LINGUIST List 11.2184

Tue Oct 10 2000

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

Editor for this issue: Karen Milligan <>


  1. Zylogy, Re: 11.2181, Disc: New: Does "Language" Mean "Human Language"?
  2. Larry Trask, Re: 11.2181, Disc: New: Does "Language" Mean "Human Language"?
  3. Jose-Luis Mendivil Giro, Re: 11.2181, Disc: New: Does "Language" Mean "Human Language"?

Message 1: Re: 11.2181, Disc: New: Does "Language" Mean "Human Language"?

Date: Tue, 10 Oct 2000 05:26:35 EDT
From: Zylogy <>
Subject: Re: 11.2181, Disc: New: Does "Language" Mean "Human Language"?

Moonhawk raises some important issues. But one thing not usually considered 
by linguists (or indeed by most communicative ethologists) is the possibility 
that these (and other) animals may already possess a simple language, beyond 
the usually recognized sets of vocal and other signs.

Most linguists recognize (with or without some arm-twisting) the various 
types of iconic motivation existing within syntax (especially post-Haiman). 
Phonosemantics is less clearly accepted by mainstream workers except as 
marginalia (a mistake if one is familiar with many African, Central Asian, 
Southeast Asian languages, etc.), and even here, there are usually only hints 
of higher-order structural motivation (such as Nichols' 30-year old article 
on feature-level associations with augmentative/diminutive sound symbolism). 
I could go on (as many of you well know).

John Ohala has promoted the now fairly well-known "frequency code" analysis 
of animal vocal signs, and Eugene Morton of the National Zoo has demonstrated 
to my satisfaction (for what little weight my testimonial might carry) that 
there is a multidimensional, possibly quantized diagrammatical structure to 
such signs in his "motivation structure" theory. 

In any case, it is my belief that iconic structures were present at the dawn 
of modern language, and possibly in the precursors as well. Contra Jackendoff 
and others who have made a public case for arbitrariness from the beginning, 
there is no evidence that such a communication system could possibly evolve 
in any natural way from natural antecedents.

Indeed, most animal communicative ethological work shows in fact that signs 
evolve from real materially relevent actions- they are, in other words, 
motivated. Sign language research also shows such motivated antecedents for 
vocabulary items.
This is not to say that arbitrariness cannot be the final outcome- of course 
it can, and usually is. Even phrase structure which starts out simple and 
motivated by iconic principles ends up "lexicalized" in many cases, and this 
of course is accepted by folks following construction theory lines.

But what if all the higher-level structural possibilities in adult human 
language were stripped away, what would we be left with? What kinds of 
typological parametrical realizations would remain? Would we necessarily 
recognize an extreme product of such evolution as language?

Consider polysynthesis, such as found in Northwest Caucasian languages, or 
Chinook, or in many other places, where morphological marks have been reduced 
to individual segments or underspecified fragments thereof. Take the system a 
step further- get rid of the roots, make everything an affix. What would you 
be left with communicatively??

Now look at San languages, which have phonologies that seem to take what was 
going on in Northwest Caucasian or Chinese and extend it almost beyond the 
breaking point, such that features normally associated with vowels end up on 
what's left of consonants, and vice versa. Thus click blocks, 
pharyngealization, tone, laryngealization, etc. Hard to recognize as normal 
phonology, isn't it? And animals can make many of these sounds, even as they 
have trouble with the more usual crosslinguistically attested ones. Which is 
the precursor?? We assume that simple phonology must be prior. Why?? Hasn't 
anyone ever heard of neoteny?

We also assume that simple phrase structure is prior, and that 
grammaticalization leading to the development of morphology is secondary. 
Heck, all the evidence from human language points in that direction. 
Home-signing. Creolization. Lots of evidence.

But we also assume that "lower" primates and other animals must of necessity 
be at some sort of stage far below even the most primitive of human language 
speakers in terms of their communicative development. How do we know this?

