June 2011

Linguistics and Evolution

This is the winning entry in our Marion Craig Essay Contest. The question this year was “how has Darwinian evolution affected your field of study?” We received several entries and this one was judged to be the best.

In the study of Applied Linguistics, the fact of evolution is readily apparent. Charles Darwin, in 1859, published a work of scientific study that revolutionized how scholars, scientists and even students thought about and observed the world around them. On the Origin of Species was the foundation of evolutionary biology, but all academic disciplines have felt the impact of knowledge that has been uncovered since the publishing of his work.

Cognitive scientist Avram Noam Chomsky began developing his theory of Generative Grammar in the 1950’s and has had such an impact in the fields of Linguistics and Philosophy that he is currently believed to be the most-quoted author alive. As of 2010, he has been teaching consecutively for 55 years at MIT. And without the scientific contributions of Charles Darwin and his evolutionary theory, many of Chomsky’s ideas in modern linguistics would not be relevant.

One idea that has influenced the study of linguistics is that scientists (mostly theologians at the time Darwin was studying) once considered human beings to be vastly different from animals—in the sense that we were divinely created to rule over them. Due to this unfounded idea there was not originally much study in linguistics relating to animal language or the abilities of animals to communicate. The impact of Darwin’s theory of evolution, therefore, has been instrumental in the evolution of the field of Linguistics. Scientists do now study animal behavior, including linguistic behaviors of our closest relatives the great apes, bonobos, and chimpanzees. We have learned invaluable lessons about human language and cognition because of these studies, in addition to being able to better understand the ways in which animals communicate non-linguistically.

Scientists in my field study the speech apparatuses of animals and compare them anatomically to those in human beings. We study child and adult language acquisition and what goes on in the brain when people lose the ability to speak, or when non-human primates never advance in that ability past a certain point. We have learned that what sets us apart from others in the animal kingdom is not a God-given right to reign over the earth, but our evolutionary history of language acquisition.

Many studies continue to be done in the fields of historical, socio-, and cultural linguistics as we attempt to piece together, along with scientists of all disciplines (including archaeology, history, evolutionary biology and the cognitive sciences) when exactly humans began communicating in the ways we do now.

As a graduate of French from the University of Utah, working on my second Bachelor’s in Applied Linguistics and Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages, I look forward to a life-long study of languages and how best to teach them. In my studies and experiences teaching, I will always have an open interest in the evolutionary science of my field. I hope through my teaching to also encourage this fascination in budding language-learners of all backgrounds and educational interests.

—Elaine Ball

Utah Humanists Love the Arts

This month members talk about their favorites in the liberal arts areas.

  • As a philosophy (humanities) major, I love virtually all of the liberal arts, although not so much the loud rock music and concerts of the younger generation. I particularly like story-telling through plays, musicals, opera, and movies. Messages that are too abstract, as in much poetry, are less appealing, although such abstraction in ballet and great music of surpassing beauty touches my emotions directly. And where genius is evident, as in some architecture and painting, I stand in awe.
  • My favorite liberal arts areas are: Epistemology because knowledge is so helpful in life and possibly a cornerstone of Humanism. Etymology the use of words are helpful in communicating with humans.
  • What is the expression? Jack of all trades but master of none? I don’t consider myself particularly adept at any of the Liberal Arts pursuits so I enjoy sampling almost all of them. I enjoy stories of all forms, reading, movies, or plays; nearly all genera. I play with my cameras and computers but never have, and probably won’t, produce anything of long term significance. What I like about these ventures is that they make me feel ALIVE!
  • I always have a hard time picking “a favorite” in anything. I usually like several things equally. I love to read in the mornings while listening to instrumental jazz and, on occasion, classical music (If I listen to vocals it interferes with my concentration). I read many disciplines including literature, history, philosophy, pop culture, etc. I read popular fiction in the evenings, usually mysteries, science fiction, old and new. I listen to rock, country, jazz and pop vocals later in the day when I’m puttering around the house or driving. In the evenings I like to watch movies. As with Edgar Allan Poe’s praise of the short story, that it was meant to be read in one sitting, the same can be said of film. You get a lot of entertainment for a couple of hours of your time. I watch a lot of genre (popcorn) movies when I simply want to be entertained. These encompass film noir (easily one of my favorites), mysteries, comedies, westerns, war, horror and sci-fi, especially those of the 1930’s 1950’s. When I want to explore the human condition in a more serious manor, I like the Italian neo-realism films, the humanistic films of the Japanese like Akira Kurosawa and Yasujiro Ozu, and the more angst driven movies of Ingmar Bergman and the Americana of John Ford and Frank Capra. If I want to laugh at the human condition I watch Charlie Chaplin, the Marx Brothers and Woody Allen. I also watch many current movies. I am a big fan of directors like Scorsese, Coppola, David Fincher, David Aronofsky to name a few. My granddaughter recently told me I knew much more about movies than I should. She’s not the first one to tell me that.
  • I’ve always loved “the story”. Books and movies that take you away on adventures, show you new worlds, give you glimmers of insight into this human condition. Lately I’ve really been craving the intensity of dramatic theater, and (surprisingly) the form/colors/textures of abstract art and photography.

—Lisa Miller

Website of the Month
Elaine Ball Blog Spot

Elaine Ball, whose winning entry in this year’s Marion Craig Essay Contest maintains a lively blog.

She describes herself as a “dreamer, a teacher, and a student.” Drop by to see her thoughts and post your comments.


President’s Message

I have been some serious sitting and messing around with my new computer which includes listening to some music CD’s. While listening to one I hadn’t listened to for a while, I was reminded that it was one that would be on my all-time top ten list. That is saying something when you consider that Amy and I own well over a thousand records, tapes, and CD’s. I was also reminded that the Board of Directors had discussed some possible alternatives to our Discussion Group. One suggestion I had was to have a Music Night now and then. The question then becomes, what exactly do we want to do on these occasions? I think it would be nice to keep it diverse. We could have a performance night if we find someone willing to play. We might try a “Favorites” night where everyone would bring in their own favorite piece. Also, I would like to have a “message night,” with songs that have a message, either serious or silly

I don’t know about you, but music has been a big part of my life. I can remember when I was around 10 years old, my brother who was eight years older than me, would yell at me for listening, and therefor probably scratching them, to his records. He was and is a lover of classical music and he had a lot of records that I would listen to when I could. One was a recording of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, conducted by Arturo Toscanini. Another one that I remember is a recording of Dvorak’s Symphony no. 5 “From the New World.” They represent a couple of many aspects that were part of my childhood years. But my goodness, that is just one of dozens and dozens of ways music has played a part in my life. I’ve been to 30 or more rock concerts, seen several operas, and dozens of symphony orchestra concerts.

Of course, recorded music has been the biggest part of my music experience. Our collection of albums, tapes, CDs and music videos have given me thousands of hours of pleasure. Sometimes I think about how hard it would be to have to choose 10 CDs to take with me to a desert island. I’m sure the more I looked over the collection the harder it would get. I would love to hear from you about this suggestion of a music night and your top ten music list. I’m going to start one that I am sure will need a secondary list of honorable mentions.

—Robert Lane
President, HoU