[percy-l] Percy triads vs. Peirce triads, bibliography, and the origins of language
Karey L. Perkins
karey at charter.net
Thu Jul 24 07:32:54 EDT 2003
Below this e-mail is an article from last week's NYTimes on the origins of
language by Nicholas Wade. It's pretty interesting - refers to Chomsky,
Pinker, FOXP2, and the family in England that's missing the gene - one of
the main points is how little work has been done in the area. It seems like
a good overview. What would Percy think?
But I also have a burning question, well, many questions, but I'll start
with just one, specifically for Ken Ketner though anyone who might know can
offer an answer. I'm almost done with "A Thief of Peirce: The Letters of
Kenneth Laine Ketner and Walker Percy" (ed. by Patrick Samway) and I have
thoroughly enjoyed it - it's been fun to read about "language theory" in the
human context of two people writing letters, like a story; plus it's been
very helpful. And some of Percy's questions to Ken are the same ones I
have, so it's nice to have them answered without even asking.
But what I cannot figure out is why Percy holds on to HIS triad, the
triangle (three lines joining to form a triangle) when Ken so nicely and
clearly explained Peirce's triad (three lines meeting in the center to form
a point) is more appropriate. In that explanation, Percy's triad is just an
illustration of three dyads forming a triangle, and not a true triad. Each
element in Percy's triad can be just a result of (mediated by or mediator
of) a cause-effect reaction. Perhaps I missed Percy's rationale for why he
kept a triangle?
Also, I think his (Percy's) retention of the triangle is one of the reasons
why he was so VERY concerned about what the interpretant was (needing to
find a name for it in "Thief" and ending "Message in the Bottle" with: "The
apex of the triangle, the coupler, is a complete mystery. What it is, an
'I,' a 'self,' or some neurophysiological correlate thereof, I could not
begin to say" (327).) See, as long as he retains the triangle, which is
merely three dyads connected together, he hasn't successfully defeated the
cause-effect determinists - which Ken pointed out. So, it seems to me he's
now putting the weight of that responsibility on the poor little
interpretant -- the interpretant now must be some special, different thing
to pull it out of that realm (which is Percy's whole goal - to defeat
deterministic science). And I think Percy really believes it is some
special, different thing, and is trying to find out what that thing is. But
now he fails to successfully defeat the Cartesian dualists (and he even says
in the letters he's not sure that Peirce does defeat the dualists,
reflecting more Percy's view of Peirce's accomplishment than Peirce's real
accomplishment) because now he must add some special substance (spirit,
soul) to the interpretant for the triangle not to be deterministic. Of
course Percy was always concerned with the self, throughout all of his
writings. But for him, the human self is something different than the rest
of the world (even from animals?). I don't think Peirce would think that,
What do you think?
Another question -- what has been written on this subject? Peirce and Percy
that is. Though anything pertinent would be helpful. Most of the stuff on
Percy that I've found (and I did send a abbreviated biblio. y'all's way)
doesn't have much to do with his language philosophy -- it's more about his
existentialism, etc.. This "Cenophythagoreanism" is hard stuff for those of
us who haven't started out as Peirce scholars, since it is by definition
----- Original Message -----
From: kdenney at mindspring.com
To: Karey L. Perkins
Sent: Wednesday, July 16, 2003 3:10 PM
Subject: origins of language
>From yesterday's New York Times:
Early Voices: The Leap to Language
By NICHOLAS WADE
Bower birds are artists, leaf-cutting ants practice agriculture, crows use
tools, chimpanzees form coalitions against rivals. The only major talent
unique to humans is language, the ability to transmit encoded thoughts from
the mind of one individual to another.
Because of language's central role in human nature and sociality, its
evolutionary origins have long been of interest to almost everyone, with the
curious exception of linguists.
As far back as 1866, the Linguistic Society of Paris famously declared that
it wanted no more speculative articles about the origin of language.
