LINGUIST List 11.428

Tue Feb 29 2000

Disc: Species Extinction vs Language Extinction

Editor for this issue: Karen Milligan <>


  1. Dan Moonhawk Alford, Re: 11.366, Disc: Species Extinction vs Language Extinction

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

Date: Mon, 28 Feb 2000 16:11:02 -0800 (PST)
From: Dan Moonhawk Alford <>
Subject: Re: 11.366, Disc: Species Extinction vs Language Extinction

"Hank Mooney" <> wrote re: "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...>>

In a strange way, some Native Americans agree with this sentiment. Last
year, in the Albuquerque Science Dialogue between Western and Indigenous
Scientists, Leroy Little Bear (a Blackfoot native speaker who recently
headed the Native Studies Dept. at Harvard and is linguistically savvy)
told the participants that there is no Blackfoot language, or Navajo
language, or whatever, in the Chomskyan sense; that Blackfoot, e.g.,
consists of about 80 roots [probably the number of permissable syllables,
and a speaker just combines and recombines them to accurately describe
situations on the fly; that there are no lexicons of pre-formed words the
way there is in English and other Western languages [so no lexical
lookup]. Further, I have found, these roots represent naive physics primes
of dynamic movements of various kinds. As Blackfoot speaker Amethyst First
Rider explained, "When I say 'I'm going to ride a horse' in English,
pictures come up in my head; but when I say it in Blackfoot, there are no
pictures -- only physical feelings of riding." 

That said, turning to languages as constructs and therefore whether they
"really exist" or not: Wilhelm von Humboldt, founder of our discipline,
wanted us to remember that language is like an invisible envelope [we'd
call it a "field" these days] that we are in and is in us at the same
time. And more recently language philosopher Merleau-Ponty similarly said
we constitute our language and yet we find it already constituted. As
Cosper pointed out in different terms, the micro- and macro- must be
equally accounted for in an adequate theory of human language. 

We've fooled around long enough with lopsided theories. Besides balancing
the Individual and Social fields, we must also -- as an imperative of our
discipline -- equally balance Form and Meaning: YET in its quest for
scientism during this past half-century linguistics has become fixated on
Form. Our very definition of language relies heavily on the production of
Form -- which is why our young children avowedly do not speak human
language, according to many top-ranked linguists.

If we had a real Meaning-first comprehension approach balancing our
current Form-first production one, and if we got clear about the fact that
friends and intimates and children don't speak like formal strangers to
each other but speak a different kind of language with multi-track meaning
not accounted for by formal rules, then we would see that not only do our
children have language, so do chimps and dogs and other animals that
comprehend the total meaning in our combined words, emotional tones, and
body language. If they don't "have language," how can they understand
us? Of course the "language" they have is not that of formal rules of
production, but one of comprehension which we haven't worked on yet.

I believe Dr. Skoyles is correct about "the brain origins of syntax" [13
Feb 2000]; indeed, I believe that each brain functions with a unique
syntax, and therefore that the reptilian-brain syntax, the limbic-system
syntax, and the right-hemisphere syntax are different than and cannot be
comprehended by or otherwise reduced to left-hemisphere syntax -- which is
the current state of affairs. If these other (evolutionary) brains have
their own unique syntax, then they think in language -- just not human
verbal language. 

Interestingly, Piaget claims four developmental levels of thinking,
different from each other, and these map quite readily to the four
functional brains I mentioned above. With unique kinds of syntax and
thinking coming out of our four brains, can languages unique to each be
far behind? And since three of those brains are evolutionarily common to
animals, the definition of language can now be unshackled from our
human-only bias and opened up to those non-humans that have body language,
emotional noises, and simple word systems without the formal level of

"Communication" (as in, "That's not language -- that's communication!")
has for too long been the dustbin of our failure to fully comprehend how
complex face-to-face speaking really is -- a multi-track event of meaning
streaming integratedly as an entire body/vocal gesture.

warm regards, moonhawk

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