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Science

Spoken Language Could Tap Into "Universal Code" 83

sciencehabit writes: While we know a lot about language but we know relatively little about how speech developed. Most linguists agree that a combination of movement and sound like grunts and pointing probably got us started, but how we decided which sounds to use for different words remains a mystery. Now, an experimental game has shown that speakers of English might use qualities like the pitch and volume of sounds to describe concepts like size and distance when they invent new words. If true, some of our modern words may have originated from so-called iconic, rather than arbitrary, expression—a finding that would overturn a key theory of language evolution.
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Spoken Language Could Tap Into "Universal Code"

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  • ...pseudo-code. And this article pseudo-journalism.

    Now everyone, write an article that contains the word "code" in the title. It will make morons feel smart when they read it.
  • by Anonymous Coward

    ... from the ability and need to communicate fundamentals about where food is, where threats are and where mates are. AKA it's very positional/structural. I'm sure all language traces back to even the simplest organisms, things that we wouldn't call 'language' as we know it but are in fact communication (aka remembering and knowing where food is, mating opportunities are, etc). It makes sense because uniting and forming groups against others is a necessary strategy if one is to survive on the planet and

  • TSA-Speak! (Score:5, Funny)

    by PolygamousRanchKid ( 1290638 ) on Thursday August 13, 2015 @05:56AM (#50307565)

    a combination of movement and sound like grunts and pointing

    That exactly describes how the TSA agent communicated with me, as he instructed me to walk into the ball fryer scanner in the Philadelphia airport a while back.

    • by Anonymous Coward

      And it got the job done.

      • Let's make a programming language based on that! You grunt and point a lot, and the computer figures out how to do it!

  • by NicBenjamin ( 2124018 ) on Thursday August 13, 2015 @05:56AM (#50307569)

    The reason is if there was some sort of universal, or natural grammar/vocabulary/etc. inherent to the human animal you would expect languages to tend towards this universal. They don't. There's some small things (many words for mother start with 'm'), but after years of research Chomsky's got a tiny and ever-shrinking list of large universal things. What seems to be going on is that a big part of what we use language for is identifying group membership (ie: ebonics, in the UK you can frequently identify both someone's home county and their class from their accent, etc.), which means that almost anything goes.

    This particular study is somewhat interesting, they put a bunch of college students in a room and had them make up new words for for concepts like big vs. small, and their partners were able to guess whether it was big or small at greater then 50%. It does not say how much greater. They were also able to find some commonalities in the new words vs. their opposites. Then they repeated with Mandarin-speakers in China, and got a slightly different set of commonalities.

    So I suspect that non-verbal cues had a part to play, and they'll have a devil of a time proving that their vague commonalities between big vs. small were not simply a reflection of English usage.

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by Anonymous Coward

      Just a point of order: ebonics refers to black language, or is abused to mean the study of black culture (ebony + ics). It doesn't relate to group membership of just any group, particularly not pasty white British people :)

      Also, your theory that group membership determination is anything but an accidental feature of language is fairly weak, I'm not sure Chomsky has ever claimed anything like that? The reason it does so can easily be pinned on co-evolution in separated communities before the invention of r

      • "pasty white British people" - I'm just back from my holiday, you insensitive clod!
      • a big part of what we use language for is identifying group membership (ie: ebonics)

        Just a point of order: ebonics refers to black language, or is abused to mean the study of black culture (ebony + ics). It doesn't relate to group membership of just any group, particularly not pasty white British people :)

        In context, it means group membership of those who self-identify with a group that speaks a historically black dialect. Where I come from, white people who associate with such groups are called by a word that literally means "suppliers of hairpieces" [dailydot.com].

    • At the risk of strawmanning, there's a heck of a lot of variety in the production of bread worldwide, and yet most bread is made using certain basic ingredients: wheat, water and yeast. There are some that use other grains, and there are some that use other raising agents, so wheat and yeast aren't universals. But if we abstract away, we have "starchy grain" as a universal, and "raising agent". Chimsky failed to find universals because he was operating too near the surface -- but that's not his fault, as th
      • Note that yeast occurs naturally in the environment and doesn't need to be explicitly added. Mix flour with water and let it sit uncovered for two days, bake it and you have bread. If you save part of the uncooked bread and add it to a new water/flour mixture, you only have to wait a few minutes and not days. The uncooked bread is called mother [wikipedia.org]. Yeast was not discovered (at least observed) until about 1700 and the invention of the microscope. Mid 1800's, Pasteur finally recognized was yeast was as a living
      • 'Chomsky was looking for a single, unitary "language acquisition device", while it now looks as though language is a complex interaction of multiple parts of the brain.' There is no inherent contradiction between a "language acquisition device" that deals with syntax (Chomsky's domain, apart from his detour with Morris Halle into phonology) and the notion that language is an interaction between multiple parts of the brain, in fact that's exactly what you'd expect: one part for syntax, another part for visi

