Language evolution and poetry

A few ideas pulled from two books–not to argue anything, but simply to hold them close to the idea and practice of poetry, and wonder what they might suggest about it:

Christine Kenneally (all quotes from THE FIRST WORD, 2007):

“Swearing […] uses parts of the brain that support language and also parts of the brain that are used when laughing or crying.  Often people with severe brain damage remain able to swear even when they are unable to produce other language.” (116)

[I don’t agree with the inference that Kenneally draws from this fact, about similarities between animal languages and human language.  I think Derek Bickerton’s proposal (see quotes from his book below) is much more persuasive: that language evolved originally from a set of words (no syntax) that improved the ability of human beings to survive.]

“Is it true that the complexity of human language is without parallel. […] But […] it implies that anything can be expressed by human language, when we don’t know if this is in fact the case.” (116-17)

“John McWhorter […] emphasizes the way that, like biological evolution, language change results from accretions or acumulations of struture.  In this sense language is an artefact of the collective mind of history.  It has imperfections and odd quirks, and makes peculiar demands of its speakers.  Its textures and patterns have been created over a long period of time as it has been dragged through millions of mouths, expressing their individual agendas.” (165)

“The most exciting implication of the language-as-virus metaphor is the finding that some features of language have less to do with the need of individuals to communicate clearly with one another than with the need of the language virus to ensure its own survival.[…] the features of language structure reflect its struggle to survive in its environment–the human mind.” (234-35)

[Citing several researchers, Kenneally askes “why language is learned so readily by children.”  But anyone who has watched a child learn a language over time, and who might have read Steven Pinker on much sheer brain power that requires, over a period of several years (THE LANGUAGE INSTINCT, 1994), would wonder what she can be thinking.  It’s hugely difficult and takes so many brain cells, Pinker says, that after language has been consolidated in the brain, the brain has to shed huge numbers of those brain cells because it can not afford to support them now that their job is done, and there’s so much more that it must develop over the coming years.  The most interesting point that Kenneally does take from the researchers she cites on the “language-as-virus metaphor” is this:]

“If language is driven to survive, and the language learners of the world are children, language must be adapted to the quirks and traints of the child’s mind.  As Deacon puts it,language is designed to be ‘particularly infective for the child brain.” (236)

“What about the evolutionary processes of adaptation, where a trait evolves for a particular purpose, and exaptation, where a trait that is used for one function becomes co-opted to serve another purpose in later generations? What role have these played in language evolution? For all the furious words expended on the subject, everyone agrees that both processes have had a role.  And everyone has acknowledged that communication has to have something to do with language evolution.  Regardless, the rapid spread of the human mutation of the FOXP2 gene is definitive evidence that there has been a positive selection for a form of the gene that had major consequences for language.” (268)

[What I think of, reading this passage, in the midst of a much longer argument that Kenneally is presenting, is… the possibility that in some such terms poetry is an exaptation of language itself.  That is, having evolved, at least culturally, but perhaps even in biological/neurological ways, too, language (like living creatures and like cultures) continues to evolve not only to develop from a vocabulary to a syntax, etc., but also from one use to other uses.  The elaborate musical and other *formal* aspects of the earliest poetry we can recover suggests that language developed uses associated with different human activities–one of which emphasized a seeming power of language over reality.  (Reality means not only what we can touch, see, small, harvest, and eat, etc., but also storms, mountains, oceans… i.e. concepts of the divine.  Poetry is not only associated with the divine in religious practice, but in fact is a kind of co-evolutionary relationship with it.  I write about this in HOW POEMS THINK (coming out Sept. 2015).]

“Researchers have shown that humans consolidate spoken language during sleep.  It’s known that many different memory tasks are improved by sleeping, and the complications of speech are no exception. […]  Other researchers have monitored the brain of songbirds during sleep and discovered that the parts of the brain activated while singing while awake were reactivated during sleep, suggesting that in the way we dream of speech, songbirds dream of singing.” (314)


Derek Bickerton (from ADAM’S TONGUE, 2009):

“A concept is something in the mind.  Once it exists, it can affect behavior.  Before it existed, it couldn’t. All that natural selection can see is behavior.  So concepts could only have been visible to natural selection once they existed, once they’d begun to affect behavior.  But they couldn’t exist until they’d evolved, and they could only evolve if they were selected for. So human-type concepts couldn’t have evolved by themselves.  They could only have evolved if some other thing had been selected for, something that *was* visible to natural selection–in other words, some overt behavior that gave an adaptive advantage to those that had it.[…]  The fact that language is by now the main engine of thought doesn’t have any implication for its status when it began. That’s the fallacy of first use, the idea that whatever a thing started doing will be what it does mostly nowadays–and vice versa, naturally.  It was the fallacy of first use that led Robin Dunbar to propose gossip as the engine of language evolution, just because gossip is what (spoken) language is most used for today. […] Certainly, language is now the means by which we structure the world of thought, but it would never have gotten off the ground, never developed into what it is today, and certainly never have raised thought to a new power if it hadn’t first entered the real world in the tangible form of communication.”  (184-85) 

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