LINGUIST List 11.2161

Fri Oct 6 2000

Disc: Review Green

Editor for this issue: Karen Milligan <>


  1. jose luis guijarro, RE: 11.2144, Disc: Review Green
  2. Mark_Mandel, Disc: Review Green

Message 1: RE: 11.2144, Disc: Review Green

Date: Fri, 6 Oct 2000 19:45:31 +0200
From: jose luis guijarro <>
Subject: RE: 11.2144, Disc: Review Green

Hola, Robert!

You wrote:

> I don't mind being called a Russian pessimist. (A healthy science needs
> skeptics, after all.) So I won't respond to Jose Luis Gijarro's comments
> in detail. Just one brief point for clarification.

JLG: Of course I am not calling you a Russian pessimist in general. I just
though that your attitude towards the chomskyan frame was a rather
pessimistic one. And, naturally, you have all the right in the World for not
believing in a human made model, be it chomskyan or newtonian.

>RR: I think it is a claim to be doing neuroscience. Organ is a technical
> term used in biology to describe a physical structure composed of living
> tissue. A description of the language organ would include things like
> maps of brain areas active during language use, perhaps models of
> neurological networks. X-bar theory, tree diagrams, the sort of analysis
> of langauge that Chomsky does wouldn't be relevant to such a
> description, unless he's using the term "language organ" in a figurative
> or metaphorical sense.

JLG: The trouble with pessimist attitudes, Russian or otherwise, is that, by
definition, they don't seem to be able to perceive "any light" when they
focus on the object of their pessimism. Let me try to "enlighten" your
object of pessimism a little:

(1) In the first place, Relevance Theory (which, to my knowledge, is the
best theory to account for human communication so far) clearly shows that
"meaning" (of a sentence, of a word, etc.) is not a fixed relationship that
holds between a linguistic element and a representation. Meanings have to be
negotiated in human communication according to the optimizing relevance
cognitive principle. So, the most that we can say is that a linguistic
element is a pointer with which one points in a given direction and hope
that with the help of manifest elements in the context, it will be fixed in
the required way. That means that "organ" in this case, can be very well be
used in what you call, but need not necessarily be, a figurative way.

(2) On the other hand, I agree that a lot of misunderstanding can be avoided
if we establish clearly beforehand the object we are going to deal with.
Chomsky said that we should try to reach the level of observational adequacy
and agree on what we want to discuss, analyse, etc. So, let me try to do
just that, after your next comment:

> RR: Adopting a technical term from biology and
> assigning an idiosyncratic metaphorical sense to it is not the best way
> to integrate linguistics with the natural sciences.

JLG: Let me start again: suppose that I want to discuss the
FUNCTIONING of the bird organ called "wings" and establish an
algorithmic way to account for the movements, procedures,
environmental conditions and whathaveyou. Suppose further that I
thereby build up a plastic model that is able to fly as, say, a
swallow would. Do I also need to insert in my plastic model the
physiological aspects, like number of bones, the quality of the skin,
the class of feathers, and so on?

Naturally, those things condition the functioning of the wings, but
what you are interested in describing (and building a model of) is
that *functioning* itself, not its *conditions*. You may want to put
all the findings together after your analysis is done, of course. So
do we. But in our case, neurobiology is, unluckily, not yet prepared
to give these informations accurately. What should we do? Wait for
them (the neurobiologists) to hurry up? Well, it is not my intention
to wait, for I am old enough to kick the bucket before they start to
have usable information on our mental organ.

> RR: Is an organ a chip or a program? You have to admit the terminology is
> confusing.

JLG: I admit it, especially if I try to be a Russian pessimist on the
matter! (The only rouble is that I ain't!).

Hasta otra!

Jose Luis Guijarro Morales
Facultad de Filosofia y Letras
Avda. Gomez Ulla, 1
11003 Cadiz (Espa´┐Ża)
Tel. +34 956 015526
Fax. +34 956 015501
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Message 2: Disc: Review Green

Date: Fri, 6 Oct 2000 14:52:59 -0400
From: Mark_Mandel <>
Subject: Disc: Review Green

In LINGUIST List 11.2144, Jose Luis Guijarro Morales writes:

 1) You see, in my native language, the term LENGUAJE (i.e., "language") is
 exactly that collection of representations yo have mentioned above with
 which we interpret and categorize the world in our minds.

 2) We have learnt to make thsese representations public by certain
 behaviours (as many other animals have): let's call it body and sign
 language (in Spanish, LENGUAJE corporal y de signos).

I don't want to take this discussion off its tracks, but I must insert a
vital correction here. Sign languages* are as far from "body language" as
spoken languages are from grunts of effort, pause fillers, and back-channel
quasi-lexa like "m-hmm" and "uh-uh". So, rather:

 let's call it body language (in Spanish, LENGUAJE corporal).

Period (punto).

* Here are a few of the many Web resources available:
 International Directory of Sign Language Research,
 SLLING-L - The Sign Language Linguistics List,
 Gallaudet University,
 The University of Rochester's American Sign Language Program,

 Mark A. Mandel : Dragon Systems, a Lernout & Hauspie company : Senior Linguist
 320 Nevada St., Newton, MA 02460, USA :
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