Monday, November 05, 2007

Emergence of early cognition, communication and language

Our research group has been organizing a language technology seminar "Emergence of early cognition, communication and language: from humans to machines", coordinated by Krista Lagus, Oskar Kohonen and Timo Honkela.

Today Don Killian was discussing the book Origins of the Modern Mind by Merlin Donald. According to Killian, Donald's book synthesizes various fields, bringing together theories of cultural origins of human cognition in a cohesive approach. In the book, three major "abrupt" cognitive transformations are brought up by which the human mind developed over millions of years.

First major change in brain structure was the transition period leading to Homo Erectus. Brain enlarged from 600 cc to 1,100 cc in late Homo Erectus. Second major change was related to the arrival of Homo Sapiens, including a further increase in brain size. The period was also characterized by a continual acceleration of cultural change, more frequent innovations, development of language, and vocal apparatus change.

In his book, Donald points out that primates could not, and cannot, reinvent symbols, only recombine already symbols given to them. Then a natural question is: What is missing with primates? One good candidate is that fact that humans possess three types of memory: procedural, episodic and semantic. Semantic memory is a system of representation that forms semantic networks and the final change. Other primates are restricted to episodic memory: a virtual "flashback" of previous performances. Thus, there is a lack of performance ability.

Donald explains that misesis is the missing link. Mimesis includes non-lingustic, self-initiated and representational intentional acts. It incorporates mimicry and imitation to a higher end, voice tones, gestures, facial expressions, and patterned wholy-body movements. According to Donald, mimesis probably did not originate as a means of communication, but the presence of mimetic skill however would have lead to a form of social communication.

Mimetic culture has included, for instance, toolmaking, fire use, and coordinated seasonal hunting etc. A change from a mimetic to a mythic culture was crucial for the emergence of modern language. Approximately 50,000 years ago the biological transition from erectus was complete. It lead to Upper Paleolithic, or stone-age culture. The descent of larynx signified cognitive change and resulted in speech and language. Mythic inventions were conceptual models of the universe.

Ivan Berazhny was giving a presentation with the title "On the trail of social semiotics?". He started by stating that being very specialized is often a kind of self-defence. Society could be presented as a system of meanings.

Berazhny gave three perspectives on meaning-making: a) Ontogenetic: an individual/development; b) Phylogenetic - a semiotic resource/evolution; and Logogenetic - a text/unfolding discourse. He asked how people learn to mean. He summarized that humans learn to representre reality, to enact social relations to organize meaning-making in the flow of time.

Berazhny was also discussing a movement from semiotics to social semiotics, and from systemic functional linguistics to multisemiotic studies. In a multilevel stratified model of language, context includes ideology (a model of social organization), genre (a context of culture, i.e. configurations of meanings as they unfold through stages) and register (a context of situation). On the other hand, content includes semantics (configurations of meaning as in figures and taxonomies) and lexicogrammatical information (configurations of meanings in wordings).

According to Berazhny, metafunctions of language include a) ideational (logical, experiential), b) interpersonal, and textual functions.

The presentation lead into active discussion. In the end of his presentation, Berazhny mentioned the conference "Linguistics and multisemiotic challenges in Europe in the world".

No comments: