Vitenskapslørdag på Litteraturhuset i Oslo

For tredje år på rad inviterte Akademiet 5. april til vitenskapslørdag på Litteraturhuset. Temaet denne gangen var «Evnen til å ha språk - Et samlende biologisk og lingvistisk perspektiv». Arrangementet, som trakk fullt hus, ble støttet av stiftelsen Fritt Ord med 30.000 kroner.

Det Norske Vitenskaps-Akademi inntar Litteraturhuset i Oslo. Foto: Mathias Fossum
Det Norske Vitenskaps-Akademi inntar Litteraturhuset i Oslo. Foto: Mathias Fossum

Akademiet startet den faste årlige vitenskapsdagen i 2012 for å skape debatt i det offentlige rom innen historiske, filosofiske, naturvitenskapelige og matematiske fagdisipliner. Denne gangen inviterte Akademiet til foredrag og debatt rundt temaet språk og språkets evolusjon.

I dagens forskning ser vi ofte at naturvitenskapelige og humanistiske fag møter hverandre. Professor Tecumseh Fitch, evolusjonsbiolog ved Universitetet i Wien, holdt foredraget "Language Evolution: the Comparative Approach and Darwin's Contribution". Fitch tar en komparativ tilnærming til hvorvidt språket vårt har felles komponenter med dyrenes.

Førsteamanuensis og lingvist Terje Lohndal, NTNU, snakket om «How words are put together». Her tok Lohndal for seg spørsmål som hva språk er, hvorfor språk og kommunikasjon ikke er to sider av samme sak og at evnen og bruk av evnen er to forskjellige ting.
Foredragene ble etterfulgt av paneldebatt med spørsmål og kommentarer fra salen.


Tecumseh Fitch, Dept of Cognitive Biology, Faculty of Life Science, University of Vienna:
"Language Evolution - the Comparative Approach and Darwin's Contribution"

Human language rests upon an evolved biological foundation, some components of which are unique to our species. The precise nature of the mechanisms underlying language remains debated, as does the degree to which they are or are not shared with other animals. I outline a strongly comparative approach to this problem: even though language, as a whole, is unique to humans, many components of language are nonetheless shared with animals.

I illustrate this comparative approach with case studies on speech and syntax. I first introduce three different models of "protolanguage" in this context, including Darwin's hypothesis of a "musical protolanguage". In speech, recent data indicate that a long-standing focus on the speech periphery, and particularly the descended human larynx, has deflected attention away from more fundamental changes in the neural pathways involved in speech control.  A broad range of species, including monkeys, deer, songbirds, and seals, provide comparisons that are relevant to this conclusion. 

For syntax, recent data examining pattern perception in both auditory and visual domains suggest that some aspects of linguistic syntax rest on a cognitive basis that also applies to other human cognitive domains including music and visual pattern perception.  Specifically, the strong human propensity to attribute complex, hierarchically-embedded structures to visual or auditory inputs appears to be biologically unusual or perhaps unique to our species. 

I conclude that the broad comparative approach favored by cognitive biologists has much to teach us about the biology and evolution of language, and that future progress will require investigation of a much broader set of species than has typified past work.

Fitch, W. Tecumseh (2010). The Evolution of Language (Cambridge University Press)

Terje Lohndal, NTNU:
"How words are put together"

This presentation will deal with fundamental issues concerning language. What is language, how should it be characterized, and how did it evolve? I will start by introducing a range of different ideas about what language is, and then quickly narrow it down to the core perspective that I want to outline in this talk.

Language and communication are often considered to be opposite sides of the same coin. I will claim that they are not and that we need to distinguish language from Language. That is, I will argue for the distinction between tacit competence of language (Language) and language use (language). We all have a biological and mental ability to use language, but the ability and the use of the ability are two different things. This distinction leads to a range of consequences, some of which will be explored in this presentation.

An important point will be that humans are the only species that have Language. This may sound like a rather surprising claim, but I will show that human Language has certain properties that we do not find among other animals. One of these properties is the ability to put words together to meaningful sentences. I will try to answer the thorny question of what this ability actually looks like by considering how children acquire languages.