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Thursday, July 7, 2011

A comment on Russo, E and A. Treves, 2011, An Uncouth Approach to Language Recursivity. Biolinguistics, Vol 5, No. 1–2 (2011)

In the introduction to the Special Issue on Biolinguistic Perspectives on Recursion, Sauerland and Trotzke summarize, in part, above article as

having reviewed salient features of cortical organization, they discuss recent work that shows that the human cortex has more neurons (in absolute number) than any other mammal, or, more specifically, that the number of spines present on the dendrites of pyramidal cells are significantly higher in the human cortex than in any other species. They then argue that these quantitative differences can produce qualitative changes in the functionality of a neural network.

Given the heavy emphasis on neuro-linguistics in the overall Special Issue, one must welcome the contribution by neuro-scientists Russo and Treves who, by all appearances, throw the field of language study back to what it is, i.e. a branch of psychology, as variously emphasised by Chomsky (1972). Not that Russo and Treves say so. Indeed they seem to elevate the axiomatic statement of ‘quantity gives rise to quality’ into the realm of natural science. While I doubt that the natural sciences are ready to accept this dictum, one can of course point out that in Marxist materialist doctrine there has long been the celebrated claim by Engels – in his Dialectics of Nature – that the transformation from quantity to quality is a general law of development, especially in terms of human social evolution; and we now can add the evolution of human language.

Of course neither Hegel nor Engels nor Russo and Treves have any real clues as to what the underlying scientific processes might be for such a transformation. After all ‘quality’ is not a scientific measure of any sort. Russo and Treves cite ‘spontaneous latching dynamics’ as the cause celebre, thereby again seeking recourse in psychology, i.e. via a scientifically mysterious process called ‘spontaneity’. What Russo and Treves demonstrate very convincingly, however, is the immense quantification of the human brain, thus setting it apart from all other species. It seems perfectly reasonable to claim that this in itself is the cause for the evolution of human language, thus also supporting Russo and Treves in saying that there may be no special neurological (and genetic) features that equate to the ‘mythical’ LAD.

Indeed I may be so uncouth as to suggest that language is the only evolutionary development specific to the human species and that all other cognitive abilities are derived from it. One reason – however non-empirical – that language is the only manifestation of a transformation from quantity to quality is the uncanny, if not paradoxical feature of language, in that it is the only phenomenon known to mankind that can explain itself – and everything else in its wake. Laws of nature clearly exist outside the realm of language but language is needed to manifest them in human knowledge systems. Only language can express types of meta-cognition that give rise to all probable and improbable belief systems, be they religious, psychological, mystical or economical – the latter in particular evading scientific reasoning, despite the best efforts of communists and capitalists alike.

Only language – as a qualitative system – can give rise to spectacular instances of malfunction – in itself of itself - from pure stupidity to ‘manufacturing consent’ à la Herman & Chomsky. Quantitative systems only malfunction due to external factors.

Equally and antonymically speaking, only language can give rise to the most spectacular and ‘beautiful achievements’ (see below for instantiations) known to the human species – music included (birdsong excluded)!

Despite the best efforts of ‘natural’ scientists we may never find out, what exactly it involves at a physical level, to make the transformation from quantity to quality (= language). While I am loathe to categorically deny the possibility, one can cite numerous instances from creation stories that elevate language – as ultimate knowledge – to realms outside human comprehension. At meta-linguistic levels language can state its own syntactic rules but language per se will never be able to retrace its own evolution in terms of natural science. If we reduce syntax to the minimalist concept of ‘recursive concatenation of linguistic structures’ as per Russo and Treves, we may well find synonyms (i.e. near-equivalents) in the natural world.

Another nice pronouncement from Russo and Treves are the observations that the cortex is largely ‘democratic’ and that a ‘given unit can usually find itself’ and that ‘strictly hierarchical connections are a minority’. From this point of view it may well have been a good idea to abandon syntactic models with strict hierarchical tree or phrase structures. That a given phrase can ‘find itself’ and embed itself in itself may sound as far fetched as the ‘mythical’ LAD (also as per Russo and Treves), however, if we are to believe the basic principles of democracy (as elaborated in Chomsky’s descriptions of syndicalist anarchism) we know very well that the more enlightened and/or knowledgeable individuals readily find themselves to be embedded again and again in multiple societies. Since we are what we speak (or at least cogito ergo sum) we can be expected to the same in our languages. If sanity is to prevail over insanity, we have no better hope than this.

Finally Russo and Treves compliment Chomsky with a ‘beautiful achievement’ by foreshadowing their current insights – surely a choice of words not found too often in scientific discourse. This is in stark contrast to an unpleasant review in a recent issue of Biolinguistics (Vol 4, No 1 (2010)) by Balari and Lorenzo entitled ‘Specters of Marx: A Review of Adam's Tongue by Derek Bickerton’ where Bickerton is chastised as some sort of mad Marxist for being a bit too much on the side of ‘communication’ as an evolutionary force for language development. If anything, such articles confuse the hell out of everybody in term of situating Marxism: are Balari and Co. neo-cons who are bent on taking out a patent on their version of language evolution and sell it to the highest bidder? Linguistics is a branch of psychology and not of political science nor of the academic armaments industry. In terms of psychological characterization we are free to make compliments as to ‘beautiful achievements’: what Freud was to psychoanalysis, and what Marx and Engels were to communism, Chomsky is to biolinguistics, and Bickerton (1975) is to the study of creoles. May be one day in the distant future the ‘uncouth’ Russo and Treves will be lauded in such terms for evo-devo-linguistics. Remember however the parable of Adam and Eve: the latter having nibbled on the apple of ultimate knowledge (= language knowing itself)!


Bickerton, Derek. 1975. Dynamics of a Creole System.

Chomsky, Noam. 1972. Language and Mind.

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