LINGUIST List 11.469

Sun Mar 5 2000

Disc: Species Extinction vs Language Distinction

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


Directory

  1. A.F. GUPTA, Re: 11.428, Disc: Species Extinction vs Language Extinction
  2. Nitti45, Disc: Species Extinction vs. Language Extinction

Message 1: Re: 11.428, Disc: Species Extinction vs Language Extinction

Date: Tue, 29 Feb 2000 15:33:58 GMT
From: A.F. GUPTA <engafgARTS-01.NOVELL.LEEDS.AC.UK>
Subject: Re: 11.428, Disc: Species Extinction vs Language Extinction


> Dan Moonhawk Alford <dalfordhaywire.csuhayward.edu> said:

> 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.

I think we shouldn't forget that LANGUAGE and A LANGUAGE are two very 
different concepts. I would argue that LANGUAGE has a much stronger 
external identity that A LANGUAGE, and indeed that as linguists we 
are relatively agreed on what constitutes LANGUAGE (disagreements 
about whether, for example, chimpanzees who have been taugt a 
symbolic system have LANGUAGE tend to focus on whether what the 
chimpanzees are doing is LANGUAGE rather than on competing 
definitions of LANGUAGE. LANGUAGE is in no danger of becoming 
extinct!

Anthea

Anthea Fraser GUPTA : http://www.leeds.ac.uk/english/$staff/afg
School of English
University of Leeds
LEEDS LS2 9JT
UK
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Message 2: Disc: Species Extinction vs. Language Extinction

Date: Sun, 5 Mar 2000 16:21:20 EST
From: Nitti45 <Nitti45aol.com>
Subject: Disc: Species Extinction vs. Language Extinction

Dear Linguistlist:
 In the fortnight or so that has passed since I last wrote to the 
*Linguistlist* there have been no fewer than eight additional letters 
revolving around the point raised by Prof. Gupta in issue 11.338, which 
evidently has become known as the "There Are No Languages" issue. I should 
like to address some of these comments, proceeding in logical, rather than 
temporal, order.
 First, I should like to respond to the comments from Chris Beckwith:

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

 This was written in response to the following segment of my previous 
letter: 

> ... 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.

 Now this is a fascinating observation on the part of Beckwith. I had 
barely heard of this Klingon language, inasmuch as I have never been much of 
a 'fan' of 'Star Trek.' It will be seen from his brief adumbration of the 
history and prospects of this language that it differs from all other 
'constructed' languages (at least, as far as I know) not just in the fact 
that it has evolved, or that it has become a vehicle for a 'culture' of 
sorts, but, more importantly, in the reason behind these phenomena. Whereas 
Esperanto was constructed for the explicit purpose of solving the 'language 
barrier' problem (as were Interlingua, Latino Sine Flexione, Volap�k, etc.), 
Klingon was contrived as part of a fanciful story line, for the purpose of 
enhancing its entertainment value. The point is that, while each of the 
other 'constructed' languages was brought into existence for linguistically 
motivated purposes, Klingon was constructed gradually as a means to an 
extralinguistic end, namely, the desire on the part of 'Star Trek' writers to 
make for a better science fiction show. This contrast of 'linguistic' vs. 
'extralinguistic' purpose will bear further discussion below, in a somewhat 
different context. For now I shall hold this point in abeyance.
 Just in passing, I shall venture a personal opinion: I, for one, would 
not mourn the passing of the Klingon language nor, for that matter, this 
whole 'Trekkie' subculture. But this is strictly by the way.

