|Subject: [NYLXS - HANGOUT] Human Language Study
Noam Chomsky has endured many attempts to disprove his widely respected
theories of language, but never have any of them come from a 3-ounce
The European starling, a tiny virtuoso, has the ability to learn and
recognize a feature of grammar that has long been thought to be unique
to human languages, researchers report in a new study.
Chomsky isn't buying it, however.
What humans can do
A common characteristic of human grammar is inserting words and clauses
within a sentence, without limit. For example, "Oedipus ruled Thebes"
can become "Oedipus, who killed his father, ruled Thebes" or "Oedipus,
who killed his father, whom he met on the road from Delphi, ruled
Thebes," ad infinitum.
More simply stated, you can insert as many brackets as you want within a
sentence as long as there are as many brackets on the right as there are
on the left.
Chomskian linguists believe that this characteristic, known as recursive
center embedding, is a universal feature of human language, and the
ability to process it forms the core of human language ability.
"Our research is a refutation of the canonical position that what makes
human language unique is a singular ability to comprehend these kinds of
patterns," said the leader of the new study, Timothy Gentner of the
University of California at San Diego.
How the study was done
Gentner and colleagues generated 16 artificial starling songs, which
followed two different patterns. Similar to human grammar, the first set
allowed for a sound to be inserted in the middle of a song, a simple
form of recursive center embedding.
The next set of eight songs followed the finite state rule, whereby a
sound could only be added at the beginning or end, a type of structure
attributed to non-human communications.
After more than 10,000 trials, nine birds eventually learned how to
distinguish the patterns of the two songs.
To see if the birds could use the same rules to distinguish patterns of
longer pieces, the researchers then subjected the birds to longer
strings of song. And the birds were able to make the distinctions. This
suggests that the starling has to have memory and some recognition of
pattern, explained study team member Howard Nusbaum from the University
While the new findings, reported in the April 27 issue of the journal
Nature, might suggest that humans and some animals share basic levels of
pattern recognition, many levels of linguistic complexity may not be
described in this research.
Chomsky not convinced
"The article is based on an elementary mathematical error," said
Chomsky, professor of linguistics at Massachusetts Institute of
Technology. "They are overlooking the fact that there are many
intermediate systems that are ignored in mathematical linguistics
because their properties are empirically irrelevant."
Based on other work done 50 years ago by George Miller, Chomsky thinks
further research would show that the birds are not grasping linguistics
in the way the new study concludes.
"It has nothing remotely to do with language; probably just with
short-term memory," Chomsky told LiveScience.
The ability for the starlings to sort through the patterns may also just
be a benefit of natural selection, a process responsible for the origin
of new species and the adaptation of organisms to their environments, as
proposed by Charles Darwin.
"That aside, if someone could show that other animals had the basic
property of human language, it would be of very little interest to the
biology of language, but would be a puzzle for general biology," Chomsky
said. "It's expected that if a species has some ability that has real
selectional advantage, it will use it."
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