The language/genes metaphor (part 2)

Part II: Metaphors, and why this one is interesting

In the last post, I used an example from Jeanne Fahnestock’s Rhetorical Figures in Science to show what productive figuration looks like. Specifically, I discussed the figure incrementum and how it has provided a conceptual framework for research in evolutionary theory and astronomy.

When working with a metaphor, we want the same generative potential. We should expect the metaphor to provide a conceptual framework that allows researchers to look at something in a new way, to ask new questions, or to make new predictions. In every conceptual metaphor, there is a target domain and a source domain. The target is the object to which attributes are ascribed; the source is the object from which attributes are borrowed. In the language/genes metaphor, genes are the source, and linguistic structures are the target.

We shouldn’t expect every attribute of the source to mirror every attribute of the target at every step and in every way imaginable—we’re not talking about 1:1 correspondence here. Rather, a productive metaphor should allow us to see some attribute of the target in some way that was hitherto hidden before the comparison to the source was made. A metaphor, guided by the attributes of the source domain, selects and highlights certain features of the target domain (while, of course, deflecting other, perhaps more defining features—no metaphor is free. We’ll return to this epistemological danger later on.)

So. Genes and linguistic structures. I’m interested in this comparison because I’m interested in the origins and evolution of language. One of the great questions in science is whether language evolved from gesture and vocalization—becoming gradually more complex through increased socialization, mental awareness, and IQ—or whether language arose relatively quickly in a specific population, the result of a mutation or, more likely, a host of mutations.

I have to admit that a good prima facie case can be made for the latter view; this is the view held by Chomsky and most American linguists. Language, after all, operates on the basis of complex structures and lightning-fast computations, traits which make comparisons to animal vocalizations seem quaint (birds and chimps don’t inflect for case or subordinate clauses). We don’t see a ‘continuum of language’ in nature. Human language is only human language once it’s human language, regardless of what you’ve heard about bird and whale songs from the kumbaya types who chant parochial clichés about “similarities between humans and animals that make people feel uneasy.

However, even if we admit that language is a peculiarly human ability, there’s no necessary reason to assume that it is based on polygenic mutations alone. Social pressures on linguistic change are well documented; so, too, is the fact that not all languages exhibit the same degree of complexity, which is what we should expect if language is not the result of a human-specific cognitive adaptation. There’s evidence that points away from the Chomsky view, in other words.

If the evolution of linguistic structures is analogous to genetic replication, it would be very suggestive in relation to the debate over language origins. Suggestive, not definitive—linguistic structures and genes might be analogous, not homologous, and so the metaphor wouldn’t necessarily prove anything one way or the other. It would simply be interesting—and would suggest that language is perhaps grounded in biology rather than socialization—if languages replicate themselves along genetic lines.


The language/genes metaphor (part 1)

Part I: Rhetorical figures in science

I recently suggested that a parallel can be drawn between genetic evolution and the evolution of linguistic structures.

Is that a fair comparison? Is the language/genes metaphor appropriate?

I’ll attempt to answer that question in a series of posts. To begin with, however, we need to keep in mind that a metaphor is only valuable if it somehow aids research. A metaphor is, after all, a figure of speech, a comparison of unlike items. Unless it allows researchers to pose new questions, make new predictions, or guide inquiry in a new direction, then a metaphor at best offers a Sagan-esque elucidation, or, at worst, a misleading equivocation.

So, before interrogating the language/genes metaphor directly, I’ll use this post to look at the intersection of scientific research and a specific rhetorical figure–the incrementum, aka auxesis–in order to see what productive, generative figuration looks like more generally.

Jeanne Fahnestock’s Rhetorical Figures in Science is one of the most well-researched books on the subject. The book’s overall thesis is that rhetorical figures—which are syntactically available in all Indo-European and Sino-Tibetan languages, if not all languages full stop—that rhetorical figures offer scientists a way to “epitomize” their reasoning, to put complex information into a condensed (and thus easily evaluated) form.

Rhetorical figuration is what many people mean by ‘logical’ thinking. Pure logic is Aristotelian, deductive, syllogistic. However, not all rational thought proceeds by way of a syllogism. There are other lines of reasoning, as well, and since the time of the Greeks, most have been catalogued as the common topics and the rhetorical figures. The special characteristic of rhetorical figures is that they can encapsulate reasoning in a starkly precise form; herein lies their potentially productive power.

Fahnestock writes:

The figure is a verbal summary that epitomizes a line of reasoning. It is a condensed or even diagram-like rendering of the relationship among a set of terms, a relationship that constitutes the argument and that could be expressed at greater length. (24)

Of course, Fahnestock is sure to point out that not all reasoning—scientific or otherwise—can be epitomized formally via a rhetorical figure. The point is, figures are there as linguistic resources and sometimes scientists can use them to clarify their ideas . . . and to guide their research.