More recently, many linguists have avoided the subject because of the
influence of Noam Chomsky, a founder of modern linguistics and still its
best-known practitioner, who has been largely silent on the question.
Dr. Chomsky's position has "only served to discourage interest in the topic
among theoretical linguists," writes Dr. Frederick J. Newmeyer, last year's
president of the Linguistic Society of America, in "Language Evolution," a
book of essays being published this month by Oxford University Press in
In defense of the linguists' tepid interest, there have until recently been
few firm facts to go on. Experts offered conflicting views on whether
Neanderthals could speak. Sustained attempts to teach apes language
generated more controversy than illumination.
But new research is eroding the idea that the origins of language are
hopelessly lost in the mists of time. New clues have started to emerge from
archaeology, genetics and human behavioral ecology, and even linguists have
grudgingly begun to join in the discussion before other specialists eat
"It is important for linguists to participate in the conversation, if only
to maintain a position in this intellectual niche that is of such commanding
interest to the larger scientific public," writes Dr. Ray Jackendoff, Dr.
Newmeyer's successor at the linguistic society, in his book "Foundations of
Geneticists reported in March that the earliest known split between any two
human populations occurred between the !Kung of southern Africa and the
Hadza of Tanzania. Since both of these very ancient populations speak click
languages, clicks may have been used in the language of the ancestral human
population. The clicks, made by sucking the tongue down from the roof of the
mouth (and denoted by an exclamation point), serve the same role as
That possible hint of the first human tongue may be echoed in the
archaeological record. Humans whose skeletons look just like those of today
were widespread in Africa by 100,000 years ago. But they still used the same
set of crude stone tools as their forebears and their archaic human
contemporaries, the Neanderthals of Europe.
Then, some 50,000 years ago, some profound change took place. Settlements in
Africa sprang to life with sophisticated tools made from stone and bone, art
objects and signs of long distance trade.
Though some archaeologists dispute the suddenness of the transition, Dr.
Richard Klein of Stanford argues that the suite of innovations reflects some
specific neural change that occurred around that time and, because of the
advantage it conferred, spread rapidly through the population.
That genetic change, he suggests, was of such a magnitude that most likely
it had to do with language, and was perhaps the final step in its evolution.
If some neural change explains the appearance of fully modern human behavior
some 50,000 years ago, "it is surely reasonable to suppose that the change
promoted the fully modern capacity for rapidly spoken phonemic speech," Dr.
Klein has written.
Listening to Primates
Apes' Signals Fall Short of Language
At first glance, language seems to have appeared from nowhere, since no
other species speaks. But other animals do communicate. Vervet monkeys have
specific alarm calls for their principal predators, like eagles, leopards,
snakes and baboons.
Researchers have played back recordings of these calls when no predators
were around and found that the vervets would scan the sky in response to the
eagle call, leap into trees at the leopard call and look for snakes in the
ground cover at the snake call.
Vervets can't be said to have words for these predators because the calls
are used only as alarms; a vervet can't use its baboon call to ask if anyone
noticed a baboon around yesterday. Still, their communication system shows
that they can both utter and perceive specific sounds.
Dr. Marc Hauser, a psychologist at Harvard who studies animal communication,
believes that basic systems for both the perception and generation of sounds
are present in other animals. "That suggests those systems were used way
before language and therefore did not evolve for language, even though they
are used in language," he said.
Language, as linguists see it, is more than input and output, the heard word
and the spoken. It's not even dependent on speech, since its output can be
entirely in gestures, as in American Sign Language. The essence of language
is words and syntax, each generated by a combinatorial system in the brain.
If there were a single sound for each word, vocabulary would be limited to
the number of sounds, probably fewer than 1,000, that could be distinguished
from one another. But by generating combinations of arbitrary sound units, a
copious number of distinguishable sounds becomes available. Even the average
high school student has a vocabulary of 60,000 words.
