Evolved Grammar God

While contemplating the ways in which our thoughts are conditioned by language in the Sapir-Whorf post, I kept hearing Nietzsche commenting on the “metaphysics of language” in Twilight of the Idols: “I am afraid we are not rid of God because we still have faith in grammar.” In many of his books, Nietzsche hammers away at the idea that language simply reflects reality and accurately corresponds to things “out there” in the world.

There is too much slippage, or distance, between symbols arbitrarily assigned to signify the things “out there” for this to be true. Even when word symbols are assigned to something relatively definite (such as “dog”), these symbols don’t carry much meaning without a great deal of context. This, in turn, ensures that language will always be slippery, never quite getting at a speaker’s goal, objective reality, or absolute truth. Contexts are always ambiguous.

This is of course a constant source of individual frustration and cultural madness. Extremely bothered by all this, Wittgenstein spent the better part of his life trying to prove that language could in fact be objective and truthful. In the end, he was reduced to saying very little, indeed almost nothing. He thought this was the only way he could be truthful.

It seems exceedingly odd that natural selection should design such a thing. “Selection” is not of course an agent and does not design anything. It is the imperfect communicative outcome of millions of years of evolution. Some might even call it a kluge.

In a new paper, Shigeru Miyagawa, Robert C. Berwick and Kazuo Okanoya propose that language is the merged product of two distinct kinds of communicative systems found in the animal world:

Like many evolutionary innovations, language arose from the adventitious combination of two pre-existing, simpler systems that had been evolved for other functional tasks. The first system, Type E(xpression), is found in birdsong, where the same song marks territory, mating availability, and similar “expressive” functions. The second system, Type L(exical), has been suggestively found in non-human primate calls and in honeybee waggle dances, where it demarcates predicates with one or more “arguments,” such as combinations of calls in monkeys or compass headings set to sun position in honeybees. We show that human language syntax is composed of two layers that parallel these two independently evolved systems: an “E” layer resembling the Type E system of birdsong and an “L” layer providing words.

This makes a great deal of sense, and goes some way towards explaining our naive faith in language. The layering of these two systems gives rise to language that always contains two levels of meaning, which sometimes work at cross or divergent purposes. Poets, of course, have known all this for a long time and hardly need an evolutionary explanation for it. The inevitable result of layering may be metaphor.

All of which brings us back to another metaphor, which John Gray recently discussed in an interview about his new book, which ironically is titled The Silence of Animals:

Spectator: You also say that “atheism does not mean rejecting belief in God, but giving up a belief in language as anything other than practical convenience.” What are you getting at here?

Gray: I was referring to Fritz Mauthner, who wrote a four-volume history of atheism. He was an atheist who thought that theism was an obsessive attachment to the constructions of language: that the idea of God was a kind of linguistic ideal. So that atheism meant not worshiping that ideal. But he took that as just an example of a more general truth: that there is a danger in worshiping the constructions of language.

Of course religions like Christianity are partially to blame for this.  But for most of their history, these so called creedal faiths didn’t define themselves by doctrine. Instead they had strong traditions of what’s called Apophatic theology: where you cannot use language to describe God.

I have long suspected that the “ineffability” and “transcendence” so often associated with (Axial) religions is largely a product of language, which is in some ways ineffable and when played with long enough, can seem transcendent. Our imperfectly evolved symbols and speech are slippery and wonderful “things.”


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6 thoughts on “Evolved Grammar God

  1. jayarava

    My first question would be – what do they mean by “human language syntax”? Are they suggesting that syntax is simple and universal for instance? Or have they abstracted some universal features? Skimming the article they appear to only give English language examples. The features of bird song they use are atypical and related only to one or two species.

    It seems to me that you are confusing grammar and syntax in this post and I’m not sure that is helpful.

    I’m deeply suspicious of this kind of speculative research that seeks to explain the origins of anything. Many novel and interesting proposals can and have been put forward for the origins of language. But they are all unprovable. What testable predictions does the theory make and how were they tested?

    However on a positive note this blog suggests that Grammar is Dhamma http://kabbasetu.blogspot.com/2013/02/grammar-is-dhamma.html

    I think this is one of those science reporting situations where there is a too easy acceptance of the conclusions and not enough critical review. I would have held off until there was some kind of response from within the field.

    And again on the contrary I think the transcendence of religions is linked to states of mind which are languageless – especially oceanic boundary loss. Just the every day experience of meditation can produce experiences which transcend the mundane world of words and concepts – states where internal dialogue is completely stilled (which is very pleasant!). But in the peak of meditative experience there is a profound sense of having gone beyond everything. We struggle to put words to the knowledge of having had such an experience. Religion begins with experience, not with language.