        • I suppose you're right, in which case what I should have said was that Chomsky was wrong to focus so narrowly on syntax. His attempts to dicorce "grammaticality" from meaning still poison linguistics to this day. Every single course I have taken on grammars (in both linguistics and computing) spends a lot of time on CFGs but doesn't even mention Tesnière's valency model, which, published just a couple of years after Chomsky published CFGs, managed to fill the disjoin between Chomskyan grammar and real
    • by AthanasiusKircher ( 1333179 ) on Thursday August 13, 2015 @10:17AM (#50308799)

      The reason is if there was some sort of universal, or natural grammar/vocabulary/etc. inherent to the human animal you would expect languages to tend towards this universal. They don't.

      Yeah, the thing is -- the actual study [royalsocie...ishing.org] doesn't make any claims about anything being "universal." The only person who used the word "universal" was in the news story linked in TFS, and that person quoted in the news story was "not involved in the study."

      In sum, the authors of this study don't make ANY claims that this is uncovering some sort of "universal code."

      (Which, I might note, you'd be able to discover easily if Slashdot actually linked to the bloody study directly, as I did above, rather than a crappy news summary.)

      Instead, the authors' conclusion is much more subtle and intended to take a "middle ground" approach beyond the two extreme positions in language formation. One extremist position (a kind of Platonic Chomskian ideal) is that meaning is universal and ultimately derived from sort of inherent connection between word and object. The other extremist position (classically associated with Saussure) is that the connection between word and object is completely arbitrary, i.e., that we can choose any name for any concept and it would all work just as well. It's hard to believe, but there are actually plenty of linguists who subscribe to something close to this latter view.

      Anyhow, if you truly believe connections between words and meanings are arbitrary (in technical language, the "sign is arbitrary," that is, the connection between signifier and signified is completely determined by linguistic convention), then you run into historical problems concerning the origin of language. You make up weird myths where people went around grunting and pointing and only able to use body language for a while. But then some hominid would vocalize an arbitrary sound and point, resulting in the "arbitrary" connection between sound and meaning.

      While this undoubtedly happens, I think anyone with any common sense realizes that actual language conveys a lot of subtle meaning by the SOUND of words, some of which may actually echo the sound of an actual thing, and some of which may be much more subtle, with certain phonemes (e.g., "sn" in English often equals something stealthy or something having to do with the nose), word length, etc. conveying a very general sense of meaning.

      Anyhow, that's where this study comes in. The authors (who actually did more than the "charades" study which was clearly uncontrolled; read the link above) try to make a claim that meaning can be conveyed by fairly non-specific verbal cues. That means that the "sign is NOT arbitrary" requiring bootstrapping by having the hominid point at things and grunt first, but rather than language and gestural meaning can develop concurrently, with the expressiveness of possible verbal utterances (shaping the tone of a word, length of a word, etc.) able to carry associations.

      In basic terms, what they're saying is quite simple: basic sounds can convey meaning, and thus it's possible to create novel meanings in new words due to associations of those sounds. This may seem to be a really obvious thing, but to people in linguistics who are wed to the "arbitrary sign" theory, it's important research. The study itself summarizes what I've said at the end:

      Given the traditional linguistic principle of the arbitrariness of the sign, many scholars have maintained that, in these systems, the vocal channel primarily functions to carry the arbitrary linguistic components of a message, while the visible gestural channel conveys the iconic, non-linguistic components. Stemming from this idea, some have proposed that spoken languages must have originated as iconically grounded systems of manual and other visible bodily gestures, and at some point in human history, arbitrary vocalizations w

      • One extremist position (a kind of Platonic Chomskian ideal) is that meaning is universal and ultimately derived from sort of inherent connection between word and object. The other extremist position (classically associated with Saussure) is that the connection between word and object is completely arbitrary, i.e., that we can choose any name for any concept and it would all work just as well.

        You also have people who claim that the object does not exist without the concept. That a chair is only a chair when your brain perceives it as such. Otherwise it's just a collection of atoms.

      • "you'd be able to discover easily if Slashdot actually linked to the bloody study directly, as I did above, rather than a crappy news summary" Thank you!

        As for the iconicity: I don't doubt that language in its origin was iconic to some extent; modern signed languages are to some degree iconic, the more so the more recently they grew up. But I do think that tens of thousands of years of sound change have pretty much erased the iconicity in languages like English, with rare exceptions (mom, flit/fly/flutter

    • Chomsky wrote about syntax, not the lexicon. This study has no bearing on his work.

