LINGUIST List 11.2187

Tue Oct 10 2000

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

Editor for this issue: Karen Milligan <>


  1. Larry Trask, Re: 11.2184, Disc: Does "Language" Mean "Human Language"?
  2. A A, Re: 11.2184, Disc: Does "Language" Mean "Human Language"?
  3. jose luis guijarro, RE: 11.2181, Disc: New: Does "Language" Mean "Human Language"?

Message 1: Re: 11.2184, Disc: Does "Language" Mean "Human Language"?

Date: Tue, 10 Oct 2000 15:43:02 +0100
From: Larry Trask <>
Subject: Re: 11.2184, Disc: Does "Language" Mean "Human Language"?

Jess Tauber writes:

> 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.

Nobody is suggesting that other creatures have nothing. The observation
is merely that they do not have language. 
> 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?

OK. First, I don't know what Jess means here by 'primitive'. Unless we
are talking about young children, I cannot imagine who these 'primitive'
speakers might be.

Second, I object to the implication that the signaling systems of primates
or of other creatures must be measured against human language and thus
found wanting. This seems to me to suggest that much of the history of
life on earth amounts to a vast conspiracy to evolve human language,
and that any creatures which have failed to manage this are therefore
woefully inadequate. I believe no such thing, and I know of no linguist
who believes any such thing.

Third, the point is not that other species' systems are somehow intrinsically
inferior to ours, but only that they are very *different* from ours, and
hence that it is not obviously appropriate to extend the term 'language'
so as to include all of them. I am told that chimps sometimes throw
things, but I see no reason to extend the definition of 'baseball' to
include this activity. Why should 'language' be different?

> 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.

Gad. Well, this is certainly original. But why should we take it 
seriously? The suggestion seems to be that we humans have so far failed
to evolve anything on a par with what can be observed in many (most?
all?) other species, and that we poor things must limp along with a sadly
makeshift improvisation. Doubt it.
> 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.

Well, for once something I can agree with. Other species are not inadequate
because they don't do what we do. Snails are very good at being snails
without necessarily doing anything that we do.

Geese are better at long-distance navigation than we are. (They are
especially better than me, since I have no sense of direction at all,
and I get lost very easily.) But I wouldn't want to suggest that the
history of life on earth is no more than an attempt at evolving goose-like
navigational skills, with humans still very much in the minor leagues.
> 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. 

True, but not a fair characterization of the position of linguists.
No linguist I've ever heard of is claiming that we humans are the lords
of creation because we have language, while other creatures don't.
We claim only that possession of language is a uniquely human trait.
I don't see this (very well-supported) claim as involving any more
hubris than the claim that squirting possible predators with
foul-smelling ethanthiol is a uniquely skunkly trait.

> 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 is it futile? Why is it futile to point out that we have negation,
open-endedness, stimulus-freedom, and whatnot, when other creatures
generally lack these traits?

You might as well argue that it is futile to try to characterize skunks
by such design features as black fur, white stripe, nocturnal activity,
and stink-based defense. I think these are very reasonable things to
say about skunks.

> 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
> occupant??

Nobody that I know of -- or at least nobody that I respect.

But so what? Who, among linguists, is claiming any sort of pinnacle
for us, merely because we have language? We might as well assign skunks
or geese to that pinnacle, because of their own unique characteristics.

We have language, and other creatures don't. So far as I can tell,
this is merely a fact. No linguist wants to claim that we are
*therefore* God's chillun.
> 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??

A surprising point of view. I emphatically do not regard Jess's posting
as any kind of crisis. Does it follow that I am not conscious while
composing this response?

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)
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Message 2: Re: 11.2184, Disc: Does "Language" Mean "Human Language"?

Date: Tue, 10 Oct 2000 09:48:38 -0700 (PDT)
From: A A <>
Subject: Re: 11.2184, Disc: Does "Language" Mean "Human Language"?

 "Human language" is a redundancy in terms, as
animals have no language but merely codes. The
defining feature of language, as opposed to codes, is
what Andr� Martinet called its double articulation.
Language pivots on a double hinge: on the one hand,
there is the level at which concrete sounds are
gathered into abstract sets capable of distinguishing
meaning (the step from sounds to phonemes, from
phonetics to phonology); on the other hand, there is
the level at which phonemes combine into larger units
(the step from phonology to morphosyntax). Codes (both
animal and human) lack this duplicity: their
constituent elements always combine linearly, and
their value remains always the same, whichever context
they appear in (i.e. there are no allophones).
 This linearity of codes applies also to their
semantics: codes are univocal, composed of signs which
refer always to the same objects. Metaphor is
impossible in codes, as is ambiguity. If animals
misunderstand each other, it is due to external
factors, not to bad interpretations.
 Also, codes (at least animal ones) are incapable of
self-reference. There are no metalinguistic utterances
(or signallings, or whatever) in chimps: that is, no
chimp ever signals about the signs he signals. Nor can
it pretend that it is pretending. An animal can
instinctively follow a deceptive behaviour pattern in
order to fool its predators; but it cannot
deliberately adopt such a behaviour as a double ruse.
This further twist seems reserved to humans, whose
language seems unique in the extreme flexibility its
complexity - or, rather, its duplicity - allows for.

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

Date: Tue, 10 Oct 2000 21:43:28 +0200
From: jose luis guijarro <>
Subject: RE: 11.2181, Disc: New: Does "Language" Mean "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. (...)

