LINGUIST List 11.2233

Mon Oct 16 2000

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

Editor for this issue: Karen Milligan <>


  1. Jos´┐ŻLuis Guijarro Morales, Re: 11.2202, Disc: Does "Language" Mean "Human Language"?
  2. bwald, Re: 11.2204, Disc: Does "Language" Mean "Human Language"?
  3. Joseph Tomei, Disc: Does "Language" Mean "Human Language"?

Message 1: Re: 11.2202, Disc: Does "Language" Mean "Human Language"?

Date: Fri, 13 Oct 2000 12:11:11 +0200
From: Jos´┐ŻLuis Guijarro Morales <>
Subject: Re: 11.2202, Disc: Does "Language" Mean "Human Language"?

Hola, buenas!

An indirect comment on one of my contentions, namely Trace's ("... people
prefer terminology which supports their preferred interpretation ...")
needs further elaboration, I am afraid. 

You see, in my brand of Linguistics, the semantic relationship is no longer
considered a direct one between a given word and a mental representation.
We think that the (linguistic) semantic "content" (?) of words is of a very
abstract sort which means it has to be further specified in human
communication by applying pragmatic rules that take into cosideration
relevant elements from the context. Even such apparently LITERAL verbal
constructions like, say (Sperber& Wilson's example), _I have been to_ do
not mean the same in distinct contexts: "I have been to the bar" and "I
have been to Tibet" carry implications of "inmediateness", of "once (or
very few times) in life", respectively, etc.

We think, therefore, that the (linguistic) semantic "power" of a given word
or expression is like a pointer that, characteristically, points to a given
space. The intended meaning, however, has to be finally directed at a given
representation by pragmatic operations.

Now, it is very difficult to reach even the level of OBSERVATIONAL
adequacy, if we don't really know what we are observing and talking about.
I know of no better way of doing that than try to distinguish clearly the
representations I have in my mind and describe then what labels could one
put to them. For instance, in this discussion so far, there seems to be a
pointer that one is never sure wether it points to the process of
COMMUNICATION (making internal representations of individuals manifest to
others) or to *one* of the many tools we humans are capable of using in
achieving that communicative endeavour, namely LANGUAGE. 

I was pointing the other day as well, that even that only pointer, i.e.,
"language", can apparently point to three different mental representations
of mine (as a Spanish speaker) that I would like to make manifest in my
communicative effort with you English speakers: Language (L1) as a mental
device to categorise and cope with the world with a set of representations;
language (L2) as the mental device we come prewired with (by our
species-specific evolutionary history) and which helps us to acquire our
particular native languages (L3). 

I don't see why this effort seems futile and uninteresting to Trace. Would
it be preferable that I kept moving my pointer "language" from one place to
another to make people wonder where I wanted to point to? I wish I would be
able to know where the debaters are pointing theirs, for I am never sure
wether we are talking about the same phenomenon (communication) or about
totally different things (communication / language) in different directions
(L1, L2 and L3). I repeat Jerry Fodor's injunction: ... If we made the
necessary distinction, we would be happy as Kings. And Kings are
purportedly very happy.

To end this email, let me add a little note on Dan Moonhawk's sarcastic
remark on how Chomsky "walked away from more brilliant ideas than *I* ever
had" (meaning that he has done away with transformations in his latests
models). Luckily, for me at least, Noam Chomsky is able to walk away from
models that had some problems in describing the human operations of the
mind in processing linguistic data. The greatness of Generative Theory for
me is, precisely, that it is able to ADVANCE in its descriptions in a very
clear way, whereas, for me at least, the descriptions that turn in circles,
interpreting mental representations with no constraints have no interest
whatsoever as scientific theories, although they may show (sometimes!) a
very brilliant mind at work. 

