LINGUIST List 9.667

Thu May 7 1998

FYI: Vocal Immitation, Correction Twin Speech

Editor for this issue: Julie Wilson <>


  1. Dr. John Skoyles, Vocal imiation: new theory in the commentary ejournal Noetica
  2. Bernard Comrie, correction

Message 1: Vocal imiation: new theory in the commentary ejournal Noetica

Date: Tue, 05 May 1998 10:43:57
From: Dr. John Skoyles <>
Subject: Vocal imiation: new theory in the commentary ejournal Noetica

Recent findings upon the area in monkeys homologous to the human Broca's
area have radically changed our understanding of its underlying
neurobiology. In particular, it puts the issue of the links between vocal
imiation (the transformation of speech sounds into speech motor commands),
and the nature, learning and evolution of speech hot on the agenda of
issues in speech science. Last week, I reviewed the issues involved and
proposed a new 'motor theory of speech' that takes accounts of recent
neuroscience findings in the commentary ejournal Noetica.

Here is its abstract:

Mirror Neurons and the motor theory of speech.
Dr. John R. Skoyles

Mirror (imitation) neurons have recently been discovered in the homologous
area to the Broca area in monkeys (Rizzolatti, Fadiga, Gallese & Fogassi,
1996; Rizzolatti & Arbib, in press; Gallese, Fadiga, Fogassi & Rizzolatti,
1996). How might the existence and evolution of speech link to them? Here I
argue that informationally the one unique feature of human speech is that
it is a vocabulary-based communication. As such, its existence requires
that human infants can directly learn from overheard speech thousands of
words in a short time by direct imitation. Cognitively, how infants vocally
imitate overhead words is unexplained. In a revised motor theory of speech
I tackle this problem. The motor theory of speech arose to explain why
speech (in the form of phones) is characterised by motor articulation
information. Originally, it did so in terms of enabling vocal mimicry and
word perception (Liberman, 1957, p. 122). Subsequently, the imitation role
was dropped; I restore it. Speech, I suggest, contains motor information so
that infants can quickly imitate all its thousands of words merely from
hearing them. Vocal imitability is created by a cognitive trick involving
speech motor goals: these goals are always innate high-level auditory
processing categorial invariants (innate and processed in the Wernicke's
area). Because they are innate, these goals are easily extracted by infants
from speech. This allows an infant's motor system to duplicate them and so
duplicate vocalisations. This gaol duplication occurs in imitation circuits
(using mirror neurons in the Broca's area).
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Message 2: correction

Date: Tue, 5 May 1998 10:24:27 -0700
From: Bernard Comrie <>
Subject: correction

To: Linguist List
From: Bernard Comrie
Date: 5 May 98
Subj: Twins' language (cryptophasia)

The following correction, from Peter Bakker (, should be
made to my posting on this subject (9/469, March 26):

On Linguist List 9/469 (March 26) Bernard Comrie listed a number
of titles relating to twins' private languages (cryptophasia) and
summarized his findings as follows: "twin languages are not
particularly autonomous; their apparent autonomy reflects rather
greater distortion than normal of the language(s) of the twins'
 While that is certainly true for the phonology and the
lexicon (at least 90 percent of the vocabulary of each language
can be traced back to the language of the environment), this is
not true for the grammatical system. The grammatical systems do
show a number of striking differences from the languages of the
environment, and they also appear to have a number of structural
features in common. I have discussed some of this in the 1987 and
1990 papers quoted in the list mentioned above.

Bernard Comrie
Dept of Linguistics GFS-301 tel +1 213 740 3674
University of Southern California fax +1 213 740 9306
Los Angeles, CA 90089-1693, USA e-mail

Permanent address from 12 May 1998

Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology
Inselstrasse 22-26
D-04103 Leipzig, Germany

Fax +49 341 96 17 537
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