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A Sourcebook for the Worldwide Discovery of a Creative Organic Universe
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VII. Our Earthuman Ascent: A Major Evolutionary Transition in Individuality

1. A Cultural (Geonome) Code : Systems Linguistics

Tomasello, Michael. Constructing a Language. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2003. In contrast to the generative grammar school of Noam Chomsky which views language as springing from an innate propensity, the Max Planck Institute anthropologist advocates a usage-based theory of its acquisition. Language is symbolic and syntax-governed, of cultural-historic occasion, which does not require a native source. The way that the human species learned to speak is seen to be retraced by children.

Wierzbicka, Anna. Innate Conceptual Primitives Manifested in the Languages of the World and in Infant Cognition. Eric Margolis and Stephen Laurence, eds. The Conceptual Mind. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2015. The Australian National University linguist is an eminent scholar for some five decades with many significant publications. Her main project has been to discern the presence of common, recurrent features across every language. The roots of this endeavor are traced to the similar pursuit of Gottfried Leibniz (1646-1716) to find a constant “lingua naturae” or “alphabet of human thoughts.” With Cliff Goddard of Griffith University, she has conceived a modern version dubbed Natural Semantic Metalanguage (NSM, see below) whence “semantic primes” are found in many world vernaculars. Just as Plotnik and Clayton in this volume describe a common animal acumen, so a basic continuity of expression graces human speech. It is alluded that children, in an ontogenetic fashion, innately tap into this crosslinguistic resource as they learn to speak. See also her Common Language of All People: The Innate Language of Thoughts in Problems of Information Transmission (474, 2011) which refers to a “genetic code of the human mind” by way of “universal semantic molecules.” For more sources, we note Semantic Primes and Universal Grammar (2006), and Cross-Linguistic Semantics (2008).

The Natural Semantic Metalanguage approach, originated by Anna Wierzbicka, can lay claim to being the most well-developed, comprehensive and practical approach to cross-linguistic and cross-cultural semantics on the contemporary scene. It has been applied to over 30 languages from many parts of the world. The NSM approach is based on evidence that there is a small core of basic, universal meanings, known as semantic primes, which can be expressed by words or other linguistic expressions in all languages. This common core of meaning can be used as a tool for linguistic and cultural analysis: to explain the meanings of complex and culture-specific words and grammatical constructions (using semantic explications), and to articulate culture-specific values and attitudes (using cultural scripts). The theory also provides a semantic foundation for universal grammar and for linguistic typology. (Goddard website)

Wray, Alison. Formulaic Language and the Lexicon. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002. Noted more in the A Complementary Brain and Thought Process, the work is a significant contribution to understanding how human linguistic abilities manifest an archetypal complementarity in their function and content.

Youn, Hyejin, et al. On the Universal Structure of Human Lexical Semantics. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 113/1766, 2016. Drawing on 21st century worldwide linguistics studies, a senior team from Oxford University, Indiana University, Santa Fe Institute, and the University of New Mexico including Eric Smith and William Croft describe a method by which a universality across some 6000 languages can at last be perceived. The long abstract can explain. The main idea is to recognize that many words can have several, “polysemic,” meanings in different cultures, which if teased out and factored can reveal common themes everywhere.

How universal is human conceptual structure? The way concepts are organized in the human brain may reflect distinct features of cultural, historical, and environmental background in addition to properties universal to human cognition. Semantics, or meaning expressed through language, provides indirect access to the underlying conceptual structure, but meaning is notoriously difficult to measure, let alone parameterize. Here, we provide an empirical measure of semantic proximity between concepts using cross-linguistic dictionaries to translate words to and from languages carefully selected to be representative of worldwide diversity. These translations reveal cases where a particular language uses a single “polysemous” word to express multiple concepts that another language represents using distinct words.

We use the frequency of such polysemies linking two concepts as a measure of their semantic proximity and represent the pattern of these linkages by a weighted network. This network is highly structured: Certain concepts are far more prone to polysemy than others, and naturally interpretable clusters of closely related concepts emerge. Statistical analysis of the polysemies observed in a subset of the basic vocabulary shows that these structural properties are consistent across different language groups, and largely independent of geography, environment, and the presence or absence of a literary tradition. The methods developed here can be applied to any semantic domain to reveal the extent to which its conceptual structure is, similarly, a universal attribute of human cognition and language use. (Abstract)

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