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It is important therefore to consider more closely the exact nature of the abilities and the significance they may have in human language capacity. Perhaps the first and most important of these abilities is that of imitation. Apart from man, birds are incomparably better imitators than any other living beings. But how is imitation possible, either for birds or for humans? The imitation of sound is only one segment of a much more general power of imitation that we have; some animals can imitate bodily action but not sound and the general problem of imitation is much the same in both cases.

Imitation seems to require at least four types of ability: 1. Presumably both in the mynah bird and in man, some similar processing to imitate sound, and especially speech-sounds, must occur. The difference, of course, is, as someone said at the New York conference, that no matter what the parrot or the mynah bird says, he is not telling us anything. In man, imitation plays a role different from that of imitation in the parrot.

Whilst straightforward imitation of spoken language may be of importance to children learning to speak, in the adult the circle of imitation must be broken; imitation by the adult may have been of value in the early spread of language rather like the spread of song-patterns in a group of birds but for conversation, heard speech had to be, not imitated but responded to.


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Overt imitation had to be suppressed, covert imitation would be linked to the conceptual structure. But the power of imitation seen in birds such as the parrot and mynah has other important implications for understanding human speech-capacity. If the mynah bird is able to imitate human speech very exactly, then the production of human speech-sounds, combined in an appropriate way, does not depend on a uniquely human articulatory apparatus or a uniquely human neuromotor system for controlling articulation.

Mynah birds can imitate human speech and other primates cannot.

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Quote here Thorpe's response to a questioner who said that primates' inability to imitate speech was due to the defective structure of their larynx: "All one can say is that the vocal organs of birds are apparently much less appropriate for imitating human speech than those of the chimpanzee or gorilla. I think On similar lines, Nottebohm at the New York conference said that the supposedly unique properties of human language could probably have evolved in many other vertebrate forms with little need if any to change their vocal tracts ; and Wind, at the same conference, stated that a chimpanzee larynx grafted into a human would enable the latter to produce normal speech The ability of a bird to produce human speech-sound also casts doubt on the proposition that the growth in size of the human brain was due to the heavy demands made on the neural system for control of articulation specifically apart from other neural requirements for language.

Rather similar questions arise in relation to the ability of a variety of animals to respond categorically to different human speech-sounds, and the infant's ability to respond to a range of phonemes wider than the set found in the ambient language. Why should chinchillas be able to distinguish different vowel-sounds and maintain the categorical perception of them over 27 speakers with very different formant frequencies.

The ability of Rhesus monkeys to distinguish different consonantal speech-sounds categorically is equally surprising. Rather like the power of imitation in the parrot or mynah bird, there is no obvious selective advantage that the ability to respond in a discriminating way to different human speech-sounds could have for chinchillas or monkeys though obvious advantage for the human infant to be able to discriminate a wider range of phonemes before he finds out what the local language is.

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Universals in Human Language. A Historical Perspective - Persée

In both instances, the ability looks more like a by-product of some other important function or a neutral character or an inexplicable one. Even more relevant for the human language ability how are chinchillas and monkeys able to make these discriminations? Presumably they have not learnt human speech-sounds and they can have no schemas to match them against - or at any rate no vocal schemas. They must have a set of abilities: 1. Quite a performance - which is very similar to what the human needs to do to extract uniform speech-sound patterns from very various acoustic experiences.

In so far as words are linked to concepts, the ability of most animals, perhaps all animals, to form concepts and use them to program action is very relevant. An octopus can distinguish between a triangle and a square, between a vertical rectangle and a horizontal rectangle Sutherland, There seems to be nothing uniquely human about the formation of concepts, and the process must be very similar throughout the animal kingdom.

Probably it is constituted by the following elements: 1. This crude description of what might be involved in concept-formation bears some obvious similarities to the description of what might be involved in imitating specific speech-sounds or producing discriminating responses to different speech-sounds. Cross -modal brain connections Thus, many of the abilities required for human speech are possessed in some degree by other animals and particularly birds. If one considers more closely the nature of these abilities, there are certain general features that can be seen.

