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VII. Our Earthuman Ascent: A Major Evolutionary Transition in Individuality

1. A Cultural (Geonome) Code : Systems Linguistics

Kotov, K. and K. Kull. Semiosphere versus Biosphere. Brown, Keith, editor-in-chief. Encyclopedia of Language and Linguistics. Amsterdam: Elsevier, 2006. A survey and synthesis of the visions of Yuri Lotman, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Vladimir Vernadsky, and James Lovelock of a self-organizing and regulating bioplanet most distinguished by an enveloping and enlivening realm of reflective signification.

Kretzschmar, William. Language and Complex Systems. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015. A University of Georgia linguist contributes to the current paradigm shift, as reported in this section, to reinterpret the domain of human discourse and literature in terms of nonlinear complex adaptive systems. Again by this realization our most distinctive human ability becomes ever rooted in a natural emergent literacy. See also Evolutionary Syntax (2015) by Ljiljana Progovac herein for another take.

Kretzschmar, William. The Linguistics of Speech. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009. Along with Larsen-Freeman and Cameron, and Namhee, et al, a University of Georgia humanities scholar independently contributes another current volume that reinvents and reinterprets our understanding of language pattern and process in terms of self-organizing dynamical systems. Indeed the properties listed in the first quote would be a good generic summary of complexity phenomena, which could equally apply to genetics, likewise under revision, and by projection to a genesis universe just learning to speak, read, and write its birth announcement.

In order for speech to be a complex system, we should be able to observe the following conditions: (a) speech is open and dynamic, thus not at equilibrium; (b) speech includes a very large number of interactive components/agents: (c) speech shows emergent order; (d) the distribution of units in speech is non-linear; (e) speech has the property of scaling. (184)

The fact that speech is a complex system tells us a good deal, and not just about language behavior. First of all, the linguistics of speech can take advantage of work in many other scientific fields that also work with complex systems, from biological systems and chemistry to economics, from climate and ecology to the human nervous system, even to physics. (216)

We can expect to observe what amounts to an unlimited series of Russian dolls in speech, in which the dolls have the same shape at different scales, but may each be painted with different motifs and colors. The property of scaling tells us, regarding both the dolls and speech, to look for the same patterns composed of different elements at different scales of observation, pattern within pattern, as closely as we might ever like to observe them. (217)

Larsen-Freeman, Diane and Lynne Cameron. Complex Systems and Applied Linguistics. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008. Larsen-Freeman is a University of Michigan professor of education and linguistics, while Cameron teaches linguistics at the Open University, UK. “Applied” is a distinction from theories of grammar and syntax and studies the dynamics of personal and social communication. After a good review of complexity theories and principles, it is shown how well they accord with literacy and discourse, so as to bring a new degree of explanatory veracity. (For similar affirmation see Namhee, et al, herein.) But, as if a negative imprimatur, as per the page 61 quote, and so often the case, even though such properties are seen to grace walk and talk, the tacit machine model inhibits attributing any innate drive and arrow. But then compare with the words of the Harvard linguist George Zipf (1902-1950) quoted in the work on page 111.

In the pages that follow, we suggest that complex systems can be found throughout applied linguistics. The language used by a discourse community can be described as such a system, as can the interactions of learners and their teacher in a classroom, as can the functioning of the human mind. We aim to show that reconceptualizing these and other phenomena in terms of complexity opens up the possibility for new understandings and actions. (5)

In this chapter (Complex Systems in Language and its Evolution), we have made the case for conceiving of language as a complex, adaptive, dynamic system. By so doing, we have been laying the foundation for claiming that the evolution of language, language change, language diversity, language development, language learning, and language use are emergent from the dynamic processes of change that operate in all languages at all times. (112)

When complex systems self-organize and we speak of ‘order’ or ‘co-operation’ emerging from previous disorder or separation, we should not be misled by the positive connotations of these words in non-scientific language. In their technical use here, there is no assumption of an inherent drive towards improvement of the universe of any automatic direction towards better, more hopeful states. (61)
Thus we are finding for the acts of speech what physicists have long since found for the acts of inanimate nature: behind all the apparent diversity and complexity of the phenomena lies the sameness of fundamental dynamic principle. (Zipf, 111)

Locke, John and Barry Bogin. Language and Life History: A New Perspective on the Development and Evolution of Human Language. Behavioral and Brain Sciences. 29/529, 2006. A peer-reviewed paper which adds a novel dimension to how humans beings came to a flourishing social crosstalk. What needs to be factored in are various phases of the human life-span, from attention-getting utterances of infants and children, and to mating communications during adolescence. Throughout the article and comments runs a tacit sense of this ontogeny repeating in kind its phylogenetic occurrence.

