LINGUIST List 11.2181

Mon Oct 9 2000

Disc: New: Does "Language" Mean "Human Language"?

Editor for this issue: Karen Milligan <>


  1. Dan Moonhawk Alford, Discussion: Does "Language" = "Human Language?"

Message 1: Discussion: Does "Language" = "Human Language?"

Date: Sun, 8 Oct 2000 11:37:17 -0700 (PDT)
From: Dan Moonhawk Alford <>
Subject: Discussion: Does "Language" = "Human Language?"

Years ago, a Nova documentary called "Can Chimps Talk?" showed Sue
Savage-Rumbaugh in the kitchen with Kanzi, a bonobo chimp, asking him to
put the onions in the soup and stir it, to wash a potato in the sink, and
to go back and turn the water off, etc. -- just as one would to a small
child. Kanzi's comprehension of spoken English, verified by his actions,
is indisputable. And bonobos in general tend to experimentally test out at
about equivalent to our average 2-1/2 year olds in various tasks. This age
is significant because it is just before hemispheric lateralization begins
in humans, complexifying the brain.

Now: since a prevailing assumption of the discipline of linguistics is
that whenever the term "language" is used it is, of course, merely
shorthand for "human language" -- or more explicitly, "adult human
language" -- what, then, are we to make of the natural human language
capabilities of Kanzi?

If the Chomskyan LAD is human only, then it's really only for acquiring
"full-blown" adult syntactic structures on TOP of something more
fundamental that is *already* acquired. As Kanzi and other chimps clearly
show, comprehension of simple spoken English (among other languages) is at
least *primate* instead of exclusively human. If the LAD is about
competence and not production, then chimps are shown to qualify at the
"simple" language level in comprehension.

What, theoretically today, can possibly account for this remarkable
evolutionary ability non-human higher primates? Where does Kanzi's
understanding of simple spoken English (much less meaningful manipulation
of abstract keyboard symbols) fit into how we understand what we mean by
"language" -- the most fundamental term of linguistics?

Personally, I think that what we used to call the level of "Phrase
Structure Rules," before the elaborated "Transformations" took over the PS
output, needs to be recognized as a separate level of language, *acquired*
before the formal level *learned* in school. This hitherto ignored level
of social and family language -- called "pre-language" by some because it
is deficient in the elaborated structures characteristic of "full-blown"
language (mostly literary), and full of idioms and formulaic speech -- is
the missing link in the evolution of language, and also includes primate
comprehension. At this level, as many researchers have shown, words often
link to objects rather than just other words.

It is thus clear that the competence of simple ("human-") language
comprehension is primate, not human. Comprehension precedes and always far
outstrips production. An important developmental process which we have and
chimps don't is the magic transformation of one cortical primate brain
into two human functional minds by the decade-long process of hemispheric
lateralization (does anyone know when that started?). By divorcing
linguistic theory from both evolutionary and developmental findings, we
find our theories explain nothing important at all about "language."

Language is the last battleground of evolution in the academy, with
linguistics as the last bastion of resistance. Is this what it means to be


warm regards, moonhawk

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