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Primates and Prescriptivism January 17, 2012. Some Intellectual History During the middle part of the twentieth century, the school of behaviorism reigned.

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Presentation on theme: "Primates and Prescriptivism January 17, 2012. Some Intellectual History During the middle part of the twentieth century, the school of behaviorism reigned."— Presentation transcript:

1 Primates and Prescriptivism January 17, 2012

2 Some Intellectual History During the middle part of the twentieth century, the school of behaviorism reigned supreme in psychological circles. Chief advocate: B.F. Skinner ( ) The study of behaviorism focused on how behavior can be shaped by environmental forces. A big idea: operant conditioning. = Desired behaviors can be brought out in an organism in small steps, through rewards. Language = “Verbal Behavior”

3 The Linguist Strikes Back Noam Chomsky ( ) published a scathing criticism (1959) of Skinner’s work on “verbal behavior”. Some of Chomsky’s main criticisms: Kids learn language with or without reinforcement. Language use is not necessarily functional. Language involves creativity. not derived from external influences. we’re constantly processing new linguistic forms  Language is innate.

4 Evidence? An example of non-functional language use? “Each Nutch in a Nitch knows that some other Nutch Would like to move into his Nitch very much. So each Nutch in a Nitch has to watch that small Nitch Or Nutches who haven’t got Nitches will snitch.” --Dr. Seuss Regarding language acquisition: “We are designed to walk...That we are taught to walk is impossible. And pretty much the same is true of language. Nobody is taught language. In fact, you can’t prevent the child from learning it.” --Noam Chomsky

5 The Great Debate The Skinner/Chomsky debate inspired scientists to determine if animals could be taught language, using behaviorist principles. Early attempts had met with little success. Ex: Gua (chimpanzee, 1930s) raised alongside a human baby, in a human family. At 16 months, could understand 100+ words (more than the child) However: she never improved after that… And she never understood word order (syntax).

6 The Great Debate A similar experiment with the chimp Viki (1948) was also disappointing. This time, her handlers tried to directly train her how to speak. She only learned how to produce a few words: mama, papa, cup, up…. and only with great difficulty. Fundamental problem: the vocal tracts of chimps prevent them from making the same speech sounds we can.

7 Vocal Tract Anatomy Our vocal tracts are shaped in a way that makes it easier to speak… But more dangerous to eat!

8 Washoe In 1965, Allen and Beatrice Gardner started teaching sign language (ASL) to a chimp named Washoe. This worked out much better. Wahoe was taught to use signs deliberately, in a signing environment. Acquired ~85 signs in four years… and used combinations of signs: BABY MINE, YOU DRINK creativity: WATER BIRD

9 Koko Maybe the most famous signing primate is Koko, the gorilla. Koko began to learn ASL in 1972 (and is still going!) Has reportedly acquired as many as 2,000 signs. Has exhibited some creativity: used FINGER BRACELET for “ring” once referred to trainer Francine Patterson as a DIRTY TOILET DEVIL

10 Really? Francine Patterson has made some unusual claims about Koko’s abilities. 1. Koko “rhymes” signs like BEAR and HAIR (even though the signs are not visually similar) 2.Koko substitutes homophones like EYE and I, and KNOW for NO. (again, without similarity between the signs) Linguists remain skeptical about Koko’s abilities.

11 Non-Signing Experiments Some chimps have been taught to communicate using arbitrary symbols. “lexigrams” Sarah: manipulated plastic symbols on a board.

12 Sarah Sarah supposedly understood 130 different symbols. including abritrary and abstract concepts. E.g., Sarah could make sense of the following:

13 Nim Chimpsky Nim Chimpsky was a chimp who was also taught sign language. Learned through interacting with experimenters. Was named to annoy Noam Chomsky. Learned 125 signs in about four years. Used combinations of signs… some longer than two words.

14 The Trouble with Nim Re-analysis of the Nim data showed: Nim did not sign spontaneously. Nim did not respect turn-taking in conversation. 39% of Nim’s “utterances” were repetitions of what had just been signed (vs. 18% in children). Sequences of 3 and 4 signs did not add new information. 71% of Nim’s utterances were interruptions. Nim typically used signs to get rewards, not to convey new information.