 Next, I observe Prof. Gupta's response to some comments of mine:

Nitti45aol.com (Richard S. Kaminski) wrote:

> 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;

Prof.Gupta:

This is the kind of argument that worries me in the extinction
debate. I see culture as inherently protean, diffuse and inevitably
changing. The culture I have now is not the same culture as that of
any of my grandparents. I also do not make a firm bond between
language and culture. We see that people can share 'a language' and
have 'different' cultures. Language also changes as culture changes,
perhaps more so than culture being changed by language. So this is
not a valid reason for mourning,

My response:

 I suppose it depends on just what one's personal point of view happens to 
be, whether one considers the loss of a language and/or culture a valid 
reason for mourning or not. This makes me think of Claire Bowern's one-line 
'zinger,' which read, "Try telling that to the last twenty speakers of 
Bardi." I shall have more to say on the '"valid reason for mourning" 
question in my response to the second part of Prof. Gupta's letter that I am 
quoting here.
 Granted, the bond between language and culture cannot be said to be as 
firm as the Rock of Gibraltar. Nevertheless, it *does* exist. For example, 
it is said that, shortly after the American Revolutionary War had ended, a 
vote was taken in the Continental Congress to decide what the official 
language of the USA was to be. As the story goes, there was a strong element 
of opposition to the continued use of English: It seems a goodly number of 
Americans wanted to sever *all* ties with the erstwhile mother country, 
language included. When the vote was tallied, so I am given to understand, 
English came out the victor in this contest by *one* vote. But for that one 
vote, the USA would thenceforward have been a German-speaking nation.
 Now I don't know whether this story is literally true or not. I've seen 
it disputed in some quarters, so I shan't swear to its veracity. But then, 
the story's truth or falsehood is really beside the point here. I am saying 
that I simply cannot imagine America's history in general, and her cultural 
history in particular, not having been affected by such a change as might 
have taken place had German been chosen over English. 
 As for the statement, "The culture I have now is not the same as that of 
any of my grandparents," I have to point out that, true, while the past no 
longer exists, the present is ineluctibly a function of the past. After all, 
if my grandparents had been products of, let us say, the Chinese culture of 
their day, I am certain that my own cultural outlook would be much different 
from what it actually is, even if I had never been to China nor learned to 
speak any dialect of Chinese. 
 
>2) The lost opportunity to gather
> corporeal data for linguistic research.

Prof. Gupta:

I think this is definitely NOT a valid reason. Historians might well
want to travel back in time too but I don't think we should look on
people as living data banks. We have to take on board what another
correspondent called the fact of language change.

 As far as I am concerned, *any* lost opportunity is to be regretted, 
however briefly and/or slightly. I fully agree that language change must be 
accepted as a fact of life, but that doesn't mean that we always have to like 
it. With regard to languages that are on the verge of extinction, trying to 
save them from their ultimate demise may in some cases be pointless, if not 
downright Quixotic. Still, it is at least conceivably possible, unlike time 
travel.

> Less valid are political
> considerations, and then there is sheer sentiment ... in the long view of
> evolutionary history, be it biological or sociological, it will be
> seen that extinctions must needs occur. ... Talking about a species'
> going extinct on account of having been wiped out by man is entirely
> different from talking about the extinction of, say, dinosaurs eons
> before the human species existed. So, too, is the systematic
> extermination of the speakers of Tasmanian in 1877 a different
> matter altogether from the natural dying out of, say, Hittite.

Prof. Gupta:

But the thing to regret here is the dreadfulness of the human
behaviour, and what it implied about British culture. It's hard to
say what constitutes 'natural' vs 'unnatural' change. In Singapore,
for example, there has been a gradual process of language shift,
especially a shift from varieties of Chinese other than Mandarin to
Mandarin and to English. This shift has been encouraged by
government and by changes in the wider world -- it has elements of
the 'natural' and the 'unnatural'. My personal regret in the shift
has been that there are children who cannot speak to their
grandparents, but that is a loss at the human, individual, level.

What about the gains? The dreadfulness of slavery gave
rise to the glory of creoles. So that it is possible to celebrate
creoles without implying praise for the system that alllowed them to
emerge.