First of all, the very great importance of cross-modal or transfunctional links on the existence and significance of cross-modal connections, see Davenport, ; Ettlinger and Blakemore, ; Ettlinger, ; Premack, In imitation, there is transfunctional linking between visual perception and bodily action, between hearing and articulatory activity; in the discrimination of speech sounds, there is transfunctional linking between hearing and the action response in the case of infants, sucking on a teat.

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In the case of concept formation, there is transfunctional linking between vision or other forms of perception and action, in the case of the bee, a link between vision and bodily action. Secondly, despite very differing peripheral apparatus, syrinx or larynx, the observed behaviour seems to require similar 'programs of the brain' - to use J. Young's phrase. This fits in with Jan Wind's view that cerebral reorganisation was decisive for the origin of speechlike communication with the ability to form cross-modal associations and increased memory The history of the development of human language then becomes a demonstration of E.

Forster's words: 'Only connect', and one needs to examine the nature and the progress of this increase in the connections between the various parts of the human brain, which has resulted in the supreme cross-modal device, the linking of experience of the real world to the internal structure of language. Some idea of the richness and potentialities of cross-modal development can be found in aberrant, extreme forms of the phenomenon in man and in forms of cross-modal linking which we do not have but might have.

Links can be established between more than two functions, triple or quadruple links, or what might be described as supramodal links. MacDonald Critchley gives examples in his discussion of synaesthesia in relation to music Critchley and Henson, : many people experience specific different colours in relation to differences in musical pitch; for some, musical patterning is converted into much more extensive patterned visual experience; one person found that so vivid were the photisms resulting from music that he could sketch them, their contours appearing more important than their colours; in some people, music produces an imagery first of taste and then of colour minor chords are bitter, major chords sweet.

He comments that synaesthesia is not a linguistic matter of metaphor but is the outcome of genuine intersensory attributes: the employment of transmodal metaphors in speech is something more than a turn of phrase, being the product of veritable perceptual attributes at an intersensory level. One musician found that he could recall a particular musical pitch more accurately by matching to the remembered associated colour rather than by sound alone. The significance of such cross-modal linking seems to be in providing a finer distinction of sensory experience.

This was certainly the case with the remarkable memory of S - the Mnemonist - described and studied by Luria He experienced the objects and events he remembered in many different senses: taste, smell, touch, vision - his only real problem was his inability to forget anything. The lack of some key cross-modal links may explain the ape's inability to speak.

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Though a bird such as the pigeon can readily learn to transfer its response from patterned sound to patterned light, apes cannot readily do this. The ability to make such a transfer implies the existence of some trans-modal coding of the pattern and some connection between the visual and the auditory apparatus. Lack of the necessary intracerebral connections may also explain the chimpanzee's restricted use of its vocal apparatus. Perhaps one of the chief values of chimpanzee language studies is to force investigators to consider more deeply what the characteristics and necessary requirements for human spoken language are, why it is that, considering their brain sizes, apes particularly gorillas and chimpanzees are so 'stupid'- when Lenneberg's nanocephalic dwarfs with brains no larger than a gorilla's, were able to learn language More generally, why have no other animals developed a human-type language if there are important survival advantages attached to it?

Perhaps, for birds, it was a matter of choosing flight as the most profitable use of the freedom given by bipedalism after all, even though they have no propositional language, there are today more birds than humans and they occupy a greater geographic range; apparently, flight has worked well for them in the survival stakes. Otherwise, it seems that the absence of language in animals is due to lack of the appropriate central connections in their nervous systems, not to other anatomical deficiencies.

Motor system and language If then human language capacity is due to cerebral reorganisation, particularly increments in brain connections, what were the stages, the means and the organising principle of the reorganisation? In the cross-modal abilities described, what is apparent is the involvement of the motor system, viz.

This is not really surprising in view of the central role of motor control in behaviour; motor control seems to be the primordial ability of the organism, with sensory input devices developing in larger organisms to provide a refinement by external inputs modifying action and with the nervous system extending to maintain control over distant parts perhaps the essence of the nervous system indeed is maintaining speed of response as organisms increase in size.

