LINGUIST List 11.488

Tue Mar 7 2000

Disc: Species Extinction vs Language Extinction

Editor for this issue: Karen Milligan <>


  1. Jos� Luis Guijarro Morales, Re: 11.469, Disc: Species Extinction vs Language Distinction
  2. Dan Moonhawk Alford, Language/Species extinction: what is language?

Message 1: Re: 11.469, Disc: Species Extinction vs Language Distinction

Date: Mon, 06 Mar 2000 12:19:36 +0100
From: Jos� Luis Guijarro Morales <>
Subject: Re: 11.469, Disc: Species Extinction vs Language Distinction

At 01:24 6/03/00 -0000, A.F. GUPTA wrote:

>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


Hello, there!

I have just joined the LINGUIST list and have been interested by this
particular statement about "language and "A language". It is a pity that
where English speaking folks have only one word, i.e., "language", French
have two, "langue" and "langage", and we Spaniards have three, namely,
"idioma", "lengua" and "lenguaje". For, if Jerry Fodor was right when he
said that "what is wrong is that we do not make the necessary distinctions",
it then becomes apparent that there must be something VERY wrong with this
just one term for English speaking linguists which may cover, not two
realities (what is a reality?), as it is implied above, but even three! To
tell you the truth (and to avoid unnecessary boasting) in Spanish "idioma"
and "lengua" are almost synonymous. I had to write a whole essay to make the
distinction between one and the other acceptable --though I don't know if I
succeeded!. But still, in Spanish one is able to distinguish clearly between
the "lenguaje" of animals, the sign "lenguaje", the "lenguaje" of the mind,
or the PROLOG "lenguaje",etc. which cannot be "lengua" or "idioma" in that
context in non marked situations. I further tried to distinguish "lengua" as
the one defined by some kind of universal grammar or other (i.e., one in
which parameters are not yet fixed and which is therefore a human species
attribute) and "idioma" as the linguistic faculty we have imprinted from our
cultural surroundings, i.e., the "idioma" of the English, the Spanish
"idioma". As I said before, this last distinction is not generally accepted
in Spanish which tends to use "idioma" and "lengua" in almost the same contexts.

According to my view of the matter, then, neither "lenguaje" nor "lengua"
are in danger of disappearing, at least until some horrid bomb or an great
sized asteroid destroys the living beings now in possession of some kind of
representational power in their minds (in the case of "lenguaje") or with
the human race (in the case of "lengua"). What is indeed in the process of
changing all the time, though, is the collection of "idiomas" we have now in
the world. Some of them may disappear shortly, others, as the Basque, may
have a political motivation to make them important for some people and defer
their disappearance. Others, spoken by a vast quantity of people are surely
changing in different parts of the world and may one day become new
"idiomas" (as it happened with Latin and the Romance languages).

"One has to make the necessary distinctions..."


Universidad de C�diz
Facultad de Filosof�a y Letras
Departamento de Filolog�a Francesa e Inglesa
G�mez Ulla, 1
11003 C�diz, Espa�a (Spain) 
Tlf. (34) 956.015.526
Fax. (34) 956.015.501 
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Message 2: Language/Species extinction: what is language?

Date: Mon, 6 Mar 2000 13:04:59 -0800 (PST)
From: Dan Moonhawk Alford <>
Subject: Language/Species extinction: what is language?

Since for most linguists LANGUAGE means irrevokably HUMAN LANGUAGE, which
is characterized by *production* of formal syntax used to speak with
strangers (maximally comprehensible), perhaps Anthea Gupta will not object
too much if I insert the longer form for the abbreviated one in her

<<I think we shouldn't forget that HUMAN LANGUAGE and A HUMAN LANGUAGE are
two very different concepts. I would argue that HUMAN LANGUAGE has a much
stronger external identity than A HUMAN LANGUAGE, and that indeed as
linguists we are relatively agreed on what constitutes HUMAN LANGUAGE.>>

So far so good for the sense of what Anthea meant, it seems to me. And
although I agree that linguists are relatively agreed on what constitutes
HUMAN LANGUAGE, I am not one such who agrees -- to which I will return for
the why. Anthea continues (with my fuller phrase equivalents):

<<(disagreements about whether, for example, chimpanzees who have been
taught a symbolic system have HUMAN LANGUAGE tend to focus on whether what
the chimpanzees are doing is HUMAN LANGUAGE rather than on competing
definitions of HUMAN LANGUAGE[)]. HUMAN LANGUAGE is in no danger of
becoming extinct!>>

I certainly agree with the last part; just as the similar abstraction of
SPECIES, which are equally in no danger. 

But what's this about whether chimps are doing HUMAN LANGUAGE, meaning the
production of formal rules? Is that really what researchers are looking
for? If so, it's ridiculous on the face of it. Are the symbolic systems
which the chimps are taught in any way equivalent to the dynamic
language/culture complexes we call A HUMAN LANGUAGE? No. They're not used
by their researchers, for instance, for their daily talk, for thinking in
and reporting the thinking in, etc. These symbolic systems are constructed
by individuals for something other than cultural talk among adult humans,
just as surely as was Klingon.