I would like to suggest a possible alternate universe: Animals have a highly 
evolved and heavily grammaticalized system of vocal communication- possibly 
to the point of maximal head-marking/polysynthesis beyond anything seen in 
neotenic humans, who never get to that point. Phonologically they have a 
system beyond the featural twistings and turnings of San click systems, so 
far gone in fact that we don't recognize any phonology, but a natural 
extrapolation from what we can do. Human languages are systemic shadows from 
this point of view, but we make up for our lack of conciseness by being able 
to link clauses, do movement, insert lexical items, etc.

Unlike humans, the mental and behavioral world of animals is relatively fixed 
and ritualistic (not that ours isn't, just not to the same degree). They 
don't "need" the add-ons we have. They are just fine without them.

The motivation behind such communication is still iconic, and still based on 
preadaptations of the various modalities for use in noncommunicative 
activities: for vocal communication breathing (and holding for effortful 
work), mastication and deglutition, as well as labial/cheek 
apprehension/comprehension, etc. Each of the subsystems involved has cyclic 
and noncyclic operations which can be exploited communicatively, quantized 
into convenient cardinal points/benchmarks of reference (possibly involved in 
the neural planning and execution of the actions). Same goes for human hands.

I'm currently of the opinion vocal and manual capabilities coevolved- the 
latter did not precede the former, though it makes a nice tale. In fact, 
complex food processing preceded the complexification of the hands by many 
(hundreds) of millions of years, and vocal communication is as old as the 
first air breathing pre-amphibians- indeed the formation of 2 of 3 of the 
inner ear bones (which greatly refined the perceptual possibilities of sound) 
was the result of rendering otherwise superfluous the bones of the original 
jaw joint all the way at the back of the skull. In evolving the ability to 
chew, we needed a much more forward joint, and a new one appeared. And it is 
at Mammalia that we start to see more complex vocal communication (I'll let 
others talk about avian communication).

Chewing effectively requires feedback routines which allow one to retrace to 
earlier steps- sometimes you miss pieces, or the structure of food is such 
that one runs into a similar hierarchical organization pattern- hard skin, 
flesh, seed sheath, seed, etc. Possibly the basis of syntax lies in these 
routines. Just think about it for a moment. The phonosemantics behind the 
lexicon (abstracting away history and grammaticalization and all the rest) 
appears to be exactly based in the cardinal points of the various cycles- the 
properties of food to be processed at each of the different tooth types, the 
actions needed to achieve that processing, and on and on.

Humans have been putting themselves at the center of the universe for a very 
long time. Probably a primate trait, so I don't blame anyone. We keep getting 
knocked out by scientific discovery. Center of the universe, special 
chemistry, language, mind. And when someone challenges our position 
defenders of the faith may sometimes try to keep raising the bar- witness the 
old "design features of language" effort. Its futile. Why bother? How many 
times do we have to be pushed off our high horses before we rethink our 
position. Even evolution- how many of you think we are some sort of pinnacle 

Got news, folks- only losers have to evolve. Look how we're messing up- don't 
know our place in the scheme of things, destruction of each other, the 
environment. A bacterium doesn't even need to know better. Its adapted. Our 
exalted minds are a desperate attempt to model a universe we don't any longer 
know how to deal with instinctively, or automatically. And consciousness 
itself- well that only really comes into play when we're in crisis mode. 
That's what its for. So what does that say??

I doubt apes are having such deep thoughts as the above, and obviously don't 
communicate such. But I do wonder whether they are talking up their own storm 
and think we are as strange as we probably really are.

Jess Tauber
Mail to author|Respond to list|Read more issues|LINGUIST home page|Top of issue

Message 2: Re: 11.2181, Disc: New: Does "Language" Mean "Human Language"?

Date: Tue, 10 Oct 2000 11:11:27 +0100
From: Larry Trask <>
Subject: Re: 11.2181, Disc: New: Does "Language" Mean "Human Language"?

