Author Archives: Scott Schroeder

The Evolution and Power of Language

Even today, modern language is continually expanding. With the development of new technologies, fields of study, and industrial processes, new words are being added to lexicons to enable us to incorporate these advances into society and communicate their applications in a universally understood manner. Words may be borrowed from other languages, existing words may assume supplementary definitions, words may be combined to represent new symbols, acronyms may be developed comprised of contemporary words, or entirely new combinations of the fundamental phonetic components of a language may be created to develop new words.

Culture also contributes to expansion of language. New words and alternative definitions can be created by trending culture, and culture can even modify the rules of syntax when popular “catchy” phrases take root in commonplace vernacular, especially if that phrase originates from popular music, movies, or art. If a person several decades from the past were to jump into a time machine and arrive in the present, certain words and phrases which have been adapted by modern society would not be recognizable outside of their literal meaning if that person did not understand the context of the reference.

This continuing evolution of modern, standard language raises questions about the origins of language and how language has impacted hominids as a species. To examine the inception of language in early man, it would be appropriate to revisit arguments from last week’s blog post. Biological evolution of species is a process which enables a species to adapt to its environment. Simply stated, nature created a mysterious mechanism is all species to allow for genetic intervention to develop biological tools which afford a species a greater chance for survival.

An attribute afforded to early hominids which made them distinct from all other species was the ability to create artefacts. This unique trait combined with the innate instinct of hominids to congregate in social orders created a need to communicate so that technology could be passed along and built upon by others in the social order and to subsequent generations. In early environments in which humans were physically at a disadvantage to larger, quicker, and more powerful prey, the ability to communicate technology and collaborate on collective hunting and foraging activities created a survival necessity to communicate complex task. Therefore, the development of a language faculty was a result of evolutionary intervention.

The development of spoken language likely did not transpire over a few generations. This likely took thousands of years as the language faculty and physical anatomy of early hominids continued to develop to accommodate the necessity to communicate escalating sophistication in technology and increasing complexity in social orders.

In his book “Linguistics: An Introduction,” Andrew Radford described the development of language in children. Children generally produce their first recognizable word around their first birthday. From then until the age of about one and a half years, children’s speech consists largely of single words spoken in isolation, at which point they begin to form elementary phrases and sentences. From then on, children experience rapid growth in grammatical development, so that by the age of two and a half years most children are able to produce adult-like sentences.

Early hominids likely experienced the same progression of speech over thousands of years. What began as grunts transformed to phonetic sounds as cognitive and anatomical capabilities in the species progressed. Phonetics and phonology matured into the morphology, which enabled hominids to develop words to symbolize and distinguish objects. This was the foundation of the first lexicons. As technology and social dynamics became increasingly sophisticated, morphology matured into syntax which enabled early hominids to construct simple phrases and sentences, allowing them to issue instructions in collaborative activities and communicate threats.

Nurtured by thousands of years of cognitive and biological development, the analogous congregation of early humans in homogenous social and cultural sects made possible the development of a commonality of expression which incorporated nouns to represent objects, people, and animals; verbs to symbolize actions; and interfaces such as conjunctions, prepositions, articles, modifiers and reflexives. These content and functional words assembled with syntax provided the building blocks of language. Much later, written language enabled humans to record information on physical mediums. Written language likely contributed immensely to the pragmatic standardization of language, providing rules of sentence structure and standard speech.

A question which many scientists have pondered over is why so many languages exist. As early populations grew, groups of hominids migrated away from each other from Africa to Asia and Europe, likely in search of scarce or competing resources. These early hominids did not have developed languages. Therefore, languages among different groups of hominids developed independently of one another. The assumption that all early groups of hominids developed language, reasoning that all humans today utilize language, I think would be an error. It is just as probable to assume that those early groups which did not develop language did not survive, or maybe that some which did not were later absorbed into cultures which did.

Evolution provided early hominids the essential aptitude of language faculty to survive, but conversely, did language further develop the human mind, enabling hominids the ability to explore new frontiers of cognitive thought? Another question is whether this expansion of the mind and cognitive thought contributed to the explosive growth in the development of the human brain? Being that the human brain has developed considerably more than that of any other species over the past hundred thousand years, and language is the most discernable distinction between humans and other species, it is difficult to dismiss the causal relationship between the development of early language and the development of the early brain.

Regardless of whether language developed the human brain, or whether language is simply the product of a developed brain, language has provided humans a vehicle to generate infinite series of expressions and ideas from a finite means. It allows humans to share and expand knowledge, explore cognitive curiosity, build upon technology, and innovate. Language is arguable the most powerful gift afforded to any species in existence.

Language: An Evolutionary Development for Human Survival

Scott Schroeder

All living organisms with developed brains exhibit communication in some form. Language, either verbal or written, is only one method in which thoughts can be transmitted to others. The pervasive question which universally plagues sociologists, paleontologists, and scientists of numerous disciplines is why humans are the only species which are capable of communicating in an intricate language. Several intriguing theories exist on the subject.  The Noam Chomsky position that a built-in language organ was plugged into the human brain in a single accident of prehistory, possibly through some sort of divine intervention, is a novel idea, but does not follow the logical progression of evolution as has occurred with all species on the planet.

