Language and Human Behavior
Derek Bickerton, 1995

Language is Unique to Humans
If humans are "just another unique species", what is it that is so unique about us? Bickerton proposes that that uniqueness is our ability to use language. He claims that the fields of sociology, anthropology and linguistics have each failed to come to terms with the real nature of language and its effect on our species. He claims that human language is in fact much more than "merely" a system for communication.

Language is Thought, Thought is Language
Besides providing us with a means to communicate, language allows us to "store information and carry out thought processes". Language is the basis upon which we build internal, secondary representational systems, by which we organize and categorize the world we perceive. No other animal has this capability. Body language, like animal calls, can represent particular feelings or body states, by cannot convey facts. This difference can be described as differences in "meaning". A bee returning from a find can communicate about a thing which is not present either physically or temporally. However, it cannot add further embellishments, compare today's find to yesterday's, or even communicate the vertical height of the food above the ground.

Language is not smoothly graded as you move up the animal scale. Instead, there is a sudden jump in complexity from apes to humans. Primate predator calls may represent the first occurrence of the arbitrariness of sound/meaning, since it does not resemble in any way any sound the predator might make. The sound does indeed show a direct resemblence to the emotional response evoked by the situation, but this alone does not account for the distinct calls used to signal the presence of a leopard, a snake, or a raptor.

The symbols of language, words, combine in infinite ways, far beyond anything found in animal communication.


What's wrong with the wiring diagram of a word (p26) is that neither of the diagrams is correct. More accurately, the two should be combined. Each of the properties in (b) is a cluster of properties of individual cats. A concept of each of these individual cats is formable as in (a), independent of language. Furthermore, the primate's "predator" call proves that the next step has also been taken, that is that there are not separate calls for "leopardA (the old male with the limp)" and "leopardB (the female that attacked us earlier", but rather that a multiplicity of "cat" concepts can be generalized to a single PROTOTYPE CAT concept, and that this has been done without language.

So I can certainly think of CAT without having experienced the word "cat".

(Bickerton says that in the next paragraph.)

Bickerton argues (based on creole language behavior) (p36) that the "default" situation for relative clauses is that they are not explicitly marked by a relative pronoun or "that". But such markers are often useful for disambiguation, so they get invented -- after a couple of hundred years.

This constrasts with tense markers on verbs, which are created immediately as a creole is invented. Why should tense markers be required but relative clause markers not? Bickerton replies that for some yet-to-be-explained reason, the brain simply evolved that way. Our task is to try to discover the reason.

On-Line Thought vs. Off-Line Thought
Bickerton distinguishes between on-line thought and off-line thought. The difference is that off-line thought uses the secondary representational system, which is disconnected from direct sensory input and motor output.

Thought Needs Syntax?
Bickerton makes an interesting and somewhat extreme claim that any complex planning must be based on a syntactic faculty, even in the case of Churchland's hypothetical deaf-mute (p 108, bottom), where there has been no opportunity to develop the external, communicative aspects of language.

Memory Inputs to the Secondary Representation
Several people (
Jackendoff , Damasio , Edelman, Stein ) have discussed the utility of allowing memories to feed back to drive the representational system. Bickerton is the first, in my reading, to actually keep two complete rep. systems, one with memory inputs, one without. The crucial point is that Bickerton's 2nd rep. system is disconnected from direct motor output as well as from sensory input. Compare this to Jackendoff's single language-related system .

Uncommitted Cortical Areas
There are several related ideas of uncommitted cortical areas. First is the space which vocabulary items/concepts built into during the time of H. erectus. These probably got used as fast as they evolved, so there were most likely never any "free" areas. Second is the cortical space created around the time of birth and presumably not filled out until some years later. Third is the remaining space at any time during adult life. The question is whether there is really any free space available at any time, but particularly at the third stage -- adult life.

Speech Did Not Evolve from Animal Calls
(This topic perhaps belongs in Language & Species, or probably in LEM). Bickerton (or Calvin) argues that speech did not evolve from primate calls. This position is supported by MacNeilage, who describes a scenario by which speech evolved from the mandible activities used for eating. Some of the intermediate jaw motions, in particular, lip smacking, is sometimes considered to be in the calls "vocabulary", but MacNeilage notes its use in connection with close social contact, including eating of objects groomed from a companion. The cyclic motions of chewing are specific motor control patterns for which the controls are located in the temporal lobes in areas correpsonding to Broca's area in humans.

Building a Primitive Vocabulary
What more can be said about the process of vocabulary building during the H. erectus period? One possibilty is that specific concepts are innately prewired, specified over the millenia in the DNA. At birth, all we need to do is learn the language-specific forms that go with each concept. A more plausible scenario, in my opinion, is a scheme something like that described by Pinker, in which some basic "earth" physics and relational factors are innate. We then compute all but the most primitive, elementary concepts as we learn the language-specific realizations of each.

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