LINGUIST List 11.2198

Wed Oct 11 2000

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

Editor for this issue: Karen Milligan <>


  1. Zylogy, Re: 11.2187, Disc: Does "Language" Mean "Human Language"?
  2. Kevin R. Gregg, Re: 11.2181, Disc: New: Does "Language" Mean "Human Language"?
  3. Trace Mansfield, RE: 11.2187, Disc: Does "Language" Mean "Human Language"?
  4. Dan Moonhawk Alford, Disc: "Language" = "Human Language"?

Message 1: Re: 11.2187, Disc: Does "Language" Mean "Human Language"?

Date: Wed, 11 Oct 2000 01:14:20 EDT
From: Zylogy <>
Subject: Re: 11.2187, Disc: Does "Language" Mean "Human Language"?

Thanks for chiming in, Larry. It sometimes feels as if I'm talking to the 
void. On your various comments:

I'm not saying animal language is human language. I am suggesting a possible 
thing to look for is some sort of protomorphology in place of any simple 
protosyntax- modulations of strings with definable meaning shifts in whatever 
minds the animals have. Strings of truncated ritualized action sequences 
(what Barlow called "modal action patterns") are commonly found in a variety 
of communicative contexts in vertebrates and invertebrates alike. If each of 
these action sequence has cardinal points within it, then one could think of 
the alternatives in any "slot" as members of a kind of protoparadigm.

Possibly I could have utilized a term more apt than "primitive"- I meant 
earlier in terms of hierarchical developments, and that could refer to either 
ontogenetic development of competence/performance or historical ones 
reconstructed from studies of grammaticalization, lexicalization of 
constructions, etc. There has been a tendency in the literature of language 
evolution to measure animal abilities against these earlier hierarchical 
stages of complexification/elaboration. No one has ever attempted, so far as 
I know, to train an animal in a polysynthetic language (possibly due to the 
fact that there aren't any large scientific infrastructures in communities 
speaking such languages), or in a click language (for the same reason).

Now you may be very even handed when it comes to evaluation of communication 
re animals versus humans but much (if not most) of the language evolution 
subculture isn't there yet. And I doubt many linguists would be either. And 
only a handful of professional linguists regularly give papers at meetings on 
the topic, and I haven't gotten that from them either.

As for my "alternate universe" scenario, I'm not sure I really believe it 
myself- certainly much more work would have to be done on animal 
communicative systems, informed by more linguistics than "Aspects" and the 
like. Too little multidisciplinarity, I fear. But I wasn't suggesting that we 
hadn't evolved what other animals have: on the contrary the oft claimed 
neotenic characteristics of our species suggest we lost what the other 
animals have, that we in fact have a system which is a sort of throwback way 
back down the chain of being, and that we make up for this with combinatory 
and automatization mechanisms, which themselves may be part of the animal 
neural repertoire but have much less scope and freedom of action. The order 
of elements, and their various markedness rankings, are no longer fixed by 
genetics. Indeed, isn't this fluidization of recombination what gives us 
relative freedom from instinct?

And I'll stand by my characterization of consciousness and big brains- they 
are for dealing with environmental circumstances automatized responses can no 
longer effectively handle. Since its likely that the panoply of primitive 
elements within that environment stays pretty much the same in a lifetime (so 
sensory and perceptual mechanisms, and similarly the palette of primitive 
motor responses, don't have to change much if at all), what's really at issue 
is combinatorics- specific configurations to be learned and remembered- of 
sensory impressions, of motor acts, etc. Emotional marking and levels of 
awareness and motivation link, allowing us to prioritize. And I'll bet many 
people who post continually to discussion groups can be said to be various 
states of crisis- doesn't have to be life or death (although sometimes its 
definitely hard to tell). Anything above unconsciousness will do.

But its late here, and my own need for unconsciousness is making me very 
conscious of the fact. A couple of decades ago here in the States there was a 
motorized toy box with a lid that flipped open and a little arm and hand that 
popped out to retract the switch one turned the box on with in the first 
place. Kinda like that.

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

Date: Tue, 10 Oct 2000 13:01:38 +0900
From: Kevin R. Gregg <>
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. 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?