The other combinatorial system is syntax, the hierarchical ordering of words
in a sentence to govern their meaning.
Chimpanzees do not seem to possess either of these systems. They can learn a
certain number of symbols, up to 400 or so, and will string them together,
but rarely in a way that suggests any notion of syntax. This is not because
of any poverty of thought. Their conceptual world seems to overlap to some
extent with that of people: they can recognize other individuals in their
community and keep track of who is dominant to whom. But they lack the
system for encoding these thoughts in language.
How then did the encoding system evolve in the human descendants of the
common ancestor of chimps and people?
Babbling and Pidgins Hint at First Tongue
One of the first linguists to tackle this question was Dr. Derek Bickerton
of the University of Hawaii. His specialty is the study of pidgins, which
are simple phrase languages made up from scratch by children or adults who
have no language in common, and of creoles, the successor languages that
acquire inflection and syntax.
Dr. Bickerton developed the idea that a proto-language must have preceded
the full-fledged syntax of today's discourse. Echoes of this proto-language
can be seen, he argued, in pidgins, in the first words of infants, in the
symbols used by trained chimpanzees and in the syntax-free utterances of
children who do not learn to speak at the normal age.
In a series of articles, Dr. Bickerton has argued that humans may have been
speaking proto-language, essentially the use of words without syntax, as
long as two million years ago. Modern language developed more recently, he
suggests, perhaps with appearance of anatomically modern humans some 120,000
The impetus for the evolution of language, he believes, occurred when human
ancestors left the security of the forest and started foraging on the
savanna. "The need to pass on information was the driving force," he said in
Foragers would have had to report back to others what they had found. Once
they had developed symbols that could be used free of context â€” a general
word for elephant, not a vervet-style alarm call of "An elephant is
attacking!" â€” early people would have taken the first step toward
proto-language. "Once you got it going, there is no way of stopping it," Dr.
But was the first communicated symbol a word or a gesture? Though language
and speech are sometimes thought of as the same thing, language is a coding
system and speech just its main channel.
Dr. Michael Corballis, a psychologist at the University of Auckland in New
Zealand, believes the gesture came first, in fact as soon as our ancestors
started to walk on two legs and freed the hands for making signs.
Chimpanzees have at least 30 different gestures, mostly used to refer to
Hand gestures are still an expressive part of human communication, Dr.
Corballis notes, so much so that people even gesticulate while on the
He believes that spoken words did not predominate over signed ones until the
last 100,000 years or so, when a genetic change may have perfected human
speech and led to its becoming a separate system, not just a grunted
accompaniment for gestures.
Critics of Dr. Corballis's idea say gestures are too limited; they don't
work in the dark, for one thing. But many concede the two systems may both
have played some role in the emergence of language.
Search for Incentives
As Societies Grew the Glue Was Gossip
Dr. Bickerton's idea that language must have had an evolutionary history
prompted other specialists to wonder about the selective pressure, or
evolutionary driving force, behind the rapid emergence of language.
In the mere six million years since chimps and humans shared a common
ancestor, this highly complex faculty has suddenly emerged in the hominid
line alone, along with all the brain circuits necessary to map an extremely
rapid stream of sound into meaning, meaning into words and syntax, and
intended sentence into expressed utterance.
It is easy to see in a general way that each genetic innovation, whether in
understanding or in expressing language, might create such an advantage for
its owners as to spread rapidly through a small population.
"No one will take any notice of the guy who says `Gu-gu-gu'; the one with
the quick tongue will get the mates," Dr. Bickerton said. But what initiated
this self-sustaining process?
Besides Dr. Bickerton's suggestion of the transition to a foraging
lifestyle, another idea is that of social grooming, which has been carefully
worked out by Dr. Robin Dunbar, an evolutionary psychologist at the
University of Liverpool in England.
