Tag Archives: linguistics

The Abolition of Linguistic Ghettos

Wilford, J.N. (2007). Languages die, but not their last words. New York Times. September 19, 2007. Available online: http://www.nytimes.com/2007/09/19/science/19language.html?hp.

While focusing on antiquarian relics, the article points to good news: globalization is reducing the number of widely spoken languages.

Languages are not unique creatures with rights of their own, but tools used by people to know the world, provide for their families, and live life. The power of languages — like the power of most platforms — is proportional to the number of people who speak it. When a language’s speakers abandon their traditional tongue and embrace a more popular method of communication — like the rise of German over Low German or Mandarin over Manchu — both peoples benefit.

Cognitive Development, Part VIII: Language

The eighth chapter of Flavell, Miller, & Miller’s Cognitive Development, entitled “Language,” ties into my prior learning more than any other section of the book. One of the two first books I read to understand how biology effects behavior was Pinker (2002), so I was even familiar with some of the specific findings. In fact, in one case I am a step-ahead of the authors!

Having made it this far through my reactions, you are aware that I believe that group ancestry is not given the weight it deserves – or any attention at all – in academic research. Summing up unfortunate the consensus, the authors write that “No one believes that children are prepared by evolution to learn English or Japanese; whatever biological pretuning there may be must work for any language that the child happens to encounter…” (316). Well, maybe. The genes ASPM and Microcephalin occur more often among tonal language speakers than nontonal language speakers (Dediu & Ladd, 2007). Further, one of these genes (ASPM) effects brain size (Mekel-Bobrov et al, 2005) and is not just a product of evolution, but is undergoing evolution right now (Evans, 2005). While we cannot say conclusively that a gene undergoing rapid evolution that effects the brain and is non-randomly distributed so that it is common among tonal language speakers and uncommon among atonal language speakers, it’s surely a good bet. With this sort of finding, we may be coming to the day where the emergence of differences between groups (such as babies no longer sounding the same all over the world, see Boysson-Bardies, 1999) to something more than culture.


Add to all this the recent findings that ability to listen to multiple sound-sources at once is largely genetically determined (Morell, 2007)…

Another topic that I paid attention to in the chapter, but one I know much less about and unrelated to the first, is how new findings relate to the Piagetian notion of assimilation and accommodation. For instance, take the finding that a third of the first 75 words learned by infants were used too broadly (Rescorla, 1980). My understanding of Piaget’s process is that concepts should expand outward by assimilation until they are cleaved in accommodation. By this logic, most if not all words should be overextended. I can see two counter-arguments: either our measurement techniques are not fine enough to detect the true rate of verbalization, or else (as the authors imply on pages 315-316) language occurs separately from the rest of cognition. The authors statement on page 312 that no Piagetian framework has been found for grammar supports the latter explanation, as does the fact that language, unlike most skills, is learned best younger and worst older (Johnson & Newport, 1989) and as does the finding that overextension is more performance based than knowledge based (Hoek, Ingram, & Gibson, 1986).

I wonder if future high-level textbooks on child cognitive development will even include a chapter on language. Language is so different from everything, and learning language so different from every other sort of learning, that linguistic cognition may not be “cognition” at all. (Of course, this begs the question what other forms of thinking should not be so-called?)

My conclusion ties into how I began this chapter. My recognition of the possible role of diversity in ancestry in explaining the observed diversity of traits owes a lot to the man who introduced me to neo-nativism generally. While Pinker (2007) disagreed with the notion, he outlined in a clear and reasonable way what population-level genetic diversity would mean and how we would begin testing it. Because linguistic scientists are blessed with a tremendous amount of data (both the fact that even babies love to listen to words and naturally love to babble (Locke, 1983), as well as the new CHILDS Database (MacWhinney, 1995), I believe they have been less theory-bound than many other social scientists. Linguists have been at the front of the effort to incorporate the second half of variables – those that are genetic or innate – into social science research. We are all the luckier for their work.