****We should first find out what the 'natural human language capabilites
of Kanzi' are. And watching that tape sure won't tell us much. For
instance, there isn't a shred of evidence from that tape (or from anything
I've read on bonobo research) that Kanzi has any syntactic knowledge
whatever. He's got an impressive vocabulary, it seems, although even there
it's hard to say what it means to say he 'knows' 250 words (or whatever
number, something in that area, anyway). And that seems to be about it. 
His putative equivalence to 2 -1/2 year-old humans amounts to his
manifesting roughly the same degree of correct responses to commands of
certain sorts. If Savage-Rumbaugh or anyone else has actually tested a
bonobo on any aspect of its syntactic knowledge, I'd be interested to know.
 (Would Kanzi pass a preferential looking task, for instance?) I don't
even think S-R herself makes claims for syntactic knowledge on Kanzi's
part. If I recall her claim from a talk a few years back, it amounts to
saying that just because Kanzi doesn't have syntax it doesn't mean he
doesn't have language.
 I'm afraid I don't see the purpose in trying to determine who 'has'
'language'. You can always define the concept in a way to include
primates, or bees, for that matter; why bother? The idea is to determine
what the mental capacities of (e.g.) humans are. Kanzi can, let us say,
memorize symbols, and may even be said to know some words. Chinchillas can
tell the difference between voiced and voiceless consonants. The
honeybee's dance instantiates the property of displacement. Nu?

Kevin R. Gregg
Momoyama Gakuin University
(St. Andrew's University)
1-1 Manabino, Izumi
Osaka 594-1198 Japan 0725-54-3131 (ext. 3622)
fax. 0725-54-3202
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Message 3: RE: 11.2187, Disc: Does "Language" Mean "Human Language"?

Date: Wed, 11 Oct 2000 07:23:06 -0400
From: Trace Mansfield <>
Subject: RE: 11.2187, Disc: Does "Language" Mean "Human Language"?

IMHO, it might not have been wise/efficient to approach this issue (human
versus variably-other-than-human "symbolizing" behavior) as a question about
terminological utility; that is to say, the discussion of the usefulness of
the term "human language" seems to have fogged up the consideration of an
otherwise engaging line of inquiry presented by DMA.

So far, the argument has only demonstrated that people prefer terminology
which supports their preferred interpretation of the evidence on the
underlying issue, namely: those who promote a difference in degree have
stated a preference for the hierarchical terminology, while those who prefer
a discontinuity have stated a preference for divisive terms. My assumption
is that *this* part of the discussion doesn't surprise anyone on this list,
which is why I suggest skipping this part of the argument in the future and
targeting the underlying issue.

The terminological approach not only lends itself to this sort of
predictable outcome, but it also seems to encourage the types of skirmishing
common to arguments about difference in degree versus kind: "your use of
such-and-such a term identifies human chauvanism (where human chauvanism is
bad, so my argument is necessarily correct)"; "my example of an absurd
parallel invalidates the use of *any* parallel as evidence (therefore no
such thing as a difference in degree exists)"; and so on. This gets in the
way of the truly crucial discussion, namely the issue of whether or not dogs
have concepts, because the response to the terminological approach is only: 

"Given certain appropriate definitions of the following terms: 'dog';
'concept'; and 'have'; we can incontrovertibly state that dogs have
concepts... except of course in the case where other appropriate definitions
of those terms are substituted so as to *deny* that dogs have concepts."

It's not that dogs can't conceptualize, its that conceptualization can be
defined so as to exclude behavior available to dogs. I find such
terminological argumentation uninteresting because it rules out any
discussion of what symbolizing behavior *is* available to dogs, which
presents an obstacle in turn to discussing what dogs *do* in the absence of
absolute humaniform conceptualization. (Mostly what they seem to do is a lot
of licking and sniffing.) Now, it doesn't seem like it would be all that
difficult to gather evidence to suggest that dogs manipulate some form of
cognitive, symbolic structures, even if the formal pole of such structures
were suggested to be sensory/iconic in nature rather than humanic/arbitrary.
(Use your preferred terms here.) In comparison, the discussion of what
*term* to use to identify those structures seems like it could be resolved
in a fairly straightforward manner *after* the primary argument had been
worked out, even if the set of terms differed from camp to camp.

...what, then, are we to make of the natural human language capabilities of
linguists? :-)


1) PBS broadcast a excellent program not long ago entitled "Inside the
Animal Mind" in which the issue of animals having concepts was addressed (as
well as their having conciousness, awareness, and so on)... interesting
collection of stuff on: cows having concepts; perception without awareness;
sense of body versus sense of self; the monkey in the mirror; and so on.

