Language as the Ultimate System

Dan Moonhawk Alford


According to the prevailing academic usage since Chomsky took over linguistics in the 60s, language, defined in purely formal terms, has become so perversely straitjacketed that it has nothing to do with culture, and even our own children do not speak it, but speak pre-language--which seems somewhat dismissive and insulting to our childrens abilities.

The only reason such a magnificent notion as language has been so straitjacketed, as far as I can tell, is that by narrowly defining language as that which only humans have, we get to continue feeling superior to and abusing the rest of creation rather than seeking systemic ecological harmony with Mother Earth.

Such straitjacketing comes at a price, though. It is mystical and paradoxical, with language having no evolutionary history and just miraculously coming out of nowhere, like Athena springing full-blown from Joves brow; it is inherently speciesist, exclusive rather than inclusive of Nature and Life on Mother Earth--like it didn't even develop on this planet!

By leaning on the form side of linguistics and ignoring meaning--traditional linguistics teaches instead a balancing of form and meaning--this straitjacketing also privileges production and ignores comprehension, thus ignoring also how we talk to our children, dogs, horses, and other pets, Kanzi and other enculturated chimps, etc., and more importantly how they comprehend us when we use human language with them.

How do we explain these language transactions with animals if supposedly only adult humans have language? What is language, and where did it come from? Could it be, instead, a complex evolutionary system of enformed systems? I propose to give you today a whole notion of language, not the usual straitjacketed part.


Don Watson introduced us to a paradigm of organizing spirit enforming systems--basically a revolutionary animate scientific worldview--spoke to the use of language in the making of scientific statements, and called for a new language with which to express scientific insights of the whole.

Andy Hilgartner picked up on the latter theme and introduced us to just such a let's-keep-track-of-what-we-say scientific notation which is not subtly and invisibly influenced by the cognitive/grammatical habits of Western languages--taking the substantial differences between human languages to be important in his search for a less cultural mode of written expression which more closely resembles the syntax of eventing.

Moving from specialized written scientific notation to a more general concept of living language, my contribution here is to unshackle the concept of language itself--to make it inclusive of Nature in an evolutionary way that highlights both commonalities and possible human uniqueness, and to reveal the structuring of this elegant system of systems in an animate universe.

Four-Brainmind Model


I first published this model over 20 years ago, and have not since found significant reason to modify it in any major way. It began as a synthesis of Native American teachings and my pondering the brain through a modern physics lens of spacetime.

From Native America I learned what I have called the Cheyenne Tower of Babel teaching:

Long ago, humans and spirits and animals and plants all communicated in the same way. Then something happened. After that, we had to talk to each other in human speech. But--we retained The Old Language for dreams, and for communicating with spirits and animals and plants.

This teaching exemplifies the missing link in the evolution of natural language, most importantly reminding us that although the Old Language--which we could also call prayer, or telepathy, or rapport--may be culturally forgotten or repressed, it still lives deep inside each of us.

In pondering then-current theories of brainmind, I was unsatisfied with simple left-brain/right-brain dichotomies, and even MacLean's Triune Brain concept wasn't robust enough for me. But when I blended them together, giving adult humans four functional brains, and then correlated those with the four accepted qualitative levels of brainwaves, I suddenly saw an integrated spacetime of brainmind pointing to language systems.

Years later, teaching a class on Piaget, I realized that Piaget's model of four developmental levels of human thinking fit seamlessly into my model in every way--thinking levels that revealed real language levels as well, since we can safely say that what we think in and with are various languages, when that term is unshackled.


No successful communicative languaging happens without what might be understood as rapport, which we could just as well term telepathy except for its cultural baggage, or just part of the Old Language. Its the sine qua non, without which nothing, that every speaker or sender needs from every listener or receiver before any meanings whatsoever are exchanged--such as this very moment, in hearing or reading. In my multi-modal model of languaging, rapport enters from the slowest speed.


Our oldest and most nested evolutionary brain, the reptilian or R-complex, governs gross physical movement, gestures, and facial expressions, and correlates with the slow delta brainwave rhythms.

Using the time-tested linguistic concept of minimal pairs--two utterances that differ in only one way which nonetheless causes a change in meaning, such as the distinctive first sounds in the words pest and test--I can show that when someone says to his boss or wife, "I'll get right on it!" and turns to someone else and follows it with a wink, the wink distinctively changes the literal meaning to its opposite. On the meaning side, this is a level of physical body language that we think and communicate in, as do babies and animals all the way down to reptiles, corresponding to Piaget's level of sensory-motor thinking. Twins are famous for having this level very active with each other, as are moms with their children.


