LINGUIST List 11.2202

Wed Oct 11 2000

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

Editor for this issue: Karen Milligan <>


  1. Dan Moonhawk Alford, Re: 11.2184, Disc: Does "Language" Mean "Human Language"?

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

Date: Wed, 11 Oct 2000 12:35:16 -0700 (PDT)
From: Dan Moonhawk Alford <>
Subject: Re: 11.2184, Disc: Does "Language" Mean "Human Language"?

On Tue, 10 Oct 2000, The LINGUIST Network wrote:

> From:
> 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.

I hope my heavy snipping of Jess' excellent comments, supporting the
above, spurs readers who missed it to go back a click on the thread to see
> 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. 

Last summer, Blackfoot leader Leroy Little Bear, in Dialogue, asked us to
consider fish: they don't communicate much because, after hundreds of
millions of years of evolution, they know how to be fish. We, on the other
hand, are still trying to figure out how to be human. ;-) 

> 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??
As a researcher in Language and Consciousness for over 20 years, I could
not agree more. While non-researchers in this area tend to see
consciousness in terms of an off/on switch (un/conscious), researchers
tend to see consciousness in rainbow fashion of alternative kinds of
consciousness. I believe the point Jess is making is that we "coast" a
lot, bringing our arsenal of consciousness to bear only when needed. 
> From: (Larry Trask)
> 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.

Try as I might, not just "at once" but on multiple readings, the question
still strikes me as facetious, frivolous, and fairly irrelevant. Yet I
will agree with the last part. 
> 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. 

[snip Trask's further criticisms of S-R's interpretations.]

All of this is massively irrelevant since I wasn't quoting from her
writings. The abilities I cited for Kanzi were what I witnessed in the
Nova documentary.

> 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.

Oh! Do sharks and dolphins also share 98% of genes?

> > 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.


> > 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.

So, inserting the so-called "redundant" human qualifier, you are saying:
"*Human* language is, by definition, something that humans have." -- nice
tautology, which doesn't look like one as long as you use the "language"
shorthand term! "If another [i.e. non-human] species has the same thing
[i.e., human language], then it has *human* language too." You must admit
that your argument is considerably weakened when we do not use the usual
shorthand term. 

But if *human* language is, however tautologically, human only, by
definition, then your side of this debate is already massively represented
in every Intro text. The main point of my question, however, was calling
into question the very definition you take as a given, beyond discussion.
> 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
> language.

"... it is not the sort of thing we understand as *human* language. ... we
must not conclude rashly that what Kanzi does is *human* language." Once I
can see what you really mean by lengthening your shorthand, I'm forced to
say that I agree completely. However, that's just NOT the point of my
question. It's clear Kanzi doesn't have "full-blown" *human* language, and
that was never my claim. I'm just wondering if we've fallen into a
metonymic error, taking the elaborated part for the whole of language.
> > 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 was an analogy.
> > It is thus clear that the competence of simple ("human-") language
> > comprehension is primate, not human.
> No. This does not follow.

Of course not, as long as you insist that "language" = "human language."
As Greenberg says in the video, there's a double standard going on: if a
chimp and child perform exactly the same on a verbal test, the child is
said to be"on the way to language" while the chimp is not.

> > 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.

Hey, even my DOG understands more spoken English than she can produce!

> 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? ;-)

No idea. But how is it that chimps and dogs, among others, can understand
ANY human speech at all?!
> > 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.

Actually, I was paraphrasing what her husband said in the video. But
... close enough! I thought it was nicely dramatic.
> Larry Trask
> From: Jose-Luis Mendivil Giro <>
> 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.

Whether "proto-" or "pre-", these qualifiers still assume that what's
missing is the full-blown elaborated syntactic structures -- the part for
whole fallacy (IMO). 
> 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. 

Name it and you can have it, I guess. In my model of language, there's a
gestural level (there was a book announcement just yesterday about gesture
being integral, not an add-on, to speech and thinking), emotional level,
social level and then formal level. Chimps and babies alike acquire the
first three levels through enculturation, and the last is, as far as we
now know, exclusively human.

Thank you all for an exciting and, I hope, useful discussion, even though
some respondents seemingly haven't seen the video documentary I began this
with -- which doesn't prevent having opinions, of course.

warm regards, moonhawk

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