15 Typical Sentences from Nim Nim eat Nim eat. Drink eat me Nim. Me gum me gum. Tickle me Nim play. Me eat me eat. Me banana you banana me you give. You me banana me banana you. Banana me me me eat. “Animals can be repetitious to the point of inanity.” --E.O. Wilson

16 Current Work with Bonobos After Nim Chimpsky, funding for primate language studies mostly dried up. …although a few experiments went on. One project involves bonobos, a sub-species of chimpanzees. Bonobos Sherman and Austin have also been trained to use lexigrams. Kanzi learned just by watching Sherman and Austin’s training!

17 Bonobo Successes It is claimed that bonobos: Have better comprehension abilities than production abilities. (just like human children) Learned to comprehend just through ordinary exposure (Kanzi) Skills include creative extension of signs for humor and metaphorical expression. Some evidence of displacement (referring to chimps who are not present)

18 Bonobo Criticisms Kanzi’s use of symbols for purposes other than requesting is only 4%. Longest “utterances” are three signs, with variable word order. For all chimps who are taught language, development reaches a modest level of success and then stops. In children, development keeps going well beyond the early years of life.

19 In Conclusion The ability of animals to acquire language is limited. Works best with primates. Generally requires focused training conditions. Primate “language” can exhibit some crucial design features like creativity and displacement… However, it also exhibits features not found in human language. It also fails to exhibit other important features like consistent word order, continual progress, etc.

20 Moral of the Story Ever since Chomksy’s insight into the biological nature of language, Scientists are much more open to the idea that behavior can be biologically specified. Think of the human use of language in the same way that you think of: Spiders spinning webs Eagles flying Ducks swimming on water etc.

21 Moving On So far, we’ve learned: 1.Language is biological 2.Everyone learns a language as they grow up… but no one teaches it to them. The main points to cover today: 1.All forms of language are very complex. And rule-based. (=systematic) 2.Part of learning a language involves learning these rules (the grammar). For native speakers, the rules are in their heads!

22 The Rules? Since kids are not taught the rules of their native language explicitly… they have to figure out the rules on their own. Our goal, as linguists, is to figure out what they’ve figured out. (which is not always easy) One basic tool we have: grammaticality judgments Native speakers of a language have a sense of whether or not particular strings of sounds and words are acceptable expressions in their language. plab, forch, *fmort, *ptud

23 Grammaticality Judgments Examples at the sentence level: Grammatical: People in Calgary are friendly. Ungrammatical: *Calgary in friendly people are. How do you feel about these? 1.Winter is a very cold time of year. 2.Sad people sing the often blues. 3.Green eggs like I and ham. 4.Each Nutch in a Nitch knows that some other Nutch would like to move into his Nitch very much. One important point: sentences can be grammatical without meaning anything.

24 The Origins of Grammar Another important (technical) distinction: A grammatical sentence is one that can be generated by the linguistic rules inside of a native speaker’s head. An ungrammatical sentence cannot. Note: a sentence is not ungrammatical simply because it has been ruled “bad” by decree. So. How do you feel about these? 1.The Enterprise’s mission is to boldly go where no man has gone before. 2.Who do you trust? 3.Mick can’t get no satisfaction.

25 Standards The rules of “grammar” that we learn in English class first emerged in London in the 17th and 18th centuries. Note: Latin used to be the language that all educated people had to learn. Latin’s supremacy was being challenged by English… So the educated classes decided to incorporate the rules of Latin into “educated” English grammar. Examples: don’t split infinitives don’t end a sentence with a preposition no double negatives

26 Prescriptive vs. Descriptive Prescriptive grammar = Arbitrary rules imposed upon a language by someone (or some group of people) who thinks they ought to be adhered to. Descriptive grammar = Linguists’ description of the rules of grammar inside of native speakers’ heads. Designed to account for native speaker intuitions about grammaticality judgments. Descriptive = natural grammar Prescriptive = artificial grammar

27 The Problems with Prescription There are problems with applying Latin rules to English grammar. 1.The rules are not organic. Note: English is not Latin. So: native speakers can get confused about how to apply them. 2.Language is constantly changing… So the (arbitrary) standards can also change. 3.Prescriptive rules don’t capture most of the grammatical patterns actually exhibited by language. 4.Most importantly: prescriptive rules are not scientific.