My response:

 Quite right, it *is* hard to say just exactly what constiutes 'natural' 
as against 'unnatural' extinction. But the Tasmanian example, extreme case 
that it is, plainly connotes the idea of 'unnatural' language/culture 
extinction. The statement, "The dreadfulness of slavery gave rise to the 
glory of creoles," is a superb example of keeping matters in perspective: In 
language, as in life, there is a constant 'trade-off.' Let us remember, 
though, just to complete this particular picture, that there had to have been 
some few people, at some point in history, who did not consider slavery 
dreadful. Language evolution and cultural evolution are not two separate 
phenomena, but two parts of one larger whole. 


 Next, we hear from Prof. David Powers:

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".


I DISAGREE

 Speaking on my own behalf, I daresay that I *do* understand this position 
and, furthermore, that that understanding is the basis of my taking issue 
with it.

Powers: 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).

 Kaminski: While it is true that "every individual speaks a different 
idolect," and it is also true that "a dialect captures the shared features of 
a specific community," the idolect is still based on some sort of standard, 
be it ever so loosely configured; the dialect, in turn, is based likewise on 
either a self-contained, local standard, or a national ("with an army and a 
navy") standard. (I assume Prof. Powers quotes this aphorism for sake of 
brevity and/or humor. After all, everyone must be aware of the fact that 
martial might alone cannot be responsible for the lasting influence of e.g., 
Classical Greek over the millennia.) One cannot simply speak after any old 
fashion, willy nilly, and expect to be understood by anyone else.

Powers: 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.

 Kaminski: This is an excellent point, and I should like to elaborate 
further thereupon. First, in the case of adult learners of a foreign 
language, there can always be found a few who are learning their respective 
target languages as ends in themselves. Most often, though, the learner sees 
the language in question as a means to an extralinguistic end such as, to 
take a few examples, satisfying an academic requirement, getting a job in a 
foreign country, learning about the culture of the country where the language 
is spoken, etc.
 Second, and much more central to the topic under discussion, there is the 
case of children acquiring their respective native tongues. Here there is 
never any question of the child's seeing language acquisition as an end in 
itself. In fact it is self-evident that the child is not even aware of the 
fact of being in the process of learning a (first) language. When Prof. 
Powers says, "The process of language learning is more a process of 
conventionalization or socialization," he touches on the really central issue 
here, viz., the fact that a child learns his native tongue because it enables 
him to do what his elders can do as a consequence of their having language at 
their disposal. As Dr. Frank Smith puts it: 

 Every child learns to say, "Can I have another donut?" not in order 
to *say,* "Can I have another donut?" but in order to *get* another donut. 
The language learning is incidental, a by-product of the child's attempt 
to achieve some other end. The child wants to get another donut, and in 
the course of doing so learns how to ask for it. In fact, neither the 
child nor anyone else around is likely to be aware that language learning 
is taking place. (*Insult to Intelligence,* New York, Arbor Press, 1986. p. 
27.)

 I can hear many a reader cavil at this statement of the 'unawareness' of 
the language learning process in this context, as did I when I first read 
this passage. Having reared two children, I remember being *very* concious 
of the process when trying to get them to learn the 'right' way to say this 
or that word or phrase. On further reflection, however, I realized that, on 
any given day, this conciousness was present for only a small fraction of the 
day; for most of the time it was in the back of my mind. Had this not been 
so, it would have been impossible to function normally through that day.

 Now I shan't go so far as to assert that there is no merit in Prof. 
Powers' next statement: 

Powers: It is a negotiation in which caregivers, teachers and peers adapt 
their
language
as much as the learner adapts his!

 Kaminski: In light of my immediately preceding comments, however, I do 
say that, while it may be true in the short run that "...caregivers, teachers 
and peers adapt their language as much as the learner adapts his," in the 
long run, the child learns the (more or less) 'standard' language in the 
process of growing up.

Powers: "As much?" Well, it is not easily quantifiable! 

 Kaminski: I should say not!

Powers: 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.

 Kaminski: All well and good here.

Powers: 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.