Fahnestock’s book explores the use of figuration in scientific literature, from Newton to materials engineering journals. One example she provides is particularly famous: Thomas Huxley’s search for the inorganic primordial soup that, he believed, had given rise to organic matter.

In his lab, Huxley had studied muddy ooze from the bottom of the ocean and found nothing of interest . . . until, ten years later, he “reexamined his bottled specimens under the microscope [and] discerned gelatinous bodies in the muck, bodies that he took to be the preserved specimens of loosely structured living forms, amorphous masses of protoplasm newly identified as the universal stuff of life” (Fahnestock 86). Huxley, it seemed, had discovered the Urschleim, the missing link between inorganic matter and organic life.

For Huxley and all early supporters of evolution, an exigent question was how organic life arose from inorganic substance. We might say ‘logic’ told Huxley that some mediating substance must exist or had once existed, but really, it is rhetorical figuration that allows the thought to be constructed, a substitution of A/B for A/somewhere between A and B/B. Or, in Huxley’s case, Inorganic/Bathybius haeckelii/Organic.

For Huxley, organic/inorganic was itself a rhetorical figure—an antithesis, or juxtaposition of contraries in parallel form. And, as Fahnestock points out, one way to break up an antithesis is with another figure—an incrementum—to show that the antithesis is simply two isolated steps in a larger, hitherto undiscovered series. An incrementum, then, is a series-making figure, one of many. And because series reasoning is particularly important for scientific thought, series-making figures can play a productive role in guiding scientific research, even when, as in Huxley’s case, the new research leads to a dead end.

Fahnestock again:

If species evolved from each other with no need for special creation, where did the first living form come from? How was the gulf between the inorganic and the organic first crossed? Huxley’s bathybius offered a potential answer to this immediate question and at the same time seemed to fulfill the speculations [the rhetorically figured speculations!] of the early nineteenth-century Naturphilosoph Lorenz Oken, who imagined that life had originated as an “Urschleim,” a “primitive mucous substance” generating itself from inorganic constituents in pools of sea water. Ernst Haeckel [another early Darwinian] seized on the possibility that bathybius generated itself spontaneously on the ocean floor and, as a structureless homogenous cellular material, represented the simplest of possible life forms. In this way, bathybius was rhetorically amplified by Haeckel and others into a vast layer of primitive living matter lying along the interface between rock and teeming sea, a widely distributed middle term between the inorganic and organic worlds. (87)

Unfortunately for Haeckel and Huxley, bathybius was neither primitive nor living. It was simply the byproduct of a chemical reaction called precipitation. They both admitted their mistake and moved on. However, the exigent question they were attempting to answer was and remains important, and we can thank series reasoning (the incrementum) for the rational and precise framing of the question.

Today, of course, biologists know there is no single item that bridges the antithesis organic/inorganic. And yet, there is

no reason to limit antithesis-mediating to a single third term; a coherent series of terms can be used instead. Currently, the search that inspired Huxley and Haeckel for a way to bridge the antithesis between the living and nonliving is being carried on by molecular biologists and virologists, but none of these researchers is looking for a single term as a sufficient intermediate. Instead, in the last thirty years, a host of forms have been identified that qualify to create what one virologist has called a “Continuum of Molecular Life Forms” (Levine 1992) . . . Everyone now working in this field is constructing an extended series of one kind or another. (90)

So here is a good example of productive rhetorical figuration in science. Series reasoning—based on the incrementum—has for a century served as the backbone, the framework for research into that gray area between organic and inorganic molecular structures.

(Another, simpler example of productive series reasoning comes from the study of our solar system. The asteroid belt was discovered after astronomers realized that a planetary gap existed between Mars and Jupiter. A simple formula known as Titus-Bode’s law calculated the distance between planetary orbits. Another god, the astronomers concluded, should exist between the war god and the sky god. So, astronomers—William Herschel among them—trained their telescopes on the part of the sky where, according to their mathematically supported incrementum, a new fourth planet should exist.)

So, the incrementum has helped scientists formulate ideas about what to look for (the simplest organic life forms) and where to look for them (between Mars and Jupiter). The figuration doesn’t do the work; it simply provides the conceptual framework. All figuration “epitomizes” a longer line of reasoning. Figuration is productive, however, if it allows scholars to make predictions or pose new questions.

Does the language/genes metaphor allow us to do those things? Or would a different metaphor—or a different figure altogether—be more productive?

Acquisition of English expletives is probably late by default

This semester, I had to run a modest experiment for my seminar in second language acquisition, an experiment somehow grounded in previous work I’d done in syntactic theory. For me, that meant testing for acquisition of expletives.