And HOW were they constructed? Using lots of nouns and overt copulas for
the most part (and excluding ASL). But this just shows the IE-centric, or
nomininophili-centric, bias going into the experiment -- the "already
listening" of the researchers, not knowing there might be alternatives at
this level which might elicit better results.

Take, for instance, the possibility of human languages that have no overt
copula and its speakers can "talk all day and never utter a single
noun" (see Whorf, LTR, p. 243, English vs. Nootka, where we have 3 NPs and
one verb in English, vs. 3 verbs and lots of infixes for Nootka). 

No chimp experiments that I know of have constructed a symbolic system
around an affix and verb-only scheme. And look at it this way: we all
agree that Native Americans are as a whole closer to Nature than we are.
So if we allow the possibility that their languages are also closer to
Nature, their verby perceptions may be closer to that of chimps as well,
and something based on such a scheme might have surprising results -- just
as in experiments where chimps are taught ASL instead of tokens or

It seems to me that it takes a lateralized left-hemisphere for us to be
able to articulate 10 times faster than other animals and to be able to
produce the amazing syntactic gyrations we do in formal stranger-talk. But
that's not what we're looking for in the chimp experiments, is it? Looking
to see whether chimps with unlateralized cortexes can do what a human's
lateralized left-hemisphere can? That would be silly.

What are we looking for, then -- something more like what our young
children can do? But Larry Trask [previous communication on another list] 
and many others argue that this level, whatever it might be called, no
longer fits the criteria of (FORMAL) HUMAN LANGUAGE, calling this
PROTO-LANGUAGE (or,expanding it, PROTO-HUMAN-LANGUAGE). So we're not
looking to see whether chimps have (HUMAN) LANGUAGE at all, but whether

So if there is agreement among linguists that kids who cannot yet produce
the dialect (or register, etc.) of formal stranger-talk are not yet
speaking HUMAN LANGUAGE, then there is an agreement about what HUMAN
LANGUAGE is, based on the production of form.

But HUMAN LANUAGE users always comprehend far more than they can produce.
Is this true of chimps? You betcha! Just watch Kanzi in the kitchen with
Sue Savage-Rumbaugh to see complete comprehension of things Sue was
telling Kanzi to do in what we call "simple English," a nice alternative
to PROTO-(HUMAN)-LANGUAGE: take this potato over to the sink and wash it;
you forgot to turn the water off, etc. And were these "just words"? NO!
There were emotional tunes flowing through the words, animating them for
comprehension; there were gestures incorporated as an integral part of the
speaking as well, adding to the comprehension by Kanzi, just as with our
own children. Sue counts on Kanzi understanding emotions and bodily
gestures and facial expressions, probably because we share evoltionarily
similar brains to a point. Emotions and gestures can either reinforce or
substantially change the intended and perceived meaning, as when "He's a
swell guy!" is said sarcastically or followed by a finger circling around
the side of the head indicating "crazy." In our daily lives we depend on
these simultaneous meaning forms WHICH DO NOT SHOW UP IN NORMAL WRITING to
get the "correct" meaning.

But we exclude these crucial meaning forms, mostly, in linguistics, in
favor of production of verbal forms. I conclude that this discipline's
corrent definition of HUMAN LANGUAGE is unbalanced -- that it favor form
over meaning instead of achieving a more harmonious balance. The same
meaning systems which are excluded for our children, emotional tunes and
body language, similarly exclude chimps and other animals from having

A more balanced approach, admittedly ecological and transpersonal, would
say that LANGUAGE is a balancing of meaning and form, showing up in body
language, in the language of emotional noises/tunes, in the simplified and
often idiomatic language we use with friends, children and pets, and
finally in the more formal structures reserved for stranger-talk. All four
of them together, for me, characterize the fullness of HUMAN LANGUAGE or
even A HUMAN LANGUAGE, while chimps and kids have only the first three
languages, not the formal; reptiles only have the first one, etc.

Finally, in this way LANGUAGE is no longer shorthand for HUMAN LANGUAGE,
the latter actually being a composite of four LANGUAGES; LANGUAGE is
instead shorthand for LANGUAGE/CULTURE DYNAMIC, healing the Chomskyan
division between language and culture (where culture was then thrown away
to make language autonomous). Even snakes have a culture of body language,
"knowing" what certain postures "mean" -- a form/meaning system. We do too
- it's just that this and other levels cannot be judged syntactically by
the kind of syntax used on the formal level; each level obeys its own kind
of syntax, which we must discover.

Right now, as a species, we are committing linguicide and ecocide on our
Earth Mother. The same actions which rape the land and gobble up rain
forests destroy that which supported words and stories in indigenous
languages there. We have a chance to redefine LANGUAGE in a way that is
inclusive of other life on Earth, perhaps healing an even older division
between us and our animal ancestors.

Will linguistics ever turn green -- or stay colorless, sleeping furiously?

warm regards, moonhawk
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