Does "Language" Mean "Human Language"? (2)

-------------------------------- Response 4 -------------------------------
Date: 10 Oct 2000
From: Larry Trask

Jess Tauber writes:

> Moonhawk raises some important issues. But one thing not usually considered > by linguists (or indeed by most communicative ethologists) is the possibility > that these (and other) animals may already possess a simple language, beyond > the usually recognized sets of vocal and other signs.
Nobody is suggesting that other creatures have nothing. The observation is merely that they do not have language.
> But we also assume that "lower" primates and other animals must of necessity > be at some sort of stage far below even the most primitive of human language > speakers in terms of their communicative development. How do we know this?
OK. First, I don't know what Jess means here by 'primitive'. Unless we are talking about young children, I cannot imagine who these 'primitive' speakers might be.

Second, I object to the implication that the signaling systems of primates or of other creatures must be measured against human language and thus found wanting. This seems to me to suggest that much of the history of life on earth amounts to a vast conspiracy to evolve human language, and that any creatures which have failed to manage this are therefore woefully inadequate. I believe no such thing, and I know of no linguist who believes any such thing.

Third, the point is not that other species' systems are somehow intrinsically inferior to ours, but only that they are very *different* from ours, and hence that it is not obviously appropriate to extend the term 'language' so as to include all of them. I am told that chimps sometimes throw things, but I see no reason to extend the definition of 'baseball' to include this activity. Why should 'language' be different?

> I would like to suggest a possible alternate universe: Animals have a highly > evolved and heavily grammaticalized system of vocal communication- possibly > to the point of maximal head-marking/polysynthesis beyond anything seen in > neotenic humans, who never get to that point. Phonologically they have a > system beyond the featural twistings and turnings of San click systems, so > far gone in fact that we don't recognize any phonology, but a natural > extrapolation from what we can do. Human languages are systemic shadows from > this point of view, but we make up for our lack of conciseness by being able > to link clauses, do movement, insert lexical items, etc.
Gad. Well, this is certainly original. But why should we take it seriously? The suggestion seems to be that we humans have so far failed to evolve anything on a par with what can be observed in many (most? all?) other species, and that we poor things must limp along with a sadly makeshift improvisation. Doubt it.
> Unlike humans, the mental and behavioral world of animals is relatively fixed > and ritualistic (not that ours isn't, just not to the same degree). They > don't "need" the add-ons we have. They are just fine without them.
Well, for once something I can agree with. Other species are not inadequate because they don't do what we do. Snails are very good at being snails without necessarily doing anything that we do.

Geese are better at long-distance navigation than we are. (They are especially better than me, since I have no sense of direction at all, and I get lost very easily.) But I wouldn't want to suggest that the history of life on earth is no more than an attempt at evolving goose-like navigational skills, with humans still very much in the minor leagues.

> Humans have been putting themselves at the center of the universe for a very > long time. Probably a primate trait, so I don't blame anyone. We keep getting > knocked out by scientific discovery. Center of the universe, special > chemistry, language, mind.
True, but not a fair characterization of the position of linguists. No linguist I've ever heard of is claiming that we humans are the lords of creation because we have language, while other creatures don't. We claim only that possession of language is a uniquely human trait. I don't see this (very well-supported) claim as involving any more hubris than the claim that squirting possible predators with foul-smelling ethanthiol is a uniquely skunkly trait.
> And when someone challenges our position > defenders of the faith may sometimes try to keep raising the bar- witness the > old "design features of language" effort. Its futile.
Why is it futile? Why is it futile to point out that we have negation, open-endedness, stimulus-freedom, and whatnot, when other creatures generally lack these traits?

You might as well argue that it is futile to try to characterize skunks by such design features as black fur, white stripe, nocturnal activity, and stink-based defense. I think these are very reasonable things to say about skunks.

> Why bother? How many > times do we have to be pushed off our high horses before we rethink our > position. Even evolution- how many of you think we are some sort of pinnacle > occupant??
Nobody that I know of -- or at least nobody that I respect.

But so what? Who, among linguists, is claiming any sort of pinnacle for us, merely because we have language? We might as well assign skunks or geese to that pinnacle, because of their own unique characteristics.