The middle brain, the limbic system, along with the theta-wave rhythms, are both documented to be involved with emotional processing; Piaget's pre-operational level of thinking is about managing emotions. We play emotional tunes through all the words we say, and even scientifically detached no-emotion is still a kind of emotion.

Animals above reptiles and our own children use emotion to communicate and manipulate, and adults use it more subtly. Using the minimal pair process, we see that "I'll get right on it!" and [sarcastically] "I'll get right on it!" convey different meanings. On this theta level, how something is said is generally vastly more important than what is said. "Would you take the trash out?" "OKAY! What? All I said was, Okay." Language is not just words.


Our young children, as well as all mammals, have an undifferentiated, unlateralized single cortex where alpha levels and, for humans, increasing beta levels, happen throughout the cortex. Then, beginning around 3 years old for humans, a mysterious and inexplicable decade-long neurophysiological process begins which functionally creates two brains out of one!

Thus, a totally new functional brain is created which is found in no other land animals (the question is IMHO still open for dolphins and other cetaceans): a left-brain specializing in sustained high-speed beta-level processing, which allows for our talking and fine motor-movements.


Once lateralized, the right-hemisphere becomes specialized for memory and habits, processed in alpha-rhythm and correlated with Piaget's concrete operational thinking. This is the social level of language, filled with idioms and social slang--the way we talk to social friends rather than strangers.

A minimal pair will exemplify this level. Compare the following sentences, which differ only by an indefinite vs. definite article, a and the:

1. Tom fell off a wagon last week.

2. Tom fell off the wagon last week.

While we understand the former as a combination of the meanings of each of the words, that's not how we understand the latter. Tom and last week are clear enough, but fell off the wagon is a whole different kettle of fish!--its an idiom having to do with someone addicted to alcohol who goes through a period of sobriety and then relapses into addiction--none of which is present in the meanings of the actual words used, fell off and a wagon.

Grammatically we have an incredibly strange pattern going on of: Subject, then big chunk, then an adverb of time. Idioms such as this, with unanalyzable chunks, tend to crash all formal syntactic machinery, operating by a slower and coarser-grained social grammar more suited to children rather than a faster and finer-grained formal one more suited to adult strangers.

Put more simply: you get the meaning of this maverick idiom from the chunk rather than from its pieces.

It may thus interest you to know that getting the meaning from a large chunk and not from its decomposable parts is the exact kind of argument used by linguists to prove why the languages of other social animals do not fit their straitjacket definition of language! In their quest for an exclusivist definition, they jettison and ignore--for animals as well as us!--this undeniable social-idiom level of language we use with children and pets, which is part of the missing link in the evolution of our multi-modal human languaging. After physical and emotional expression, this idiomatic level is the final evolutionary level we share with land animals.

Evidence is mounting for this heretofore fairly invisible alpha level of language, with its simple verb-driven syntax and idioms of everyday and family life. Its existence is what plagues foreign language learners who in classes learn the formal, written level of a language and then cant speak it to save their lives.


Finally we come to the apex of the brainwave pyramid, unique to humans as far as we know or are willing to admit: the lateraized left-hemisphere, which specializes in sustained high-speed beta processing, rather than just in short bursts, such as children and chimps can do. From this unique high-speed processing flow the formal elaborated syntactic structures and features so dear to those who make exclusivist definitions, including the finer-grained piece-by-piece analysis they find so crucial.

Experientially and pragmatically, however (as my long-time co-teacher Matthew Bronson recently pointed out), a coarser-grained alpha-chunk idiom must always be dealt with or ruled out before we go on to a finer-grained beta-piece analysis. That is, if someone asks "Hey--who cut the cheese?" and you either look around for a chunk of cheddar or ask "What cheese?"--taking the idiom literally--you have committed a frowned-upon social blunder. So a portion of our brain is enculturated to rule out the social idiomatic meaning in alpha before passing something on to the more complicated fine-grained beta analysis, which correlates with Piaget's developmental thinking level of formal operations.

Meaning-full Levels of Language

As examples of my proposed levels of language, consider the following scenario: you ask me a question, and I don't know the answer.

In beta-mode, most suitable for talk between strangers who share no experiences, I can say in formal English, "I do not know," or some variant.

