August 24, 2011

The secret languages of twins

Jon Lackman writes in Slate:
In rare cases, however, children do develop an entire language of their own, and amazingly, all full-blown twin languages spontaneously develop the same structure, regardless of the language spoken at home. Aarhus University linguist Peter Bakker told me that twin-language structure is unlike that of any established language, and its syntax doesn't simply reflect the usual mistakes made by children. (Deaf children not taught sign language who invent their own also use this structure, by the way.) This "gives us a potential insight into the nature of language," Bakker said, into mankind's "first language," now lost to history. 
Twin languages are simple, just as simple as necessary, one might say. For one, they freely mix subjects, verbs, and objects, putting the most important item first in any context. In an Estonian study a child said, in his private language, "Again I foyer toward write come." (Estonian grammar would have dictated, "I come again to the foyer to write.") Negation appears at the sentence's beginning or end, regardless of where it appears in the native language. Thus one Swiss child said, "Bobby, here drive no!" instead of, "Bobby, don't drive here!" Verbs aren't conjugated. There's no way to locate things or events in time and space. And finally, twin languages almost never use pronouns, just proper names. Language can get simpler than this, but not much. ...
If language originated between just two people, it might well have looked like this: The seemingly universal twin-language structure is blissfully easy to use in one-on-one conversation. However, that first language would have had to evolve quickly to be useful to a larger community. Societies need "unambiguous ways to distinguish between subject and object," Bakker says. "In the twin situation these can be dispensed with, but not in languages in which it is necessary to refer to events outside the direct situation." ... 
Linguist Bernard Comrie at UC-Santa Barbara cautions that research into the birth of language is still in its infancy. "First we were told that creole languages would provide us with insight into 'first language,' then when that didn't pan out interest shifted to deaf sign language (also with mixed results)—I guess twin language will be the next thing," he wrote me. Twin language is particularly difficult to test because children give it up quickly, except when they are very isolated. And you can't just isolate kids on purpose—not anymore, anyway. Gone are the days when the pharaoh Psammetichus I could send two infants off to be raised by goats, or the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II could forbid children's caregivers from speaking to them.

Project Nim, the 1970s attempt to teach the chimpanzee Nim Chimpsky to use sign language to disprove Noam Chomsky's ideas about what Steven Pinker calls the "language instinct," was in the tradition of Psammetichus and Frederick. It's an interesting question.

Lackman recalls a 1981 movie in which a primitive tribe has only one phrase: "It will be mine." That's not too far off from many of the things Nim had to say for himself, such as:
“Me banana you banana me you give.”
“You me banana me banana you give.”
“Banana me me me eat."

31 comments:

foreign expert said...

There's no way to locate things or events in time and space. And finally, twin languages almost never use pronouns, just proper names. Language can get simpler than this,

Note that the examples contain the pronoun "I", toward, and here.

bjtubbbs said...

The jibe at creole languages is probably a dig at Derek Bickerton, who wrote a biography called Bastard Tongues about his attempt to understand the origin of language using creole. He wanted create his own creole language by isolating some families of different languages with young children on an island in Micronesia, thereby creating a situation where a new creole would arise, and he even got funding from like the NSF, but as soon as it was about to start the funding got pulled. It's an interesting story, but his Adam's Tongue, on the origin of languages, is a better book and very funny. There's a good piece at the beginning of that book about why chimps in captivity never learn to talk.

Anonymous said...

Interesting that.

My two youngest daughters are identical twins and I mean identical!.
As children,they never,or never appeared to develop a private language.They did'nt need to.Most communication between them was done silently,by thought.
I was never a believer in telepathy or any of that stuff but there was most definitely something going on between the two.
Non family may have found it a little creepy but for they being such a sweet pair.
They are young adults now and still extremely close.They insist they did talk when little i.e.verbalize and,to them it probably was talking.
One of them is pregnant with,yes,twins.
I can't wait to see how the new pair turn out.

Vhailor said...

In a stunning development, Nim Chimpsky's utterances were found to be eerily similar to text messages used as evidence by the London Metropolitan Police in crimes related to the recent rioting.....

Me me me Addidas my me want have

Vhailor said...

In a stunning development, Nim Chimpsky's utterances were found to be eerily similar to text messages used as evidence by the London Metropolitan Police in crimes related to the recent rioting.....

Me me me Addidas my me want have

Jeff Sahol said...