      As for this study, It's quite possible (IMO quite likely) that no matter how iconic brand new words might be, that has no bearing on the iconicity of English. For one thing, English is not a tone language, so the pitch contours of made up words (one of the things they claimed speakers agreed about) have no bearing on real English words. More importantly, tens of thousands of years separate modern English from the beginning

  • by Viol8 ( 599362 ) on Thursday August 13, 2015 @05:57AM (#50307571) Homepage

    "Most linguists agree that a combination of movement and sound like grunts and pointing probably got us started"

    Presumably these linquists work at universities and are simply observing students on a sunday morning after a night out.

  • Ob (Score:5, Funny)

    by Hognoxious ( 631665 ) on Thursday August 13, 2015 @06:01AM (#50307583) Homepage Journal

    Article is a glorty kleed of pweb. Summary is blonty, unwerreled and in parts totally baylous.

    • by Anonymous Coward

      Score: -1, Blonty.

    • Pweb? Really? Did you not blarg it vignially? Don't comment on it if you didn't blarg it.
  • Well, I'm not so sympathetic with the conclusions.

    Firstly, English is perhaps the most vocal language among all existing languages on Earth, it has far too many words which sound like the object being described.

    Secondly, there's German.

    Thirdly, and let me quote the article, "Their guesses were not nearly as good as the face-to-face participantsâ"35.6% right versus 82.2%â"but they had only one round in which to make their guess." Now, I'm not a mathematician but everything below 50% sounds li

    • by Anonymous Coward

      There are other problems here. The claim that this somehow falsifies what linguists think has no justification. What they think is that the words we use NOW are not iconic. That says nothing about the origin of language. Nor does the article itself claim this. In fact, a lot of linguists think that iconicity is a likely source of new words, and it's well-known that there are languages of the world that have some iconic words. The important thing is that, IN GENERAL, there is no connection between sound and

    • by afeeney ( 719690 )

      I'm definitely not convinced of anything by this study, but it does suggest that there might be something worth examining more rigorously. If the study could be consistently replicated with people who don't have a language (or language family) in common, then it would be more indicative.

      It should also be audio-only, since the instructions of "don't use facial expressions" are almost futile, considering how many our expressions are involuntary or unconscious.

    • "English is perhaps the most vocal language among all existing languages on Earth, it has far too many words which sound like the object being described."

      Huh? I have no idea what you mean by "vocal", nor what that has to do with onomatopoeia, nor what those English words are that sound like the object being described--I'd probably grant you 'moo' and maybe 'meow', but beyond that?

  • by Anonymous Coward

    What real linguists know is that:
    1. Language is a behaviour of the brain. External communication is secondary.
    2. Very little of modern word formation is iconic, though iconic symbols were likely important in the first origins of words.
    3. "pitch and volume of sounds" are important in every language when the arbitrary symbols are insufficient. Pidgin communication is full of exactly that kind of communication.

    Language is right on the boundary between behaviours which are conscious and behaviours which are u

    • 1. Language is a behaviour of the brain.

      Isn't it also a feedback loop where language also influences the structure of the brain?

  • Okay, I haven't really, but I wanted to say I had.

  • by TheRealHocusLocus ( 2319802 ) on Thursday August 13, 2015 @07:41AM (#50307845)

    We gathered in a large conference room lit with fluorescent lights. You know, the kind that always has one light in the corner flickering, and it seems to draw your whole attention. Fidgeting in chairs, a rustle of paper, forms to fill out, name and gender blah blah and it's like --- hello! --- we're broke and we're 'day labor' students just selling our blood and our souls and bodies for research for a quick buck, and we've got to move on to the next indignity! The ad on the website said 'sociological research project' so we were reasonably sure there would be no picking and prodding.

    It was bizarre even for us lab rats. The organizers seemed to be conducting a game of 'charades' and broke us into groups, assigning words printed on cards like up, down, rough and stuff. We were supposed to invent new words for these things and try to communicate them to the others with a combination of vocalizations (yes they used the silly term, it sounds ridiculous when you 'vocalize' it don't you think?) and gestures and (as it turns out) giggles and nervous smiles.

    This went on for a couple of hours, they kept re-forming the groups and repeating the experiment, scoring the success of our guesses as to which test word was being used... it was fun. I noted early on that the more attracted you are to the the person doing the charade, the more likely you were to guess the correct answer. I wonder if the researchers noted this and I used it as a pickup line, leaning close to this foxy lady and whispering, "Do you think they've controlled for the fact that your voice sounds so sexy when you make that low rumble in your throat that means, 'rough'?" Of course, I used her made-up word, which sounded like 'blaaaargh' Her laugh was surprised and sudden, and if they had a card that said promise it would have lit up the board. With a nod offered her my number on a card, and she wrote hers. Promise indeed.

