How Language Began

The Story of Humanity's Greatest Invention

[Amazon Link]

The author of How Language Began is Daniel L. Everett, the hero of what turned out to be the final book from the late Tom Wolfe, The Kingdom of Speech, which I read back in 2016. Everett's primary claim to fame is his demurral from the Noam Chomsky school of human language: that we have a "language organ" in our brains that provides us with the power to generate syntactical sentences.

Wait a minute, says Everett. His research into the language of the Pirahã, a primitive Amazonian tribe, didn't fit into the Chomskian paradigm at all. Language, according to Everett, isn't "built in", it's not in any sense a hardwired "instinct". (Thereby contradicting a Pun Salad fave, Steven Pinker.) Instead, it's an invention of the human mind, like (as I've said before) a pencil or Buick.

Everett contends that "we" have been conversing in at least rudimentary ways (but distinct from animal communication) since the days of Homo erectus. This involves, obviously, a lot of discussion/argument about what language, at root, actually is. But Everett's arguments are at least plausible to my untrained brain.

I didn't find the book uniformly interesting. Everett seems to belabor the obvious at certain points. His prose is occasionally clunky. (And the book doesn't seem well-edited. One symptom: a footnote on page 277 has a misplaced asterisk in the text, very confusing.)

And remember, this is a controversial topic, and we're only seeing Everett's side of the controversy here. Which is fine, but it just means that the interested lay reader (me) probably should remain skeptical of both sides until there's a scientific consensus.

But there's a lot of stuff I didn't know, or didn't adequately appreciate previously. One example: we know that we need big-enough brains to use language. But Everett notes that many other parts of the human organism are involved, all of which needed to be evolved "enough" to handle the desired communicative tasks. For example, we have a remarkably flexible sound-generation system in our mouths, throats, and lungs, something only a few other species boast. Not only can it make the necessary range of phonemes, but also construct widely various pitches and volumes. And it pairs up well with our sound-reception organs, which can detect the subtlest differences in incoming acoustic vibrations.

All thanks (allegedly) to the "dumb luck" of evolution. A lot of things had to go right in order for language to work; enough to make me seriously consider creationism again.

URLs du Jour


[Amazon Link]

  • Arthur C. Brooks writes in a February 14-appropriate way in the WaPo: The U.S. is in a crisis of love.

    Consider the evidence. Jean Twenge, a psychology professor at San Diego State University, has found a precipitous decline in romantic interest among young people in what she calls “iGen,” the post-millennial generation growing up since just before the turn of the century. She notes in her research that while 85 percent of Generation X and baby boomers went on dates as high school seniors, the percentage of high school seniors who went on dates in 2015 had fallen to 56 percent. I asked my son, a junior in college, if this matched his experience. His matter-of-fact reply: “No one dates.”

    It’s not just iGen; millennials are living more loveless lives as well. According to the General Social Survey, from 1989 to 2016, the percentage of married people in their 20s fell from 32 percent to 19 percent. And lest you think they are forgoing marriage but not sex, note that the percentage of 20-somethings who had no sex in the past year rose by half over the same period, from 12 percent to 18 percent.

    Not surprisingly, Valentine’s Day celebrations reflect the change. According to a 2015 survey from the pet health company VetIQ, 69 percent of American pet owners reported planning to give their pets a Valentine’s Day gift. In contrast, only 61 percent planned to give a gift to a spouse or significant other. I’m sure your ferret will appreciate those chocolates, you incurable romantic.

    I didn't get the pets anything. I'm pretty sure they didn't notice.

  • At Quillette, Richard Hanania reports that It Isn’t Your Imagination: Twitter Treats Conservatives More Harshly Than Liberals. Jack Dorsey has denied that Twitter has any political bias. But:

    Not everyone is convinced. A June, 2018 Pew poll found that 72% of Americans believe that social media companies censor views they don’t like, with members of the public being four times more likely to report a belief that such institutions favor liberals over conservatives than the opposite. Podcasters Joe Rogan and Sam Harris both received backlash from their respective audiences for not pressing Dorsey hard enough on the censorship issue.

    Until now, conservatives have had to rely on anecdotes to make their case. To see whether there is an empirical basis for such claims, I decided to look into the issue of Twitter bias by putting together a database of prominent, politically active users who are known to have been temporarily or permanently suspended from the platform. My results make it difficult to take claims of political neutrality seriously. Of 22 prominent, politically active individuals who are known to have been suspended since 2005 and who expressed a preference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, 21 supported Donald Trump.

    I'm pretty innocuous on Facebook and Twitter, but (then again) I have not yet suggested that anyone learn to code.

    Hanania (see his last paragraph) seems to view Twitter as a "utility" which the government ("we") can and should regulate. I (of course) disagree: Twitter can do whatever Twitter wants. It's a free country.

    But I would respect Twitter a lot more if they were honest and transparent about their actual rules: "We will throw you off if you say anything that a member of any oppressed group claims to be upset about. The definition of "oppressed group" is subject to our whimsical Progressivism."

  • This Slashdot story makes me reevaluate my estimate of Gavin Newsom's intelligence… downward: California Governor Proposes Digital Dividend Aimed At Big Tech.