Chomsky has indeed walked away from earlier elements in his models, but
only to get a more accurate description of the mental processing of
linguistic elements. Like we all do with computers. I used to have one,
called AMSTRAD, that didn't even have a hard disk. Luckily, we have "walked
away" from that computer. But... could we have invented a better one at
that time? Some people did, and we have now better machines and programs.
In Linguistics, so has Chomsky. He is, wether one likes it or not, a world
figure in Linguistics. Therefore, the (otherwise very curious) fact is
that, even those who don't favour his models, instead of concentrating in
their own models, spend lots and lots of time trying to defeat him in one
way or another. 

As the French say: "peine perdue"!

Hasta otra!

Departamento de Filologia Francesa e Inglesa
Facultad de Filosofia y Letras
Office Tlf.: (34)956.015.526
Home Tlf.:(34)956.225.588
Fax: (34)956.015.501
Gomez Ulla, 1
11002 Cadiz, Spain
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Message 2: Re: 11.2204, Disc: Does "Language" Mean "Human Language"?

Date: Sat, 14 Oct 2000 02:46:13 -0800
From: bwald <bwaldHUMnet.UCLA.EDU>
Subject: Re: 11.2204, Disc: Does "Language" Mean "Human Language"?

I've been following the discussion of the topic with great interest and
even enjoyment. I've learned much from the postings, and it's stimulated
some older ideas, actually from the last time a discussion about ape
language (uhm, ape's learning human language) came up on the List -- maybe
about 4-5 years ago. During that time I had read S-R's book about Kanzi
and noted some problems with the conclusions she was drawing from her
methodology. Motivating her arguments, apart from hard-line disbelief,
seemed to be Chomsky's criticisms of earlier work that while he accepted
some symbolic capacity on the part of apes, demonstrated by their ability
to learn words -- by signing (and other ways in other studies), he
questioned their ability to use syntax in a meaningful way. That brought
home to me that when Chomsky said "(human) language" he was thinking
specifically of certain things like a syntactic module and not necessarily
lexical items, the bread and butter of language, but he considered to have
non-linguistic, in his sense, properties.

The relevance to Kanzi and other ape studies is that use of syntax had not
yet been demonstrated (among various other things thought to be beyond the
capacity of any other currently known non-human species ). For example,
were the apes not being taught in English (as the basis for the language
taught to apes like Kanzi) by example about transitivity order in English?
But they weren't picking it up -- though S-R has an example that seems to
show meaningful use of order, according to her -- but could not convince
anybody that chooses to see it as an over-interpretation of the behavior in
reference to the proposition Kanzi is reported to have signed. If I
remember it had to with a spatial relation so that Kanzi put the right
thing on top of the something else instead of the reverse. In spite of
such anecdotal cases, the bulk of the examples she gives could be
interpreted as non-syntactic and inferred, for example, as to whether a
noun was subject or object. Even this has some interesting implications.
Pre-language still seems to presuppose formulation of a proposition, while
expressing it without syntactic encoding, just by the words, in an
undetermined order -- or if I remember Bickerton even considers a
topic-first syntax "pre-language". There I would disagree. But in any
case, associating how apes acquire signing with "pre-language" still allows
them, maybe requires them, to have the intellect to conceive, even create,
propositions. Putting the issue this way should certainly have the effect
of sending students of both early human language and ape language rushing
to come up with differences among the more salient apparent similarities.

So for the meantime, it boils down to this. Linguists are experts in human
languages. That is their main interest and their main area of expertise.
So far ape language capacity, while extremely interesting and revealing,
falls far short of human languages, and the things that interest most
linguists in human language. The reasons for this are open to a wide range
of speculations. Ultimately, for most people, the language capacity for
apes is just a side-show to the even more interesting issue of the
mentality and nature of the minds of apes. I thought it was a credit to
the ape studies that in Chomsky's criticism, he was willing to sacrifice
Saussure's arbitrary sign from "pure" linguistics, so that the capacity use
them is not solely human and is not a "pure" linguistic capacity but one
that humans share with certain other animals. Trask takes an even stricter
point of view, suggesting that the sharing of the capacity doesn't means
they come from the same line of descent. That's another question, but it
even allows that when apes string some words together they are not
expressing a proposition , only humans infer a proposition because only
they have the capacity to do this. So what looks like a similarity, even
on a "deep" level like proposition, rather than the more observable word
string, may interact with quite different systems, none being in ape use
what in human use is associated with language. Difficult matters to
interpret behavior on.