It seems reasonable to assume an extensive relation between human spoken language and the motor system and indeed to expect that the language capacity has been built up on the framework provided by the motor system, as Lieberman has suggested But where does this conclusion, or suggestion, that language in its development and its functioning has an intimate relation to the organisation of the motor system, lead?

What lines of investigation are indicated? There are two main directions: first, investigation of the relation between the motor system and other modalities or functions like vision, hearing, conceptualisation and memory; secondly, examination of the relation between the motor system and the substance of spoken language, viz. We can observe, for example, in dance-forms a direct relation between sound-patterning and body-movement.

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Similarly, we can observe a direct relation between visual contour and body-position and movements when mouth, face and hand are used to mime some perceived object. We might even suppose that the structures of concepts for visual experience or for auditory experience have a direct relation to motor programs and in this way a straightforward link could be assumed between perception and action. Consider, for example, how the concept of a triangle might be represented: rather than anything like a picture of a triangle, it would be quite sufficient to have a program for the production or scanning of a triangle.

On a computer, one might have a general 4-step program: 1. Plot any point on the centre-line 2. Move down any distance in the centre-line 3. Move left any distance and plot 4. Reverse to the right for the same distance plus any additional distance and plot. This on a computer would be a completely general triangle-producing program, parallel to a plausible program for scanning a triangle visually. What one would have is a motor program for a triangle functioning as a concept for categorising an unlimited range of different triangles.

A motor program itself does not of course involve or require movement, perhaps simply being the prescribing of biases in the muscular system. It seems plausible and indeed economically desirable that the motor system can mediate between different modalities, converting visual perception into bodily action, perceived shapes into sounds, heard sound into shapes or contours.


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If, as the discussion so far suggests, aspects of animal behaviour resembling features of human language capacity are cross-modal or trans-functional and the major component in them is the motor control system, it is essential to examine more closely how far there is evidence, in current speech, for a special relationship between language and the motor system.

At the same time, one can speculate about the nature of the intimate relation of motor control and different aspects of the human speech process. Others have, by different routes, arrived at the idea of a special relationship between language and motor function see for instance Swinney, Lomas and Kimura, ; Fowler et al, ; Ojemann and Mateer, ; Kelso and Tuller, ; Turvey, ; Kinshourne, ; Kimura, ; ; Kertesz, Comments can be found such as: language is essentially behavioural muscular processes; action and language are homologous; a formal theory of language and a formal theory of movement control would be qualitatively indistinguishable; human language is primarily a series of actions; language and motor action are intimately connected, ontogenetically, perhaps phylogenetically, and in the continuous daily use of language by adults McNeill, The most literally visible evidence of the relation between language and motor function is to be found in gesture , or subgesture.

Others have commented that vocal and kinesic behaviour in children develop together, that manual and language skills mature in parallel in very similar ways. McNeill, in particular, has proposed for gesture an important role in the speech production process.

The Origin of Language a Formal Theory of Representation /Eric Gans. --. --

He suggests that gestures can be regarded as externalised traces of the internal speech programming processes: "Many utterances are constructed in terms of concrete models of reality, or sensory-motor representations A motor theory of language origin implies that, internally, every significant feature of language can be approached in motor terms.

There should, on this view, be a relation between motor control and bodily movement associated with speech, between motor control and conceptualisation, between motor control and perception, in so far as the motor system is assumed to be the essential intermediary between the different sensory modes and language.

The logical next step is to seek to trace or at least make plausible suggestions for the relation between motor organisation and the different aspects of human spoken language: speech production, speech perception, syntactic organisation, word formation, phoneme function, concept formation, and the linking of concepts to words, the storage of words and of the related concepts. The motor basis of speech production is obvious. The motor theory of speech perception was proposed many years ago Liberman et al.

It seems perfectly conceivable that the link between the auditory analysis of speech-sound and speech production can be established by the linking of speech analysis and speech production in the individual as he monitors his own speech.