Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Social motives for syntax.

Enfield offers a review of Tomasello's new book "Origins of Human Communication." Some clips:

One dominant philosophy, grounded in the work of linguist Noam Chomsky, sees language as primarily an instrument of thought, not action. On this view, the key event in the evolution of language was a mutation resulting in an organlike faculty in the human mind, with selective advantage in the realm of reasoning. This faculty happened also to be useful for generating complex communicative behavior, though perhaps in the same way that a foot happens to be good for playing soccer: it did not evolve under the selective pressure of that function.

Tomasello sees language as a means for doing things, not a device for processing or merely externalizing communicate is to act on others in the social realm. For language to have this function presumes not only a conspecific with a comprehending mind but also a willingness to cooperate...Requests form one of three classes of social action...The others are informing-helping (e.g., when one person points to keys that another just dropped) and sharing (e.g., when two people's attitudes toward a third person align in the course of a gossip session). He summarizes research showing that all three social motives are fully evident in the communicative behavior of prelinguistic infants and all but absent among our closest relatives, the great apes. Humans have a special combination of cooperative instincts, prosocial motives, high-level intention attribution, and moral propensities. Tomasello contends that without this unique psychological wherewithal in the domain of social cognition, language as we know it could never have evolved.

Tomasello's work represents a long-standing and now rapidly growing view that language is not restricted to abstract structures of grammatical patterning but includes gestures and other bodily movements of the kinds that typically accompany speech... Gestures, he argues, are necessary for the development of language in both phylogeny and ontogeny...9-month-olds use gestures for multiple, often sophisticated social functions, including the three basic social motives. These favorable conclusions on the social cognitive sophistication of human infants contrast with the findings on primates.

Gestures lack the highly structured complexity of grammar: How to get from one to the other? ...Tomasello's solution is an ingenious linking of requesting, informing, and sharing with three distinct levels of complexity in the grammatical possibilities that any language will furnish. He dubs these "simple syntax" (strongly dependent on immediate context), "serious syntax" (for making unambiguous reference across contexts), and "fancy syntax" (for organizing long and complex narratives). But this is essentially as far as his links to grammar go, promissory notes notwithstanding. Precisely because the author is a linguist, this omission is a missed opportunity to complete the argument, to connect the dots that lead from basic social actions ultimately to the radically varying, historically developed complex linguistic systems that are found around the world.

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