Concept Exchange Society


Wednesday, June 10, 1998 6:30 pm

At Glenn Johnston's House.

Presentation: Don Farmer

Eve Spoke

Pre-Meeting Notice:

Language is the quality which distiguishes us from the other beasts. How has this happy faculty come to us? Why don't others in the animal kingdom possess it? In his most recent book, "Eve Spoke," Professor Philip Lieberman elucidates these questions, and further stokes the fires of controversy while doing so.

The book is brief, and the number of ideas is limited. Never-the-less the exposition is thought provoking.


Present were Don, Curtis, Steve, Glenn, Roberto and M.

Don reminded us of a most significant new discovery in physics: that the neutrino must have a mass. No mass for it has ever before been found and the mass is taken to be zero in current fundamental theories of physics. So the recent finding confronts theories of the universe - what laws can govern it and what its fate can be.

After some discussion we left the topic and Don proceded with his presentation of the book "Eve Spoke" by Philip Lieberman. One can look up Lieberman's book at and see there what reviewers have said about it.

Lieberman claims to challenge current orthodoxy on the mechanism of language. The accepted view is that of Noam Chomsky. At the time he put them forth, Chomsky's view was the challenger to the accepted orthodoxy confronting him.

Chomsky studied language from the syntax (word structure) viewpoint. He proposed that grammer and syntax were 'wired into the head'. That there exist genetically programed algorithms that are mapped into the structure of the brain to produce the sounds of whatever mother tongue the child hears. A baby is predisposed to pick up a language. It falls into the category of 'instinct'. Children intuit a deep structure of grammar. That children make up sentences never heard by them is taken as a strong argument for the viewpoint.

Liberman says the attribute of speech is not hard wired. Merely the ability to learn - to learn anything at all - is sufficient to account for language. This means that only learning ability need be hard wired. Merely with that, alone, a child learns to speak. As, in fact, he learns many other things. The only requirement for actual speech is the physical apparatus to execute it, points out Lieberman. The key to executing speech is the shape of the superlaryngeal vocal tract - the shape of the SVT. Chimps don't speak because they can't physically produce a good range of voice sounds. Says Liberman, the Neanderthals had an SVT that would have severly limited their speech ability. This may explain their extinction. Language has survival value. Neanderthals were not able to expand their vocabulary because they couldn't express their vocabulary. That is Lieberman's thesis.

It seems to me, if I am correctly understanding Don and he is correctly understanding Liberman, that a critical experiment must be suggested to decide the issue. Else there is no issue! The crux of the matter is whether the ability to learn anything is sufficient to learn language. Or does the ability to learn language, in particular, have special status independent of the ability to learn other things?

What would be the nature of some critical experiment to distinguish these two views? To produce someone who learned language and nothing else! To demonstrate that someone could learn much but not to speak!

These very examples suggest that the learning of language must be intimately connected to the learning of many other things. Language expresses what you have learned!

On the other hand speech is a brain localized activity just as is seeing. It is centered in the left hemisphere. So speech learning does have brain sites of its own. This supports Chomsky's view.

It seems to me that Liberman makes a significant contribution to thought by embedding Chomsky's view in a larger matrix which includes the physical aspect of being able to speak. What Lieberman teaches us is that the ability to learn could flower only when the ability to make a large range of sounds could give it expression. To me this appears to be a significant advance in thinking.

Says Glenn: Why aren't there different species of humanoids now? Why should there be chimps around but no neanderthals? Glenn promises to look into the extinction of the neanderthals for us and report at a future meeting.

June 1998
Marvin Chester

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© m chester 1998 Occidental CA