Cognitive Development, a tdaxp series
1. Introduction
2. Infant Perception
3. Infant Cognition
4. Representation and Concepts
5. Reasoning and Problem Solving
6. Social Cognition
7. Memory
8. Language
9. Questions and Problems
10. Bibliography

Socially-constructed races and the SSSM

Races are large groups, the members of whom are more closely related to each other than to outsiders. Races can be thought of as large-scale families. While race mixing can and does occur, the historical norm appears to have been for in-breeding within races. (It is through this inbreeding that genetic drift can ultimately lead to trouble.) Where there has been race-mixing in the past, it tends to be the males of one race interbreeding with females of another. Thus the United States has a “black” population that tends to be maternally African but often with distantly British paternity, and Mexico has a “mestizo” population that tends to be maternally American Indian and Iberan.

Some doubt the factual reality of race. That is, some claim that racial differences are only skin deep, and that the mere fact that one person has darker or whiter skin (facial features, bone structure, enzyme collection, etc) says nothing about ultimate ancestry. These skeptics would say that only a very small number of traits very among human groups in the first place, and that if one’s ancestral home is nearer the equator, then it makes sense that one’s ancestors evolved darker skin to avoid the sun’s harmful rays.

A problem exists if we claim that race only effects skin: race as a variable explains variation. Fatality rates from a host of diseases, intelligence, and other factors are better predicted if we take race into account than if we don’t. If race is not real below the skin, that means something besides biology is causing this variation. The race-skeptics answer that race is “socially constructed,” that society has decided that people should be fit into this-or-that racial category based on skin color. In other words, if we would ignore race, it would go away.

However, there is another way that race can be “socially constructed”: perhaps culture can cause genetic evolution. Indeed, it appears this has happened. gnxp notes an article from the Proceeds of the National Academy of Science (PNAS) entitled “ Linguistic tone is related to the population frequency of the adaptive haplogroups of two brain size genes, ASPM and Microcephalin.” The article notes how the long-standing view that humans are language-neutral — an infant from any population can learn any language equally well — appears to be false. Children whose parents come from populations that historically have a tonal language (Latvian, Chinese, etc). have a different sort of gene than children whose parents come from a tone-neutral language (English, Spanish, etc)…


As Scientific American writes, the genes that very between tonal and non-tonal populations affect brain size during embryonic development. Unlike subject-verb order, use of passive tense, round vowels, etc, “tone seemed to be inextricably tied to the variations of [the genes].”

Therefore, language may be socially constructed in that society determines which language genes — which type of linguistic intelligence — thrives in a population because of the population’s culture. This implies that other traits — which provide some advantage in a culture — may be selected for in some cultures but not other. Personality, temperment, skin color, disease resistance, general and multiple intelligences, etc. — can all be selected by culture, not just by natural environment, solar radition, etc.

Why does this matter? And why is it even controversial?

Western civilization and American ideology reject the notion that biological differences can result in differences in worth. Paul teaches “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28). Whether one’s reality is biologically determined (as in sex), culturally determined (as in wealth), or the result of biological-cultural interaction (nationality), all are equal. Likewise, the Declaration of Independence‘ preambles beginning, that “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed, by their Creator, with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness,” is absurd if one reads to to say that equal rights are the result of equal inheritance.

However, starting in the 1940s, Academia was seized by the post-Christian, post-American Left. Without the arbitrary faith in equal moral worth that comes from the Christian and American traditions, the Left had to maintain that the facts showed that all humans were born equally capable in all ways. Otherwise, without faith in equal worth, the logical conclusion was Aristotle’s: some men are born to be kings, some are born to be slaves. The Left constructed the Standard Social Sciences Model to justify claims of equal worth by claiming that everyone had equal inheritance.

But the Standard Social Sciences Model is now falling apart. Every week brings new studies which show how genetics influece important traits, such as intelligence. And increasingly, we see papers like the langauge one which implies that cultures shape the biology of their host-nations. Contemporary genetics veto the possibility of equal inheritances, and increasingly the existence of races is seen to be more and more likely.

The SSSM is bankrupt. And with it, the logic of the left. Either a mechanism is found to uphold human equality in the absense of equal inheritances, or the doctrine of equal worth must be abandoned.