Dan 'Moonhawk' Alford writes:

[snip summary of Kanzi's achievements]

> 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?

Let me ask another question. If my question strikes you at once as
facetious or frivolous, please bear with me: I have a serious point
to make.

Bats exhibit a remarkable ability to deploy and use echo-locating
sonar. It is now known that human beings, in the right circumstances,
also exhibit a not-insignificant ability to deploy and use echo-locating
sonar. From the bat point of view, what are we to make of these human
sonar capacities? Must we conclude that bats and humans share an 
inherited sonar capacity? Or that humans are well on the way to being bats?

Clearly not. The point I want to develop is that shared properties do
not entail common inheritance -- however tempting such a conclusion
might seem.

The work of Savage-Rumbaugh (S-R) with her bonobos is interesting,
original and important. Her methodology seems clearly superior to
that used in earlier experiments with apes, and her findings must
be taken seriously.

But S-R is often her own worst enemy. Her constantly strident and
belligerent writing style is wearisome. She often refuses to accept
criticism of her work, and especially of her interpretations. Above
all, she constantly over-interprets her findings. Critics have been
telling her this for twenty years, but she pays no attention, and
continues to over-interpret. Even Robins Burling, perhaps the linguist
who has been most sympathetic to her work and who has most strenuously
urged linguists to read it, has drawn attention to these failings.

Above all, S-R over-interprets on precisely the point I cited above.
She argues as follows: children have capacity C; bonobos have capacity C;
therefore bonobos and humans have both inherited C from a common primate
ancestor. And this is plainly invalid.

Sharks and dolphins share a common body-plan. But it does not follow
that they have both inherited that body-plan from a common ancestor,
and in fact we know that they did not. The same reasoning applies to
bonobos and humans.

S-R herself readily admits that common chimps, so far as she can judge,
do *not* exhibit the capacities she sees in her bonobos. But it is
beyond dispute that bonobos are far more closely related to common
chimps than they are to us. Therefore, if we accept S-R's findings
with bonobos, only three conclusions are possible:

	*Common chimps have lost the inherited capacities retained by
		bonobos and humans;
	*Common chimps really do have these capacities, but we have failed
		to find them;
	*Bonobos and humans have evolved these capacities independently.

None of these is the conclusion that S-R draws, and the conclusion she
does draw seems indefensible to me. While any of these conclusions might
be defended, it is the last one that seems most plausible to me. And,
if the last one is right, then Kanzi's behavior can shed very little
direct light on the emergence of the language faculty in humans --
though, of course, it might still shed some indirect light.
> 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. 

No. I believe I have just disposed of this conclusion.

> If the LAD is about
> competence and not production, then chimps are shown to qualify at the
> "simple" language level in comprehension.

Bonobos. So far, it appears, not common chimps -- a crucial observation.
> 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?

Language is, by definition, something that humans have. If another species
has the same thing, then it too has language. But no other species does.

One of the commonest complaints among S-R's critics is that S-R ceaselessly
draws attention to the perceived similarities between Kanzi's behavior
and our own, while at the same time ignoring or waving away the truly
vast differences. The number of things that all human speakers and
signers can do, but which Kanzi cannot do, is enormous. I will cite
just one of them here: negation. According to S-R, Kanzi cannot handle
negation. (In fact, according to S-R, it appears he can't handle
affirmation either.)

I could spend half an hour listing more of these, but I won't bother.
Whatever Kanzi can do, it is certainly interesting, but it is not the
sort of thing we understand as language. We should pay attention to
S-R's work, but we must not conclude rashly that what Kanzi does is

> 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.

I'm afraid I remain to be convinced that 'pre-language' can be characterized
in any explicit and objective way, or that phrase-structure rules are the
best way of characterizing 'pre-language'. These seem to me to be
unsubstantiated assertions.
> It is thus clear that the competence of simple ("human-") language
> comprehension is primate, not human. 

No. This does not follow.