    As we passed behind the conference table between each round to be assigned new groups with one of the 'test words' I glanced at the laptop computers. It seemed they were recording the sounds we made and plotted them out in some sort of dot-language. So this is some kind of language research, I guessed, to examine the brain wiring of money-hungry research lab rats. Then a real lunch (not just donuts and coffee, what a surprise!) and the final round began.

    The last round was one-to-all where each person got up in front and charaded the whole room. By now we realized there were only a few words being tested and we had gotten pretty good at guessing which one. I had taken a seat next to blaaaargh-girl and touched her knee briefly as I sat. She had smiled. Life is good. When she was called up to charade the room I muttered 'blaaargh' and she giggled.

    She stood at the front of the room and took the card which indicated which 'primordial' word she was to communicate. Her eyes widened for a moment, and I'd swear her eyes darted from side to side, as if scanning for some adversary. It was a bit odd and no one else seemed to pick up on it, but it was clearly... fear? I guess she and I were so in tune at that moment I felt what ever she was feeling. I felt a sudden tingle in my spine and my heart raced. What was written on that card? She seemed to gather herself and faced the group. There was a certain helplessness in her expression, as if she was being compelled to do something. I felt a surge of protective instinct and was rising from my seat... as

    She flung her arms wide, spun her head until the long straight hair swung around and for a moment, wrapped around her face. The flickering light finally gave up and the room dimmed a little. She took a long intake of breath and shouted, long and shrill,

    "Tekeli-li! Tekeli-li!"

    The lights went out. The Universe became noise and chaos. I felt as if I was falling.

    But we were not on a station platform. We were on the track ahead as the nightmare, plastic column of fetid black iridescence oozed tightly onward through its fifte

  • iconic expression just makes more sense. Concepts can be formed without language (iconic), but arbitrary expression seems to imply otherwise.

    But what I find most interesting is that English speakers would develop a tonal language. That's weird.

  • there's a "gin and tonic" in every language in the galaxy.
  • by 140Mandak262Jamuna ( 970587 ) on Thursday August 13, 2015 @08:19AM (#50308005) Journal
    Everytime people from two different languages meet, once they stopped killing each other in such encounters, the communication largely consists of mimicking nature in sound and gesture. "Me Jane! You Tarzan!" supposed to teach the concept of me and you by gestures and associate names with the entities. (It does not matter the account is fictional. It is how the author of that fiction imagines he would communicate with people of different language).

    Curiously, it assumes they both would understand the gestures. Tarzan would know Jane is pointing to herself as an entity not pointing to her shirt and him as another entity not his chest as a body part. Further assumption is that objects have names and the association is arbitrary. Of course, Tarzan story quickly proceeds to a stage where Jane and Tarzan swap stories about the day the fiend in human shape challenged one to swing across the swimming baths of the club by the rings hanging from the ceilings and cunningly looped the last ring back against the wall, leaving one with no choice to drop into the pool in full evening attire. This is where it becomes very fictional. Well, in real life does not fit into 90 minute movies. But I digress.

    The point is, it is very well known imitation of natural sounds and gestures would be a more basic universal form of communication. And it is not a stretch to argue that is how the languages must have born.

    Noam Chomsky further extended the concept with the insight that all human beings are born with a language instinct. "Objects have names". "Actions have names". "Order of the words (subject verb object etc) matters", "the names of objects and actions can have qualifiers" etc etc. The child has these concepts already programmed. But the actual names and actual order of the words in a sentence etc get burnt in at an early age. When children of different languages mix constantly they form language-mixtures called creoles and there one can actually observe the birth and evolution of a language. Some of the well recorded recently created creoles suggest these concepts very well.

  • But what does it mean? We should discuss it over a Genessyan Oonyx!
  • by Anonymous Coward

    and supposedly when based off English - please explain why Americans are incapable of saying Herb but resort to erb!

    • Same reason why Brits are incapable of saying "aluminum" but resort to "aluminium"
      • by Anonymous Coward

        Whilst Sir Humphry David proposed the existance of the element and initial called it "aluminum" he very quickly renamed to "aluminium' to fall in line with existing standards, actually either Ørsted or Wöhler is credit with actually producing it.

        "Sir Humphry Davy proposed the name aluminum, back before the element was officially discovered. However, the name 'aluminium' was adopted to conform with the -ium names of most other elements. In 1925, the American Chemical Society decided to go back

    • I used to work with a guy named Herb. So it's not incapacity.
  • Makes me want to re-read Snow Crash, even with all the gratuitous penetration and self-indulgent hero (Hiro) pity.

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