Animal Mind, Language, Culture

Date: Sat, 22 May 1999 12:18:54 -0700 (PDT)
From: Dan Moonhawk Alford <>

On Sat, 22 May 1999, Arseny Winograd wrote:

> >on May 21, 1999 Steve Wise writes:

> >Second, as to bee language; language, like culture, has its broad and
> >narrow definitions. But, as with culture, one would have to accept an
> >extremely broad definition of language to encompass bee dances. I
> >can't think of anyone in linguistics or any related field who
> >classifies bee dances as language.

I have no problem at all doing that, since I no longer subscribe to the arrogant position that "language" and "culture" are acceptable shorthand terms for "human language" and "human culture" -- I take those terms as meaning, instead, "the human KIND of language and culture." So I would call it BEE language. Is it human language? no.

One way I've found of making sense of this whole problem is to accept as true, in complementary thinking, two otherwise opposing viewpoints which can't be reduced to one or the other. Let's take synchrony and diachrony as an example: it is clear that "at a specific moment in time" and "over a period of time" are significantly different, yet both must be included for a complete description. A synchronic description of something tells little about its diachronic nature, and vice versa.

Similarly, I have found (having been Chomskyan trained then abandoning it to study Native American languages, which just don't fit Chomskyan illusions of universality) that no matter how good synchronic species-centric definitions of language are, they are all simply impediments when considering the evolution of language over time.

For that, in my model, we have to consider what is happening in different major brainwave levels (corresponding to different functional brains and Piagetian developmental levels of thinking) as being simultaneous languages going on -- the physical gestures, emotional expressions, and social idioms that all of us use constantly, as well as the formal level, which is the single level that "counts" as language itself for Chomskyans; since even our children don't actually speak "language" because they haven't acquired the complex formal structural cues, why would one EVER look further down the animal chain for "language"? (which, remember, is by definition already shorthand for "human language," so we would be foolish to look for it in non-humans).

So I reject the narrowing for both "language" and "culture" -- we need clear terms that are not co-opted by species-centric scoundrels. Human language means the human KIND of "language"; same for culture. It is only unfounded arrogance which keeps us from recognizing in our head-knowledge what all peoples across time have always known in their heart-knowledge.

Of course, the same goes for "mind". My model, with its bodily, emotional, social, and formal levels, with each level being a different kind of language, each with its own unique kind of grammar, shows how humans are unique in having the formal level, but share the other three levels in an evolutionary/developmental way. Each of these levels are levels of mind, and each is a way of thinking. Thus a dog or chimp has three levels of thinking/languaging/minding going on to our four: bodily, emotional, and social. This then gives us a way beyond normal human/non-human dichotomies to talk about what we share and how we're distinct.

> Arseny Winograd replied to Wise:

> For example Britannica in the article "Language, Definitions of Language"
> considers bee dances as the "system nearest to human language in
> function" characterised by "the ability to communicate about things outside
> immediate temporal and spatial contiguity". Bee dances are not classified
> as language since it belongs only to human beings, but I doubt that it's
> "the nearest system" among animal communication systems.

Sorry, Arseny, but this is just the kind of statement that makes me cringe. Let me long-out the shorthand and let's see what it says then:

Meaning no offense, when the shorthand phrases are longed-out, this is the most banal, uninteresting, empty, unenlightening pontification imaginable -- isn't that right? Yet all I did was replace the adjective "human", which should have been okay if "language" is shorthand for "human language".

From this untenable point of view, which can be found in Britannica or any other conservative source as being what "language" is, being always "human language" of course (and only the formal level of that for Chomskyans), it's as if there is absolutely no reason at all to even HAVE a separate word "language", except to play hubris games with. Perhaps we should just say/write "human language" every time we're tempted to say or write "language"! Now THAT would stop a lot of empty truisms!

We assume that nobody on this list thinks that "mind" is simply shorthand for "human mind"; "language" and "culture", in my opinion, are no different. Can we get a consensus on this, for purposes of this list?

warm regards, moonhawk