Moonhawk's Dialogue with a Chomskyan about Science
Linguist List
Sun, 12 Mar 2000

[Jose Luis Guijarro Morales]
I was not going to get involved in this discussion (except for my idea that there might be a lot more than one concept associated to the English word "language"), but this passage of Dan Moonhawk's message changed my mind:

Dan Moonhawk said that his conceptual (linguistic) suggestion should be adopted, thereby

There is nothing to heal about a personal decision in studying one aspect of reality (although I asked the other day, and I ask today again, what IS reality?, it does not crucially matter here) as long as one is able to point to this aspect in a clear and explicit way as Chomsky has done.

[Moonhawk]
Perhaps clarity and explicitness is an enemy when it leads to imbalance -- more like projecting onto Nature rather than discovering what's there, and then acting as if those projections are the reality. I see language and culture as two sides of the same dynamic complementarity, as did many of the pre-Chomskyan greats in our field, with nothing good to be gained by sundering their connection. We lose an important human, grounded connectedness when we do that, no matter how expedient it may seem at the time.

And yes, I agree -- shall we discuss what reality is?

[Jose Luis]
For Chomsky (and for many other linguists who apparently, according to green Moonhawk, are colourless), language is an inborn repesentational device. Period.

[Moonhawk]
Yes, with "language" being the formal stranger-talk explicit level, corresponding to Piaget's formal operations level of thinking, which animals do not have. It's no accident that what counts as language is easily written down; whereas other forms of meaning which are crucial to the overall meaning in face-to-face communication, such as accompanying tones and gestures, are NOT language, are "para-linguistic" because of this philological bias.

[Jose Luis]
Now, of course, if one re-presents (i.e., presents again) something from the "outside" (whatever that means) in our mind, it is certain that if will show something of the surrounding environment. And if this environment is culture-shaped (whatever that means), well, there you are, you can get your culturally-coloured representations at almost the same cost.

[Moonhawk]
It was what I hoped was a witty way of playing on Chomsky to suggest that there are ways of defining language that are inclusive of animals and our own developmental as well as evolutionary past. Must I create another name for it, such as *biolanguage*, instead of simply asking people to consider the implications of widening the term language, and seeing human language as a special, all-inclusive form of it? Or *dialanguage* would invoke the synchronic/diachronic frame, the latter of which has been largely ignored, and this could help fill in evolutionarily how much we actually knew and could do before hemispheric lateralization magically made complex grammar possible.

[Jose Luis]
As you have noticed, I use a lot of "whatever that means's" in my descriptions. I do not really know what the words I use ("reality", "outside", "culture", and so on) mean for everybody concerned. I use them very loosely hoping that they will fit somehow. Lots of people, however, use them thinking that we all share the same meanings. For instance, look at the next assertion from Moonhawk:

Snakes have a "culture"? Not in MY sense of culture, I can assure you. I would need this term to be well described in order for me to understand what is meant by that sentence.

[Moonhawk]
I agree that's a shocker, but I think we need a wider notion of culture, trans-human, just as for language. Plenty of reseach shows that animals specifically learn to do some things like each other locally, and then there's that "instinct" word we use for the rest, as if naming it means we understand it.

[Jose Luis]
Do snakes "know the meaning" of postures? Or do they "interpret" them? What is the difference between "meaning" and "interpreting"?

[Moonhawk]
There's a direct gut-feeling meaning when a pair of fangs or a naked knife are coming directly at some part of your body. Body language has its own meaning. Translating is a task for the hemispheres, but the reptilian brain won't wait for that, and will wordlessly fill you with adrenalin so you can get the hell away from what you will at some point translate as "danger."

[Jose Luis]
What is a level "judged syntactically", for God's sake?

[Moonhawk]
Sorry -- my jumbled way of saying that body language has its own kind of syntax, of well-formed sequences; that emotional tones and tunes have their own kind of syntax; that even the idiomatic and formulaic forms of "simple English" -- which crash syntactic machinery -- have their own, larger-chunked kind of syntax; and that the very word "syntax" should be loosened up to mean more than just the fine-grained syntax of the formal, written level. I'm saying we can't use formal syntax to see whether these other levels have it -- they don't! But they have a different kind of syntax we will not discover if we use formal syntax as our only lens of discovery.

[Jose Luis]
There is a big misunderstanding here (not only in Moonhawk, but in many, too many!, other linguists). What Chomsky taught some of us to do was to describe how the human linguistic (in Spanish, "lengua") device operates. He used a sort of algorithm for it (the so-called syntactic rules). Naturally, if he were less fussy, he could have used any other muddled terminology and some people would have thought, I am sure, that it was "clearer" for them, when in fact, it would have been non explicit for everybody concerned.

[Moonhawk]
My experience is obviously different from yours. I got the full Chomskyan training at UCLA in its Ladefoged/Stockwell/Fromkin days, went to Montana singing its praises, and then ran head-on into the Cheyenne language -- and began discovering another way of conceiving of language that better fit the indigenous languages, since Chomsky's model wasn't helping me understand how they worked.

[Jose Luis]
Now, naturally, if you describe something (i.e., in this case, the human linguistic device) in an algorithmic sort of way, this algorithm IS the most important thing IN THAT kind of description. Therefore, and in more or less this sense, is syntax for chomskyans the centre of study.

[Moonhawk]
Yes, while PEOPLE, not abstract projections, are the center of study for me.

[Jose Luis]
It is all very well to talk about emotional tones, gestures and body postures, but you will only be able to analyze (and therefore, decode, and therefore interpret) the following string if you do it decomposing it in algorithmic steps: thatthatisisthatthatisnotisnotthatthatisisnotthatthatisnotnoristhatthatisnot thtatthatisisthatit

[Moonhawk]
[snip discussion, which somehow assumed that I want to get rid of the formal syntax level, which I don't -- I just want to put it in its place as a way of regaining a more classical form/meaning balance.]

[Jose Luis]
Chosmky is not interested in how you use this "meaning" (syntactic analysis) for communicating with our fellow human beings or animals or green leaves. This has to be studied by someone else with these interests. For instance, perhaps Moonhawk would have a try? Great! I will, on my part, try to understand what he proposes if he does indeed attempt it. And that's a promise.

[Moonhawk]
My point is simply that with our current definition of language, Kanzi's actions in the kitchen with Sue Savage-Rumbaugh, understanding her simple spoken English, are anathema -- language means human-only language, and there is no evolutionary explanation for Kanzi comprehending language this way. Kanzi understands through gesture, emotional tunes, and simple words, just as our children do, because we share evolutionary brains and much neural structure. I totally agree that the Chomskyan algorithms have nothing to do with Kanzi's understanding English, but I do wonder what does make it possible, and I do think it has something crucial to do with language.,

[Jose Luis]
[In any case, if you want to read something on this topic before you start inventing dynamite, why not try Sperber, Dan & Deirdre Wilson (1986/1995) Relevance. Communication and Cognition, Oxford, Blackwell, who achieved a brilliant success in explaining human communication with their framework using chomskyan ideas on language (i.e., "lengua") as a base?

Moreover, Dan Sperber (1998) has another wonderful book Explaining Culture which could also help us start from somewhere quite far away from scratch].

[Moonhawk]
Thanks for the reference.

warm regards, moonhawk