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Gregory Katz “The Hypothesis of a Genetic Protolanguage”

January 15, 2014 Leave a comment

Katz, Gregory 2008. The Hypothesis of a Genetic Protolanguage: an Epistemological Investigation. Biosemiotics, 1: 57-73.

Claude Lévi-Strauss (1971) saw in the genetic code the most primitive model of all forms of language, a universal prototype emerging from nature before culture appeared: a protolanguage from which natural languages may have derived through the history of evolution. (58)

Human and biochemical languages share several essential characteristics: both are structured, hierarchical, flexible and recursive. By this we mean that they are: (1) Structured in the sense that an utterance is not just a random juxtaposition of units, but that in some way it indicates the relations between these units. (2) Hierarchical in the sense that there are structural levels within the structures themselves. (3) Flexible in the transformational sense that there are many different ways to express the same meaning by moving units around and restructuring sentences according to certain rules. (4) Recursive in the sense that the same rules and structures may recur at different levels in the hierarchy, so that a structure may contain a substructure that is another instantiation of the same structure, in theory repeated ad infinitum

(Johansson 2005). (60)

Classically, linguistics distinguish between several structural levels: (a) a lexical level where words that are chained linearly are recognized and characterized; (b) a syntactic level where words organize themselves into a hierarchic system according to grammatical rules; (c) a semantic level where meaningful representations are attributed to syntactic and lexical structures; (d) a pragmatic level where language fits into a global context that establishes interrelations between sentences through a statement or a dialogue. These four linguistic levels may correspond to the four levels commonly used in molecular biology: sequence, structure, function and role (Searls 2002). (60-61)

Given such a large number of symmetries, Jakobson dared to formulate a bold hypothesis: verbal code could be the distant heir of genetic code, whose syntactic foundations serve as its model. The deeper structure of natural languages could derive from a biochemical ancestor embedded in the living cell. (61)

From a biological standpoint, the hypothesis of a hereditary capacity to learn any language implies that such capacity must be encoded in our chromosomes (Lieberman 1984; Jerne 1984). From this perspective, couldn’t this code, which is inscribed in DNA, contain a universal grammar that is common to all natural languages? (61)

Jakobson’s hypothesis is based on three observations: (1) Our linguistic faculties are rooted in the vocal apparatus, i.e. in a specific physiology; (2) Like the other organs in our organism, this physiology of language is genetically programmed; (3) There is a deep isomorphism between the grammar of the genetic code and the grammar of verbal codes. (62)

Generally speaking, a protolanguage was defined as a form of expression in which words are merely grouped in short utterances, with no grammatical support. Its characteristics are: no grammatical words, no long-range dependency within the sentence, no inflection, and no consistent order. Protolanguage is what we settle for when we are in linguistic trouble (Dessalles2006). It is a precursor of language, an intermediate skill between spontaneous primate communication and language proper, which is universally used in our species. (64)

Two opposite definitions of“protolanguage”have been proposed: one synthetic,

the other holistic. According to the synthetic approach (Bickerton 1998; Jackendoff

2002), the protolanguage had symbols that could be used to convey atomic meanings, and these proto-words could be strung together in ad hoc sequences. Language developed from such a protolanguage through the synthesis of these words into increasingly complex, formally structured utterances. On the other hand, the holistic approach suggests that words emerge from longer, entirely arbitrary strings of sounds—non-compositional utterances—via a process of fractionation. Such holistic utterances initially have no internal structure. They represent whole messages. The idea is that over time chance phonetic similarities are observed between sections of utterances, and if similar meanings can be ascribed to these strings, then“words”emerge (Wray1998; Arbib 2005). (64)

But why should the origin of natural languages be found only in humankind? The hypothesis of a genetic protolanguage breaks with this anthropocentric approach, suggesting that the emergence of a linguistic prototype occurred long before the pre-lingual era, and may date as far back as the end of the pre-biological era. (65)

The deeper analogy between what one finds in genetics and linguistics lies in the fact that the combination of elements that are devoid of meaning, and simple, not only results in something more complex but, more importantly, in something that contains a certain meaning.“The analogy between genetics and linguistics occurs at the level of meaning, and we cannot avoid using this concept of meaning to properly define the analogy”(Lévi-Strauss 1968, p. 18). (65)

Language was always believed to be a product of culture. Could it be a product of nature? According to the genetic protolanguage hypothesis, human observers may not be projecting linguistic frameworks onto genomic structures. Rather, it could be their linguistic faculties that reflect the grammatical structure of genetic code. In other words, the hypothesis of a genetic protolanguage could be more than just an anthropomorphic metaphor. The genetic code may represent“the Code of Codes”(Kevles and Hood 1992), i.e. the original matrix of all natural languages. (66)

The information–formation–function scheme expresses a coded relationship between a nested combinatorial order (genotype) and an integrated spatial arrangement (phenotype). In other words, the morphogenesis of life reveals the deployment of a semantic order. This is a relatively modest result, however, since there are two separate issues at hand: knowing if there is a meaning, and understanding what that meaning is. (67)

Based on immaterial combinatorics, the genetic code must be interpreted as a code capable of converting chemistry into syntax, messaging into a message, and signals into signs. The twentyfirst century has opened up a new epistemological era in the life sciences where the classic structure–function approach is shifting toward a new code-meaning scheme. (69)

Breaking with an anthropocentric approach, the genetic protolanguage hypothesis suggests a Copernican reversal: human observers may not be projecting linguistic frameworks onto genomic structures; rather, it could be their linguistic faculties that reflect the grammatical structure of genetic code. This universal genetic grammar would clarify why the evolutionary mechanisms specific to languages and to species are similar. It would also help to explain their polymorphisms and the physiological basis of natural languages. (69)

From an epistemological standpoint, this hypothesis may reconcile several theoretical models on the origin of language. Its confirmation from an experimental standpoint could enable significant advances in research into the existence of a universal grammar. Such research would also shed light on the process through which linguistic faculties emerge, and help us to understand the symmetries between the phylogenesis of languages and species. If this hypothesis were one day to be verified, linguistics would become a branch of biology. (70)

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