    While I’m typing have you seen that Michael Witzel’s book on the origins of mythology has been published by the OUP. Another “origins” theory but Witzel is a very interesting writer. I suppose what he has really done is identify common elements in world mythology. http://is.gd/09NBZL

  2. franscouwenberghFrans Couwenbergh

    You didn’t react yet on my reply on your Sapir-Whorf post, so I reply on this ‘Grammar’-post with hesitation. Nevertheless, your posts about religion are intriguing for me because in my opinion you are on the ‘rightious’ way of distinguishing ‘Axial’ religions (collectivist monotheisms) from our inborn religiously experiencing of the world. Just as you say: “most of their history creedal faiths didn’t define themselves by doctrine.”
    Religiously experiencing of the world is associated with linguisticness, the property that defines our being human. In my first reply I tried to sketch how humans became humans from apes and how they became linguistic. How our earliest ancestors got symbols.
    You mention the Miyagawa/Berwick/Okanoya paper, with the TE/TE theory. OK, our specific linguisticness had a beginning sometimes and somewhere, because animals are not and humans are linguistic (I still have to explain the essence of linguisticness and I hope you take a look on my website for this) – be it that my ‘big bang’-event of this beginning is more simple. But in with the paper is inadequate is, that it doesn’t tell what their ‘big bang’-event does with an animal.
    1. acquiring symbols (I speak of ‘names for things’) created a feeling of distance between the ‘namer’ and ‘the named thing’: between subject and object; our earliest ancestors (EAs) were the first animals who could ‘objectivate’ things, who found themselves apart, separated from their environment, all other animals remaining unresisting part of it.
    You (and Nietzsche, and Wittgenstein, and so many others) are right, finding our symbols ” imperfect and slippery things” but
    2. they enabled the EAs (and us) to ‘grasp’ the things; one can see symbols as ‘grips’ on the the mental representation of a thing, say a sabre-toothed tiger, with which you can ‘grasp’ the sabertoother and ‘hand’ him over to the the brain of another, who can understand what you are thinking of. The symbol ‘sabretoother’ is not the sabretoother himself, so the symbol stays imperfect and slippery. But it gives the ‘namer’ a feeling of power over the feared beast, because the ‘namer’ has a mental ‘grip’ on the beast.
    And so I enumerate three more wonderful aspects of the achievement of symbolic communication, that made our EAs into humans.
    Symbols are “wonderful things”, yes indeed. That they remain imperfect ans slippery is our ‘human condition’.

  3. Cris Post author

    Jaya — I wasn’t claiming this study was correct (I’d be happy to send you a copy in case you don’t have access). But it does state testable hypotheses, and their model is consonant with many other evolutionary models. Even if all these various models aren’t correct, I still find them useful. In fact, the cacophony of competing models suggests that language may be too complex to be captured by a single model. It may be like consciousness in that way.

    Frans — feel free to comment at length. This blog is something I do in conjunction with my other full-time jobs, so I don’t always have time to respond to comments at length or with any depth.

  4. David

    jayarava: I’m a bit confused by the comments: “I’m deeply suspicious of this kind of speculative research”, and then “this blog suggests that Grammar is Dhamma”. I’m sure my feeling of some irony is misguided, but please understand that “grammar is dhamma” doesn’t really say anything at all. After reading the blog-post you referred to I don’t really understand how the research Chris referred to is speculative while that blog-post you refer to is not. At least I could follow the analytical language used in Chris’ post, unlike the ‘Grammar is Dhamma’-post which wasn’t really explaining anything at all and was really hard to follow since it assumed too much. All I could see was a specific interpretation by a Buddhist theologian. Again, it’s possible that I misunderstand something here, probably because it was difficult to understand the argument of that blog-post.

  5. jayarava

    Chris, I looked at the paper which is open access. It answered some of my questions. It was a bit light on consideration of method.

    David. the author of that post is not a theologian, anything but, he studies Pāli grammatical traditions in Burma. I thought the connection was clear enough, but I understand that you might not have had enough background to understand it. We don’t always understand everything. That’s fine.

  6. Larry Stout

    Language comprehension is rooted in human intuition. Our brains are programmed by evolution to associate fundamental commonsense meanings with elements of received language. We are born equipped for, and intent upon, learning and understanding verbal expressions relating to basic functions of human life. Beyond the commonsense meanings of life’s basic functions, including intuitive human sociality, lexical meanings become more and more elusive, and communication unsure, along a steepening and indeed “slippery” curve. The more abstract the language, the more imperfection of comprehension and communication is assured. Dictionary definitions, as many have noted, are ultimately circular. Without intuition, we do not understand words (nor would we hear them in the first place), but intuition abandons us (some sooner than others) as we wander into the abstract lexical jungle. Do you know what I mean?

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