    California Governor Gavin Newsom proposed a "digital dividend" that would let consumers share in the billions of dollars made by technology companies in the most populous U.S. state. In his "State of the State" speech on Tuesday, Newsom said California is proud to be home to tech firms. But he said companies that make billions of dollars "collecting, curating and monetizing our personal data have a duty to protect it. Consumers have a right to know and control how their data is being used." He went further by suggesting the companies share some of those profits, joining other politicians calling for higher levies on the wealthy in U.S. society. "California's consumers should also be able to share in the wealth that is created from their data," Newsom said. "And so I've asked my team to develop a proposal for a new data dividend for Californians, because we recognize that data has value and it belongs to you." Newsom didn't describe what form the dividend might take, although he said "we can do something bold in this space." He also praised a tough California data-privacy law that will kick in next year.

    Egads, what a demagogic muddle. And (worse) it's used to justify a proposed fiscal panty raid on tech companies.

    I can't even imagine a coherent theory of property rights that hides behind Newsom's casual assertion that "California's consumers should also be able to share in the wealth that is created from their data."

    Their data? Please enlighten me, Governor, on your theory of individual property rights in data. I would wager that it's roughly as coherent as David Icke's theories about the Lizard People.

    Even though I am not a California Consumer, I know that (for example) Amazon knows nothing about me that I haven't implictly or explicitly told it, under terms I agreed to.

    Yes, they make money off me, at least I hope so.

    Newsom wants a cut of that? (Or would, were I a California Consumer?) Give me a break.

  • At City Journal Joel Kotkin and Wendell Cox obituize California high-speed rail: This Train Won’t Leave the Station.

    Perhaps the most critical national casualty may be the Green New Deal proposed by New York congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Much of her platform for a ten-year transformation of the American economy centers on transportation. In her bid to kill the internal-combustion engine, Ocasio-Cortez apparently seeks to eliminate both cars and planes. Her favored solution for cross-continental travel: a massive network of high-speed trains.

    Some of this must seem fanciful even to the democratic-socialist heartthrob from the Bronx. In contrast with Western Europe, where several high-speed rail lines operate, the United States has huge distances between cities; its average population density is between three and ten times less compact than that of the European continent. Even on the California coast, a 450-mile high-speed rail trip from  Los Angeles to San Francisco would have taken nearly four hours, compared with a one-hour plane ride. Imagine taking high-speed rail from Los Angeles to Chicago: a three-hour trip by plane becomes a 15-hour or longer trek across vast, empty spaces. During that time, the traveler would cover more high-speed rail mileage than the current length of the entire French system.

    Even fervent supporters of the Green New Deal must recognize what California’s cancellation means: if high-speed rail is not feasible in the state with the three densest major metro areas in the nation, and the highest overall urban density, it is not feasible anywhere else in the United States. (And not just here: Britain’s proposed high-speed rail megaproject, HS2, also appears on the verge of cancellation. Sounding like Governor Newsom, a senior government official told Channel 4’s Dispatches public affairs program: “The costs are spiraling so much we’ve been actively considering other scenarios, including scrapping the entire project.”) It also suggests that the costs for a national network would be formidable and would require the printing presses at the Treasury to work overtime. Of the many high-speed rail lines built in the developed world, only two (Tokyo-Osaka and Paris-Lyon) have ever been profitable, and in each case highway tolls for the same routes exceed $80 one-way, making high-speed rail in those cases an economical consumer choice. California, the green heart of the resistance, has met fiscal reality; reality won.           

    The current plan is to complete the link between Merced and Bakersfield. I.e., they still plan on an idiotic waste of money, just not as much as before.

  • Your probable next President, Senator Kamala Tweeted about taxes:

    Congratulations, Kamala. Even with Twitter's strict length limits, you've managed to earn a coveted Four Pinocchios from Glenn Kessler in the Washington Post: Kamala Harris leaps to unwarranted conclusions in tax tweet.

    The average tax refund is down, at least according to very preliminary data for returns processed through Feb. 1. (That’s essentially one week of filing data.) But the size of a refund tells you nothing about a person’s tax bill.

    The tax law required the IRS to change tax withholding tables. The IRS encouraged Americans to review and update their W-4 forms to make sure the right amount was being withheld from their paychecks, but a survey by H&R Block indicated that 80 percent of Americans failed to do so.

    In other words, if you left everything just the same, you can’t expect the same result. The new tax law raised the standard deduction but also eliminated personal and dependent tax exemptions. While the law reduced tax rates, it also capped a deduction for state, local and real estate taxes, which could really mess up a person’s tax situation, especially if they live in a state with high taxes such as California, New York and New Jersey.

    She's a liar. Maybe not on Trump's scale yet, but give her time.

  • There's good Wired and bad Wired; here's an example of the former, from Matt Simon: R.I.P., Opportunity Rover: the Hardest-Working Robot in the Solar System.

    Last night, NASA reached out one final time to the Opportunity rover on Mars, hoping the golf-cart-sized machine would phone home with good news. Since June, the robot has been unresponsive, likely because a planet-wide sandstorm coated its solar panels in dust. NASA has pinged it over 1,000 times in those gloomy eight months, to no avail. Last night’s attempt was no exception: NASA has announced that Opportunity is officially dead.


    So yes, Opportunity is technically dead. But perhaps it’s more accurate to say it’s bravely completed its mission—and then some. It was only expected to scoot about the martian surface for three months, yet here we are 15 years later. It was designed to travel just 1,100 yards, yet ended up roving a stunning 28 miles. With its companion rover Spirit, the two robots studied the hell out of the Red Planet, exploring geology and dust devils and even finding meteorites.

    NASA and JPL can and should be proud. I also like xkcd's obituary:


    Sigh. I used to assume I'd go there myself one day.

Last Modified 2019-02-14 1:24 PM EST