LINGUIST List 11.385

Wed Feb 23 2000

Disc: Species Extinction vs Language Extinction

Editor for this issue: Karen Milligan <karenlinguistlist.org>


Directory

  1. Claire Bowern, Re: 11.366, Disc: Species Extinction vs Language Extinction
  2. Chris Beckwith, Re: 11.366, Disc: Species Extinction vs Language Extinction
  3. Peter T. Daniels, Re: 11.366, Disc: There are no languages
  4. David Powers, Re: 11.366, Disc: Species Extinction vs Language Extinction

Message 1: Re: 11.366, Disc: Species Extinction vs Language Extinction

Date: Sun, 20 Feb 2000 13:29:00 -0500
From: Claire Bowern <bowernfas.harvard.edu>
Subject: Re: 11.366, Disc: Species Extinction vs Language Extinction

To quote Anthea Fraser Gupta:

 > Just to say that we need to remember that languages are constructs.
 > There are no languages. Only people performing language and people
 > creating abstract notions of language.

 > We might as well regret the loss of the crinoline or of penny
 > farthing bicycles.


Try telling that to the last twenty speakers of Bardi.

Claire Bowern


_________________________
Department of Linguistics
Harvard University
305 Boylston Hall
Cambridge, MA 02138
ph: 617-493-4230
fax: 617-496-4447
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Message 2: Re: 11.366, Disc: Species Extinction vs Language Extinction

Date: Sun, 20 Feb 2000 15:25:41 -0500 (EST)
From: Chris Beckwith <beckwithindiana.edu>
Subject: Re: 11.366, Disc: Species Extinction vs Language Extinction


I haven't been following the discussion due to computer problems, but
would like to add something to Richard Kaminski's remarks about Esperanto,
just in case no one has pointed it out yet. The Klingon language, which
is surely a 'constructed' language, has evolved gradually rather than
having been created all at once as a complete 'construct'. It is now
apparently evolving into a natural language, and is the vehicle for a most
interesting culture, which is itself a conscious 'construct'. But of
course, both the language and the culture were modeled consciously on
previously existing human 'constructs'.

The fact that languages are complex and difficult to pin down (so are
cultures) is no reason to deny that they exist as entities. Should we
mourn, though, if Klingon eventually becomes passe' and dies out?

Chris Beckwith

On Sun, 20 Feb 2000, The LINGUIST Network wrote:

> LINGUIST List: Vol-11-366. Sun Feb 20 2000. ISSN: 1068-4875.
> 
> Subject: 11.366, Disc: Species Extinction vs Language Extinction
 
> Date: Sun, 20 Feb 2000 08:01:02 EST
> From: Nitti45aol.com
> Subject: Re: 11.338, Disc: Species Extinction vs Language Extinction

> ... Nowadays we speak of 'natural' languages as distinct
> from 'constructed' languages, Esperanto being a well-known example of the
> latter. If one says, "Languages are constructs," this could easily be
> misinterpreted to mean that 'natural' and 'constructed' languages came into
> existence by just the same means as one another. Obviously this cannot be
> the case. Whereas one can say with certainty, for example, "Esperanto was
> *constructed* by Dr. Zamenhof in 1887," no such statement could possibly be
> made about English, Spanish, Chinese, or any other 'natural' language. No,
> these languages *evolved.* No one person made a 'construct' and called it
> 'English,' 'Spanish,' 'Chinese' or what have you.
> With regard to the issue of language extinction vs. species extinction, I
> will say that there are reasons to "mourn" the loss of languages, some of
> them more valid than others. As I see it, two of the more valid reasons are
> 1) The loss of the culture, of which the extinct language had been a vehicle;
> 2) The lost opportunity to gather corporeal data for linguistic
> research...
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Message 3: Re: 11.366, Disc: There are no languages

Date: Sun, 20 Feb 2000 16:37:22 -0400
From: Peter T. Daniels <grammatimworldnet.att.net>
Subject: Re: 11.366, Disc: There are no languages

> Date: Fri, 18 Feb 2000 15:08:43 -0800
> From: "Hank Mooney" <HMooneymfi.com>
> Subject: There are no languages
> 
> Juan Uriagereka makes this point, obliquely, in his wonderful book
> "Rhyme and Reason" when he has "The Linguist" (a thinly veiled Chomsky)
> remark that the English Language doesn't actually exist...

How very odd that he would attribute such a view to Chomsky, inasmuch as
it is defended seriously by Robert A. Hall, Jr., one of his most vocal
early critics (I believe in *An Essay on Language*). The only
objectively describably entity is each individual speaker's corpus of
utterances, and there is no way of being certain that one speaker's
"English" is identical to any other's. (Which, of course, is just how
language change was accounted for in early TG grammar.)
- 
Peter T. Daniels grammatimworldnet.att.net
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Message 4: Re: 11.366, Disc: Species Extinction vs Language Extinction

Date: Mon, 21 Feb 2000 15:06:34 +1030
From: David Powers <David.Powersflinders.edu.au>
Subject: Re: 11.366, Disc: Species Extinction vs Language Extinction


- ---Original Message-----
Subject: 11.366, Disc: Species Extinction vs Language Extinction



>From: "Hank Mooney" <HMooneymfi.com>
>Subject: There are no languages


>From: Ronald Cosper <Ronald.CosperSTMARYS.CA>
>Subject: Re: 11.338, Disc: Species Extinction vs Language Extinction


>From: Nitti45aol.com
>Subject: Re: 11.338, Disc: Species Extinction vs Language Extinction


Gupta:
> Just to say that we need to remember that languages are constructs.
> There are no languages. Only people performing language and people
> creating abstract notions of language.
>
> We might as well regret the loss of the crinoline or of penny
> farthing bicycles.
> Anthea Fraser GUPTA


I AGREE

The messages that ridicule this position clearly do not understand it, and I
will therefore spell out an argument. Note that we are not talking about
"language"
(meaning our communication system) but "languages".