We have language, and other creatures don't. So far as I can tell, this is merely a fact. No linguist wants to claim that we are *therefore* God's chillun.

> Got news, folks- only losers have to evolve. Look how we're messing up- don't > know our place in the scheme of things, destruction of each other, the > environment. A bacterium doesn't even need to know better. Its adapted. Our > exalted minds are a desperate attempt to model a universe we don't any longer > know how to deal with instinctively, or automatically. And consciousness > itself- well that only really comes into play when we're in crisis mode. > That's what its for. So what does that say??
A surprising point of view. I emphatically do not regard Jess's posting as any kind of crisis. Does it follow that I am not conscious while composing this response?

Larry Trask

-------------------------------- Response 5 -------------------------------
Date: 10 Oct 2000
From: A A

"Human language" is a redundancy in terms, as animals have no language but merely codes. The defining feature of language, as opposed to codes, is what André Martinet called its double articulation. Language pivots on a double hinge: on the one hand, there is the level at which concrete sounds are gathered into abstract sets capable of distinguishing meaning (the step from sounds to phonemes, from phonetics to phonology); on the other hand, there is the level at which phonemes combine into larger units (the step from phonology to morphosyntax). Codes (both animal and human) lack this duplicity: their constituent elements always combine linearly, and their value remains always the same, whichever context they appear in (i.e. there are no allophones).

This linearity of codes applies also to their semantics: codes are univocal, composed of signs which refer always to the same objects. Metaphor is impossible in codes, as is ambiguity. If animals misunderstand each other, it is due to external factors, not to bad interpretations.

Also, codes (at least animal ones) are incapable of self-reference. There are no metalinguistic utterances (or signallings, or whatever) in chimps: that is, no chimp ever signals about the signs he signals. Nor can it pretend that it is pretending. An animal can instinctively follow a deceptive behaviour pattern in order to fool its predators; but it cannot deliberately adopt such a behaviour as a double ruse. This further twist seems reserved to humans, whose language seems unique in the extreme flexibility its complexity - or, rather, its duplicity - allows for.

-------------------------------- Response 6 -------------------------------
Date: 10 Oct 2000
From: "jose luis guijarro"


Years ago, a Nova documentary called "Can Chimps Talk?" showed Sue Savage-Rumbaugh in the kitchen with Kanzi, a bonobo chimp, asking him to put the onions in the soup and stir it, to wash a potato in the sink, and to go back and turn the water off, etc. -- just as one would to a small child. Kanzi's comprehension of spoken English, verified by his actions, is indisputable. (...)
JLG: I have come across such "indisputable" comprehension in circusses all around the world. Not only with chimps, but also with lions, tigers, dogs, cats, horses, seals and reportedly with fleas (though I have never seen them myself). They gave them orders in a spoken human language and those beasts sure enough reacted in the way they were told.

Caramba, Dan, you must be joking!


Now: since a prevailing assumption of the discipline of linguistics is that whenever the term "language" is used it is, of course, merely shorthand for "human language" (...)
JLG: It's even worst! Your only ONE word, "language" corresponds to Spanish THREE words ("lenguage", "lengua" and "idioma"). So one should be weary of using it in any of the three possible senses that Spanish permits without making sure what others are wont to interpret in a given situation.


If the Chomskyan LAD is human only, then it's really only for acquiring "full-blown" adult syntactic structures on TOP of something more fundamental that is *already* acquired.
JLG: You see? The "language" of the L in LAD is, for me, who have the benefit of using Spanish *very* fluently, what I call "lengua" (hereafter, "languaga"). And, metaphorically, this "Languaga Acquisition Device" is like a percolator that permits certain linguistic structures of the mother-"language" (in my version, "idioma", henceforth "languagi") into which we are born to develop into a full human languagi, as you say. Now, it is my contention that no living being, even our closest relatives, has a languagi because evolution has not endowed them with a languaga. Which does not mean that some organs (say, human arms and bird wings) cannot be homologous (i.e., descend from a given prior structure) although performing very distinct operations (try and fly with your arms alone and you will see!).