If the question is between social friends, in alpha-mode, I might say instead, idiomatically, "Beats the shit out of me!"--or "I dunno," perhaps with that emotional tune and a shrug, thus showing systemic coherence of three levels of language at once.

If it's between intimates I might just sing a theta-tune, "uh-uh-uh," with or without a shrug, to indicate the same meaning--or, if you're looking at me with visual rapport, I may just shrug in delta body language and get the exact same meaning across, notice, without invoking phonemes, morphemes, syntax, or any other formal linguistic device, relying on cultural habits alone; that is, I don't think it's universally understood by all humans on Earth, regardless of their culture.

Note that these levels are a direct fallout of the closeness or distance of relationship between two languaging beings--physical, intimate, social or formal; the relationship level is part of the backgrounded context of every transaction. You would never find President Clinton, for instance, answering a formal press question about how Whitewater documents wound up in the White House library by going, "uh-uh-uh!"

All of this fits really well, by the way, with research statistics done for AT&T concluding that in face-to-face communication, 93% of the impact is nonverbal! That's 55% for body language, 38% for tone of voice--leaving only 7% for the impact of the actual words themselves! That is, the older the brain and slower the rhythm, the more actual impact it has.

In-between and Beyond

The proposed system of systems described above lays bare the mainstream academic fallacy of confusing an admittedly important part for the whole of language, which is, in its face-to-face fullness, a simultaneous complex of all of these levels in harmony--or not, if you're lying, and your words are belied by the other tacit levels going on at the same time, which both people and animals can read; speaking with forked tongue, by any other name.

I do not have time to more than just mention IHS--InterHemispheric Synchronization--an alternative state of consciousness where the entire cortex is synchronized at a particular speed in a focused being-and-doing rather than in its usual mixes; or the standing wave around the Earth, an Earth-aura, called the Shumann Resonance, which may allow global telepathic access by slowing our brainwaves in meditation; or the ancient principle of thoughts living at a high-speed reality while things live at a slow-speed one; or the Pribram/Bohm concept of the primary reality as a frequency reality--a holographic mind interpreting a holographic universe on various levels all at once in a complex, enformed way.


In conclusion, language, in its unshackled sense, may well be the enformy of which Don Watson so eloquently speaks--the spirit which enforms all living systems: the organizing meaning inherent in all living systems. In the beginning was logos--expressed meaning, whether by the physical, emotional, social/idiomatic or formal languages which are part of our evolutionary history on Mother Earth as animal life forms. Similarly, my favorite word for God in Native America, from Cherokee: Thinks Breath Creates, breath here meaning something like the Mikmaq word for speech, "popping wind."

Evolutionary Multi-Modal Language, thus seen, becomes the ultimate system on which the frameworks of other conceptual and experiential systems are ultimately based--animate expressed meaning and knowing. Knowing involves whats, as in what we learn in school, and hows, like cooking or riding a bike. All knowing is in a language, whether verbal or non-verbal.

Will what I say here today change the way academics use the word language from meaning uniquely human stranger-talk to meaning natural evolutionary multimodal language? <tune/shrug> Is there room for both usages, naturalistic and technical? Of course.

Consider sunrise and sunset. Our natural, experiential perception of the Sun rising and setting comes from an Earth-centered point of view, for here is where we live--a view from the inside out. Science assures us, however, that our perceptions are wrong--that from the outside-in point of view of the Sun or the galaxy, an abstract point of view no actual human inhabits, Earth circles the Sun rather than the Sun circling the Earth and therefore our experience and language mislead us to the true nature of things.

Even the Beatles pondered this paradox: And the Fool on the Hill sees the Sun going down, and the eyes in his head see the world turning round. The outside-in scientific view, no matter how contradictory, never negates our cosmic inside-out view; they coexist, somewhat bewilderingly, in our modern consciousness.

Language itself can be seen in its restricted, uninhabited, detached, outside-in scientific sense as well as in its more natural inside-out way proposed here, which is common to animals of Mother Earth who language with each other--Evolutionary Multi-Modal Language, in other words, revealed in its truly cosmic glory as a meaning-full system of complex, animate systems which enforms all physical manifestations.

And someday, when we make first contact with intelligent extraterrestials, understanding the fullness of our own Earth-centered mix is likely to help us understand their mix as well.

How true, then, that a change in language can change our appreciation of the cosmos--and maybe even of ourselves and other forms of life in the ecosystems of Mother Earth!