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Durham University

What's On

What's On

The Past and Future of Universal Grammar

15th December 2011, 09:30 to 18:00, Repeated daily until 17th December 2011, Rosmary Cramp Lecture, Calman Learning Centre, Durham

Registration: Thursday 15th December
Conference Friday 16th - Sunday 18th December
This conference aims to provide a forum for assessing and (re-)directing the course that research on universal grammar and the biological foundations of language should take over the coming years and decades, bringing together linguists, psychologists, philosophers, and biologists.

Speakers include Nick Chater, Guglielmo Cinque, Gavin Clowry, Tim Crow, Ewa Dabrowska, Wolfram Hinzen, Anders Holmberg, Elisabeth Leiss, Christopher Petkov, Ian Roberts, Tom Roeper, Maggie Tallerman, Ian Tattersall, Nathalie Tzourio- Mazoyer, Rosemary Varley and Jill de Villiers.

Registration opens at 6:30pm on 15th December in PG21, Durham Union, Palace Green, Durham.


The speciation of modern Homo sapiens
Tim J. Crow, SANE POWIC, University Department of Psychiatry, Oxford
7:30pm, 15th December
PG 20 Union Society, next to the Cathedral on Palace Green

Concerning human origins Darwin (1859) wrote only "Light will be thrown on the origin of man and his history". In 1863 TH Huxley brought man within the framework of Darwinian theory, but doubted Darwin's gradualist account and the adequacy of artificial selection as a model for the institution of boundaries between species.
In 1873, two years after publication of The Descent of Man, Mueller, a philologist, wrote "If anything has a right to the name of specific difference, it is language, as we find it in man, and in man only".
The concept of modern Homo sapiens as a single distinct species with an origin 160,000 years ago (Stringer, 2002), requires an account of speciation with greater discontinuity and rapidity than Darwin envisaged. Paterson's concept of a species as defined by a "specific mate recognition system", whereby an individual identifies another as of the same species and opposite sex, points to a solution.
Here the theory is proposed that each species is associated with a distinct sexual dimorphism that constitutes the mate recognition system for that species, and that this identifier arises from a particular configuration of X and Y chromosomes in male meiosis.
Broca (1877) postulated cerebral asymmetry as characteristic of the human brain; Annett (1985) proposed it could be accounted for by a single human specific gene. According to three cohort studies females have an advantage in vocabulary, and males in spatial ability, but in both sexes, those at the extremes of left- and right-hand skill, and those close to ambidexterity, are at a disadvantage relative to those moderately right- or left-handed.
Where is the gene? Individuals who lack an X chromosome (XO or Turner syndrome) have spatial disability, while those who have an extra X (XXY or Klinefelter's syndrome, or XXX) or an extra Y (XYY syndrome) have language delays. Thus the gene pair for asymmetry is on the X and Y chromosomes.
A sapiens-specific region of XY homology was created by a duplication from the long arm of the X to the Y chromosome short arm dated to 6 million years, i.e. close to the chimpanzee/hominin divergence. Protocadherin11XY (PCDH11XY), a gene-pair that codes for two cell surface adhesion molecules, is expressed from both X and Y chromosomes within this homologous block. PCDH11Y has been subject to 16 amino-acid changes in the hominin lineage, and PCDH11X to 5 such changes, two radical and in the part of the protein that interacts between cell surfaces (Williams et al, 2006).
How did language evolve? Harasty et al (2003) proposed that the cerebral torque is a consequence of thinning and broadening ("ballooning") of the cortex on one side relative to the other allowing the spread of neural activity to be more extensive within association cortex, with a different range of associations. Thus the human brain may be 4-chambered (left and right, anterior and posterior) relative to the two chambers (anterior and posterior) of the chimpanzee, with the consequence that the surface in the right hemisphere is 'subordinate' with respect to speech perception and production to the left.
Thus "meaning" is the sequel of speech perception, and "thought" the precursor of speech production, with transformations taking place in inter-hemispheric transmission.
Annett M (1985) Left, Right Hand and Brain: The Right Shift Theory. London, Erlbaum.
Broca P (1877) Bulletin de l'Academie de Medicine 6: 508-539.
Crow TJ Ed (2002) The Speciation of Modern Homo Sapiens. OUP.
Crow TJ (2008) Schiz Res, 102: 31-52.
Crow TJ (2010) J Neurolinguistics, 23: 1-9.
Darwin C (1859) The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, London, J Murray.
Harasty J, Seldon HL et al (2003) Laterality 8: 247-260.
Huxley TH (1863) Evidence of Man's Place in Nature. London, Williams & Norgate.
Mueller FM (1873) Fraser's Magazine vols 7 & 8. Reprinted as pp 147-233 in R Harris Ed The Origin of Language. Bristol, Thoemmes.
Paterson HEH (1992) Evolution and the Recognition Concept of Species. Baltimore, J Hopkins.
Stringer C (2002) Phil Trans Roy Soc B. 357: 563-569.
Williams NA et al (2006) Amer J Med Genet. 141B, 623-633.

The Image of the Child's Mind in Grammar
Tom Roeper, University of Massachusetts
7:30pm, 17th December
PG 20 Union Society, next to the Cathedral on Palace Green

The general claim we will pursue is that there is no straightforward prediction from language about cognitive structures, but there are suggestive connections. The fact that we have stereoscopy in eyes and ears, but quite differently in each, suggests that modules can have the same principles independently. What we can grasp with our eyes and hear with our ears requires quite different mental rerepresentations.
There are many concepts from grammar that may help us to see what powers are found elsewhere in a child's mind. They include: referential freedom, infinity, novel combinations, set formation, and the power of recursion, that is, the power to embed something inside itself. In each case, the requirements of language are distinct from broader thinking abilities.
Referential freedom is present when a child says: "I want cookie" and they mean any cookie, not a specific one. Animals too seek non-specific food. They want grass, not that grass.
We can see the notion of infinity present in a child when they say "never" if, as is plausible, they understand an unending notion of time inside it.
The productive power of grammar has an analogy in every repetitive action. Nevertheless, the restrictions on putting one cup on top of another are not the same as the restrictions on "recursive" properties of grammar. A child seems to "recursively" put one cup on top of another, but the structure created does not have an inner structure. In language a sequence of adjectives: the biggest second green ball entails an analysis of each lower relation in a special way. It does not mean: the biggest and the second and the green ball. Instead it entails a choice from a set of second green balls.
Our capacity to put one thought inside another or to attribute thoughts to other people is signalled by many kinds of behaviour which require our minds. If a child says something and you turn away, they may correctly conclude that you don't like what they said.
In general, the abstract powers found in language provide us with important questions about every aspect of mind. Can we generate an infinitive variety of emotions? The generative power to create unique sentences suggests that all actions and thoughts are unique, that individuals are never fully understood by others, and that therefore we should have respect for a fundamental human dignity that lies beyond the judgment of others.

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