Posts Tagged ‘language’

In recent posts, we’ve explored the implications of cross-species sexual attraction, and the perception of language as a measure of distinction between Homo sapiens and the rest of the animal kingdom. The question of what separates our species from other animals, and whether language is indeed a mark of distinction, continues to fascinate, intrigue and trouble today, just as it did in the 1870s. These two issues–of cross-species selection and language acquisition–came together following the publication of Darwin’s Descent of Man in 1871 in the search for the so-called “missing link” in human evolution.

As a famous figure in the debates surrounding human evolution, Darwin could be something of a lightning rod for eccentric thinkers with their own ideas about his theories. The idea of a “missing link” compelled one such enthusiast to write to him about the possible origins of humankind. Having read an “exposition of the ‘Darwinian theory’” that posited the missing link as an extinct “race of ‘Speechless Men,’” an American banker living in Paris by the name of William B. Bowles suggested to Darwin that, in fact, the “missing link” was neither speechless nor extinct. Rather, the “missing links” in human evolution were “Speaking Monkies,” and Bowles was bold enough to suggest that he thought he could “point out this missing race, show where and how it lives.” (more…)


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Hugo Rheinhold, "Ape with Skull", by Darwin Monkey

Hugo Rheinhold, "Ape with Skull", (Darwin Monkey)

A long-standing debate concerns whether humans are specialized for speech perception ; in the the second half of the nineteenth century, two of the primary figures in this debate were Charles Darwin and Friedrich Max Müller.

A distinguished scholar and one of the leading figures of Victorian cultural life, Müller stated that language was a “Rubicon” between man and brute. Müller specifically attacked the ideas Darwin had formulated about languages in the Descent of Man, where Darwin had rejected Müller’s ideas about Man’s special place in evolution. The difference of opinion led to a series of letters  between the two men of science.

The recent findings of an experiment published in the journal Current Biology could, however, prove to be further evidence that Darwin was right.

Some researchers argue that the capacity for language acquisition is demonstrated by the ability to understand synthetic speech, incomplete or distorted spoken words. Lisa Heimbauer and her colleagues Michael Beran and Michael Owren, from Georgia State University in Atlanta tested a chimpanzee, which had been raised by humans and spoken to as if she were human, to find out whether she too could recognise incomplete or distorted spoken words. The talented chimp, named Panzee, recognised degraded spoken words far more often than should have been the case by chance, providing evidence that our common ancestor would have had the ability to perceive speech.

So has the Rubicon been crossed?

Lisa A. Heimbauer, Michael J. Beran and Michael J. Owren, A Chimpanzee Recognizes Synthetic Speech with Significantly Reduced Acoustic Cues to Phonetic Content, Current Biology,  Available online 30 June 2011.
 Matt Walker Editor, BBC Nature, “Chimp recognises synthetic speech”  http://www.bbc.co.uk/nature/14045206

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How can an English bishop and a French évêque help Darwin explain his theories about species and natural selection?

In the middle of the nineteenth century, linguists were concerned with establishing genetic relationships between the English language and cognates (words that have a common etymological origin) in various other Indo-European languages.

Hensleigh Wedgwood , Emma Darwin’s brother and Charles’ cousin was a philologist, barrister and original member of the Philological Society, which had been created in 1842. In 1857, while Wedgwood was preparing a dictionary of English etymology, he wrote to Darwin suggesting that the common origin of the French “chef” and the English “head” or “????” and “bishop” illustrated the parallels between extinct and transitional forms in language and palaeontology.

Hensleigh’s cousin must have appreciated the comparison, for he used the case of ‘bishop’ and evêque’ in a chapter about the difficulties presented by his theory in Natural selection, in order to show how apparently dissimilar animals could be derived from a common source, just like etymology could show words to be : “to one who knew no other language, dead or living, besides French & English, how absurd would the assertion seem, that evêque & bishop had both certainly descended from a common source, & could still be connected by intermediate links, with the extinct word episcopus.

Charles Darwin dropped the bishops, but used the analogy again in Origin, and eventually in the in the Descent of Man, where he wrote soberly that “the formation of different languages and of distinct species and the proofs that both have been developed through a gradual process are curiously the same.”

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