LINGUIST List 11.2293

Mon Oct 23 2000

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

Editor for this issue: Karen Milligan <>


  1. Dan Moonhawk Alford, Disc.: Synthesis/Response -- Does "Language" = "Human Language"?

Message 1: Disc.: Synthesis/Response -- Does "Language" = "Human Language"?

Date: Mon, 23 Oct 2000 06:26:52 -0700 (PDT)
From: Dan Moonhawk Alford <>
Subject: Disc.: Synthesis/Response -- Does "Language" = "Human Language"?

Editor's Note: Although this discussion was closed last week, we felt
it only fair to post this final response from Dan Moonhawk Alford,
as it was his question that initiated the discussion. We are not,
however, re-opening the discussion.

Dear Linguists:
I've been away from my email for the past week. Imagine my surprise to see
the amount of electronic ink spilt on this topic while I was away! And
that the discussion is already closed. Since everyone was being civil, I'm
not sure why the most enlightening discussion this year warranted such
premature closure. At any rate, as original poster, I ask for final reply,
which I intend to shed some light on the original question.
To keep this posting as brief as possible, I will not bother to reply
individually to those who can answer no better than "Yes -- because it
is!" to the question, or to insist on *more* tests of full-blown aspects
of language which Kanzi clearly doesn't have in order to show,
pointlessly, that Kanzi doesnt have full-blown adult human language. These
get us nowhere fast.
My position is that asking *whether* Kanzi *has* (human) language is
monumentally the wrong question to ask. From a biolanguage point of view
we may ask *how much* language Kanzi does have -- which in my model is
three of four developmental levels, with him lacking the crucial fourth
reserved to humans after the developmental process of hemispheric
lateralization takes off.
I believe this shift of perception of the term "language" -- from a jaded
"yes/no" to specific levels motivated independently by brain structure,
brainwaves, and Piaget's stages of cognitive development -- could
ultimately affect in some way how all working linguists go about their
daily business, though more importantly of course all Intro teachers and
those few of us interested in the pre-human evolution of language, as well
as those like me (if any) interested in knowing what the starting point
looks like before the exclusively human part kicks in.
The following individual replies will clarify my statements.

Date: Tue, 10 Oct 2000 21:43:28 +0200
From: "jose luis guijarro" <>
> From: Dan Moonhawk Alford <>
> Years ago, a Nova documentary called "Can Chimps Talk?" showed Sue
> Savage-Rumbaugh in the kitchen with Kanzi, a bonobo chimp, asking him
> to 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!
Caramba, Jose-Luis! I'm not sure who should feel more insulted by that
verbal jab: me for being called gullible or Sue S-R for being called no
more than a carnival huckster intent on deceiving the public; but it's
clear that you have no compassion for my answer because you have simply
not seen the video in question and, thus armed, project the worst onto us
> 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 worse! 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

