LINGUIST List 11.512

Thu Mar 9 2000

Disc: Species Extinction vs Language Extinction

Editor for this issue: Karen Milligan <>


  1. Jos� Luis Guijarro Morales, Re: 11.488, Disc: Species Extinction vs Language Extinction

Message 1: Re: 11.488, Disc: Species Extinction vs Language Extinction

Date: Tue, 07 Mar 2000 19:28:33 +0100
From: Jos� Luis Guijarro Morales <>
Subject: Re: 11.488, Disc: Species Extinction vs Language Extinction


I was not going to get involved in this discussion (except for my idea that
there might be a lot more than one concept associated to the English word
"language"), but this passage of Dan Moonhawk's message changed my mind:

Dan Moonhawk said that his conceptual (linguistic) suggestion should be
adopted, thereby

..." healing the chomskyan division between language and culture (where
culture was then thrown away to make language autonomous)".

There is nothing to heal about a personal decision in studying one aspect of
reality (although I asked the other day, and I ask today again, what IS
reality?, it does not crucially matter here) as long as one is able to point
to this aspect in a clear and explicit way as Chomsky has done. If I want to
study the AIDS virus, I may do so without being insane --especially if I
make interesting generalizations about how viruses operate. It wouldn't be
proper, now, would it, if some people accused me of not studying the TB
bacillus, or any other germs at large.

The popular insistence on Chomky doing something which one favours (I, for
one, would have liked him to explain windsurfing in Alaska, although I have
the good sense of not asking publicly that he should do so) is what needs
urgent and strong treatment.

For Chomsky (and for many other linguists who apparently, according to green
Moonhawk, are colourless), language is an inborn repesentational device.
Period. Now, of course, if one re-presents (i.e., presents again) something
from the "outside" (whatever that means) in our mind, it is certain that if
will show something of the surrounding environment. And if this environment
is culture-shaped (whatever that means), well, there you are, you can get
your culturally-coloured representations at almost the same cost.

As you have noticed, I use a lot of "whatever that means's" in my
descriptions. I do not really know what the words I use ("reality",
"outside", "culture", and so on) mean for everybody concerned. I use them
very loosely hoping that they will fit somehow. Lots of people, however, use
them thinking that we all share the same meanings. For instance, look at the
next assertion from Moonhawk:

" 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

�Snakes have a "culture"? Not in MY sense of culture, I can assure you. I
would need this term to be well described in order for me to understand what
is meant by that sentence. Do snakes "know the meaning" of postures? Or do
they "interpret" them? What is the difference between "meaning" and
"interpreting"? What is a level "judged syntactically", for God's sake?

There is a big misunderstanding here (not only in Moonhawk, but in many, too
many!, other linguists). What Chomsky taught some of us to do was to
describe how the human linguistic (in Spanish, "lengua") device operates. He
used a sort of algorithm for it (the so-called syntactic rules). Naturally,
if he were less fussy, he could have used any other muddled terminology and
some people would have thought, I am sure, that it was "clearer" for them,
when in fact, it would have been non explicit for everybody concerned.

Now, naturally, if you describe something (i.e., in this case, the human
linguistic device) in an algorithmic sort of way, this algorithm IS the most
important thing IN THAT kind of description. Therefore, and in more or less
this sense, is syntax for chomskyans the centre of study. It is all very
well to talk about emotional tones, gestures and body postures, but you will
only be able to analyze (and therefore, decode, and therefore interpret) the
following string if you do it decomposing it in algorithmic steps:


Let us do it first in "words" (which is an algorithmic, i.e., syntactic unit
of some sort):

that that is is that that is not is not that that is is not that that is not
nor is that that is not that that is is that it

But this doesn't suffice! So much for people who believe that the meaning of
words is the "essential" part in analyzing an expression. We need further
algorithmic analysis. And once you hear it pronounced, or see it written
with its commas, semicolons, and stops, you immediately analyze it and will
be able to repeat it again any time you like. But do try it now, without the
benefit of further analysis!

That that is, is; that that is not, is not. That that is is not that that is
not, nor is that that is not that that is. Is that it?

Now you can repeat it!

[NOTA BENE: the mental process involved in parsing is of course the other
way around: first the biggest chunks get separated, and only at last one
becomes aware of words. However, this does not really matter in the above

Chosmky is not interested in how you use this "meaning" (syntactic analysis)
for communicating with our fellow human beings or animals or green leaves.
This has to be studied by someone else with these interests. For instance,
perhaps Moonhawk would have a try? Great! I will, on my part, try to
understand what he proposes if he does indeed attempt it. And that's a promise.

[In any case, if you want to read something on this topic before you start
inventing dynamite, why not try Sperber, Dan & Deirdre Wilson (1986/1995)
_Relevance. Communication and Cognition_ Oxford, Blackwell, who achieved a
brilliant success in explaining human communication with their framework
using chomskyan ideas on language (i.e., "lengua") as a base?

Moreover, Dan Sperber (1998) has another wonderful book _Explaining Culture_
which could also help us start from somewhere quite far away from scratch].

Go ahead and try it!


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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