Tuesday, September 20, 2005

F*ing evolution

There's an extensive article in today's NYTimes Science section about language, which seems to have so far escaped comment in the linguablogosphere. The title, "Almost before we spoke, we swore," frames the article as making a claim about the relative timing of the evolution of language and the emergence of swearing. The implication that the article is about the evolution of swearing is strengthened by an immediate attribution of an opinion to 'researchers who study the evolution of language'. This was somewhat off-putting, because I think there is unlikely to be any direct evidence of whether prehistoric humans swore or not.

The article, when you get to the meat of it, is mostly a reasonable presentation of interesting and evidence-driven research into what is behaviorally and neurologically special about swearing, in contrast to more neutral forms of human linguistic expression. However, choosing to frame it as a claim about evolution strikes me as fairly misguided.

The strongest statement of the apparent claim in the entire article is the following:
In fact, said Guy Deutscher, a linguist at the University of Leiden in the Netherlands and the author of "The Unfolding of Language: An Evolutionary Tour of Mankind's Greatest Invention," the earliest writings, which date from 5,000 years ago, include their share of off-color descriptions of the human form and its ever-colorful functions. And the written record is merely a reflection of an oral tradition that Dr. Deutscher and many other psychologists and evolutionary linguists suspect dates from the rise of the human larynx, if not before.
In other words, the reasoning seems to be, because we have evidence that humans' linguistic behavior has included swearing for the past 5000 years, it has probably included swearing since linguistic behavior itself first appeared. This reasoning is supposed to be bolstered by the claim, attributed to 'researchers who study the evolution of language and the psychology of swearing,' that all human languages include swearwords, i.e. that cursing is a linguistic universal.

If you substitute "recursive syntactic structure" for "swearing" in this chain of reasoning (where the facts are the same — 5000 years of written evidence and a reasonable conjecture that it's a human universal), I think you would have grounds for a fistfight among evolutionary linguists. I don't think that that claim would pass muster as the uncontested framing message of a NY Times Science section article.

Nonetheless, about 60 percent of the article consists of clearly written discussion of actual reseach on swearing, which was interesting and informative. I guess overall it rates about a C.

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