Does "Language" Mean "Human Language"? (5)

22 Oct 2000
From: Dan Moonhawk Alford
Subject: Synthesis/Response -- Does "Language" equal "Human Language"?

Dear Linguists:
I've been away from my email for the past week. Imagine my surprise to see the amount of electronic ink spilt on this topic while I was away! And that the discussion is already closed. Since everyone was being civil, I'm not sure why the most enlightening discussion this year warranted such premature closure. At any rate, as original poster, I ask for final reply, which I intend to shed some light on the original question.

To keep this posting as brief as possible, I will not bother to reply individually to those who can answer no better than "Yes -- because it is!" to the question, or to insist on *more* tests of full-blown aspects of language which Kanzi clearly doesn't have in order to show, pointlessly, that Kanzi doesnt have full-blown adult human language. These get us nowhere fast.

My position is that asking *whether* Kanzi *has* (human) language is monumentally the wrong question to ask. From a biolanguage point of view we may ask *how much* language Kanzi does have -- which in my model is three of four developmental levels, with him lacking the crucial fourth reserved to humans after the developmental process of hemispheric lateralization takes off.

I believe this shift of perception of the term "language" -- from a jaded "yes/no" to specific levels motivated independently by brain structure, brainwaves, and Piaget's stages of cognitive development -- could ultimately affect in some way how all working linguists go about their daily business, though more importantly of course all Intro teachers and those few of us interested in the pre-human evolution of language, as well as those like me (if any) interested in knowing what the starting point looks like before the exclusively human part kicks in.

The following individual replies will clarify my statements.


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 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. (...)
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!

Caramba, Jose-Luis! I'm not sure who should feel more insulted by that verbal jab: me for being called gullible or Sue S-R for being called no more than a carnival huckster intent on deceiving the public; but it's clear that you have no compassion for my answer because you have simply not seen the video in question and, thus armed, project the worst onto us both.
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" (...)
It's even worse! 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.
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!).
Jose-Luis, I'd like to hereby join you in championing this tripartite division of senses of "language" as seen through the tongues of generations of Spanish-language thinkers. You are absolutely correct that it would facilitate discussions such as this, and I would suggest that ALL Intro teachers take these Spanish-language distinctions into the classroom when covering this topic.

Let's see if I have it right, modifying spelling for clarity) --

Languag-A (lengua, languaga) : Pinker's language organ for humans only, which turns out to be much like Chomsky's linguistic competence, funnily enough, acting like what physicists call a strange attractor for guiding Languag-E-proficient human children from local idiomatic "code", as one respondent termed it, into a full-blown Languag-I.

Languag-I (idioma, languagi)): a full-blown adult human language, the goal for the process -- nope, organ -- of Languag-A.

Languag-E (lenguage, language?): the starting point for Languag-A developmental process, or "organ" -- the gesture-filled, emotion-filled, idiom-filled home language, le';s call it, which is not by definition forbidden to non-humans raised in human culture from early on enough.

If I'm in the right ballpark with the above restating, then Spanish does indeed answer the question I originally posed by saying that there is some part of Languag- which is shared by, say, chimps and toddlers.

But defining Languag-A, or what we mean by our usual use of "language" -- our most fundamental word -- as an "organ" (imaginary, unlike other bodily organs) whose function lifts us from Languag-E to Languag-I alone begs the question of Languag-E and how IT was acquired. What "organ" shall we call that? And what "organ" does Kanzi have that lifted him above in-the-wild capabilities to a toddlers abilities with a human Languag-E, able to understand simple English both casually and under rigorous experimental conditions? We might want to call that human culture, since wild bonobos and even Kanzi's mother didn't display his abilities.

My position is that even Languag-E, "lenguage," may be characterized in terms of competence and performance, of forms expressing meanings -- both discriminative (a wink or sarcastic tone reverses the meanings of the words in good minimal-pair fashion) and integrative meanings ("The fish was thiiis long."). This level of language includes gestures, expressions, emotional tunes/tones, simple-to-moderate lexicon and lexically-driven syntax; these fall into different qualitative levels of biolanguage in my model.

12 Oct 2000
From: Larry Trask

Moonhawk writes, about Kanzi:

"... it is not the sort of thing we understand as *human* language. ... we must not conclude rashly that what Kanzi does is *human* language." Once I can see what you really mean by lengthening your shorthand, I'm forced to say that I agree completely. However, that's just NOT the point of my question. It's clear Kanzi doesn't have "full-blown" *human* language, and that was never my claim. I'm just wondering if we've fallen into a metonymic error, taking the elaborated part for the whole of language.
OK, Moonhawk -- gotcha. Just what *is* "the elaborated part" of language?
It's sad that your evidently ultra-busy life prevents your remembering or even checking the thread from its inception, where I clearly stated:
"Personally, I think that what we used to call the level of "Phrase Structure Rules," before the elaborated "Transformations" took over the PS output, needs to be recognized as a separate level of language, *acquired* before the formal level *learned* in school. 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."
And it would still be sad to watch such vindictive glee even if you were right! What kind of professional collegiality is that to model for the many thousands of readers? Play your one-upsmanship game on someone who isn't serious and loves pointless debating.
Kanzi can't do syntax at all -- so, I guess Moonhawk wants to tell us, syntax is just an elaboration, a few bells and whistles bolted onto our fundamental language faculty. Kanzi can't do negation, either, so I guess that's just another elaboration. Kanzi can't do affirmation, or self-reference (to his 'language', I mean), or modality, or anaphora, or questions, or any of dozens of other things that all healthy human speakers and signers can do.
Just because you *declare* that Kanzi can't do syntax at all doesn't make it so; evidently, this is an issue on which reasonable people may disagree; actually watching the video in question, which I assume you haven't, is what ultimately won me over to my position. My take is that Kanzi has acquired a verb-first syntax which is like the incessant commands he's been modeled -- a simple syntax, verb-driven, like PS Rules. And -- indeed! remember? -- negation, affirmation, questions and other defining characteristics of adult human language are transformations in the original Chomskyan conception, and thus beyond Kanzi's concentrated attention abilities, lacking a lateralized left hemisphere just like a toddler.
If I understand Moonhawk correctly, then practically everything we find in languages is to be waved away as mere "elaborations", while the *real* language is -- well, whatever Kanzi can do. And this isn't much.
As usual, you *don't* understand me correctly, substituting sarcasm for sarcasm, pushing things to absurdity and then blaming me for it. I notice you save this treatment for me alone. I'm honored.

My position is that there is a vast amount of language that we officially don't find or even notice, such as is expressed by the Spanish "lenguage", which is the base that children expand upon -- and where chimps stop. Then, with hemispheric lateralization in humans, we develop a left hemisphere as a container for the higher-speed processing required for transformations. Small children, chimps and gorillas have an undifferentiated cortex, which allows for occasional beta-wave flashes, but no sustained beta processing, necessary for transformations.

Example: Why isn't it wise to tell a small child who is hanging onto something for dear life, "Dont Let Go!"? Because the verbal negation transformation is not yet fully established in the left hemisphere. The child must process the "let go" part first, and then do the negation -- which may be disasterous. You say, instead, "Hold on real tight!" You say, that is, exactly what you want -- with no transformational tricks.

In my Intro classes at CHU Hayward, I show "Can Chimps Talk?" back to back with the Nova about Genie, the Wild Child, and afterwards encourage my students to reflect on who had better language abilities -- on how much each had and who had more, with Genie at the bottom of the human primate scale and Kanzi at the top of the non-human primate scale. Did Genie not lateralize, or did she lateralize with left-brain empty? Neither one could negate well, though Kanzi did better with the morphological negation {un-} in the same word, "untie," than Genie did. Was her inborn LAD or "language organ" deficient? Or was it just not triggered properly?

So my original question, while on the surface focusing on Kanzi, deeper down has to do with language-deprived children as well, and the triggering role that culture plays in language. My position is that "language" is actually shorthand for "language/culture dynamic" -- that whatever may be inborn must be triggered by the culture in order for it to work. Language is cultural, and much of culture is linguistic.

14 Oct 2000 From: b. wald

[about Sue Savage-Rumbaugh]
Motivating her arguments, apart from hard-line disbelief, seemed to be Chomsky's criticisms of earlier work that while he accepted some symbolic capacity on the part of apes, demonstrated by their ability to learn words -- by signing (and other ways in other studies), he questioned their ability to use syntax in a meaningful way. That brought home to me that when Chomsky said "(human) language" he was thinking specifically of certain things like a syntactic module and not necessarily lexical items, the bread and butter of language...
Exactly. Thank you for such preciseness. Then Chomsky and I agree on the importance of the last developmental linguistic and cognitive level -- which he sees solely as a syntactic module -- separating human from other primates. What a nice surprise!
I thought it was a credit to the ape studies that in Chomsky's criticism, he was willing to sacrifice Saussure's arbitrary sign from "pure" linguistics, so that the capacity use them is not solely human and is not a "pure" linguistic capacity but one that humans share with certain other animals.
I share your admiration for this, not in small part because it agrees with my own thinking on the issue. ;-) Thanks for mentioning it!
So for the meantime, it boils down to this. Linguists are experts in human languages. That is their main interest and their main area of expertise. So far ape language capacity, while extremely interesting and revealing, falls far short of human languages, and the things that interest most linguists in human language. ...

I do have an answer to the initial question: Does "Language" Mean "Human Language"? The answer is that it's not relevant to the real issues involved. The question is what do all human languages share that other animals are incapable of learning -- we have to know what before we can answer "why". Okay, I understand the "linguistics is what linguists do" argument -- and since I'm a linguist and I do this, then it's de facto part of linguistics. Whether it's a main area is beside the point. It's about "how much" language toddlers and chimps and language misfits like Genie actually have -- the comprehension and production of "lenguage": the base before transformations do or do not take off. I agree that we have to know what before we can answer why, and I'm saying that a big "what" we're ignoring is the base language which transformations transform into full-blown adult language. Clarification of this issue could have staggering implications for 2nd-language learning.