Was Nim by any chance a union official?

Black Death said...

If the Swiss child were a native German speaker, he or she would say, "Bobby, fahre hier nicht," or, literally in English, 'Bobby, drive here not." The English use of the emphatic form for negation "Do not drive here" instead of "Drive here not" seems awkward, but there it is.

Chicago said...

Nim sounds rather self-centered, not unlike lots of folks I've encountered.

Polistra said...

I'm always suspicious of linguists deriving universals. They have a long history of ignoring obvious facts.

For instance, linguists used to insist that separate forms for nominative and accusative were important, because this allowed a looser word order.

Doubly wrong. First, Indo-European languages with noun declensions only mark the accusative on a small proportion of nouns. Second, only a few poets really want flexible word order. All languages have extremely rigid word order, which provides the real marker for the grammatical role of each word. Noun cases always merge and disappear over time, but word order never loosens.

Harry Baldwin said...

Lackman recalls a 1981 movie in which a primitive tribe has only one phrase: "It will be mine."

I think he's confused--that line appeared in a 1992 documentary about tribal ways in Aurora, Illinois.

Anonymous said...

Ongoing discussion of a New York Times articles about twins at My Posting Career.com

Kylie said...

"Lackman recalls a 1981 movie in which a primitive tribe has only one phrase: 'It will be mine.' That's not too far off from many of the things Nim had to say for himself, such as:

'Me banana you banana me you give.'
'You me banana me banana you give.'
'Banana me me me eat.'"


It's also not too far off from something I used to hear a lot in my old neighborhood: "I got to get me some of that."

Fernandinande said...

“Me banana you banana me you give.”
“You me banana me banana you give.”
“Banana me me me eat."


Congress?

Rainforest Giant said...

Yeah,

The 'I' seems a little like a pronoun.

Matt said...

"Note that the examples contain the pronoun "I", toward, and here."

No doubt this is just a translation convention. "I", for example, is just the twin's name.

No conjugation of verbs sounds like Chinese. Chinese grammar is something like what we use when we want to make someone sound stupid. 'Me go here' 'I go store tomorrow' At least, this is my understanding based on secondhand info...I've never studied Chinese. It makes me wonder though why European languages evolved all these verb conjugations that apparently aren't needed.

Anonymous said...

Maybe there was no "first language". There's no reason there must have been one. Language was probably independently arrived at in different places.

Societies need "unambiguous ways to distinguish between subject and object

Yes, they do. All languages have certain general features in common for the same reason that all aircraft have features in common and all bridges have features in common - because they have to have these features to perform their assigned function.

Anonymous said...

Not...really. Read your Pinker again. The problem was the total lack of grammar.

Anonymous said...

I don't think twin lingo or twingo will tell us much about the first lingo. I think twins communicate this way cuz they can almost read each other minds--though I'd think this is more true with identical twins than fraternal ones. A twin is a copy of oneself, so there's an almost 'sixth sense pscyhic- like' connection. Even without clarifying what they mean, the twins 'get' one another. So, even speaking babble-ish stuff, they get the angles and grooves. They are like one person split in two: physically separate but psychologically the same. Also, it goes to show emotions play a big role in language. Since twins have same emotional personality, they grasp each other's meaning much quicker. In a way, one twin understanding the other twin is like one understanding oneself manifested in a separate form.
Also, kids often 'communicate' just to hear one another and feel eachother's presence than to get any real meaning across. (Come to think of it, most phone conversations and texting between friends are of this kind. A friend used to call me just to 'talk' when there was nothing really to talk about. I think she just wanted to convey her emotions and hear a human voice on the other side of the line.) So, it could be that the main reason for twingo is not so much to convey meaning but to reassure eachother of one's presence.
Also, language has a dual purpose. To be part of a larger community and to shut oneself from other communities. Some people learn esoteric languages just so they can feel, "I belong to an elite that knows this secret language." Brahmins were like that with Sanskrit. So, maybe twins, since they are physically/psychologically rare, want a secret lingo of their own to set themselves away from rest of society; this tells us more about psychology than linguistics though. (What if twins were the norm? Suppose most people had identical twins and only 1% of the population were born as single person? Dynamic might be somewhat different.)