 Kaminski: Again, there is no argument here.

Powers: 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.

 Kaminski: But here let us not misunderstand this to be the only, or even 
the primary, source of language evolution. I am sure Prof. Powers did not 
intend that anyone should draw this conclusion here, but conceivably, one 
could do just that.

Powers: 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.

 Kaminski: To my mind, the fact that linguists have yet to come up with 
objective criteria for determining just what does or does not constitute a 
'language' reflects on the need for further scientific advancement in this 
field, and not on the objective reality of the existence of languages. It 
must also be recognized that languages do not exist in a vacuum and that, 
like it or not, "political considerations" (*inter alia*) will continue to 
play quite a significant role in this business of language and languages. 

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.


Powers: 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.

 Kaminski: Here I am in full agreement.

>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.


Powers: 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: See above for observations on the extralinguistic motivation 
of children learning their respective native tongues. Here I simply reaffirm 
that these "many idolects" must conform to some sort of standard in order to 
make any sense to anyone.

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?

Powers: 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!

 Kaminski: So if "English is not a mental construct in any one 
individual," then the question remains, "How was it 'constructed'? And by 
whom?" "It is a vaguely defined notion." Defined...by whom? I am fully 
mindful of the linguist's number one injunction, that against being 
'prescriptive.' Nevertheless, who but the linguist can draw reasonably 
accurate conclusions about the signifigance of a given corpus under scrutiny? 
 There seems to be no way of completely avoiding this dilemma. 

> 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.


Powers: 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).

 Kaminski: One might call a "specific piece of music" a "tune," for sake 
of brevity. To be analogous to Prof. Gupta's statement, this would have to 
read something like this:
 "There are no tunes, only people performing music."
 Whether the musician plays a pre-existing tune or improvises a 
progression of notes on the spot, there most assuredly can be no validity in 
denying the existence of tunes in particular, while affirming the existence 
of music in general.
 As a matter of fact, this music analogy can be carried a step further. 
When a song is first popularized, it sounds a certain way, e.g., the key in 
which it is played, the instruments (if any), the voice of the singer (if 
there are any lyrics), the tempo, the beat; these are just a few of the 
factors which determine the exact sound of the song. Very often the song is 
subsequently redone ('covered' is the term used in the music industry) by 
other performing artists, each after his own fashion. Some songs end up 
being thus 'covered' by literally dozens of different performers over a long 
period of time. Each of these performances constitutes a new 'arrangement' 
of the song in question, yet there is no denying that all are performing the 
same basic tune. This is very much like the phenomenon of individual 
idiolects being spoken within the framework of a given language or dialect, 
as the case may be. Be there ever so much room for variation, this most 
assuredly has finite limits. No one would ever confuse English with 
Cantonese, just as no one would mistake "Get me to the Church on Time" for 
"Smells Like Teen Spirit!" 

 Now let us look at the letter by Prof. Larry Trask:

> In a message dated 2/16/00 7:07:07 PM Pacific Standard Time,
> linguistlinguistlist.org writes:
>
> 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.

Remarkable. Of course it is true that individual languages are not, in 
general,
like cut and polished diamonds, with hard, glittering edges. But it is going 
too
far to conclude that therefore individual languages do not exist at all.

Compare baseball. Before the 1850s, there was no set of agreed rules for 
playing
baseball. Instead, each town played the game with somewhat different rules 
from
every other town, and games between towns required a certain amount of 
negotiation
before they could be played. Only in the 1850s did a widely agreed set of 
rules
emerge.

The view above would therefore have us believe that, before the 1850s, at 
least,
no such game as baseball existed, but only people performing baseball and 
people
creating abstract notions of baseball. Is this plausible?