(...) If the LAD is about competence and not production, then chimps are shown to qualify at the "simple" language level in comprehension.
JLG: The LAD is not "about" competence, whatever that word ("competence") stirrs in your mind (i.e, know about, know how, high ability, etc.). I would say, the LAD is the primary state of the languaga organ, before it gets imprinted into a specific languagi.

And, pray, what do you mean by "production"? Speaking with your vocal organs? Writing? Sign languagi? Of course, other animals can't do those languagi. Some human beings are also unable to do either or both. And most people I know, including myself, are unable to use sign languagi. So what do you want to imply?


Personally, I think that (...) This hitherto ignored level of social and family language -- called "pre-language" by some because it is deficient in the elaborated structures characteristic of "full-blown" language (mostly literary), and full of idioms and formulaic speech -- is the missing link in the evolution of language, and also includes primate comprehension.
JLG: You are talking about my Spanish word "lenguaje" (which I will call "languaje" with "j" in yours if you don't mind). And I have no quarrel with you in acknowledging that many animals surely have this type of languaje. For me, at least, this languaje is the device some living beings have to categorize and order the world in order to cope with it. That is, the structured set of representations they use to be able to go on living. This languaje, though, seems to be very different in kind from animal to animal and, especially, from human beings to other animals. Let me quote your namesake, Dan Dennet, who, in a paper we both read recently, has this to say:
Do animals have concepts? Does a dog have a concept of cat? Or food, or master? Yes and no. No matter how close extensionally a dog's "concept" of cat is to yours, it differs radically in one way: the dog cannot consider its concept. It cannot ask itself if it knows what cats are; it cannot wonder whether cats are animals; it cannot attempt to distinguish the essence of cat (by its lights) from the mere accidents. Concepts are not things in the dog's world in the way cats are. Concepts are things in our world because we have language. No languageless mammal can have the concept of snow the way we can, because such a mammal--a polar bear, let's say--has no way of considering snow "in general" or "in itself", and not for the trivial reason that it doesn't have a (natural language) word for snow, but because without a natural language, it has no talent for wresting concepts from their interwoven connectionist nests. There are good reasons for attributing to polar bears a sort of concept of snow. For instance, polar bears have an elaborate set of competences for dealing with snow in its various manifestations that are lacking in lions. We can speak of the polar bear's implicit or procedural knowledge of snow, and we can even investigate, empirically, the extension of the polar bear's embedded snow-concept, but then bear in mind that this is not a wieldable concept for the polar bear. (Dennett, Daniel C. (1993) "Learning and Labeling". _Mind and Language_ 8 (4) 540-547.)
So, it seems to be the case, that, even if chimps have languaje, this device lacks one of its constituent parts that we human beings all share, namely, what Jerry Fodor calls "mentalese". It couldn't be otherwise, since languaga, languagi and languaje are all interwined so closely that many people just don't see them as separate entities.


It is thus clear that the competence of simple ("human-") language comprehension is primate, not human. Comprehension precedes and always far outstrips production.
JLG: I think you are mixing up yet another set of concepts which to me are very clearly separated: language AND communication. I am not going to retell you the story of the three parts (languaje, languaga and languagi) of language, but, as you see, only languagi is, in my terms, a tool for communicating private representations making them public and shareble. But that we have this tool that no other animal posesses, does not mean that animals cannot communicate among themselves and with us. They have other tools, OK, I agree, but not language (languagi). Why should they? They did not evolve in the same way we did. Maybe we have homologous tools for communicating, so... what? Nothing is implied by acknowledging this fact in relation to human language, or is it?


By divorcing linguistic theory from both evolutionary and developmental findings, we find our theories explain nothing important at all about "language."
JLG: Who is divorcing? I am happily married to Natural Selection Theory and don't intend to divorce in the future. And, on the contrary, I think that one can explain a lot more if:
(1) One "makes all the necessary distinctions" (J. Fodor)
(2) One sticks to EXPLAINING human peculiarities by backward reconstruction of evolutionary processes.
Which is what I try to do all the time.

Hasta pronto, compañero!
Jose Luis Guijarro Morales