But we can see this among people of same culture too. A people of one cultural community can say stuff that makes no logical sense to people outside the culture. A word has metaphoric and slang meaning in one culture that it doesn't have in another cultural community. This is a good example. SYMPHONY IN SLANG. To the angel, the guy is just talking gibberish even though they are both speaking English. Of course, a person of that hip community would know that the guy is saying, but it's Greek to the angel.
To be sure, in the above cartoon, the syntax and grammar rules are the same as in non-slang lingo. With twins, even syntax may not be as necessary cuz the twins are psychically and emotionally closely linked. You can see this with cats too. Cats can only say variations of 'meow', but it's like two cats can 'communicate' with one another on many levels with 'meOw', 'Meow', 'mEow', 'meoW'. And when I was a kid, a friend and I created a language where there was only one word: 'yih'. And we would have conversations using just variations of yih. We were so close that we kinda got what eachother was saying though we saying total nonsense in the literal sense.

ELVISNIXON.com said...

Chimpsky is a sort of Caesar(Rise of the Planet of the Apes)without the IQ drugs.

He could only go so far without external forces modifying his nature.

Baloo said...

Good stuff. The concept of putting the important words first is similar to what they call "topic" languages. Linked HERE.

Anonymous said...

"Nim sounds rather self-centered, not unlike lots of folks I've encountered."

I agree. I think doing this research with a more altruistic animal may reduce confusion, due to the selfishness of apes, about how well an animal might communicate. One of my dogs, for instance, will spontaneously decide to bring me a bone or toy that he is chewing so that I might also gnaw on it. (I make lots of eating sounds while covering the part I'm "chewing" with my hand so he doesn't feel his present has been rejected.)

Anonymous said...

Never mind the first language. What was the first word? I'll bet it had something to do with the pud. We might learn something about early language through B&B

Anonymous said...

"As children,they never,or never appeared to develop a private language.They did'nt need to.Most communication between them was done silently,by thought.
I was never a believer in telepathy or any of that stuff but there was most definitely something going on between the two."

This happens more than you think among kids/people with common pool of emotions, references, biases, allusions, views, memories, etc. Twins have more of this than others.

For example, when I was a child, my friend and I would only need to look at one another to communicate certain thoughts. We would sit on the porch and if a fat person walked by, we would only need to look at one another to communicate, 'what a fatass! look at that walking tub of lard!'
Or if some black guy walked guy, we would look at one another and communicate, 'what a jiveass fool.'

Anonymous said...

We should distinguish between three forms of communication: 1. Informative/explanatory 2. Referential/allusionary 3. Contextual/inter-relational.

Informative/explanatory would be conveying new meaning to someone who knows virtually nothing about the subject. It has to be very clear, straightforward, and detail-oriented.

Referential/allusionary would be communication between people with common set of knowledge/experiences. So, if person A says something without fully explaining what he means, person B knows what is beign said, more or less, since he too shares the common pool of ideas, imagery, sources.

Contextual/interrelational would require the presence of other people and occur within a specific setting. Oftentimes, person A and person B might not say much, make subtle or cryptic remarks which, on their own, would mean little or nothing. But they may serve as codewords between person A and B in relation to person C or the situation at hand. So, even words that may sound innocuous or banal on the surface could be certain signals between A and B.
So, if two white people find themselves in a black neighborhood, and one says, 'well, it looks like we should be heading home', it could really mean, 'how the hell did we end up in da Hood? Let's get out of here as fast as possible before we get robbed by crazy negroes!!!!'
Consider the scene in BRING ME THE HEAD OF ALFREDO GARCIA where some guy asks Benny for instructions and Benny, looking at the map, answers, 'you gotta take it'. They act nonchalant, but the REAL message was 'you gotta pull out the gun and use it against the armed Mexicans around us.'

Much of social cruelty are actually carried out this way. Suppose there's a bunch of 'popular girls' sharing a table with a gross girl in the school cafeteria. By glances, facial expressions, and sly choice of words, the pop girls can make the gross girl feel miserable. The meaning "you're a fat gross digusting hag" can be conveyed by talk that superficially seems 'nice' and 'harmless'.
Twins obviously have more shared references and code-expressions.

Also, language is also like a toy. Comedians play with it. Kids find it funny, weird, flexible, and fascinating from a young age. Just look at the number of names for sexual organs.

Anonymous said...

(Michael Farris)

"Deaf children not taught sign language who invent their own also use this structure, by the way."

Okay, I've done research on sign languages and have had conversational ability in two separate natural sign languages and have read dozens and dozens of books about the linguistics of sign languages and I have no idea what this is supposed to mean... This is why linguists hate, hate HATE it (more than American women hate beta males) when the MSM takes on language issues.