> DM: 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.
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 see!).
Jose-Luis, I'd like to hereby join you in championing this tripartite
division of senses of "language" as seen through the tongues of
generations of Spanish-language thinkers. You are absolutely correct that
it would facilitate discussions such as this, and I would suggest that ALL
Intro teachers take these Spanish-language distinctions into the classroom
when covering this topic.
Let's see if I have it right, modifying spelling for clarity) -- 
Languag-A (lengua, languaga) : Pinker's language organ for humans only,
which turns out to be much like Chomsky's linguistic competence, funnily
enough, acting like what physicists call a strange attractor for guiding
Languag-E-proficient human children from local idiomatic "code", as one
respondent termed it, into a full-blown Languag-I.
Languag-I (idioma, languagi)): a full-blown adult human language, the goal
for the process -- nope, organ -- of Languag-A.
Languag-E (lenguage, language?): the starting point for Languag-A
developmental process, or "organ" -- the gesture-filled, emotion-filled,
idiom-filled home language, le';s call it, which is not by definition
forbidden to non-humans raised in human culture from early on enough.
If I'm in the right ballpark with the above restating, then Spanish does
indeed answer the question I originally posed by saying that there is some
part of Languag- which is shared by, say, chimps and toddlers. 
But defining Languag-A, or what we mean by our usual use of "language" --
our most fundamental word -- as an "organ" (imaginary, unlike other bodily
organs) whose function lifts us from Languag-E to Languag-I alone begs the
question of Languag-E and how IT was acquired. What "organ" shall we call
that? And what "organ" does Kanzi have that lifted him above in-the-wild
capabilities to a toddlers abilities with a human Languag-E, able to
understand simple English both casually and under rigorous experimental
conditions? We might want to call that human culture, since wild bonobos
and even Kanzi's mother didn't display his abilities.
My position is that even Languag-E, "lenguage," may be characterized in
terms of competence and performance, of forms expressing meanings -- both
discriminative (a wink or sarcastic tone reverses the meanings of the
words in good minimal-pair fashion) and integrative meanings ("The fish
was thiiis long."). This level of language includes gestures, expressions,
emotional tunes/tones, simple-to-moderate lexicon and lexically-driven
syntax; these fall into different qualitative levels of biolanguage in my
Date: Thu, 12 Oct 2000 16:52:38 +0100
From: (Larry Trask)
Moonhawk writes, about Kanzi:
> "... 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.
OK, Moonhawk -- Just what *is* "the elaborated part" of
In the inception of this thread, I clearly stated :
"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
Kanzi can't do syntax at all -- so, I guess Moonhawk wants to tell us,
syntax is just an elaboration, a few bells and whistles bolted onto our
fundamental language faculty. Kanzi can't do negation, either, so I guess
that's just another elaboration. Kanzi can't do affirmation, or
self-reference (to his 'language', I mean), or modality, or anaphora, or
questions, or any of dozens of other things that all healthy human
speakers and signers can do.
Just because you *declare* that Kanzi can't do syntax at all doesn't make
it so; evidently, this is an issue on which reasonable people may
disagree; actually watching the video in question, which I assume you
haven't, is what ultimately won me over to my position. My take is that
Kanzi has acquired a verb-first syntax which is like the incessant
commands he's been modeled -- a simple syntax, verb-driven, like PS Rules.
And -- indeed! remember? -- negation, affirmation, questions and other
defining characteristics of adult human language are transformations in
the original Chomskyan conception, and thus beyond Kanzi's concentrated
attention abilities, lacking a lateralized left hemisphere just like a
If I understand Moonhawk correctly, then practically everything we find in
languages is to be waved away as mere "elaborations", while the *real*
language is -- well, whatever Kanzi can do. And this isn't much.

