Saturday, September 6, 2008

Interdisciplinarity and Language Evolution


Near the end of her book "The First Word: The Search for the Origins of Language," Christine Kenneally writes the following:

"It's clear by now that the problem of language evolution is completely intractable when you approach it from the perspective of a single discipline. For all the salient questions to be answered, the multidisciplinary nature of the field will have to become even more so. So far, it has taken years for individuals in different departments to start talking, to develop research questions that make sense for more than one narrow line of inquiry, and to start talking, to develop research questions that make sense for more than one narrow line of inquiry, and to start to understand one another's points of view. The field of language evolution needs students who can synthesize information from neuroscience, psychology, computer modeling, genetics and linguistics. The more this happens, the richer and wider the field will become, instead of devolving around one or two theoretical issues."

The book as a whole is a fascinating exercise in just this kind of synthesizing, and the author is a prime example of someone who understands and relays information from a variety of fields.


4 comments:

Jorgen said...

I'm very happy to read this:
"The field of language evolution needs students who can synthesize information from neuroscience, psychology, computer modeling, genetics and linguistics. The more this happens, the richer and wider the field will become, instead of devolving around one or two theoretical issues."

The reason I switched my major to Integrated Studies is to study Cognitive Science, without getting a degree in cognitive science (UVU doesn't offer one anyway). I realized that after switching my major from English to Philosophy to English to Biology, to Philosophy (while considering Computer Science minors, Psychology Majors and wishing for Linguistics and Cognitive Science the whole time) that I am quite literally interested in life - or that is to say, I am interested in everything.

I am an IS major now, with plans to go to grad school for philosophy, but even more so, so that while in grad school for philosophy, I can spread my interests to include all of the important parts of life. With an emphasis in both Philosophy and Psychology I will get the theory and physiology for the brain down (to an extent) and with the IS course, I will get much, much more. I plan to learn about everything until I die.

As I mentioned to Lynne while switching my major to IS, I think that the IS program is UVU's worst kept secret. What I mean is that eople need to know about this program. But most people don't. I saw it on first glance and thought "two minors, what a waste, this must be for people who can't make up their minds". I've talked to many people about the IS program, and I wasn't alone in thinking that. When I explain now what I am going to be doing in the next three years with the IS program, most people I tell want to do something with the program as well.

Want to study the brain? It is multidisciplinary. Want to study language? Health? Business? Art? Same thing. Almost everything is multidisciplinary now. Areas of study are merging. We are realizing that language evolves, that biology is rhetorical, and that business is better with environmental studies.

I think the IS program should spend a great deal of time figuring out how to get out there and inspire more students. I would love to help with this as well. I want more IS majors. I want more multidisciplinary future professors, future doctors, future lawyers, archeologists, etc.

Michael said...

I think you are precisely right in stressing the importance of interdisciplinary collaboration regarding the questions of language evolution and language origins given that it may very well be one of the "Hardest Problem[s] in Science" which requires the integration of data from at least "“psycholinguistics, linguistics, psychology, primatology, philosophy, anthropology, archaeology, biology, neuroscience, neuropsychology, neurophysiology, cognitive science, and computational linguistics” (Christiansen/Kirby 2003b: 2).

The most important thing is making students aware that the topic can be tackled by them but that they need to collaborate with other people to get further.

If you're interested in the topic, you might want to check out Edmund Blair Bolles' excellent blog "about the origins of speech", Babel's Dawn,
http://ebbolles.typepad.com/babels_dawn/

and the work of linguist Ray Jackendoff.

http://ase.tufts.edu/cogstud/incbios/RayJackendoff/index.htm

Will said...

"Wenn je eine praktische Vernunftlehre, ein philosophisches Lexikon der Sprache, Sinne und schöne Künste geschrieben wird, wo jedes Wort, jeder Begriff seinen Ursprung finde, und wo den Gängen nachgespürt werde, wie er sich von Sinn zu Sinn, von Sinn zu Seele übertrage? so, dünkt mich, müssen Versuche der Art Leitfaden sein, oder alles bleibt Labyrinth und Vernunftgewäsche, wie es jetzt ist." ~Herder, Plastik

I think Herder would be pleased with this book. I just hope it doesn't neglect the artistic aspects of human language.

Scott Abbott said...

Will, great quote from Herder. I'll use it in Alex's and my language class. Thanks.