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Time scale3R

Time scales

From fractions of a second to hundreds of thousands of years

Three time scales or orders of time are obvious. Two are controversial. And one, measured in microseconds, has only been discovered by the technology of recording, and is not obvious at all.

The obvious time scales are those of:

  • The sounds in words and words in sentences, measured in seconds;
  • Children’s acquisition of speech and language, measured in days, weeks, months, and years;
  • Generations with grandparents often complaining that they can’t understand young people.

Controversially, non-obviously:

  • By one of the controversial time scales, the speech and language faculty has evolved as the most complex entity known to science, by the proposal here, completed in eight steps, the last probably around 150,000 yearas ago;
  • Also controversially, the evolutionary time scale is different from the time scale by what is known as ‘grammaticalisation’ with words like French le forming from Latin ille over hundreds of years;
  • A non-obvious time scale applies to the articulation of speech sounds with a fraction of second delay between the opening of the lips in pea, tea, and key, and the adjustment of the vocal cords which forms a vowel. This delay varies across both English and French, increasing from South to North, so that the French name, Thierry, can sound like English Jerry. This differentiaties tea in the North of England from tea in the South, in ways that critically define the speaker’s sense of personal identity.

The timing of the gestures in P, T, and K, is well-learnt long before the end of what Eric Lenneberg in 1967 called the ‘critical period for language acquisition’ at around ten. This timing is not easily modified.

The generational time scale may be just a microscopic view of the grammaticalisation time scale, like King Alfred’s Old English turning into modern English over 1,200 years. What one generation calls a gramophone, another generation may call a turn table or record deck. In current London English, go is used meaning say, isn’t it or innit is becoming a word, like is used to introduce a sentence. But the sounds themselves may be changing at the same time. R may be becoming a sound like W and Y, only used before a vowel, as opposed to a sound like L, used before or after a vowel, always next to it. The changes in the words are obvious. But the changes in the sounds may be detectable too. As these changes are multiplied with one another, one language, over a long enough period of time, turns into a completely different language.

By the proposal here, the slowest of these time scales, the evolutionary one, measured in tens or hundreds of thousands of years, is critically relevant to the shortest, the dialectal one, measured in micro-seconds, is critically relevant to normal speech and languages acquisition.

Acquisition and grammaticalisation

For parents the process of acquisition may seem prolonged as the first babbles give way to first single words and then sentences. But this is intantaneous by contrast with the process by which languages gradually change, gaining or losing such things as ways of expressing respect for or familiarity with whoever one happens to be talking to. Most varieties of English have completely lost the marking of respect. British Sign Language marks this by the set of the head, slightly raised as a marker of respect, in a way similar to the marking of respect or familiarity by different words for you in every other currently spoken language in Europe and Southern Asia. The loss of this in most varieties of English has taken 400 or so years. The grammar of asking questions and negation was already changing 400 years ago, but also by a relatively drawn out process. In this way, modern English evolved from the language of Shakespeare, as that evolved from the English of Geoffrey Chaucer 600 years ago, as that evolved from the Old English of King Alfred another 600 years earlier. The time scale difference, by an order of magnitude, might suggest that these are quite different things. By the proposal here, this is indeed so. But there is a strong connection between acquisition of language and the evolution of language itself with a time scale difference of much greater orders of magnitude.

Grammar and evolution

The emergence of uniquely human grammatical categories must have been very significant at the level of the simplest and most obvious human relations. For an individual not capable of recognising such categories there would have been no way of distinguishing between “Mummy loves Daddy”, “Daddy loves Mummy” and the nonsensical “Loves Mummy Daddy”.

But by the proposal here, the encoding and fixation of the basis of the corresponding species-universal properties, is most unlikely to have been anything other than a slow and gradual process over a very extended time-scale.

Grammaticalisation and evolution

There is a view that the time scales by grammaticalisation and by the evolution of speech and language, are not qualitatively distinct, that the grammar of ‘Proto-Indo-European’, as it is known, spoken somewhere near the Black Sea perhaps 6,000 years ago, was a step closer to primordial forms of language than any of its modern descendants in the main languages from Europe and the territory from Kurdistan to Iran, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Northern India.

But like José Luis Mendívil Giró (2019), I believe that that in order to explain the emergence of the structures, the features, and so on, there have to be different orders of time, for baby language, for languages like English, and for the evolution of language as a human faculty. As I propose in Order, disorder and evolution and the proposal here, this makes a big difference to the understanding and treatment of developmental disorders.

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