28 Problem #1: Confusion A prescriptive rule: don’t end a sentence with a preposition. A prescriptive fix: Natural: That’s the house we lived in. “Fixed”: That’s the house in which we lived. How well does this work? Paul McCartney: “…and in this ever-changing world in which we live in…” Winston Churchill: “This is the sort of English up with which I will not put!”

29 Hypercorrection Another problem: speakers can sometimes correct forms that aren’t (prescriptively) wrong to begin with. This is known as hypercorrection. One example: the case of conjoined pronouns. Pronouns in English have two forms: Subject: I, he, she, we, they Object: me, him, her, us, them The object pronouns appear in the following frames: Bob annoys me.(*Bob annoys I.) Karen wants to come with us. (*with we.)

30 Unforeseen Consequences Conjoined pronouns: Bob and I, Karen and you, etc. A prescriptive rule: for conjoined pronouns, use the form that ought to be used when the pronoun stands on its own. Examples: Good:John and I went to the movies. (Because: I went to the movies.) However: “Bad”:John and me went to the movies. “Bad”:Me and John went to the movies. (Because: *Me went to the movies.)

31 Unforeseen Consequences In the objective case: Good:Larry was talking to John and me. (Because: Larry was talking to me.) However, you often hear people say: “Bad”:Larry was talking to John and I. Or Bill Clinton: “Give Al Gore and I a chance to bring America back.” What’s going on here? People have interpreted the rule as: “and me” is bad; “and I” is good (regardless of case)

32 Problem #2: Shifting Standards “Ain’t” is prescriptively bad. “Ain’t ain’t a word, because it ain’t in the dictionary.” However, “ain’t” used to be popular among the British upper class (about 100 years ago). Another example: runnin’ vs. running, walkin’ vs. walking And yet another: double negation (or multiple negation) From Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (late 14th century): He nevere yet no villeynye ne sayde. Translation: He never yet no villany not said.

33 Double Negatives Prescriptivists currently frown upon double negatives. The argument against them is based on logic: The negation of a negation is a positive. Q: Why would a native speaker of a language say the exact opposite of what they mean? (and why are listeners never be confused by the meaning of a double negative?) A: There’s more going on in double negatives than it at first appears. Q: How would a prescriptivist fix the following sentence? I can’t get no satisfaction.

34 Double Negatives Possible solutions: 1.I can get no satisfaction. 2.I can’t get any satisfaction. What does the word any mean in that sentence? How about: I can get any satisfaction. (?) “any” does not negate the sentence on its own. (technical term: negative polarity item) “no” is the non-standard translation of “any” in sentences like: We don’t need no stinkin’ badges. Moral: natural language does not necessarily follow the same rules as formal logic.

35 Problem #3: Missing Patterns Prescriptivist rules do a poor job of accounting for many of the patterns we find in natural language. Here’s one prescriptive rule which misses a consistent pattern: “Incorrect”: I feel bad (about the accident). “Correct”: I feel badly (about the accident). Why? The verb “feel” should be modified by an adverb (“badly”), not an adjective (“bad”). But is bad/badly modifying the verb or the subject of the sentence?

36 Linking Verbs How about these examples? Bob is happy.(*Bob is happily.) Susie looks hot.(*Susie looks hotly.) The water seems fine.(*The water seems finely.) I feel sleepy.(*I feel sleepily.) James Brown feels good. (*James Brown feels well.) The verbs in these sentences are known as linking verbs. They connect the subject to some property describing the subject. (They do not modify the verb itself.)