2) Can anyone identify the program in which one of Koko's companion gorillas
is portrayed as relating the story of his mother's murder by poachers, his
escape, and feelings of sadness (both at the time of the event and in

- Trace


"Inside the Animal Mind" (neat stuff about cows having concepts)
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Message 4: Disc: "Language" = "Human Language"?

Date: Wed, 11 Oct 2000 10:13:58 -0700 (PDT)
From: Dan Moonhawk Alford <>
Subject: Disc: "Language" = "Human Language"?

Hey, again, Mike! Let's share this with others.

On Tue, 10 Oct 2000, Mike Maxwell wrote:

> >Moonhawk wrote:
> >
> >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,
> There are plenty of "generative" theories of language that don't
> recognize this difference--LFG and GPSG/HPSG, for example. 

Which is why the "used to call" comment.

> Even Chomsky is de-emphasizing transformations.

Yes -- he's walked away from more brilliant ideas than *I* ever had! ;-) 

> While there is an obvious difference in the Chomsky hierarchy of
> languages between context free phrase structure and transformational =
> Turing Machine equivalent, with context sensitive phrase structure in
> between, it is by no means clear that human languages are actually
> beyond the CFPS level. If the nonhuman primate languages are stuck
> somewhere, I would think they were stuck at the finite state level, or
> even lower (no syntax at all, understanding driven just by keyword
> matching, like some "natural language" computer programs today).

I think that would fit the cases of Kanzi, Koko, etc., as well as Genie,
the Wild Child. 

> >...*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
> I'm not sure what you're saying here. 

AAARGHHH! Happens every time I try to be brief! :-(

> Are you saying that the English we learn in school is one or two
> orders of magnitude (i.e. levels in the Chomsky hierarchy) more
> complex than what Kindergartners start out with? I can't imagine
> that. Carol Chomsky (and others since then, I imagine) demonstrated
> some language learning is still going on at ages of 5 - 10, but I
> don't think it has anything to do with school, necessarily. 

What I was *trying* to say :-( has to do with more like "larger-" vs
"smaller-chunking". Large chunks like idioms ("John fell off the wagon
last week.") tend to choke fine-grained syntactic machinery in the way
"John fell off a wagon last week." doesn't. I.e., doing a tree and filling
in the lexical items will not give you ANY information about alcohol in
the first example, and will thus give you the wrong meaning. 

The way we tend to talk to close friends and loved ones is qualitatively
different than the more formal (educated) "speaking in print" mode in
literate cultures; my Intro students each year are, at first, appalled
when they transcribe 5 minutes of real conversation with a friend: "But I
sound uneducated, like I'm not even in college!" The simple exercise is a
real eye-opener for them, showing the vast difference between casual
conversation and what we usually see as printed conversations, interviews,

Mike, I don't know whether you came from a "Standard-speaking" home; I did
not. My folks were hillbillies from Arkansas. When I hit public school in
junior high after K-6 in a Christian private school -- Holy Moley! I was
intellectually thrown -- which I think actually had something to do with
my later becoming a linguist while an English major. I think that's why
the casual/formal distinction is so important to me.

> And what about societies that don't have formal schooling? Do their
> languages remain stuck at the simple level--they're primitive
> languages after all? I certainly can't imagine you, of all people,
> saying that--so presumably I misunderstand!

Of course. In such cultures, the "education" often involves storytelling,
where the elaborated adult structures are modeled. "Primitive" was not, of
course, as anthropological linguist, where I'm going with this. There
*has* to be a way of positing a simpler (less elaborated) structure of a
language without going there.

> >At this level, as many researchers have shown, words
> >often link to objects rather than just other words.
> What do you mean here? When I say, "The dog made a mess in the
> corner", don't the words (or the NPs containing them) "dog" and
> "corner" (and unfortunately, "mess") refer to objects? I'm not sure
> what you're saying. Again, I must be misunderstanding.

That was an almost direct quote from Patricia Marks Greenfield in the Nova
episode, after she noticed that chimps and her own children were doing the
same thing. Instead of linking words to words, as in your example, we
might find something more like "Suzie-poop!" while pointing to the corner
(Suzie being one of my dogs' name).

Hope this clears things up!

warm regards, moonhawk

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