Re: language acquisition and tool use

Date: Fri Apr 09 2004 - 20:45:03 PDT

Thanks a lot for your generous answer, Esther! I'll track the
references you mentioned. I wish you a nice sojourn in Ghana!


Quoting Esther Goody <>:

> Dear David,
> Re language acquisition and tool use:
> One of my long-term obsessions has been: 'What has been the dynamic
> between
> the emergence of spoken language and the emergence of hominid
> sociocultural
> cognition'?
> This is an awkward interest for an empiricist! So I keep trying to
> find ways
> to study bits of the puzzle*.
> During a year at the Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin (1989-90) it was
> possible
> to read up on related topics like ethology, 'language origins' and
> sociolinguistics. In the spring the Kolleg let me organise a workshop
> around
> the topic of the emergence of social intelligence. As a result of
> the
> workshop and reading, I have played around with conceptualising
> cognition as
> essentially social, in
> two senses: (i) social in that we communicate with others through
> (spoken/heard) language; and (ii) social in that
> ala Vygotski we think through internalised speech. Following through
> on
> (ii), it seems that much internal speech models others'
> possible responses to our alternative actions. In this sense
> cognition is
> literally social. My edited book based on the Wissenschaft workshop
> tries to
> work out some of the implications of this view ("Social intelligence
> and
> interaction").
> Where does this leave Greenfield's elegant paper on 'right
> handedness'?
> This is clearly part of the overall picture. The 'nesting' of boxes
> in
> children's play and the 'nesting' of grammatical structures in
> apparently
> every language are too analogous to be accidental. The puzzle is How
> do
> emergent cognitive propensities for hierarchical ordering fit in with
> the
> emergence of spoken language - and specifically to cognition which
> is
> social?
> The evolutionary ethologists have looked at feeding patterns,
> right-handedness, and particularly what they term 'Machiavellian
> Intelligence'. This last is the thesis that apes got progressively
> smarter
> as they learned to outwit other apes by anticipating their responses
> to
> goal-oriented actions. Each ape is trying to outwit other apes, to
> reach his
> own goals. Hence this is 'Machiavellian' intelligence. In their
> book
> "Machiavellian Intelligence" Bryne and Whiten argue that this
> competetive
> cognitive modelling of other apes responses eventually led to
> homind
> intelligence (?Blackwell, 1988). This book scarcely mentions spoken
> language!
> I had not heard of the Mach Intelligence book in Berlin, but a
> linguist
> friend suggested that Whiten would be an interesting participant for
> the
> workshop. He couldn't come, but Richard Bryne did (his paper is in
> the
> Workshop volume). Probably because of this meeting, I was asked to
> contribute a paper addressing the role of spoken language to the
> follow up
> volume, "Machiavellian Intelligence II" (eds Whiten and Bryne,
> ?1997).
> Again, apart from my paper there is no discussion of language in
> relation to
> emergent hominid
> intelligence.
> Must admit that I haven't kept up with the ethologists since then.
> However I do read what I can around the emergence of language in
> relation to
> human cognition. NOT the Chomski lot - since their premiss of
> one-off
> mutations and hard wiring is directly opposite to a socially emergent
> view.
> The best book I have found recently is Terrence Deacon's "The
> symbolic
> species" (Allen Lane: Penguin, 1997). In fact I bought it and then
> did not
> read it until last year - put off by
> the title I think. (In anthropology symbolism has largely been taken
> over by
> post-modern angst.) But I did take it to Ghana, where starved for
> reading I
> noticed the sub-title: The co-evolution of language and the human
> brian.
> Although it is highly technical, I found it riviting. And very
> convincing.
> You might enjoy it.
> _________________________
> *Various papers have analysed ethnographic material in relation to
> how
> interpersonal communication in specific role relationships are
> routinised,
> and how this makes them usful to do 'interpersonal work'. As an
> example,
> 'Greeting, begging and the presentation of respect' looked at the
> way
> greetings are highly elaborated in the Gonja kingdom, and how people
> use
> them to establish and assert claims on others. Another looks at
> 'questions';
> another at 'prayer', another at joking relations.
> Published work on learning (apart from paper on 'questions') has
> not so
> far looked at use of language. This is what I am doing now.
> _________________________
> Am leaving for Ghana again in two days - and off e-mail there. I
> have
> asked Mike eto take me off the XCMA list for now.
> But I would value any thoughts about language origins and social
> intelligence. or activity theory. - or 'practice'. Should you feel
> like
> responding, my personal e-mail is: eg100 who-is-at I am
> going to
> try to set up e-mail again in Ghana this time (gave up after burning
> out two
> modems a couple of years ago). If I succeed will try to pick up my
> Cambridge
> e-mails in Ghana........
> Best wishes, Esther Goody
> ----- Original Message -----
> From: <>
> To: <>
> Sent: Thursday, April 01, 2004 4:49 AM
> Subject: language acquisition and tool use
> Hi,
> In 1991 Patricia Greenfield published a wonderful paper in
> Behavioral
> and Brain Sciences on language acquisition and tool use. The paper
> suggested that language acquisition and tool use followed similar
> developmental paths and engaged similar cortical areas. I was
> wondering whether any of you know of recent research that has
> followed
> up that paper.
> David

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