Some of my favorite ideas about the brain and language are posited in Robert Ornstein’s book The Evolution of Consciousness: the Origins of the Way We Think. His fascinating theories about the evolution of the human brain are back-engineered from its amazing structural advantages today (e.g., we walk upright in part because it’s air conditioning for the fast-growing human brain. Oh, and humans have bigger butts than most mammals in order for them to walk upright.)
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The brain region primates developed to coordinate the complex sequences of movements needed to swing through trees is the very part later co-opted for language. The hominid brain expanded rapidly for other skills long before language developed, but when language did become necessary, it was possible because that part of the primate brain was ready and waiting to adapt to the similar task.
Reading this very sentence requires an ability to use rhythm and to suspend understanding until the completion of a task. Our ability to anticipate then assimilate input is what allows us to construct complex grammar.
I wonder if it works on a smaller scale. Is my lifelong love of languages enhanced because I spent most of first and second grade recess on the monkey bars?
3 thoughts on “Monkeys Swinging Through Trees and Your Ability to Parse this Sentence”
I love it! People do still get hung up by awkward sentences, where the entire meaning of the message is changed by the last word or two, which is why sentence structure can be important, and why we can so easily identify confusing writing. And I hear that swinging from the monkey bars is as good as practicing writing.
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Writing long sentences can be confusing, but it can also be brilliant: use a variety of clauses, of punctuation, and construct a complex thought delineating relationships in a more sophisticated way–humans have that ability and it’s wondrous, and a shame that modern English reading trends steer towards simplistic thought; I’d change that if I could.
Therefore Austen should be required reading.
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