> Comprehension precedes and always far
> outstrips production. 

This is another point stressed by S-R, and one that puzzles me. It is
indeed commonly asserted that, in young children, comprehension is
always in advance of production. Fine.

But I rather have the impression that S-R (and possibly Moonhawk?) wants
to generalize this observation to the emergence of language in the
first place. And I can't follow this. What sense does it make to
suggest that our ancestors learned to understand speech before they
learned to speak? Who were they listening to, anyway? ;-)

> 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?). 

It is not clear to me that brain lateralization is exclusively human.
But I'll leave this point to be pursued by others who know more about it
than I do.

> By divorcing
> linguistic theory from both evolutionary and developmental findings, we
> find our theories explain nothing important at all about "language."

A very dubious assertion.

First of all, I don't think there are so many linguists who insist on
the divorce described. Most linguists seem to take developmental
evidence seriously, and a small but growing number of us are showing
an interest in evolutionary findings -- though I agree that we have
a long way to go here.

Still, there is nothing wrong at all with concentrating on the observable
properties of adult human languages. For one thing, how can we talk
sensibly about the evolution of something if we don't know what that
something consists of? After all, biologists and ethologists see nothing
wrong with compiling careful descriptions of beehives or vervet monkey 
troupes, without appealing at every step to evolutionary information.
Of course, they, or somebody, might want to examine their findings later
in the light of evolutionary theory, but this is not going to be easy
if they don't first understand just what it is whose evolution they
are pondering.
> 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
> "scientific"?

This passage could easily be quoted from S-R, and it very likely is.

S-R constantly insists that she has "proved" linguistic continuity between 
bonobos and humans, and therefore that *no* approach to language can fail
to take into account, not just evolutionary ideas in general, but her
own evolutionary conclusions. I hope I have shown that this reasoning
is fallacious. There is nothing unscientific about studying language
for its own sake, just as there is nothing unscientific about studying
bees or vervet monkeys for their own sake. This is not to say that
no linguist should ever let an evolutionary idea into her head, but
that is a very different matter.
Accusing your critics of being "unscientific", as S-R often does, is
the oldest rhetorical trick in the scientific book. We have no reason
to take this comment seriously.

Finally, let me affirm that I *do* take S-R's work seriously, even though
I cannot accept the conclusions she puts forward.

Larry Trask
University of Sussex
Brighton BN1 9QH

Tel: 01273-678693 (from UK); +44-1273-678693 (from abroad)
Fax: 01273-671320 (from UK); +44-1273-671320 (from abroad)
Mail to author|Respond to list|Read more issues|LINGUIST home page|Top of issue

Message 3: Re: 11.2181, Disc: New: Does "Language" Mean "Human Language"?

Date: Tue, 10 Oct 2000 13:42:50 +0200
From: Jose-Luis Mendivil Giro <>
Subject: Re: 11.2181, Disc: New: Does "Language" Mean "Human Language"?

At 03:25 +0000 10/10/00, Dan Moonhawk Alford wrote:

>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?

Ten years ago Derek Bickerton (Language & Species, Chicago University 
Press, 1990) showed that a plausible explanation for the quite 
similar 'languages' acquired by two years old human children and by 
trained non-human anthropoids (never in wild life) could be the 
assumption that both of them were using what he called 
_protolanguage_, the evolutionary antecessor of modern human language.

It is crucially implied in Bickerton's hyptothesis that what we call 
modern human language (roughly lexicon + utterance structure + 
morphosyntax) is a recent version of protolanguge (roughly again, 
lexicon + utterance structure). So he assumes that neither human 
babies nor bonobos (Pan paniscus) are acquiring part of human 
language, but they are acquiring protolanguage. As for human babies, 
it seems as if the traditional statement 'ontogeny recapitulates 
philogeny' were true, in this very case at least.

Jose-Luis Mendivil
Mail to author|Respond to list|Read more issues|LINGUIST home page|Top of issue