The Language Myth: Why Language Is Not an Instinct

According to an article I came across yesterday the idea that language is an instinct or that there is some kind of language organ in the brain is unlikely to be true. Vyvyan Evans, Professor of Linguistics at Bangor University, argues that,

“Our brains really are ‘language-ready’ in the following limited sense: they have the right sort of working memory to process sentence-level syntax, and an unusually large prefrontal cortex that gives us the associative learning capacity to use symbols in the first place. Then again, our bodies are language-ready too: our larynx is set low relative to that of other hominid species, letting us expel and control the passage of air. And the position of the tiny hyoid bone in our jaws gives us fine muscular control over our mouths and tongues, enabling us to make as the 144 distinct speech sounds heard in some languages. No one denies that these things are thoroughly innate, or that they are important to language.”

He explains that if language were an instinct, children would just know it once their language organ had been tuned to the specific parameters of their mother tongue(s). However it takes children several years of trial and error to grasp the intricacies of language, and they don’t usually generalise patterns they spot to all relevant words straight away. For example, a child might notice that some words have a different form when you’re talking about more than one of something, and they might only apply that change to words they know already at first. Later they might apply it to all nouns, even ones with irregular endings, and eventually they will learn the irregular forms as well.

Another aspect of the language gene/instinct argument is the idea that underlying all languages are a set of universal attributes – the universal grammar. However since this idea was proposed, more and more unusual language structures have been discovered that don’t fit the model, and one of the few elements that remains is recursion – the way sentences can be embeded within other sentences. Even that is questioned as at least one language, Pirahã (híaitíihí), possibly manages without it.

Professor Evans also argues that if there were a language organ, it would have to be passed on via DNA, and that this is unlikely given the complexity needed for such an organ, based on our current understanding of how DNA works. Genes and parts of the brain that were thought to be specific for language, or aspects of language, have been found to be involved in auditory processing or motor control.

You can read more on this in the book The Language Myth: Why Language Is Not an Instinct.

Have you read the book? What is your take on this?

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English, Language, Linguistics 1 Comment

You lucky sausage!

According to a friend who lives in Manchester, a common expression there is “You lucky sausage!”, which is used when someone has some (unexpected) good luck. For example, if you won a prize in a competition, your friends might say, “You lucky sausage you!”.

I hadn’t heard this expression before and neither has anybody else my friend asked from outside Manchester, so maybe it’s only used there. It doesn’t seem to be very common online as it only gets 666 results in Google. Does anyone from Manchester, or elsewhere, use this phrase?

A related phrase I am familiar with is “You silly sausage!” – a light-hearted and affectionate insult used when someone, especially a child, has done or said something foolish or silly.

Do you use this phrase, or have you heard it used?

If not, would you say something else in such circumstances?

English, Language, Words and phrases 5 Comments

Merched Nadolig

Last Saturday I was chatting with a Czech friend in Welsh and describing a recent trip to London. One of the things I mentioned was visiting the Christmas market in Hyde Park, although instead of saying marchnad Nadolig (Christmas market) I said merched Nadolig (Christmas girls/women), much to my friend’s amusement. I realised my mistake almost immediately, but we spent the rest of the day joking about merched Nadolig. There might possibly have been some interference from the Spanish word for market, mercado, in my head, though I haven’t been using much Spanish recently.

Do you sometimes get similar-sounding words mixed up like this?

English, Language, Welsh 3 Comments

Language quiz

Here’s a recording in a mystery language.

Can you identify the language, and do you know where it’s spoken?

Language, Quiz questions 7 Comments

Snickerdoodles

Snickerdoodles

I came across an interesting word in one of the books I read recently – snickerdoodles. From the context I guessed that they are something you eat, but wasn’t sure what. I now know that a snickerdoodle is a type of cookie made with butter or oil, sugar, and flour rolled in cinnamon sugar that is characterized by a cracked surface. They are possibly German in origin and their name may come from the wonderful German word Schneckennudel (“snail noodles”), a kind of pastry. Alternatively snickerdoodle might be a nonsense word from the New England tradition of giving cookies whimsical names [source].

Do you know of any other whimsical names for cookies or other food?

Language 4 Comments

Noogies

A interesting word that comes up sometimes in American books I read is noogie [ˈnʊɡi], which is used in the context of one person giving someone else a noogie. The people involved are usually kids, and it sounds like a somewhat unpleasant experience, though until I looked it up, I didn’t know exactly what the word meant. It isn’t used in the UK, as far as I know.

According to Merriam-Webster, a noogie is “the act of rubbing your knuckles on a person’s head to cause annoyance or slight pain”. The origins of the word are unknown, and it first appeared in print in 1972.

Are noogies used outside the USA? Are there other words for this practice in other countries?

English, Language, Words and phrases 5 Comments

Language quiz

Here’s a recording in a mystery language.

Can you identify the language, and do you know where it’s spoken?

Language, Quiz questions 4 Comments

Interview from Novi Sad

Here’s an interview I did at the Polyglot Conference in Novi Sad last month with Lindsay Dow of Lindsay Does Languages. I talk about how Omniglot came into being, and about learning languages, particularly Welsh.

English, Irish, Language, Language learning, Travel, Welsh Leave a comment

Mutual intelligibility

This week I heard an interesting conversation about the mutual intelligibility between Czech and Slovak friends. They were talking in English, but said that when they can talk to each other in their own languages they’re able to understand everything. The Slovak lass said that she finds it strange for Czechs to speak Slovak to her as if they speak Czech she understand them without difficulty, though if people from other countries speak Slovak, that’s fine. I use what little Slovak I know with her, for example. The Czech lass said more or less the same thing about Slovaks – she doesn’t expect them to speak Czech, though if they do, that’s fine by her.

If you are a native speaker of Czech or Slovak, what’s your take on this?

What about other languages that as mutually intelligible as Czech and Slovak?

I understand that Swedes and Norwegians can talk to one another in their own languages, for example. Would it be strange for a Norwegian to speak Swedish or vice versa?

Czech, English, Language, Norwegian, Slovak, Swedish 9 Comments

New Omniglot designs

You might have noticed recently that various different designs are being tested on Omniglot. The idea is to improve user experience on the site, and to increase my revenue from the site. While the latter certainly is true – my income from Google ads has been up 200-300% since the changes were started a few months ago, which means that my overall income has almost doubled – I’m not convinced of the former.

When you visit the site in different browsers and on different devices you’re likely to see different designs. You may even see different designs each time you visit in the same browser/device. I can see the old site in Chrome and Firefox on my laptop, but in IE, and on my Samsung tablet, I see new designs. You can see the old site by clicking on this link.

I have put a poll on the Omniglot Facebook group asking whether you prefer the new designs or the original site. Please let me know what you think, if you haven’t done so already.

If the majority are for the old site I will switch back to it.

Here are some examples of the new designs:

Homepage
An example of a new homepage design

Inner page
An example of a new inner page design

Homepage
An example of a new homepage design

Inner page
An example of a new inner page design

Here are the original designs:

Homepage
Original homepage

Inner page
Original inner page

General Leave a comment