For twenty-four years he was a Professor of Linguistics at the University of Hawaii , having meanwhile received a Ph. He is the father of contemporary artist Ashley Bickerton. The NSF deemed the proposed experiment unethical and refused to fund it. In Language and Species , he suggests that all three questions might be answered by postulating that the origin of language can be traced to the evolution of representation systems and symbolic thinking, together with a later development of formal syntax.

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Examples include merchant seamen in distant ports and, historically, slaves in the West Indies. This theory states that the structural similarity between many creole languages must arise from an innate capacity in the brain.

Animal communications are holistic and limited, e. By contrast, human communications are complex and unlimited. How did one evolve from the other? The theory of evolution states that features do not arise de novo but must be built incrementally upon something already in existence, but how can something infinite arise from something finite? This is known as the Continuity Paradox.

Bickerton resolves this paradox with the bold assertion that language in humans did not arise from the vocalizations of other animals and that its primary function is not in fact communication but representation. Communication is no more than a handy spinoff. Nouns do not correspond to real objects, only representations of them.

If this were not the case we could not have words for things like unicorns and golden mountains, which do not exist in the real world. Our view of the world is always representational and not absolute — what we see is a representation built up by sensory data; through a glass, darkly as St.

Paul might have put it. Chapter 2 Language as Representation: the Atlas Language can be regarded as a means of mapping reality in a style analogous to both an atlas and an itinerary book. It important to realise that the atlas and the itinerary book are both representations of reality and that therefore they cannot represent with absolute verisimilitude. This limitation also applies to language — it does not directly map the experiential world.

Language is a mediated mapping, a mapping that derives from the processing of sensory inputs. In this chapter, Bickerton considers the atlas-like properties of language and states that a word can have three levels of meaning. Our knowledge of the world, in common with that of other animals, is derived from a series of mapping operations. The first of these — shared with other animals — is from existential objects to neural cells and networks in the brain.

The first level of meaning is simple perception of, say, a leopard non-italicised and not in quotes. We can only perceive a leopard when one is actually present, but we can think about leopards in their absence. Frogs react quickly to snap up passing insects, but this is simply a hard-wired reaction to small rapidly moving objects it ignores stationary insects and reacts to pellets flicked across their line of vision, but it works more often than not.

Humans on the other hand do have concepts: for example an unidentified sound at night will be matched against possible explanations. Vervets probably fall somewhere in between and can equate the smell, sound and sight of a leopard with the same thing. Finally there is leopard italicised , which refers to the word itself — a label — without any clear meaning being necessarily attached to it. Units relating to entities are insufficient to describe the world, because pretty well everything we see is doing something; for example walking, running, swimming, flying, etc.

You cannot see an animal without perceiving at the same time what it is doing, e. There is no word for cow-grazing, but we would expect there to be if language exactly mirrored reality.

But Bickerton believes that the explanation is that the concept of entities preceded the concept of behaviours. Behaviours are more abstract than entities; a cow cannot be anything other than a cow, but many types of animal can graze or run.

Behaviours are of course not the only things that can be predicated of entities. Properties such as size, colour, temperature, etc may also be attributed to entities. While we can have words such as fast, faster and fastest, there is no language that represents a continuum of, say, speeds or temperatures. The level of representation given by the lexicon abstracts away from and interprets the flux of experience.

It derives a wide range of entities, together with behaviours and attributes that can be predicated of these entities. These form an inventory of everything that we see; however the lexicon is not unstructured. Words are hierarchical e. Anger in turn falls in the category of emotion. Words can not only be converted to strings of other words, but fall into place within a universal filing system that permits any concept to be retrieved and comprehended.

Words are also constrained by contiguity. The referent must be an uninterrupted piece of matter or time or space. This even applies to abstract properties like ownership, location, possession, existence. Some languages, such as English, use one verb is for existence, location, ownership e. This suggests that contiguity constraints exist even in highly abstract domains.

Semantic space may well be an intrinsic property of the brain; the lexicon is carved up into convenient chunks. Chapter 3 Language as Representation: the Itineraries While a map can tell you what the terrain is like, an itinerary is required to tell you what journeys may be taken. Similarly there are rules governing a journey through semantic space. Sentences are underlain by three types of structural consistency: predicability, grammaticisation and syntax.