Further, like Trask, I do not believe language and communication are the same thing either. I do not see this base language as being the same as "communication" at all, whatever that might be without definition. My position is that there are three levels of "lenguage" that we may profitably look at as linguists -- gesture/expression, emotional tone/tune and simple clauses -- each with its own unique characteristics of form and function, and each reflecting the workings of different brains, brainwave mixes, and cognitive abilities, all of which are qualitatively different than the left-brain elaborated rules and ways.

13 Oct 2000
From: Jose-Luis Guijarro Morales

To end this email, let me add a little note on Dan Moonhawk's sarcastic remark on how Chomsky "walked away from more brilliant ideas than *I* ever had" (meaning that he has done away with transformations in his latest models). ... [Chomsky] is, whether one likes it or not, a world figure in Linguistics. Therefore, the (otherwise very curious) fact is that, even those who don't favour his models, instead of concentrating in their own models, spend lots and lots of time trying to defeat him in one way or another.

Jose-Luis, I hope you can see from the preceding that I'm in no way trying to "defeat" Chomsky, since I agree with him on key issues and am trying to highlight one of his important early insights which later got lost in the shuffle (hence my remark about Chomsky was straight, and not sarcastic, as you imputed) -- an insight which fits perfectly with my own model of language that I've been concentrating on. Like you, I'm only looking for understanding.


16 Oct 2000
From: Joseph Tomei

Moonhawk and Jose are doing their level best to make the list return to its roots as a discussion venue. I'm not sure if it's good or bad, but given that there are few (or any?) venues that have people with radically different ways of doing linguistics trying to come to grips with overarching questions, I'd like to see it continue.

I appreciate the vote of confidence, and hope the moderators took note and you're reading this on the List.
I think it was Firth who, in discussing phonology, noted something to the effect that a comprehension based phonology would look much different then our production based models and I have to wonder that 'human' language is such because the overwhelming weight of models is production rather than comprehension.
I've been agreeing with Firth for years and didnt know it! Thanks for that! My position is that we've got some excellent form-first/production models of adult human language which now must be balanced with equivalent *meaning-first/comprehension* models of language, and they both need to be taken as true at the same time though contradictory -- in complementary, comprehensive "yes/yes" thinking rather than our tired and lame yes/no debating style; we need to ask "How much" rather than "Whether or not" Kanzi has language.
And finally,
17 Oct 2000
From: Jose Luis Guijarro

Let me comment on what Joseph Tomei wrote, namely:

"Am I the only one who objects to this metaphor of two 'crews' that seem to be fighting over the same ball? Certainly Pinker has advocated evolutionary considerations and he seems like one of jose's 'crew'. And 'mind-as-a-slate' seems to be a rather broad overgeneralization of 'the other side'."
In the first place, I am prepared to repent immediately if my generalization is objected to --no problem about that!
Repent! Repent! Judgement Day is at hand! ;-) Yes, indeed, I do object to such a simplistic generalization, as if you're not sure how to categorize me and grab for some low-hanging fruit.

My position is indeed holistic, but hardly "blank-slate" since my goal is to focus linguists on the base, your "lenguage," and show how it, too, has form and meaning, comprehension and production, discriminative and integrative meaning -- show how this deeply cultural base language is more acquired than an inborn, invisible "organ." We can only see this if we examine not ONLY what human languages share, but also what is shared with non-human species along with the shared brain structures, brainwave cycles, and cognitive levels.

Pre-human evolution, Piagetian cognitive development, brain architecture and evolution of brainwave levels all persuade me that the base language and its levels are real, and worthy of study. To say it is "not language" is an act of faith and belief, and an example of the power of defining -- not unbiased scientific evidence at all.

My position is that full-blown adult human language is the end-product of the decade-long physiological process of hemispheric lateralization triggered by culture; that it is the adult human *kind* of language which builds on already acquired levels of form and meaning called "the Old Language" by Cheyennes, "lenguage" in Spanish, and "the base language" by me.

"Language" thus becomes a higher-order term embracing at least four form-and-meaning-full levels -- the most evolutionarily recent being unique to humans and building on the lower shared levels, rather than standing solely for the most recent stage. As well, "animal language" thus becomes, instead of an oxymoronic mistake, another way of talking about the base language on which transforming lateralization does or does not act.

Although it is true that little of most linguists' daily chores will hinge on a discussion such as this, and that as few linguists as members of other disciplines ever actually talk about foundational issues, the definition and understanding of the term "language," whether narrow or broad, is just such a foundational issue for linguistics -- a definition which "strongly determines" what linguists are encouraged to put their research efforts into, and what they will be pusillanimously attacked for. As I tell my grad students, if you want to know what a discipline is really about, look for who they are beating up on, and figure out why. And unless you're drawing fire from a detractor, you aren't yet hitting a big nerve (thank you, Dr. Trask)! And thanks to everyone for your interest in this wonderful dialogue, whether contributing or reading.

warm regards, moonhawk