I do my best to stay away from origin theories of languages because it's a black hole that will suck up your time and energy and not give anything back, but ... I do tend to think that something like natural sign languages (like ASL) developed first and spoken language developed on top of that.

I've always liked Bickerton's work and think a lot of his bio-program model is worth consideration.

Finally (for linguists only) a lot of the questions about linguistic variation aren't very weird if you posit that there is something like a default model for a human language (that's something like a creole) and that it has structural features that are in conflict (specifically a preference for both SVO and head final constructions). An awful lot of language change can be reduced to trying to balance those two features (or get rid of one of them altogether). If you don't understand linguistics that will not make any sense and if you do you probably won't agree but I think there's something there worth exploring.

Anonymous said...

“Me banana you banana me you give.”
“You me banana me banana you give.”
“Banana me me me eat."

Sounds like the conversation between DSK and the hotel maid.

Anon.

Jeff said...

@Michael Farris: What's the problem with the sentence you quote? Doesn't it just mean that home sign systems are syntactically similar to twin languages? What is surprising (or unclear) about that? And what does it have to do with actual sign languages?

Anonymous said...

"At least, this is my understanding based on secondhand info...I've never studied Chinese. It makes me wonder though why European languages evolved all these verb conjugations that apparently aren't needed."

Chinese is an isolating language. To create meaning you string lots of short words together in specific orders.

European languages are synthetic languages. The words you use are longer, and you add suffixes, prefixes and vowel changes onto words to modify their meaning. This means it takes fewer words to get out the same meaning, and small differences in word order don't matter as much.

Simple sentences like "I will go to the store tomorrow" are extremely simple in Chinese (aside from pronouncing the tones properly), but once you get into slightly more complicated sentences the rules get tricky fast.

Anonymous said...

(Michael Farris)

"Doesn't it just mean that home sign systems are syntactically similar to twin languages?"

That was one of the possible readings but AFAIK it would be inaccurate - home sign systems rarely grow more than a few dozen signs (and the signs usually appear one, maybe two at a time and aren't typically strung together in sentences, even by the deaf children they develop around).

Home sign is characterized by isolation of the person with no other way to communicate - very different from the constant feedback and stimulation that twins can give each other.

Somewhat more developed are the semi-languages that arise in isolated (and/or very endogamous) communities with a high incidence of non-syndromic hereditary deafness. These aren't much like the sign languages that deaf people use either (but they're not much like twin languages either).

Anonymous said...

People who know each other well can communicate a great deal of information between themselves without any words at all - facial expression and "body language" conveys a a great deal of data about the other persons emotional state.

But though we use the phrase "body language" it's not really a language. And the same is true for these "twin languages". They are so restricted in their scope that it's a mistake to call them a language at all. A handful of baby words does not constitute a language.

Jeff said...

@Michael Farris:

Thanks, that's much more informative than your first comment, in which you said you didn't know what the quoted sentence meant (not that you disagreed with it). This seems to confirm the existence of at least some syntax in home sign systems, though: http://www.pnas.org/content/102/52/19249.full

"Home sign is characterized by isolation of the person with no other way to communicate - very different from the constant feedback and stimulation that twins can give each other."
I may have misunderstood the article, but don't twin languages only appear in the absence of sufficient language input from the adults? So these twins, too, are effectively isolated from language. They use the little input they do get and improvise some new phonology/grammar.

We might assume a similar situation with home sign, in which the other members of the household serve as the 'twin' providing "constant feedback and stimulation". Obviously, two differences remain: with home sign, there is no linguistic input at all; and the deaf child's family members are past any critical period and already have a full language. These facts could then explain any significant differences between home sign systems and twin languages.

It would be interesting to see whether the communication system that deaf twins who receive some but insufficient input from signing parents come up with--a twin sign language, I guess--would pattern with spoken twin languages or home sign systems. E.g., would words from the parents' language be phonologically simplified, as with spoken twin languages? (I would also want to know whether these were different from twin home sign languages: the same thing, but without any signed input.)

I think with this information, we could decide what role the modality, the usable linguistic input, and the linguistic knowledge of the child's language creation partner (twin with no language vs. family member with a language unusable with the child) play. So far, of course, we only have much data on a couple of the logical possibilities.

...am I making any sense?