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Friday, December 08, 2006

Polya's Inner Neanderthal

I remember reading, years ago, the excellent book "The Psychology of Mathematical Invention" by the mathematician Jacques Hadamard...

He surveyed a bunch of mathematicians, intending to find out how mathematicians think internally. Many mathematicians thought visually, it was found; some thought in terms of sounds, some purely abstractly.

But, George Polya was the only mathematician surveyed who claimed to think internally in terms of grunts and groans like "aaah", "urrghhh" , "hmtphghhghggg"....

At the time I read this, I thought it was very odd.

However, now I have just read Mithen's book ("The Singing Neanderthals", discussed in another, recent blog of mine) claiming that the language of Neanderthals and early Cro-magnons was like that: no words, just lengthy, semi-musical grunts and groans with varying intonation patterns....

So maybe Polya was just old-fashioned.... ;-)

Anyone else out there think in terms of grunts and groans and so forth? If so please contact me....

3 comments:

Izabela said...

What??? "Anyone else out there, please contact me?"?? Your wife does it!!! ;-p

Anonymous said...

If you're not familiar (and I bet there's a good chance you are), you should give The Symbolic Species: The Co-Evolution of Language and the Brain a read. The author, Terrance Deacon, notes that language changes much, much faster than brain structure. So while there's self-evidently some human language faculty, there is more pressure going in the other direction -- with baby brains as a bottle neck on language structures. Structures that are acquired late are less likely to be passed on, so in accommodating human brains, language becomes easier for young humans to "guess" at correctly -- which takes care of the apparent "poverty of stimulus" problem.

But to the degree that there is pretty clearly some designated language processing structure in the brain, I would imagine something pretty simmilar to modern language has been tugging gently at our brains for quite a long time, so it's difficult for me to imagine that humans communicated in such an unmodern-like way such a relatively short time ago. Perhaps in Neanderthals, but Cro-mangon?

How would you encode any sort of predicate/argument relationships in such vocalizations? And if they weren't, how would such vocalizations be any different from other sorts of animal signaling?

Deacon suggests that the whole process got off the ground with primate human ancestors living in group arrangements that conferred advantages to those members that could keep track of the sexual behavior of their mates -- because they often needed to be away.

Geoffry Miller believes that a good deal of human language is explainable by runaway sexual selection processes. Take the unnecessarily large vocabularies of humans for instance, and imagine that this amounts to verbal plumage -- like a peacock's tail. Men are known to use more word's than women, but the general superiority of female language ability can be explained by women needing to know what a good-looking (or sounding) set of "tail feathers" looks (sounds) like. Not all male "verbal displays" are equal, and vocabulary size is possibly a good general fitness indicator.

Language Origin is a real pickle. As a student of linguistics, I give it quite a bit of thought, and I also sometimes fret over the notion that it might be such a specific product of our evolved architecture, that for intelligent artificial systems to be conversant with us in human language, they would have to somehow emulate that architecture. And, well...that's a somewhat scary thought.

Russell said...

Where does non verbal intent come into view? Not attatching to specific literal symbols but more to the use of these spontaneous sounds as vehicals of intent. ?