Gift of Language Requires A Quantum Leap

Language seems to be an all or nothing preposition…er, proposition. Apes like chimps or gorillas or orangs don’t have some simple 100-word language of their own – they have effectively no language at all. (This sweeping statement ignores the problem of their vocal tract isn’t really adapted for speech, which is another issue entirely…and a major question in extinct ape species like Neandertals). Now an upcoming paper by Spanish scientist Ramon Ferrer i Cancho and his partner Richard Sole explains the reason why language jumps suddenly from squeaks to Shakespeare. Basically languages must strike a balance between the number of words a speaker uses to express various thoughts and the trouble it takes for a listener to remember them all. There is a jump in the amount of communication, from very little to near-perfect, at a certain value of the relative weightings of speaker and hearer preferences. When this happens in human languages, the frequency of word usages develops a distinctive mathematical form called a power law first observed by linguist George Kingsley Zipf known (in the effective addition of yet another word to the English language) as Zipf’s Law. Cancho and Sole explain Zipf’s Law by proposing language undergoes a ‘phase transition’, like solid ice melting to liquid water, that reflects the amount of “effort” or “energy” required to get the “job” of communication done. Mathematically, they show that low-vocabulary languages just aren’t worth the trouble to learn with logic similar to a geometry proof.
This work builds on Cancho’s earlier paper “The small world of human language”, available here in all of its lots-of-words glory.

5 thoughts on “Gift of Language Requires A Quantum Leap”

  1. as it happens, i’m currently composing a paper in the field of language, and from what i see, these sources may prove quite useful. thanks.

  2. Wouldn’t you know? Whether a language is TO BE or NOT TO BE can be calculated mathematically.
    It really IS all about numbers. <sigh>

  3. >Apes like chimps or gorillas or orangs don’t
    >have some simple 100-word language of their own –
    >they have effectively no language at all

    I would argue this a little (while conceding their indiginous languages don’t top 100 words). Great ape sign language experiments have been routinely successful in giving the apes 150+ word vocabularies. Why would they have the capability for this in the lab if they’re not using it in the wild? In Roger Fout’s book Next of Kin he makes the point that chimpanzees in the wild exhibit a limited vocabulary including invitations to groom, mate, and even such phrases as “may I pass?” (in body “language” and gesture). One thing I remember from the book was when Washoe, who had been raised to use ASL in Nevada, was sent to the University of Oklahoma and thrown in with chimps who had no knowledge of sign language. When she hit her estrus and wanted to mate, she used the ASL sign “hug” and apparently the male chimps learned that sign very quickly. I seem to recall that the other female chimps communicated their invitations differently but I don’t have the book with me now.

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