In their new book, scientists Morten Christiansen and Nick Chater put forward the intriguing argument that origins of language lie in cultural improvisation and human imagination.
Politicians, grammarians, and almost everyone in between have strong views on language. Some say that standards are declining. Others believe that one tongue should be preferred over others. And a majority are made to feel that political correctness has gone too far.
In this scenario, The Language Game, a new book by Morten H. Christiansen and Nick Chater, provides an intriguing look at how language evolved in the first place. Christiansen, a cognitive scientist at Cornell University, and Chater, a behaviourial scientist at Warwick Business School, propose that the origin of spoken languages lies in cultural improvisation and human imagination.
The parallel that runs through the book is that of the game of charades. If you’ve played charades with a group of people over time and have become more proficient in understanding and decoding signals, say the authors, you have the key to how human language arose and developed.
It’s an audacious premise inspired by both Wittgenstein and Darwin. In his later work, Wittgenstein moved away from his picture theory which claimed that language represented things in the external world. Instead, he introduced the notion of language games.
Here, language arises spontaneously from specific interactions. “Let the use of words teach you their meaning,” he noted. As the authors point out, the word “light” can refer to illumination, ignition, a shade, weight, and more. It all depends on the context.
In an earlier century, Darwin referred to language’s cultural evolution. In The Descent of Man, he wrote: “The formation of different languages and of distinct species, and the proofs that both have been developed through a gradual process, are curiously the same…The survival and preservation of certain favoured words in the struggle for existence is natural selection.”
For Christiansen and Chater, then, language is about extemporising and the desire to communicate. It arises spontaneously and is refined to increasing levels of nuance and complexity. This makes it infinitely flexible and “delightfully capricious”, even though perfectionists like Flaubert complained that “language is a cracked kettle on which we beat out tunes for bears to dance to, while all the time we long to move the stars to pity”.
Be that as it may, Christiansen and Chater also point out that it’s a mistake to think of the mind as a computer, with information bundled and transmitted in packages. Conversation is not a game of tennis, “where messages are lobbed back and forth from one mind to another”.
Language is, in short, more a product of culture than biology. It’s akin to music, art and social norms. There is no “pure” version. Structural similarities are like patterns that arise in the natural world, visible in the complex designs of bacteria, beech trees, beetles, bats and birds.
As the authors put it, the struggle for the existence of sounds, words and phrases over generations can be viewed as “a model for the struggle for life among biological forms”. The key ingredients are variation and selection.
For this to be plausible, theories such as Noam Chomsky’s universal grammar and Steven Pinker’s language instinct have to be discussed and debunked, which is what the authors set out to do. Such biological explanations are barking up the wrong tree, they write.
Languages change faster than our brains can evolve, and there aren’t distinct adaptations of grammar to different linguistic environments. For these and more reasons, they conclude that there is no innate ability or gene solely responsible for language.
It’s not that biology doesn’t play a part. Specific regions of the brain have become linked to language over time. Further, the design of our vocal tracts allows us to articulate sounds in a specific way.
We also have a short-term memory for sequenced information. When it comes to language, we get over this bottleneck by “chunking”, combining different pieces of information into single units. The same technique helps us to remember telephone numbers.
In such ways, language is shaped by the brain. Instead of asking, “How did the human brain become so well adapted to language?” Christiansen and Chater ask: “How did language become so well adapted to the human brain?”
Why, then, is language unique to humans? Simple, say the authors. The great apes, our nearest primate cousins, aren’t able to play charades. They lack many of the underlying skills on which it piggybacks.
The same applies to Artificial Intelligence. Computer programs can focus on the tip of the communication iceberg — words, phrases, sentences — in remarkable ways, but they remain oblivious to the “hidden, submerged part comprising all the cultural and social knowledge that makes human language possible”.
The authors lay out their argument in language that, aptly enough, is admirably lucid. Further investigation could well incorporate all the other elements at play in the game of charades, such as a range of bodily gestures, eye movements, and facial expressions.
Until then, as they put it: “Language at its core is fundamentally interactive, fluent, and cooperative: linguistic charades is beautifully coordinated conversational dancing, creating meaning on the fly, step by step, in time with one another”.