Animals and language

rogersgeorge on May 1st, 2012

Over the past several years I’ve read quite a few items about about primates using American Sign Language, and other forms of animal-to-human communication. If you follow this blog, you know I’m reading Spencer Wells’ The Journey of Man. Here’s a passage about animal language that I had not seen, and it clarifies some things for me, so I thought I’d share. The whole book is worth a read, and if your library doesn’t have it, put in a book request.

… It is at this age that most children begin to put together three words into complex sentences – ‘Margot kiss Daddy’, rather than simply ‘Margot kiss’ or ‘Kiss Daddy’ – with the subject-verb-object (SVO) structure, or syntax, that characterizes English and most other human languages. The structure SOV (‘Margot Daddy kiss’) is used by a few languages (Japanese, Korean, and Tibetan among others), while VSO and VOS structures are used by around 15% of languages (Welsh is an example of the former and Malagasy of the latter). The rarest structure of all is OSV, perhaps best known from the film The Empire Strikes Back as the language of Yoda the Jedi master: ‘Sick have I become’ and so on, used by only a handful of languages spoken in the Brazilian Amazon.

The important thing to glean from this syntactic diversity is that word order plays a crucial role in our understanding of a sentence. …

So, the explosion of linguistic complexity in a two-year-old is a result of the mastery of syntax, and from then on it is a never-ending barrage of ever more complex sentences. The great leap forward in understanding, however, involves crossing the syntax barrier… This is what we see with chimpanzees taught to use American Sign Language … The significant difference in human vs. ape communication seems to have been the creation of brain structures that allowed an understanding of syntax, and thus the communication of complex meaning.

Gorillas can do ASL, too

This is a more extended passage than I usually quote, but the remarks about chimps and syntax don’t make a lot of sense without the examples of syntax. The whole section is good. (Pages 86 and 87 if you look it up.) I had been wondering if there was a qualitative difference between ape and human language ability beyond anatomical hindrances in the chimp. Now I see there is.

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In which I criticize my own writng

rogersgeorge on October 31st, 2011

This post fits into the category “the hard part of writing.”

Perhaps the most important rule in good writing is to proofread your work. I wrote an article about proofreading a while back, but almost nobody reads it. I think the title isn’t catchy enough. Anyway, I re-read my previous post, and I found something to fix.

Here’s the passage that needs work:

I think maybe, perhaps, the use of “born” instead of “hatched” fits rather well, even in an article that later gives the scientific name of antibiotic-resistant fecal bacteria, especially if you read the entire article.

Think about that last clause, starting with “especially. ” It doesn’t quite fit. The sentence says that the article gives that scientific name especially if you read the entire article. That’s nonsense. The meaning I intended is that you can tell that “born” instead of “hatched” fits rather well if you read etc. So we should move that “especially…” clause closer to the front of the sentence, perhaps after “rather well.” But if you do that, the reference to the scientific name is too far away. I caused the problem by going for a chatty effect (by using “maybe, perhaps) and leaving out the important phrase, “you can tell” after “I think.”

Fecal bacteria are boring little rod shapes. I figured this picture would gross you out more—after all, today is Halloween.

I see two respectable ways to fix this bad sentence.

  • Put in “you can tell” and put the “especially…” clause after “tell.”
  • Make two sentences: “Read the entire article. I think maybe, perhaps, etc.”
  • Leave off that final clause altogether. You probably went and read the entire article already anyway.

(Oops, that’s three. Don’t say I never gave you nuthin.’)

What do you think? Maybe you have a fourth rewrite. Post a comment.