A Science Of Human Language - Part #3

In Part #1
of this series, I suggested that a grammar heavily based in syntax was not sufficiently scientific as a general theory of how language functions.

Part #2 was an overview of how linguistic error-handling processes can add to the reliability and predictability of communication using human language.

This current part is a discussion of the evolution of the shared rules of communication, some of which, after writing was invented,  came to be formalised as pedagogic 'rules of grammar'.

Rules Of Conformity

Before any two people can communicate they must have a shared means of communication.  At a simple biological level, signals may be expressed in the form of body language.  If the behaviour is purely instinctive, or 'hard-wired', there is no need for two communicators to be social: the system works just as well across species as within species.  The noise made by a predator alerts the prey to the need for evasive action without any hint of cooperation.

As soon as a species evolves some form of language there is a need for cooperation.  A species whose members make entirely individual noises is just a noisy species, not a communicating species.  For a language to evolve there is a requirement of shared signals.  If the shared signals are to be learned, rather than 'hard-wired',  there must be a mechanism by which all of the members of a 'language group' come to make the same sounds for the same purpose within a range of variability. 

The range of variability is a requirement because each individual is biologically different to some degree.  No two animals can make exactly the same sound by using the same mechanism.  Nature operates only within what an engineer would call a wide tolerance: a range of sizes and inter-operating parameters which are 'tolerably' fit for purpose.

Phonemic Conformity

Language is a means of communication.  Communication requires a code which is used in common - 'agreed' - by all communicators.  In the case of human language, the code is made up of sounds: the phonemes of speech.  In the absence of language it is impossible for any group of would-be communicators to agree a code and protocol for a language.   Human language evolved.  Like any product of evolution, language is imperfect.  Again, as is so often seen in biological systems, evolution has provided means by which an imperfect biological product is made serviceable.

We are born unable to speak.   We learn to speak by experimenting with our sound-making capacity and by copying overheard speech sounds.   The copying process is demonstrably imperfect.  It is a common experience, easily demonstrated by experiment, that no two people can pronounce any phoneme in exactly the same way.  Across a language community there is a wide tolerance or variability in the sounds that we recognise as belonging to that language.  In the absence of some counteracting mechanism it would seem that the tolerance range should expand over generations until there would ultimately be no possibility of communication.

Fortunately there is a regulatory mechanism, I suggest, which ensures that each language user's variant of pronunciation tends to drift towards a communal average.  The suggested mechanism functions by retaining the infant brain plasticity in the areas which exercise micro-control over speech.  Even if the 'templates' for phonemes become fixed, micro-control allows for a constant adjustment towards whatever the brain perceives to be the current environmental norm.  This would account for a traveller unconsciously acquiring an accent: the brain is simply seeking conformity with a perceived norm.

General Conformity

This idea of conformity can be extended across all of the components of language, both spoken and written.  Primarily, the brain seeks to comply with the perceived norms of language as pronunciation of words, meanings of words and sequences of words.  Secondarily, the brain's higher - supervisory - functions can be brought to bear to excite or inhibit the primary compliance.

In the early stages of language evolution, long before writing was invented, perhaps even before our current level of self-awareness evolved, our ancestors cooperated on an entirely unconscious level in their use of language.  The rules of language, never voiced or discussed, and never 'hard-wired' by evolution were developed and refined into a tool which would both serve human society and bind that society.

It is difficult to envision a large human group cooperating between families for the benefit of all without the tool of language.  Language is a tool for social cohesion and progress.  The rules of conformity serve to bind a community through the use of a common language.   The language itself then becomes a symbol of community membership.   It is then a unifying symbol representative of the entire social group.

The theme of natural conformity and tolerance ranges is continued in Part #4.   I discuss some rules of natural grammar and explain the importance and basis of aesthetic value judgments in the determination of what is, and what is not 'acceptable' use of a language.

Related reading:
Related articles about language in my blog, The Chatter Box.
We Have Ways of Making You Conform
Word Salad And Rules Of Conformity