Dr. Dunbar notes that social animals like monkeys spend an inordinate amount
of time grooming one another. The purpose is not just to remove fleas but
also to cement social relationships. But as the size of a group increases,
there is not time for an individual to groom everyone.
Language evolved, Dr. Dunbar believes, as a better way of gluing a larger
Some 63 percent of human conversation, according to his measurements, is
indeed devoted to matters of social interaction, largely gossip, not to the
exchange of technical information, Dr. Bickerton's proposed incentive for
Dr. Steven Pinker of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, one of the
first linguists to acknowledge that language may be subject to natural
selection, disputes Dr. Dunbar's emphasis on social bonding; a fixed set of
greetings would suffice, in his view.
Dr. Pinker said it was just as likely that language drove sociality: it was
because people could exchange information that it became more worthwhile to
hang out together.
"Three key features of the distinctively human lifestyle â€” know-how,
sociality and language â€” co-evolved, each constituting a selection
pressure for the others," Dr. Pinker writes in "Language Evolution," the new
book of essays.
But sociality, from Dr. Dunbar's perspective, helps explain another feature
of language: its extreme corruptibility. To convey information, a stable
system might seem most efficient, and surely not beyond nature's ability to
devise. But dialects change from one village to another, and languages shift
The reason, Dr. Dunbar suggests, is that language also operates as a badge
to differentiate the in group from outsiders; thus the Gileadites could pick
out and slaughter any Ephraimite asked to say "shibboleth" because, so the
writer of Judges reports, "He said sibboleth: for he could not frame to
pronounce it right."
Language in the Genome
>From Family Failing First Gene Emerges
A new approach to the evolution of language seems to have been opened with
studies of a three-generation London family known as KE. Of its 29 members
old enough to be tested, 14 have a distinctive difficulty with
communication. They have trouble pronouncing words properly, speaking
grammatically and making certain fine movements of the lips and tongue.
Asked to repeat a nonsense phrase like "pataca pataca pataca," they trip
over each component as if there were three different words.
Some linguists have argued that the KE family's disorder has nothing
specific to do with language and is some problem that affects the whole
brain. But the I.Q. scores of affected and unaffected members overlap,
suggesting the language systems are specifically at fault. Other linguists
have said the problem is just to do with control of speech. But affected
members have problems writing as well as speaking.
The pattern of inheritance suggested that a single defective gene was at
work, even though it seemed strange that a single gene could have such a
broad effect. Two years ago, Dr. Simon Fisher and Prof. Tony Monaco,
geneticists at the University of Oxford in England, discovered the specific
gene that is changed in the KE family. Called FOXP2, its role is to switch
on other genes, explaining at once how it may have a range of effects. FOXP2
is active in specific regions of the brain during fetal development.
The gene's importance in human evolution was underlined by Dr. Svante Paabo
and colleagues at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in
Leipzig, Germany. In a study last year they reported that FOXP2 is highly
conserved in evolution â€” in other words, that the precise sequence of
units in FOXP2's protein product is so important that any change is likely
to lead to its owner's death.
In the 70 million years since people and mice shared a common ancestor,
there have been just three changes in the FOXP2 protein's 715 units, Dr.
Paabo reported. But two of those changes occurred in the last six million
years, the time since humans and chimps parted company, suggesting that
changes in FOXP2 have played some important role in human evolution.
Sampling the DNA of people around the world, Dr. Paabo found signs of what
geneticists call a selective sweep, meaning that the changed version of
FOXP2 had spread through the human population, presumably because of some
enormous advantage it conferred.
That advantage may have been the perfection of speech and language, from a
barely comprehensible form like that spoken by the affected KE family
members to the rapid articulation of ordinary discourse. It seems to have
taken place about 100,000 years ago, Dr. Paabo wrote, before modern humans
spread out of Africa, and is "compatible with a model in which the expansion
of modern humans was driven by the appearance of a more proficient spoken
FOXP2 gives geneticists what seems to be a powerful entry point into the
genetic and neural basis for language. By working out what other genes it
interacts with, and the neural systems that these genes control, researchers
hope to map much of the circuitry involved in language systems.