Loreto, Vittorio and Luc Steels. Emergence of Language. Nature Physics. 3/758, 2007. A news report of a summer satellite school of STATPHYS 23, a conference held in Erice, Italy where speakers from physics and mathematics to linguistics, anthropology, sociology, and economics avowed tha “universal dynamical processes” in effect across nature equally serve to self-organize cultural and semiotic communications. By name “Statistical Physics of Social Dynamics” can be found at http://pil.phys.uniroma1.it/erice2007/index.html with some papers are online. And one may reflectively notice the beginnings of a melding and synthesis of statistical, many body, mechanics with nonlinear science and its many interactive agents.

Once you adopt the view that language is a complex adaptive system, statistical physics suddenly becomes very relevant for building a theoretical foundation for the study of language. (758-759)

Loreto, Vittorio, et al. Statistical Physics of Language Dynamics. Journal of Statistical Mechanics. 4/P04006, 2011. An interdisciplinary team of Loreto, Sapienza University, Rome, Andrea Baronchelli, Northeastern University, Animesh Mukherjee, Institute for Scientific Interchange ISI, Torino, Andrea Puglisi, CNR-ISC, Rome, and Francesca Tria, ISI, proceed to reconceive and situate linguistics by way of complex systems science in a foundational physical theories. Our human conversational and textual discourse then achieves a novel integration with and rooting in the realms of a condensed matter, many-body, multifarious nature. And since this revolution is also apace in epi/genomics, might genetics and language be realized as sequential evolutionary phases of an original universe to human cosmic code?

Language dynamics is a rapidly growing field that focuses on all processes related to the emergence, evolution, change and extinction of languages. Recently, the study of self-organization and evolution of language and meaning has led to the idea that a community of language users can be seen as a complex dynamical system, which collectively solves the problem of developing a shared communication framework through the back-and-forth signaling between individuals. We shall review some of the progress made in the past few years and highlight potential future directions of research in this area. (Abstract)

Mathematical modeling of social phenomena. Statistical physics has proven to be a very effective framework to describe phenomena outside the realm of traditional physics. Recent years have witnessed the attempt by physicists to study collective phenomena emerging from the interactions of individuals as elementary units in social structures. This is the paradigm of complex systems: an assembly of many interacting (and simple) units whose collective (i.e., large-scale) behavior is not trivially deducible from the knowledge of the rules that govern their mutual interactions. This scenario is also true for problems related to the emergence of language. From this new perspective, complex systems science turns out to be a natural ally in the quest for general mechanisms driving the collective dynamics whereby conventions can spread in a population, to understand how conceptual and linguistic coherence may arise through self-organization or evolution, and how concept formation and expression may interact to coordinate semiotic systems of individuals. (3)

Loritz, Donald. How the Brain Evolved Language. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999. The author contends that language evolved through a scalar self-similar process which served to intensify the value of communication.

Mace, Ruth and Clare Holden. A Phylogenetic Approach to Cultural Evolution. Trends in Ecology and Evolution. 20/3, 2005. The search for parallels between biological and social evolution has a long and checkered past. This article draws upon many advances in evolutionary theory, genetics, along with linguistic and cultural studies to propose that cultures and languages are analogous to species and thus form phylogenetic trees. A detailed table is then constructed with close comparisons between genetic and cultural systems. For example, “discrete units” are nucleotides, codons, genes and individual phenotypes or cultural traditions, memes, ideas, artifacts, words, grammar and syntax. By 2005, it is possible to fill in and understand an emergent development of life which as it repeats at each stage can take on the visage of a natural embryogenesis.

MacWhinney, Brian. Language Development. Lerner, Richard, editor-in-chief. The Handbook of Life-span Development. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley, 2010. A chapter within the holistic, dynamic systems modelview of these volumes, wherein a Carnegie Mellon University psychologist defines a sequential communicative emergence across phylogenetic, epigenetic, developmental, processural, social, interactional and diachronic realms.

MacWhinney, Brian and William O’Grady, eds. The Handbook of Language Emergence. New York: Wiley, 2015. A comprehensive volume with five parts: Basic Language Structures, Language Change and Typology, Interactional Structures, Language Learning, and Language and the Brain. Typical authoritative chapters are Emergence at the Cross-Linguistic Level: Attractor Dynamics in Language by Joan Bybee and Clay Beckner, The Diachronic Genesis of Synchronic Syntax by T. Givon, and Dynamic Systems and Language Development by Paul Van Geert and Marjolijn Verspoor. A final chapter, Language Evolution: An Emergentist Perspective by Michael Arbib, traces a brain-ready, multi-phase ascent from holistic protolanguage to linguistic complexity. See also a special issue of Language and Cognition (5/2-3, 2013) on this general conception.

Manrubia, Susanna and Damian Zanette. At the Boundary Between Biological and Cultural Evolution: The Origin of Surname Distributions. Journal of Theoretical Biology. 216/4, 2002. The same statistical mathematics, scaling relations and taxonomies apply for both species and languages.

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