37 Different Standards Rules for a standard form of a language… Normally describe the variety of language used by the group in power. Other forms of the language are non-standard. And are often identified with social, regional or ethnic groups. Linguists have discovered that all forms of language (standard or not) are rule-based and orderly.  Non-standard forms of the language are not simply mistake-ridden versions of the standard form.  There is no linguistic reason to consider one variety of language superior to another.

38 Quick Write: Appalachian English Appalachian English is a variety of English traditionally spoken in the Appalachian mountains. Developed (and maintained) unique features due to isolation from outside communities. One interesting feature: a-prefixing…

39 “a” prefixing, part 1 1.a. The man likes sailing. b. The man went sailing. Correct answer: (b) 5.a. William thinks fishing is silly. b. William goes fishing every Sunday. Correct answer: (b) Rule: [a-] form cannot be a noun.

40 “a” prefixing, part 2 2.a. The woman was coming down the stairs. b. The movie was shocking. Correct answer: (a) 6.a. The movie was fascinating. b. The movie kept jumping up and down. Correct answer: (b) Rule: [a-] form cannot be an adjective.

41 “a” prefixing, part 3 3.a. He makes money by building houses. b. He makes money building houses. Correct answer: (b) 7.a. Sally got sick cooking chicken. b. Sally got sick from cooking chicken. Correct answer: (a) Rule: [a-] form cannot be preceded by a preposition.

42 “a” prefixing, part 4 4.a. Sam was following the trail. b. Sam was discovering the cave. Correct answer: (a) 8.a. The man was hollering at the hunters. b. The man was recalling what happened that night. Correct answer: (a) Rule: first syllable of [a-] form must be stressed.

43 “a” Prefixing Summary [a-] form cannot be a noun (#1 and #5) [a-] form cannot be an adjective (#2 and #6) [a-] form cannot be preceded by a preposition (#3 and #7) first syllable of [a-] form must be stressed (#4 and #8) Note: people often consider speakers of Appalachian English to be unsophisticated …but the proper use of the [a-] prefix involves a relatively complex set of conditions.

44 AAVE Another variety of English that has (traditionally) been low on the prestige scale is African-American Vernacular English (AAVE). a.k.a. Black Vernacular English (BVE), Ebonics Predominantly spoken by African-Americans but not all African-Americans… and some others, as well. AAVE has a variety of interesting features... some familiar: multiple negation, ain’t as an auxiliary others are less familiar…

45 AAVE Verbs Verb conjugation: third personal singular verbs lack an [-s] marker. Ex: He look, it do, she have “Paradigm leveling” = making a set of related forms more uniform (similar to “he don’t”/”she don’t”) Under certain conditions, the verb “to be” can be deleted. Ex: you so crazy, she workin’, he lucky In the same conditions, “to be” can be contracted in standard English: You’re so crazy, she’s working, he’s lucky…

46 To Be Deletion What are the right conditions for deletion/contraction? AAVEStandard English You so crazy.You’re so crazy. I gonna do it.I’m gonna do it. *He as nice as he say he.*He’s as nice as he says he’s. *Here I.*Here I’m. They mine.They’re mine. *How beautiful you.*How beautiful you’re. The verb needs to link the subject to something after it.

47 AAVE: Habitual Be AAVE also has a form of “to be” that standard English does not. “habitual” be Habitual be expresses something that the subject does on a regular basis. Examples: He be working at Tim Horton’s. She be late. (= She is usually late.) She late. (= She’s late (right now).) Do you be tired? (=Are you often tired?)

48 Descriptive Benefits Language tends to operate in patterns, even if they are: non-standard pathological Descriptive linguistics enables us to understand how those patterns work. Even if you want to change the world, you’re better off understanding how it works to begin with. History of economics analogy.

49 To Be Fair Standards are useful because they provide a single form of the language to teach to non-native speakers. They help establish uniformity in the written language. They can help clear up confusions. for instance: supposably They also help to distinguish those who have mastered the arbitrary rules from those who haven’t. (for better or worse) Otherwise: They are not useful for (scientific) linguistic analysis.


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