Predicability imposes constraints between entities and predication — e. Only abstract qualities can be predicated of abstract nouns; and concrete qualities of concrete nouns. What can and cannot be predicated can be drawn up on a tree diagram. A quality at the top of the tree can be predicated of any class below it, but of no class above it. A quality on a side branch can only be predicated of a class on the branch below it.

For example, trees, pigs and men can all be dead; but only pigs and humans can be hungry; and only humans can be honest. All of these things plus thunderstorms can be nearby, but only thunderstorms could have happened yesterday; and so on. Three observations may be made about the tree. Firstly it has binary branching.

There is no obvious reason for this. Why only two? Why not three or more branches at each node? Secondly there is a contiguity constraint — for example anything applying to humans and plants must also apply to animals. Thirdly the tree does not seem to be derived from experience of the world as children as young as three or four used only slightly truncated trees.

This does suggest that language as a classification mechanism is constrained by the human-specific conceptual analysis of the natural world. Some languages to not express all these relations; others express relations not found in English. For example Hopi and Turkish both have inflections that differentiate between information gained through personal experience or obtained second hand. It seems that we are obliged to grammaticize some things, yet other things cannot be grammaticized.

While one might dismiss this as a mere convention of languages, conventions can be broken and these never are. We can expand lexicon but not grammar. The latter appears to be a black box; we can neither alter it nor explain it.

Syntax is highly complex, yet we can all master its subtleties. A sentence is constructed of phrases; each phrase is a hierarchical not linear entity. A sentence of 10 words can be re-arranged over 3 million ways, only one of which is correct — yet we can do it effortlessly. Without syntax, complex ideas could not be communicated.

Chapter 4 The Origins of Representational Systems Language must have evolved as a representational system, not for communications. How did this happen? Our senses give us a species-specific view of reality, only a subset of the data potentially available e. This is the primary representation system, or PRS. All such systems arose from cells that could differentiate between two states, a distinction between sensory cells and motor cells, and motor cells capable of more than one behaviour type in response to a given stimulus.

Humans alone have a secondary representation system SRS — language. At lowest level there are organisms like sea anemones that can identify chemical signature of hostile starfish and execute an escape manoeuvre.

Next is conditional response such as a crayfish that becomes habituated to being touches and eventually does not waste energy on an escape manoeuvre, or a grub that only moves if light-levels increase above a certain threshold. Ability to evaluate data is more complex in — say — lizard stalking a fly, where there is actual data processing by the brain leading to a choice of behaviours.

Vervet monkeys are genetically-programmed to respond to snakes. Similarly, if you touch something hot you move your hand away without thinking too hard. But such an approach has its limitations.

Wildebeest do not always flee when they see a lion. So they become alert — indeed they experience fear. But fear — an emotion — is crucial to making a decision to flee. Representations are either innate metabolizing food, growing hair, producing sentences, etc or learned writing, sewing, swimming, etc.

We are conscious of learned representations, but cannot access innate representations. Categories are species-specific. In non-human animals, categories might be referred to as proto-concept. Which came first — language or concepts?

Probably language originally labelled proto-concepts derived from pre-linguistic experience; this was later expanded to be capable of deriving concepts not present in PRS, e. Pigeons can develop quite sophisticated categories — can be trained to peck certain classes of object, e. Such behaviour cannot be entirely innate as they can be trained to respond to objects they could have no knowledge of.

But some categories — trees, humans, etc — probably are innate; probably categories of things that are significant to a particular species are innate, but the ability to analyse novel objects as well, by utilizing this processing power subsequently evolved. However provided the referents of particular proto-concepts remained relevant, these would be retained and new ones would be added over evolutionary time.


Derek Bickerton

Examples include merchant seamen in distant ports and, historically, slaves in the West Indies. This theory states that the structural similarity between many creole languages must arise from an innate capacity in the brain. Animal communications are holistic and limited, e. By contrast, human communications are complex and unlimited.


Language and Species

Bazilkree Finally there is leopard italicisedwhich refers to the word itself — a label — without any clear meaning being necessarily attached to it. It seems that we are obliged to grammaticize some things, yet other things cannot be grammaticized. Harry rated it really liked it May 31, Refresh and try again. Human language, on the other hand, is capable of spatial and temporal displacement.


Language & Species (1990), by Derek Bickerton



Language and Species by Bickerton


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