Expletives are non-referential pronouns that exist only to satisfy a structural requirement, namely Chomsky’s extended projection principle (EPP). The EPP demands that all clauses have a subject. If no subject moves to Spec-IP in D-structure, then an expletive pronoun is inserted during the application of transformation rules. The expletive pronoun receives no theta role; it simply fulfills the structural requirement that every subject have a clause, as in this example from German:

slabloggermanThe verb regnet (rains) moves from V to T and finally to spec-CP, because the AdvP is fronted and German requires that verbs always appear in second position. However, regnet, despite all its movement in this clause, does not possess a theta grid. In other words, it has no argument structure and simply doesn’t demand an AGENT or THEME or any other kind of argument that might function as the clausal subject.

So, an expletive must be inserted to satisfy the syntactic demand for a subject. All languages want every construal to have a subject and a predicate: a thing and something about the thing. If a lexical entry possesses an argument structure that needn’t provide a thing, or an argument structure that makes the thing optional, expletives are inserted instead.

In terms of language acquisition, I think it’s likely that expletives will be acquired relatively late, for two reasons:

1) There simply aren’t many lexical entries whose theta grids demand or allow expletive insertion. Is likely is one such entry. It assigns only a single theta role to a proposition CP . . .


. . . which can then move to spec-IP to become the clause’s subject . . .

[That Jim likes bourbon [is likely <that Jim likes bourbon>]

. . . OR which can optionally stay in object position, thus requiring expletive insertion:

slablog2Likely is thus one of those lexical items whose argument structure makes expletive insertion possible. Again, these items are rare in the English lexicon. I wouldn’t expect them to be acquired in the early stages of the L2 grammar, especially given that most of them can be construed in other ways. E.g., the example above can be construed using a simple adjunct: Jim probably likes bourbon.

Same meaning. And likes and probably are—err—probably in the L1 input much more often than is likely. No reason to acquire the latter when the former gets the job done.

2) Not all languages handle expletives the same way English handles them, so L2 learners probably receive a lot of negative input early in the acquisition process that inures them to avoiding expletive construction in English. For example, English There is is construed in German as Es gibt, literally It gives. Both There and Es are expletives; both introduce existential clauses; yet both are construed very differently. Through early input, a German L2 speaker would learn that “It gives . . .” doesn’t work in English as an existential. He would then avoid existential constructions entirely until he received a lot of positive input, which would, again, mean a relatively late acquisition of the target expletive.

One exception to late expletive acquisition is the use of weather expletives (e.g., It’s raining). These clauses may be memorized expressions, and may not indicate an underlying competence. Working with my participants, it was therefore important to set up a testing situation in which expletives other than weather expletives would be appropriate and also statistically preferred by natives speakers.

To summarize my hypothesis: expletives are acquired late by default because a) lexical items whose theta grid allows or requires expletive insertion are rare and thus not readily acquired, and b) differing expletive construction between the L1 and English necessitates a certain amount of syntactic reconfiguration, dependent upon a long period of positive input from English.

In a manner of speaking, though, expletives themselves aren’t acquired at all; they’re results of a structural requirement of Universal Grammar. Given (a), what’s acquired late are English lexical items that force the expletives to be used. Given (b), what’s acquired late is enough positive input to make L2 speakers confident in their use of English expletives, which are quite different from the same expletives in the L1.


I presented four pictures showing various scenes to L2 speakers of English. My sample size was absurdly small: 7 L1 Chinese speakers and 5 L1 German speakers. I also showed the same pictures to 7 native speakers of English. I asked the participants to describe each picture using complete sentences. I was testing for the use of two types of expletive pronouns: (a) weather expletive it, and, more importantly, (b) existential there (e.g., There is a snake in my boots.) Being a native speaker, I know that English speakers prefer existential expletives when describing things, so I figured picture-description was a good situation for testing expletive use amongst L2 speakers. All the speakers were high-intermediate or advanced. Had they acquired the preference for expletives? These charts show how many times each speaker used an expletive while describing the four pictures.


Again, my sample size is absurdly small. I’d need to redo the experiment with at least 40-50 L2 speakers of several languages to get a more robust result. However, it’s always fun to see your hunch confirmed after even a small peek into the data. Native speakers had a much higher rate of expletive use than non-native speakers. Non-native speakers chose to describe the pictures using transitive verbs, which didn’t force the speaker’s mental grammar to bother with expletives: e.g., I see a deer, or more directly, A deer is standing next to a stream, rather than, There’s a deer standing next to a stream, or, It looks like the deer’s thirsty or whatever.

There’s an increase in expletive use by the two advanced speakers in each group. The increase is slight for the German speakers; however, the advanced Chinese speakers use expletives at the same rate as the native speakers. Given that I know these participants personally, I’m confident about the reason behind this phenomenon: they’re both Anglophiles who have reached near-native fluency.