Every individual speaks a different idiolect, a dialect captures the shared
features
of a specific community (although we tend to term this a sublanguage when it
is
not distinguished solely on geographical or class grounds), and "a language
is a dialect with an army and a navy" (to borrow a well-known aphorism).

Language learning or language acquisition are typically misconceived as
learning
a specific target language such as English, but there is no standard
language,
and the speakers they interact with speak different idiolects. The process
of
language learning is more a process of conventionalization or socialization.
It is a negotiation in which caregivers, teachers and peers adapt their
language
as much as the learner adapts his!

"As much?" Well, it is not easily quantifiable! But not only do the
parents adopt
baby words and mispronounced or incomplete forms to a greater or lesser
extent, but the caregiver is much more adept at understanding the child than
the visitor (even a linguist or psycholinguist), because her comprehension
has adapted to the infant's language. In the early stages a single
(proto)word may capture what would in adult speech require a full sentence.
Understanding of an utterance is not guaranteed, any more than understanding
of every utterance of an adult is guaranteed. In both cases, the
understanding is dependant on the full sensory-motor, linguistic and social
environment. All language users are continually adapting to new usages and
new contacts, and in dealing with an infant or a foreigner, these abilities
are stretched beyond what is required for peers.

Language change is thus a continuous process that is a natural consequence
of individual having different interests, abilities and social contacts. It
is
different from evolution of species in that the modifications are not
limited to
crossover between two genetic individuals, but many influences are present.
Also fitness is automatic, rather than selected for, because a child learns
(or invents)
the best idiolect for his environment, and a single child causes a certain
amount of
change in the (comprehension and production) idiolects of many others.

To the extent that everytime an individual dies we lose an idiolect, and
every time a
community is dispersed we use a dialect (which is already very subjective),
language
extinction is unavoidable. The established "army and navy"
pseudo-definition of "language" illustrates the lack of a definition of "a
language", and emphasizes the
political overtones of the term. The difference between Dutch and German is
less
than the difference between German and some of the German dialects that have
not been promoted to "language" status. And nobody is quite sure whether
Flemish
is a language or not, since it is very close to Dutch. Then there is Swiss
German,
and Africaans. And there are many other sets of closely related "languages"
where political considerations are far more important than linguistic
distinctiveness.

Cosper:
>To reply to A.F. Gupta, it is true that on one level of analysis (a
>micro-level), languages are constructs. However, it would be a
>reductionist fallacy to conclude that only people exist. In a sense, any
>analytical level is a construct, and that includes the level of the
>individual. It is just that because of our ethical systems and our point
>of view as humans that the individual seems more than a construct.


Nobody is denying the existence of "language" or the constructs we call
idiolects, or the fact that we can loosely group idiolects into classes
which
share various degrees of commonality.

>This is an important point to make in the context of linguistic theorizing,
>due to the impact of the predominantly psychological bias of many brands of
>contemporary theory, including formalism and functionalism, I believe one
>can say. Although language does have a psychological reality, and this is
>important to assert, especially for the study of micro-level phenomena,
>such as language acquisition, cognitive aspects of language, and so on,
>language is more than the individual. Language has an externality in
>relation to the individual. For example, when an individual is acquiring a
>language, the language presents itself as a macro-level phenomenon to the
>individual for acquisition. Language has a history. It is only by
>studying language on the macro-level, that we can learn about "things",
>such as language change, language contact, and language maintenance. To
>study language as psychological structure cannot explain why, for example,
>Chinese is different from English. The individual level perspective could
>only explain why individual speakers of Chinese might be confronted with
>distinctive problems of acquisition.


This assumes that an individual is acquiring A language. But the individual
is not aiming at a specific target and is exposed to many idiolects. At
school
we work quite hard to prescribe certain common standards of language, but
even so every individual has their own peculiarities.

Kaminski
> In response, I say, briefly, "What a view!" Just what was it that the
>writer used to formulate...and express...this thought on the alleged
>non-existence of languages, anyway?
...
> For sake of discussion, let us pose the following question: How can
one
>claim that, because a thing is a 'construct,' it therefore does not exist?
I
>assume that what is meant here is a *mental* construct. After all, my
house
>is a (physical) constuct, but it certainly is a very real existent! Given
>the presumption of this dichotomy, does that mean that things that exist in
>the mind don't 'really' exist? What does this say about the writer's
opinion
>of the human mind?

English is not a mental construct in any one individual. It is a vaguely
defined
notion, which includes most dialects spoken in the United States, Britain
and
various other countries, although in the information age (which dates back
to the
advent of printing) the notion has been increasingly bolstered
prescriptively. It does not include the various 'Pidgin' English creoles
which have many commonalities but are regarded as distinct languages from
each other as well as English. And it is
not clear that it includes all the slang and class variants. Certainly
school teachers
don't think it does!

> So, there are "[o]nly people performing language..." and "...no
>languages." How does one 'perform' that which does not exist? Of course,
>there is also the fact that, to refer to the use of language as mere
>'performance' completely blanks out the crucial role of language as a means
>of concept formation, this being particularly important during the first
few
>years of life.


When you perform music, you can perform a specific piece of music or you can
improvise. In the same way when you communicate linguistically (perform
language), you can (conceivably) communicate in ISO standard English (I
don't believe it exists yet), or you can communicate in your own
idiosyntactic way (and that's what we tend to do).

David Powers
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