What does it tell us about human language if apes can't use syntax in
certain ways or sustain a narrative? Narrative capacity would require them
to form a discourse-internal deictic system where a deictic can refer to
something mentioned but not present -- a capacity all human signers exploit
by pointing to position a referent in empty space and then pointing to that
position for subsequent mentions. I don't know if we've seen the last of
the language-related capacities of certain apes, but in the final analysis
motivation may be important to revealing capacities in apes in a different
way than in human since we are both aware of being different species with
different senses of identity. So what do we have to talk about with apes
that might encourage them to get intellectual enough to striong
propositions, the next level of syntax (hmm, didn't Kafka write a short
story about this? A lecture by an ape to a learned society)

I do have an answer to the initial question: Does "Language" Mean "Human
Language"? The answer is that it's not relevant to the real issues
involved. The question is what do all human languages share that other
animals are incapable of learning -- we have to know what before we can
answer "why".
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Message 3: Disc: Does "Language" Mean "Human Language"?

Date: Mon, 16 Oct 2000 11:16:01 +0900
From: Joseph Tomei <>
Subject: Disc: Does "Language" Mean "Human Language"?

Moonhawk and Jose are doing their level best to make the list return 
to its roots as a discussion venue. I'm not sure if it's good or bad, 
but given that there are few (or any?) venues that have people with 
radically different ways of doing linguistics trying to come to grips 
with overarching questions, I'd like to see it continue.

A A mentioned Martinet's idea of 'double articulation' and I'm 
wondering if he or she has a reference.

Two probably not very original thoughts about this. The first is that 
linguistics generally deals with production, because it's been rather 
difficult to get inside the listener's head, (though technology is 
doing its best). I think it was Firth who, in discussing phonology, 
noted something to the effect that a comprehension based phonology 
would look much different then our production based models and I have 
to wonder that 'human' language is such because the overwhelming 
weight of models is production rather than comprehension.

The second is from Greenberg's universals (I think) where he comments 
that for a language to be called that, one has to be able 'lie' in 
that language. I have often, in dealing with language learners, 
wondered if this is a source of problems. Often, you ask a student 
what seems like a simple question like 'What sports do you like?' and 
you find the student paralyzed, because IMHO they are searching for 
the 'true' answer and the idea that they can't tell a lie never 
occurs to them. I think it is in an article by Daniel Dennett that 
discusses whether monkeys given 'false' signals in order implies 
higher order mental capabilities, and discusses the formidable 
problems in arguing from them.

Finally, Jose writes
>I perceive a certain assumption in many of the participants which
>makes me wonder. Maybe I am wrong, but it seems that while the
>"mind-as-a-slate" holistic crew has a speculative, but well organised story
>about the possible *evolution* of the human language (in many cases, a very
>interesting theory too), my crew, namely the mentalist innate-modular one

Am I the only one who objects to this metaphor of two 'crews' that 
seem to be fighting over the same ball? Certainly Pinker has 
advocated evolutionary considerations and he seems like one of jose's 
'crew'. And 'mind-as-a-slate' seems to be a rather broad 
overgeneralization of 'the other side'. This kind of writing 
generates a lot of heat, but not much light.

Joseph Tomei
Kumamoto Gakuen Daigaku
Department of Foreign Languages
Oe 2 chome, 5-1, Kumamoto 862-0911 JAPAN
(81) (0)96-364-5161 x1410
fax (81) (0)96-372-0702

I'll see you at JALT 2000 in Shizuoka, November 2-5
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