Ending the Silence
Linguists Return to Ideas of Origins
The crescendo of work by other specialists on language evolution has at last
provoked linguists' attention, including that of Dr. Chomsky. Having posited
in the early 1970's that the ability to learn the rules of grammar is
innate, a proposition fiercely contested by other linguists, Dr. Chomsky
might be expected to have shown keen interest in how that innateness
evolved. But he has said very little on the subject, a silence that others
have interpreted as disdain.
As Dr. Jackendoff, the president of the Linguistic Society of America,
writes: "Opponents of Universal Grammar argue that there couldn't be such a
thing as Universal Grammar because there is no evolutionary route to arrive
at it. Chomsky, in reply, has tended to deny the value of evolutionary
But Dr. Chomsky has recently taken a keen interest in the work by Dr. Hauser
and his colleague Dr. W. Tecumseh Fitch on communication in animals. Last
year the three wrote an article in Science putting forward a set of
propositions about the way that language evolved. Based on experimental work
by Dr. Hauser and Dr. Fitch, they argue that sound perception and production
can be seen in other animals, though they may have been tweaked a little in
A central element in language is what linguists call recursion, the mind's
ability to bud one phrase off another into the syntax of an elaborate
sentence. Though recursion is not seen in animals, it could have developed,
the authors say, from some other brain system, like the one animals use for
Constructing a sentence, and going from A to Z through a series of
landmarks, could involve a similar series of neural computations. If by some
mutation a spare navigation module developed in the brain, it would have
been free to take on other functions, like the generation of syntax. "If
that piece got integrated with the rest of the cognitive machinery, you are
done, you get music, morality, language," Dr. Hauser said.
The researchers contend that many components of the language faculty exist
in other animals and evolved for other reasons, and that it was only in
humans that they all were linked. This idea suggests that animals may have
more to teach about language than many researchers believe, but it also
sounds like a criticism of evolutionary psychologists like Dr. Pinker and
Dr. Dunbar, who seek to explain language as a faculty forced into being by
specifics of the human lifestyle.
Dr. Chomsky rejects the notion that he has discouraged study of the
evolution of language, saying his views on the subject have been widely
"I have never expressed the slightest objection to work on the evolution of
language," he said in an e-mail message. He outlined his views briefly in
lectures 25 years ago but left the subject hanging, he said, because not
enough was understood. He still believes that it is easy to make up all
sorts of situations to explain the evolution of language but hard to
determine which ones, if any, make sense.
But because of the importance he attaches to the subject, he returned to it
recently in the article with Dr. Hauser and Dr. Fitch. By combining work on
speech perception and speech production with a study of the recursive
procedure that links them, "the speculations can be turned into a
substantive research program," Dr. Chomsky said.
Others see Dr. Chomsky's long silence on evolution as more consequential
than he does. "The fact is that Chomsky has had, and continues to have, an
outsize influence in linguistics," Dr. Pinker said in an e-mail message.
Calling Dr. Chomsky both "undeniably, a brilliant thinker" and "a brilliant
debating tactician, who can twist anything to his advantage," Dr. Pinker
noted that Dr. Chomsky "has rabid devotees, who hang on his every footnote,
and sworn enemies, who say black whenever he says white."
"That doesn't leave much space," Dr. Pinker went on, "for linguists who
accept some of his ideas (language as a mental, combinatorial, complex,
partly innate system) but not others, like his hostility to evolution or any
other explanation of language in terms of its function."
Biologists and linguists have long inhabited different worlds, with
linguists taking little interest in evolution, the guiding theory of all
biology. But the faculty for language, along with the evidence of how it
evolved, is written somewhere in the now decoded human genome, waiting for
biologists and linguists to identify the genetic program that generates
words and syntax.
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