JLG: I have come across such "indisputable" comprehension in circusses all
around the world. Not only with chimps, but also with lions, tigers, dogs,
cats, horses, seals and reportedly with fleas (though I have never seen them
myself). They gave them orders in a spoken human language and those beasts
sure enough reacted in the way they were told.

Caramba, Dan, you must be joking!

> DM: 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" (...)

JLG: It's even worst! Your only ONE word, "language" corresponds to Spanish
THREE words ("lenguage", "lengua" and "idioma"). So one should be
weary of using it in any of the three possible senses that Spanish permits
without making sure what others are wont to interpret in a given situation.

> DM: If the Chomskyan LAD is human only, then it's really only for
> "full-blown" adult syntactic structures on TOP of something more
> fundamental that is *already* acquired.

JLG: You see? The "language" of the L in LAD is, for me, who have the
benefit of using Spanish *very* fluently, what I call "lengua" (hereafter,
"languaga"). And, metaphorically, this "Languaga Acquisition Device" is like
a percolator that permits certain linguistic structures of the
mother-"language" (in my version, "idioma", henceforth "languagi") into
which we are born to develop into a full human languagi, as you say. Now, it
is my contention that no living being, even our closest relatives, has a
languagi because evolution has not endowed them with a languaga. Which does
not mean that some organs (say, human arms and bird wings) cannot be
homologous (i.e., descend from a given prior structure) although performing
very distinct operations (try and fly with your arms alone and you will

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

JLG: The LAD is not "about" competence, whatever that word ("competence")
stirrs in your mind (i.e, know about, know how, high ability, etc.). I would
say, the LAD is the primary state of the languaga organ, before it gets
imprinted into a specific languagi.

And, pray, what do you mean by "production"? Speaking with your vocal
organs? Writing? Sign languagi? Of course, other animals can't do those
languagi. Some human beings are also unable to do either or both. And most
people I know, including myself, are unable to use sign languagi. So what do
you want to imply?


>DM: Personally, I think that (...) 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.

JLG: You are talking about my Spanish word "lenguaje" (which I will call
"languaje" with "j" in yours if you don't mind). And I have no quarrel with
you in acknowledging that many animals surely have this type of languaje.
For me, at least, this languaje is the device some living beings have to
categorize and order the world in order to cope with it. That is, the
structured set of representations they use to be able to go on living. This
languaje, though, seems to be very different in kind from animal to animal
and, especially, from human beings to other animals. Let me quote your
namesake, Dan Dennet, who, in a paper we both read recently, has this to

<<Do animals have concepts? Does a dog have a concept of cat? Or food, or
master? Yes and no. No matter how close extensionally a dog's "concept" of
cat is to yours, it differs radically in one way: the dog cannot consider
its concept. It cannot ask itself if it knows what cats are; it cannot
wonder whether cats are animals; it cannot attempt to distinguish the
essence of cat (by its lights) from the mere accidents. Concepts are not
things in the dog's world in the way cats are. Concepts are things in our
world because we have language. No languageless mammal can have the concept
of snow the way we can, because such a mammal--a polar bear, let's say--has
no way of considering snow "in general" or "in itself", and not for the
trivial reason that it doesn't have a (natural language) word for snow, but
because without a natural language, it has no talent for wresting concepts
from their interwoven connectionist nests. There are good reasons for
attributing to polar bears a sort of concept of snow. For instance, polar
bears have an elaborate set of competences for dealing with snow in its
various manifestations that are lacking in lions. We can speak of the polar
bear's implicit or procedural knowledge of snow, and we can even
investigate, empirically, the extension of the polar bear's embedded
snow-concept, but then bear in mind that this is not a wieldable concept for
the polar bear>>
Dennett, Daniel C. (1993) "Learning and Labeling". _Mind and Language_ 8 (4)

So, it seems to be the case, that, even if chimps have languaje, this device
lacks one of its constituent parts that we human beings all share, namely,
what Jerry Fodor calls "mentalese". It couldn't be otherwise, since
languaga, languagi and languaje are all interwined so closely that many
people just don't see them as separate entities.

> DM: It is thus clear that the competence of simple ("human-") language
> comprehension is primate, not human. Comprehension precedes and always far
> outstrips production.

JLG: I think you are mixing up yet another set of concepts which to me are
very clearly separated: language AND communication. I am not going to retell
you the story of the three parts (languaje, languaga and languagi) of
language, but, as you see, only languagi is, in my terms, a tool for
communicating private representations making them public and shareble. But
that we have this tool that no other animal posesses, does not mean that
animals cannot communicate among themselves and with us. They have other
tools, OK, I agree, but not language (languagi). Why should they? They did
not evolve in the same way we did. Maybe we have homologous tools for
communicating, so... what? Nothing is implied by acknowledging this fact in
relation to human language, or is it?


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

JLG: Who is divorcing? I am happyly married to Natural Selection Theory and
don't intend to divorce in the future. And, on the contrary, I think that
one can explain a lot more if:

(1) One "makes all the necessary distinctions" (J. Fodor)
(2) One sticks to EXPLAINING human peculiarities by backward reconstruction
of evolutionary processes.

Which is what I try to do all the time.

Hasta pronto, compa�ero!

Jose Luis Guijarro Morales
Facultad de Filosofia y Letras
Avda. Gomez Ulla, 1
11003 Cadiz (Espa�a)
Tel. +34 956 015526
Fax. +34 956 015501

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