There is not currently a coursera on Language Evolution, so as a vague substitute, I thought I’d do a run down of places on the internet you can find some pretty decent free lectures on the evolution of language…
Interesting-looking lectures at the link, including: “Towards Language Acquisition by Cognitive Developmental Robotics” by Minoru Asada, “Outgroup: The Study of Chimpanzees to Know the Human Mind” by Tetsuro Matsuzawa, and “Out of the Brains of Babes: Domain-general Learning Mechanisms and Domain-specific Systems” by Jenny Saffran.
You, hear me! Give this fire to that old man. Pull the black worm off the bark and give it to the mother. And no spitting in the ashes!
It’s an odd little speech. But if you went back 15,000 years and spoke these words to hunter-gatherers in Asia in any one of hundreds of modern languages, there is a chance they would understand at least some of what you were saying.
That’s because all of the nouns, verbs, adjectives and adverbs in the four sentences are words that have descended largely unchanged from a language that died out as the glaciers retreated at the end of the last Ice Age. Those few words mean the same thing, and sound almost the same, as they did then. …
It’s like trying to reconstruct the original mammal that all the other mammals evolved from by comparing an abstraction of all rodents, plus an abstraction of all felines, plus an abstraction of all canines, plus an abstraction of all primates, plus an abstraction of all cetaceans, plus an abstraction of all marsupials, plus an abstraction of all ungulates, plus whatever the heck the platypus is descended from, etc.
But it’s harder than just that, because none of these languages were written down until long after they’d all split off, because writing systems only started being used around 3200 BCE in very few locations, whereas language has been around since sometime between 5 million and 50 000 years ago (we don’t even know).
So imagine trying to figure out that the common ancestor of chickens and iguanas was actually a dinosaur. Without having any fossils.
I love these studies, but they need to be taken with so many grains of salt because the data that they’re working with is an abstraction of an abstraction. But that’s the only way to study this until we invent time travel.
I’ve seen a lot of hate in the #linguistics tag recently, especially concerning drawing syntax trees. The program I recommend to budding syntacticians and linguists for drawing trees is called TreeForm (by Donal Derrick, available for free on SourceForge).
It’s a drag-and-drop style program and you can use to produce images of trees, and go back and edit them later. It’s great for learning what kinds of structures to build, as well as building super-complex structures that would get confusing in markup languages like LaTeX or online sources like PhP Syntax Tree.
Actually, both of these other options are great, too. I would only recommend them for more advanced syntacticians and (proto-)linguists with a proclivity for programming or markup. In any case, happy tree-drawing!
Wow, TreeForm looks really nifty and easy to use. I wish I’d known about it earlier!
I used to use PhP Syntax Tree, which is better than using the line-drawing tool in Word (don’t do this! you’ll waste so much time!) but it still has quite a lot of limitations, like not supporting arrows or alternative fonts. The major annoyance that I found with it was having to re-download my trees as pngs every time I wanted to make one tiny change.
These days I use LaTeX, specifically the qtree package although I’ve heard that other packages are good too. Since I make all my linguistics docs in LaTeX, this lets me edit them right from within the document, which saves a lot of time.
It would be cool if TreeForm let you output some LaTeX code that you could copy-paste into a LaTeX file and tweak from there if necessary. So I probably won’t be using TreeForm myself for this reason, but I’d definitely recommend it to people who don’t use LaTeX.
I met a little lady from way down south
and I thought she was kinda sweet.
She had a tasty tongue in a cowgirl mouth
that said things you’d wanna repeat.[…]
Oh, I bought her a ring, and I bought her a home,
and I got her set up nice and neat.
But sometimes I’d worry she would use me and roam,
Verbatim is a quarterly language magazine about fun language/linguistics topics for non-specialists. I can’t seem to figure out from the internet whether it’s still being published, but there are quite a lot of back-issues online, both on the official site and on Questia.
Or if you prefer your pop-linguistics in dead-tree form, there’s also a book that compiles some of the best essays from Verbatim.
Excerpt from a sample article: “You Sucker! Participatory Humour” by Jessy Randall (Autumn 2003).
I have long been fascinated with a particular type of humor, a type that, as far as I can tell, has no name. I have settled on calling it participatory humor, since these are jokes in which the listener (or “victim”) participates, whether she means to or not. Like most of us, I first came into contact with participatory humor on my elementary school playground, where such humor flourishes and probably originated. I have been pleased to see that it lives on in sophomoric films of the present day. […]
At a somewhat higher level of sophistication are jokes in which the answer to the question is the punch line—the listener just needs that pointed out.
What were you eating under there?
You were eating underwear?!
[…] Then there are the jokes in which the speaker asks you to respond with the same phrase after everything he says:
What did you have for breakfast?
What did you have for lunch?
What did you have for dinner?
What did you do all night?
Pea soup … argh!
Several interesting posts from Literal Minded by Neal Whitman on teaching elementary school students linguistics. Excerpt:
“Before we start,” I said, “I need to make sure I know what language you guys speak.”
“English!” they said.
“Ah, good! That’s what I speak, too. So Mrs. K,” I said, turning to Adam’s teacher, “Do they speak English pretty well?” She said they did. “OK,” I said. “Let me try a little test. See Mrs. K. here? Could I say, ‘Mat the on Mrs. K. sitting is’?”
I called on one of Adam’s classmates. “Jenny, is that good English? ‘Mat the on Mrs. K. sitting is’?”
“No,” Jenny said.
“It’s not? Then how would you say it?”
“Mrs. K. is sitting on the mat.”
“Really? How about the rest of you? Who would say ‘Mrs. K. is sitting on the mat’?” Most of the hands went up. (Well, more accurately, most of half of the hands went up.) “And would anyone say, ‘Mat the on Mrs. K. sitting is’?” None of them would.
“What? Why not? It’s the same words!”
“It’s the wrong order!” one or two of them said.
“Who told you that? James, did Mrs. K. tell you that it’s ‘on the mat’, not ‘mat the on’? No? Carly, did your mom tell you it’s ‘is sitting’ and not ‘sitting is?’ She didn’t? Then how did you know?”
“It just sounds right,” she said.
What did people experience when they first looked at a place? The Atlas of True Names attempts to reveal that sense of wonder by unearthing the original etymological meanings behind our place names. Stephan Hormes and Silke Preust are German cartographers who started this project after…
Um, like, god, I mean, you know? Everyone’s speech is plagued with filler words and phrases. The problem with trying to eliminate verbal filler is the more you concentrate on it, the less you concentrate on what you actually want to communicate. There’s nothing more likely to bring out “um,” “uh,” or the dreaded “like” like being self-conscious about putting them in. But is “like” the useless filler it’s made out to be?
In case you’re out of words today.