As usual, you *don't* understand me correctly. My position is that there
is a vast amount of language that we officially don't find or even notice,
such as is expressed by the Spanish "lenguage", which is the base that
children expand upon -- and where chimps stop. Then, with hemispheric
lateralization in humans, we develop a left hemisphere as a container for
the higher-speed processing required for transformations. Small children,
chimps and gorillas have an undifferentiated cortex, which allows for
occasional beta-wave flashes, but no sustained beta processing, necessary
for transformations.
Example: Why isn't it wise to tell a small child who is hanging onto
something for dear life, "Dont Let Go!"? Because the verbal negation
transformation is not yet fully established in the left hemisphere. The
child must process the "let go" part first, and then do the negation --
which may be disasterous. You say, instead, "Hold on real tight!" You say,
that is, exactly what you want -- with no transformational tricks.
In my Intro classes at CHU Hayward, I show C"an Chimps Talk?" back to back
with the Nova about Genie, the Wild Child, and afterwards encourage my
students to reflect on who had better language abilities -- on how much
each had and who had more, with Genie at the bottom of the human primate
scale and Kanzi at the top of the non-human primate scale. Did Genie not
lateralize, or did she lateralize with left-brain empty? Neither one could
negate well, though Kanzi did better with the morphological negation {un-}
in the same word, "untie," than Genie did. Was her inborn LAD or "language
organ" deficient? Or was it just not triggered properly?
So my original question, while on the surface focusing on Kanzi, deeper
down has to do with language-deprived children as well, and the triggering
role that culture plays in language. My position is that "language" is
actually shorthand for "language/culture dynamic" -- that whatever may be
inborn must be triggered by the culture in order for it to work. Language
is cultural, and much of culture is linguistic.
Date: Sat, 14 Oct 2000 02:46:13 -0800
From: bwaldHUMnet.UCLA.EDU (bwald)
[about Sue Savage-Rumbaugh]
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...
Exactly. Thank you for such preciseness. Then Chomsky and I agree on the
importance of the last developmental linguistic and cognitive level --
which he sees solely as a syntactic module -- separating human from other
primates. What a nice surprise!
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
I share your admiration for this, not in small part because it agrees with
my own thinking on the issue. ;-) Thanks for mentioning it!
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. ...
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".
Okay, I understand the "linguistics is what linguists do" argument --
and since I'm a linguist and I do this, then it's de facto part of
linguistics. Whether it's a main area is beside the point. It's about
"how much" language toddlers and chimps and language misfits like
Genie actually have -- the comprehension and production of "lenguage":
the base before transformations do or do not take off. I agree that we
have to know what before we can answer why, and I'm saying that a big
"what" we're ignoring is the base language which transformations
transform into full-blown adult language. Clarification of this issue
could have staggering implications for 2nd-language learning.
Further, like Trask, I do not believe language and communication are the
same thing either. I do not see this base language as being the same as
"communication" at all, whatever that might be without definition. My
position is that there are three levels of "lenguage" that we may
profitably look at as linguists -- gesture/expression, emotional tone/tune
and simple clauses -- each with its own unique characteristics of form and
function, and each reflecting the workings of different brains, brainwave
mixes, and cognitive abilities, all of which are qualitatively different
than the left-brain elaborated rules and ways.
Date: Fri, 13 Oct 2000 12:11:11 +0200
From: JosiLuis Guijarro Morales <>
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 latest
models). ... [Chomsky] is, whether 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
Jose-Luis, I hope you can see from the preceding that I'm in no way trying
to "defeat" Chomsky, since I agree with him on key issues and am trying to
highlight one of his important early insights which later got lost in the
shuffle (hence my remark about Chomsky was straight, and not sarcastic, as
you imputed) -- an insight which fits perfectly with my own model of
language that I've been concentrating on. Like you, I'm only looking for
Date: Mon, 16 Oct 2000 11:16:01 +0900
From: Joseph Tomei <>
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.
I appreciate the vote of confidence, and hope the moderators took note and
you're reading this on the List.
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
I've been agreeing with Firth for years and didnt know it! Thanks for
that! My position is that we've got some excellent form-first/production
models of adult human language which now must be balanced with equivalent
*meaning-first/comprehension* models of language, and they both need to be
taken as true at the same time though contradictory -- in complementary,
comprehensive "yes/yes" thinking rather than our tired and lame yes/no
debating style; we need to ask "How much" rather than "Whether or not"
Kanzi has language.
And finally,
Date: Tue, 17 Oct 2000 10:35:20 +0200
From: "jose luis guijarro" <>
Let me comment on what Joseph Tomei wrote, namely:
"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'."
In the first place, I am prepared to repent immediately if my
generalization is objected to --no problem about that!
Repent! Repent! Judgement Day is at hand! ;-) Yes, indeed, I do object to
such a simplistic generalization, as if you're not sure how to categorize
me and grab for some low-hanging fruit.
My position is indeed holistic, but hardly "blank-slate" since my goal is
to focus linguists on the base, your "lenguage," and show how it, too, has
form and meaning, comprehension and production, discriminative and
integrative meaning -- show how this deeply cultural base language is more
acquired than an inborn, invisible "organ." We can only see this if we
examine not ONLY what human languages share, but also what is shared with
non-human species along with the shared brain structures, brainwave
cycles, and cognitive levels.
Pre-human evolution, Piagetian cognitive development, brain architecture
and evolution of brainwave levels all persuade me that the base language
and its levels are real, and worthy of study. To say it is "not language"
is an act of faith and belief, and an example of the power of defining --
not unbiased scientific evidence at all.
My position is that full-blown adult human language is the end-product of
the decade-long physiological process of hemispheric lateralization
triggered by culture; that it is the adult human *kind* of language which
builds on already acquired levels of form and meaning called "the Old
Language" by Cheyennes, "lenguage" in Spanish, and "the base language" by
"Language" thus becomes a higher-order term embracing at least four form-
and-meaning-full levels -- the most evolutionarily recent being unique to
humans and building on the lower shared levels, rather than standing
solely for the most recent stage. As well, "animal language" thus becomes,
instead of an oxymoronic mistake, another way of talking about the base
language on which transforming lateralization does or does not act.
Although it is true that little of most linguists' daily chores will hinge
on a discussion such as this, and that as few linguists as members of
other disciplines ever actually talk about foundational issues, the
definition and understanding of the term "language," whether narrow or
broad, is just such a foundational issue for linguistics -- a definition
which "strongly determines" what linguists are encouraged to put their
research efforts into, and what they will be pusillanimously attacked for.

As I tell my grad students, if you want to know what a discipline is
really about, look for who they are beating up on, and figure out why. And
unless you're drawing fire from a detractor, you aren't yet hitting a big
nerve (thank you, Dr. Trask)! And thanks to everyone for your interest in
this wonderful dialogue, whether contributing or reading.
warm regards, moonhawk
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