In fact, the National League and the American League play the game by slightly
different rules today. Should we therefore conclude that Major League 
Baseball
does not exist, at least as a game? Is the game no more than a fantasy born 
of
Commissioner Selig's fevered brow? ;-)

 This astute commentary by Prof. Trask is much to the point. I would 
attempt to expand thereupon, but I have been relieved of that task, by none 
other than Prof. Gupta herself, who responded to Prof. Trask thus:

This seems to relate to what "David
Powers <David.Powersflinders.edu.au> said in his posting -- that
many people were (wrongly) equating THE LANGUAGE with the formalised,
written, codified, ISO standard with its army and navy. The codified
rules of baseball (I'll take your word for it) came into being in
the 1850s but people were doing baseball before that (and presumably
to this day play baseball according to ad hoc and personal rules --
*idioludes*). There might even be a point where baseball and
rounders coalesce. If there is a new 2052 rule book will baseball
have ceased to 'exist'. Are baseball, rounders and cricket one game?
three? How many *dialudes* do they have? So is Larry Trask agreeing
with me (& David Powers) or disagreeing?

 Taken together, these two letters present us with a splendid analogy. 
Referring to Prof. Trask's letter first, we can liken his observation on the 
slight differences between National League and American League baseball rules 
unto the differences between the English of, say, a New Yorker and a 
Londoner. Once in a while they may not understand each other with perfect 
clarity, but both of them know that they are talking two dialects of the same 
language.
 Now let us address one of the questions posed in Prof. Gupta's response: 
"Are baseball, rounders and cricket one game? three?"
 I really don't know how similar cricket and rounders are, or are not, to 
one another. I do know that knowing how to play baseball does not qualify 
one as knowing how to play either of these other two games. This makes a 
very good comparison with the following scenario: Let us suppose that either 
our New Yorker or our Londoner suddenly found himself in Berlin or in 
Stockholm. Now just as baseball, cricket and rounders belong to the same 
'family' of games, as it were, so it is that English, German and Swedish are 
all Germanic languages. This fact would be of no help to our 
English-speaking traveller, just as no baseball champion could blithely step 
right into a cricket or rounders league and dominate the field. In each 
case, we see the difference between 1) Varieties of the same phenomena 
('dialects', 'dialudes') and 2) Phenomena which, while related, cannot be 
said to be the same thing.
 As for Prof. Gupta's last question, "So is Larry Trask agreeing with me 
(& David Powers) or disagreeing?" I think that a careful rereading of his 
letter in the present context will provide the answer.
 Let me restate my point just once more: Languages *do* exist. The fact 
that these things we call languages are hard to pin down does not relieve us 
of the responsiblity of acknowledging their existence. Allow me to make one 
more analogy. Think of all the different beards that exist on the faces of 
(most) of the men in this world. These beards exist, despite the fact that 
no one can quote an exact number of hairs required to constitute a beard. 
Imagine the debate: "I say it's 11,267!" "No, it's 13,594!" "Why, anybody 
can plainly see it only takes 9,821!" "Are you kidding? Nothing less than 
15,181 will do!" This would be pointless, as is painfully obvious. Yet we 
all know for certain that four hairs will *not* do it, and we are all just as 
certain that 40,000 hairs *will* do it. As with beards, so, too, with 
languages. The fact that idiolects, dialects and languages very often grade 
off into one another inconspicuously without enabling us to draw sharp lines 
of demarcation between them in no way contraindicates the fact of their 
existence. As for the 'construct'-equals-'non-existent' view, let me quote 
the latest posting on this topic:

...[T]urning 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. 
 
 This is from Dan Moonhawk Alford, Native American language expert, 
offering a similar view on this subject from a perspective very different 
from my own. Indeed, this passage bears some resemblance to the second 
portion of Prof. Cosper's letter, which is quoted above by Prof. Powers.
 In conclusion, let me say that this has been, and no doubt will continue 
to be, a most exhilarating debate. Thanks to the *Linguistlist* are once 
again in order, for allowing me to "get my two cents in." (It didn't even 
cost *that* much!)
 Cordially yours,


 Richard S. Kaminski
 <Nitti45aol.com> 
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