August 6, 2012 @ 3:41 pm
[Posted 24 hours later, roughly]
I’m down at Tate Street Coffee, listening to their Sunday Irish jam session, thinking about the evolution of music and language. Irish music uses the same notes as every other form of Western music, but it’s easily recognizable, even to a complete musical dope like me, and not just because of the mix of instruments (today there’s 4 fiddles, a cello, a mandolin, a guitar, a flute, one of those hand-held thumpy drums, and a penny-whistle, I think. Only nine musicians, though.). There are patterns in the notes that are characteristic of a particular musical genre.
I just finished Andrew Halloran’s The Song of the Ape, in which he recorded chimpanzee calls, sorted them into categories based on the visual patterns in their frequency spectra, and then validated those categories statistically. Then he went back and looked at the information about what the chimps were doing when they made those calls. Not really a double-blind study, since he was the one who made the notes about what the chimps were doing, but since there were so many of them (too many to remember) and he did them in separate time periods, it kinda/sorta approximates one. Having tossed out a lot of outliers, he found about 25 relatively common phrases that he could reliably identify: things like “Let’s fight!” and “I found some food” and “I need grooming.” He didn’t translate the female mating calls, but since they only made them when mating with the alpha male, it might have been something like, “Look at the size of this diamond, bitches!”
Yes, I really am going there – direct comparisons between humans and chimps. Halloran doesn’t talk about this, but how many human communications boil down to these same kinds of simple declarative statements? Most of our showoffery is in saying the same old thing with new combinations of words. Don’t most pop songs boil down to “I would really, really, REALLY like to mate with you” either short-term or long-term? Harlan Ellison famously (at least geek-famously) said that there were only seven stories; Tom Barbalet of Noble Ape just sent me this, which systematically breaks down narrative into a sort of periodic table of 16 character roles.
Eventually, Halloran learned to understand the chimp’s language. It took years of conscious effort, a computer to translate the calls into a visual format, and a PhD-level understanding of statistics. His ears and his auditory cortex simply couldn’t do that job alone, the way every human infant’s do in learning a first language. He talks about the mismatch between sender and receiver as being an absolute thing, much the way Chomsky talks about grammar being an absolutely human thing. He never mentions the anti-Chomsky approaches to language, which focus not on inborn grammatical rules, but on infants being able do to exactly that same kind of statistical analysis on human speech, only automatically and unconsciously. I’m not a linguist, and I’m not really embedded in that debate; I only know about these statistical approaches because I happened to attend the University of Rochester. . .
(Is that guy assembling a fookin’ bagpipe? I think he might be.)
(Yep, it’s a bagpipe.)
Anyway, U of R had a cognitive linguistics group, which focused on the statistical properties of languages, working on problems like: how do we know where the boundaries of words are, when there are not convenient white spaces between them in the speech stream, like there are on the page? The answer appears to be that there are sound combinations that only happen at word boundaries, like P and B in English. Try to think of an English word with a P followed by a B in the middle of the word. Infants automatically and unconsciously collect those statistics, and use them to segment the speech stream into words. Moms help by speaking slowly, at a high pitch that matches their ears, and by using the same words over and over again.
Can chimps do that? I don’t know that anyone has done those transition-probability experiments in other primates. As Grue from Despicable Me would say, in his horrible fake-Russian accent, “Light bulb. . .”
Halloran doesn’t talk about that work at all. He’s pretty down on the ape sign language studies, too. Now, my wife and I taught my son to use Baby Sign, which is not a grammatically structured sign language. In our hands, at least, it was just a bunch of labels for things that he wanted, kind of like Halloran’s description of the chimp’s phrase-dictionary. Jack could do that confidently and regularly at less than a year old, while he didn’t even start babbling in English until he was almost two. That might mean that there are different brain areas doing those things, and it might not. Could the difference be as simple as the grain of the statistical analysis that humans are capable of? We can do words and letters, which vastly increases the number of seemingly different things we can say, where chimps can only do labels/concepts/phrases? It can’t be that simple, can it?
The other thing that Halloran found was that when they sundered a big group of chimps – split them in twain, as it were – the two new tribes pretty quickly began to evolve in different linguistic directions. Some phrases dropped out and others were added in the younger of the two groups, as they adapted to a new environment, and as they started to copy the new alpha male rather than the old one. The process he describes reminds me of music. Bill Monroe almost single-handedly selected the sounds of bluegrass out of the old Southern string band tradition, which was rooted in the even older Scots-Irish stuff that I’m listening to now. But in one sense, it wasn’t him; it was the community that chose to copy what he was doing, instead of what some other innovator was doing. I’m not a music historian, so I don’t know anything about who those other innovators were, the variants who were not selected by the crowd, but there must have been some.
Oh, well, battery’s running low, so I’ll shut up and listen for a while. Cheers.
[Hey! If you liked this topic (and from the ratings at least one person did), go listen to Episode 39 of the podcast, where I reviewed Disney Nature's new anthropomorphic documentary Chimpanzee. Also, based on that one bit of feedback, I chose this post to submit to the Carnival of Evolution. Thank you, anonymous rater!].