AnimalMind -- alpha-level of language

From: Dan Moonhawk Alford
Wed, 2 Jun 1999 11:02:57 -0700 (PDT)

I would like to focus for a moment on what in my model of language is the highest level of mind and language that we share with land animals.

Forget adding up meaning pieces to get the sentential meaning and the formal syntactic devices for a moment and focus on how you are when you're being with an old, dear friend. Any exacting 5-minute transcription of random conversation shows we don't "speak in print" in complete sentences all the time, and we often use idioms.

Now the funny thing about idioms is that we're supposed to catch them and use their bigger chunks before we pass them on for fine-grained decomposition. Take the following sentences, which formally differ only by a definite vs. indefinite article -- inconceivably of any formal consequence.

1. John fell off the wagon last week. (subject/chunk/adverb)

2. John fell off a wagon last week. (more complex)

"The" vs. "a" usually signals old vs. new information, and since none is given in isolation, "the" then automatically invokes an idiomatic frame involving someone with alcohol problems -- contained nowhere in the actual words.

My co-teacher Matt Bronson proposed yesterday that the alpha level of language scans incoming utterances for idioms before passing them on to formal decomposition, because it "looks bad" if we miss idiomatic meanings. The tension between alpha meaning and beta meaning can be a source of humor, as when we smash idioms together: "The shit hit the fan and Eunice was stunned by the blow."

So the essence of alpha-level language is that, being slower and courser-grained than beta, it works with larger chunks. Meanings come from the meanings of entire chunks, not words. But wait -- this is exactly the description that has been used about animal communication to show why it's not formal (beta) human language! Therefore, by any normal definition, alpha is a level of language we share with animals that have an unlateralized cortex -- a social, formulaic rather than formal level.

We also share an emotional level -- a tone of sarcasm reverses the meaning of the actual words said) -- and body language contributes tremendously to embodied meaning, where a wink can also reverse meaning, just as a wagging tail can belie a dog's growl.

All of the examples above can be seen as minimal pairs, an indispensible tool in the linguistics tool box, which make total differences in meaning and are therefore linguistically real when you come from a meaning rather than purely formal viewpoint. The same minimal pair procedure that demonstrates that /t/ and /d/ are different distinctive sounds in English similarly demonstrates these social, emotional and gestural components as linguistically real and distinct levels of language because they cause changes in meaning.

I contend the above demonstrates something important and mostly overlooked about animal mind, which also more specifically sheds light on the mental abilities of children, dogs, and chimps.

warm regards, moonhawk