The fascinating and mysterious phenomenon of evolution is not fully understood in terms of a mechanism which alters a species’ genetic makeup, modifying the appearance and physical traits of the species. All we know is that evolution occurs out of survival necessity to enable a species to adapt to its environments. If evolution is a natural process which enables a species to survive and adapt to its environment, why is spoken language a development of evolution?

By nature, humans have an innate instinct to congregate in social orders. This does not necessarily distinguish humans from other species. Other animals are social and congregate in packs, herds, schools, and flocks, but those species never developed the skills of language. What distinguishes humans from these other social species is the ability of humans to create artefacts. The ability to create artefacts created a need to communicate this technology to other humans so that technology could be passed along and built upon by others in the social order and to subsequent generations.

The sharing of technology led to more cooperative communal living arrangements of increasing complexity which involved collective hunting and foraging activities. This also created a need for increased sophistication in communication. In early environments in which humans were physically at a disadvantage to larger, quicker, and more powerful prey, the ability to build artefacts and the need to collaborate on multifaceted efforts was essential to the survival of the species. Spoken language was the most effective means of early humans to communicate these complex tasks, and therefore became a necessity of survival.

Animals may lack the physical or cognitive ability to communicate thoughts in spoken words, but they may still verbally communicate in tones. Some languages, such as Thai, are characterized as tonal because similar words take on different meanings based on the tone they are spoken. Dog owners are able to determine the mood of their pets based on the tone of their barks.  Anyone who has ever lived with more than one dog in the house can attest that dogs can seemingly have a conversation between each other. These isolated signals could possibly be one-­to-one correlational in nature.  We as humans may not be able to decode what is being communicated, but the responses of the dogs clearly indicate that communication is taking place.

Though unable to verbalize, evidence has proven that dogs can recognize symbolic  reference to human language. Psychologists Alliston Reid and John Pilley of Wofford College methodically taught Chaser, their border collie, the names of hundreds of toys over a three year period as part of a research experiment in animal psychology. In total, Chaser was able to selectively identify 1,022 individual toys based off of name recognition.

All species on earth have undergone evolution to some degree. These evolutions are a function of adapting species to their respective environments. In the case of the dog, a social animal which has been domesticated for thousands of years and congregates in packs in the wild, language was not a survival skill which necessitated evolutionary intervention. The dog’s tongue may not conform to speech, but it is an ideal instrument for the essential life functions of regulating the dog’s body temperature, drinking water, cleaning and grooming itself and others, and applying healing enzymes to wounds. These functions are far more essential to the dog than the ability to converse with other canine about the origin of their species or contemplate whether all dogs go to heaven.

Spoken and written language was the result of evolutionary necessity in humans. In order to communicate technology and interact in complex social architectures, humans required the ability to communicate complex thoughts which is accomplished most effectively through language. The mechanism which conceives evolutionary change remains a mystery. Another great question of relevance may be whether the inception of language itself further evolved the development of the human brain. These are questions which will likely be debated without ever being unequivocally proven. It could be that the phenomenon of evolution which provided humans the gift of language is simply one of the universe’s mysteries which man is not meant to understand.

Mass Media Evolution and the Missing Factor of Economy

Scott Schroeder

More so than the discussions surrounding competing media theories and attempts to standardize definitions, I found the ostensible omission of economic prosperity as a contributing factor in the evolution of media and its influence on both encoders and decoders to be particularly interesting. In his book ‘McQuail’s Mass Communication Theory,’ Denis McQuail acknowledges mass media’s rise as “a new social phenomenon and a key feature of the emerging modern world that was being built on the foundations of industrialism and popular democracy.” However, I do not believe the causal relationships between economic prosperity with cognitive development, the development of physical infrastructure, or the influence on media perspectives were ever adequately addressed.

Times of great prosperity are often accompanied by times of great innovation. When members of a society are prospering economically, their focus on earning to provide and maintain essential elements of life can shift more toward the creative influences of art, science, and innovation. This enables cognitive thought processes to become less internal, and stimulate external interests and curiosities. This intellectual curiosity amongst the common people was a driving force in the expansion of the telegraph to serve not just the Federal Government and U.S. Post Office, but to service a market for a population who desired to experience the world outside their own bubbles.

The nation’s economic health has provided the fertile soil which mass media has blossomed from over the past several decades in America. The economy provides the means of industrialization as well as the commercial marketing vehicle which enables concepts and mediums to reach millions to billions of people. These factors created the link between conceptual ideas and putting mass media into action. In the country’s early years, it did not have the financial capacity generated by prosperous commercial entities to promote and materialize innovation like today. This is why Morse’s telegraph was essentially grounded for six years until Morse received a $30,000 appropriation from Congress.

Within the American press media, the condition of the economy can also influence the professional code between hegemonic-dominant positions and negotiated-corporate positions. When the economy is doing extremely well, television newscasters may bias their reporting in favor of political elites, or the hegemons in power who are in charge of governing. In the face of poor economic times, television newscasters may revise their professional code to more negotiated-corporate positions in attempts to better connect with a television audience which may be disenchanted with the political hegemons.

The fact that America has dominated in the field of mass media innovation is not on happenstance. Much of it has to do with the political freedoms enjoyed by Americans as well as the unique and diverse culture of the country. However, financial capacity and economic prosperity have played vital roles not only in the areas of material development and commercial marketing, but also in the areas of fostering cognitive creativity and influencing the opinions and perspectives which get transmitted.