limits, or in other cases (e.g., Audio encoding) have advanced to the limits of human cognition. 

This proposal makes a prediction about language. Either it is still advancing,  it has reached its logical limits, or it is at the limits of human cognition. The second option has been shown to be false as there are classes of language which are more expressive than human language. The first and third, however, are viable hypotheses. The first hypothesis, that language continues to improve like, say, photovoltaic cells, seems like it would be quite demonstrable if it were true. Since we have known for centuries that the language spoken by a given generation varies, albeit slightly, from that of the previous generation, a scientist seeking to provide evidence for the first hypothesis would only have to demonstrate a general trend of improvement in a language across generations. I know of no studies that provide such a demonstration. This leaves the third hypothesis: that language has developed to the limit of human cognition. Notice that the third hypothesis is the UG hypothesis: that humans are born with an innate capacity for language. Absent any evidence of language improvement, Evans' proposal is the UG hypothesis.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

A note on expanded feature typologies

It is very much in vogue today to assume that features in the lexicon can freely vary along two dimensions: interpretability and value (Pesetsky and Torrego 2007). This gives us four possible forms of syntactic features shown below.

(1) The typology of Formal Features
Valued? Y iF:val uF:val
N iF:__ uF:__
This is in contrast to a more traditional view, that of Chomsky, according to which there are only two types of features active in syntax: uninterpretable unvalued features and interpretable valued features. The move from the traditional view to the current one is a very natural one. If features have these two properties, each with two possible settings, then we have four logically possible feature types only two of which are used, apparently by stipulation. Since theoreticians abhor stipulations and logical vacuums alike, they were well justified in tossing the stipulation aside and exploring the full logical space.

But the stipulation that we tossed aside wasn’t really a stipulation, but an empirical observation. Consider the sentence below.

(2) She likes her.

This sentence displays three instances of inflection: nominative case on she, subject argeement on likes and accusative case on her. Let’s make the fairly standard and well-founded assumptions that these inflections are the phonetic realizations of formal features and that these features receive no semantic interpretation. It’s obvious that the features have values, but not obvious where the values come from. We could say that all features enter the syntax valued and uninterpretable feaures must be checked, but let’s not do that. Rather, let’s say that uninterpretable features have no inherent values and must receive their values from valued features. Thus we have arrived at the “stipulation” that P&T dispensed with, largely based on evidence and reason. Since Chomsky’s interpretability/valuation bidirectional seems less like a stipulation and more like an empirical hypothesis, P&T would require further evidence to overturn it and expand the logical space of features. While P&T and, others who follow them, show that the expansion of the feature typology can lead to greater empirical coverage, they do not, to my knowledge, give evidence of the two new feature types (uF:val, and iF:__). I would argue that when you add more primitives to a theory, you will almost always expand its empirical coverage. In fact, If you were to propose removing primitives from a theory, you would likely be met with cries of “We need that for X!”

So where are the uF:val's, and iF:__'s?

Bošković (2011) proposes that grammatical gender on nominals is an example of a uF:val, because it is lexically determined (and therefore valued) and has no semantic interpretation (and therefore uninterpretable). As Bošković (2011) notes: ". . . the fact that ‘table’ is feminine in French and masculine in [Serbo-Croatian] doesn't lead to a difference in the interpretation of the noun in these languages." This conclusion, however, is slightly rash. While grammatical gender does not seem to add to the propositional content of a sentence, it may have other semantic effects. As Boroditsky, Schmidt, and Phillips (2003) show, speakers of a language with grammatical gender tend to unconsciously impose a gender on an object based on the grammatical gender of the nount that denotes it. Without accepting the conclusions that Boroditsky, et al. draw from this data, we still cannot ignore it, which means that Bošković has not found uF:val's yet.

More problematic still are the interpretable unvalued features. Again, I can think of no examples of them, likely because I don’t know how to distinguish them from iF:val's. Both would have morphophonological information and semantic information, but that information on iF:__'s would be determined contextually. It’s hard to imagine why a learner would choose the unvalued version with its additional stipulation of context dependence. What’s more, a theory that includes iF:__'s seems to predict the possibility of a single head bearing all sorts of iF:__'s. Why don’t we have a language whose interpretable features are all on one head?
Why do verbs not have interpretable unvalued φ, tense, aspect, mood, force, etc. features that are valued by uninterpretable counterparts on D, Infl, C, etc.? We could do our best to introduce constraints on our grammar that would preclude these, but we would then have to justify those constraints, which seems like a long way to go to allow for a theoretical device that isn’t even fully justified.

I'll admit that I was once quite enamoured of this approach to linguistic theory, the What-if-we-relax-this-constraint approach, because it always allows for new and interesting devices to play with. I've come to the realization, though, that we ought to be much more resistant to relaxing constraints on our theories. We ought to demand incontrovertible evidence for every new device in our theory. So I ask again:

Where are the uF:val's, and iF:__'s?