24 Feb 2013

Good morning & night good

At the WordReference forums someone inquires on Romanian grammar: Why "noapte bună"? The word order appears one way in bună dimineaţă 'good morning', bună ziuă 'good day', bună dupămasă 'good afternoon' and bună seară 'good evening', matching what we see in other Romance languages like French and Portuguese. Yet the order is reversed in noapte bună 'good night'! The Wiktionary entry for noapte bună gives no helpful notes on this curious pattern.

10 Feb 2013

Why we outlasted the Neanderthal

On the Wall Street Journal website, author Chip Walter of Last Ape Standing describes what we know about the Neanderthal's day-to-day life and why Homo sapiens were better adapted to survive and thrive.

What he mentions about postnatal development in humans is food for thought. Remarking on human beings differing from other primates by our extensive brain development, we may appreciate how a slight genetic shift in the timing of brain development from prenatal to postnatal could finally allow the brain to fully develop after birth, effectively liberating our cognitive development from the limited confines of the womb. He alludes to an important change in human development towards a brain more increasingly shaped by the environment around us (including social influence) versus a former development guided more by an innate programming of our inner genetic world. This led to many new advantages, chased by yet new challenges specific to our species.

As for his thoughts on language, he divulges nothing new but merely restates what is already obvious to researchers, that Neanderthals probably had some type of language but we can't be too sure how complex it was. To quote Walter in this brief interview:
"And so there's a lot of interesting theories about exactly how complex their language was but generally now anthropologists are coming around to the belief that they did have pretty sophisticated ways of communicating but they may have been quite different from ours. They might have been quite musical and it might have been a combination of gestures and sounds. Uh. So that in itself would have made it difficult to share ideas because they might not have had as rich a vocabulary to share those ideas."
Much of what he says is sensible but I must take arms against his last sentence which I've put in bold above. It should be pointed out that the belief that gestural language is less capable of expressing complex thought is unintellectual nonsense that I really wish genuinely science-minded people would finally abandon. It's unfortunate to see this prejudice being repeated again.

The presence or absence of a human-like larynx is a persistent distraction from the pertinent facts regarding the question of Neanderthal language which depends on an assumption that our human cousins can only express complex thoughts through voice as we do. This language chauvinism should be quite condescending to the signing community who daily express complex ideas through elaborate gestures and facial intonations among each other. In toto then, Neanderthals simply have no relevant restrictions to complex, grammatical language at all. We keep feeding this nonsense only to feed our last ditch effort to make human beings unique to the universe. Old ideas die hard. I will leave you readers with a what-if scenario:

What if complex grammar was already developing in the African savanna through gestural language in absence of a human-like larynx many hundreds of thousands of years ago? Is it not possible for vocal language to naturally evolve from sign language assuming it had accompanying vocal gestures that would have reasonably existed in a hearing-able proto-human signing community?