LINGUIST List 11.552

Sun Mar 12 2000

Disc: Species Extinction vs Language Distinction

Editor for this issue: Karen Milligan <>


  1. Dan Moonhawk Alford, Re: 11.512, Disc: Species Extinction vs Language Extinction

Message 1: Re: 11.512, Disc: Species Extinction vs Language Extinction

Date: Sun, 12 Mar 2000 17:59:43 -0800 (PST)
From: Dan Moonhawk Alford <>
Subject: Re: 11.512, Disc: Species Extinction vs Language Extinction

> From: Jos� Luis Guijarro Morales <>

> 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.

Perhaps clarity and explicitness is an enemy when it leads to imbalance --
more like projecting onto Nature rather than discovering what's there, and
then acting as if those projections are the reality. I see language and
culture as two sides of the same dynamic complementarity, as did many of
the pre-Chomskyan greats in our field, with nothing good to be gained by
sundering their connection. We lose an important human, grounded
connectedness when we do that, no matter how expedient it may seem at the

And yes, I agree -- shall we discuss what reality is? 
> For Chomsky (and for many other linguists who apparently, according to
> green Moonhawk, are colourless), language is an inborn repesentational
> device. Period. 

Yes, with "language" being the formal stranger-talk explicit level,
corresponding to Piaget's formal operations level of thinking, which
animals do not have. It's no accident that what counts as language is
easily written down; whereas other forms of meaning which are crucial to
the overall meaning in face-to-face communication, such as accompanying
tones and gestures, are NOT language, are "para-linguistic" because of
this philological bias.

> 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.

It was what I hoped was a witty way of playing on Chomsky to suggest that
there are ways of defining language that are inclusive of animals and our
own developmental as well as evolutionary past. Must I create another name
for it, such as *biolanguage*, instead of simply asking people to consider
the implications of widening the term language, and seeing human language
as a special, all-inclusive form of it? Or *dialanguage* would invoke the
synchronic/diachronic frame, the latter of which has been largely ignored,
and this could help fill in evolutionarily how much we actually knew and
could do before hemispheric lateralization magically made complex grammar
> 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
> discover".
> �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. 

I agree that's a shocker, but I think we need a wider notion of culture,
trans-human, just as for language. Plenty of reseach shows that animals
specifically learn to do some things like each other locally, and then
there's that "instinct" word we use for the rest, as if naming it means we
understand it.

> Do snakes "know the meaning" of postures? Or do they "interpret" them?
> What is the difference between "meaning" and "interpreting"?

There's a direct gut-feeling meaning when a pair of fangs or a naked knife
are coming directly at some part of your body. Body language has its own
meaning. Translating is a task for the hemispheres, but the reptilian
brain won't wait for that, and will wordlessly fill you with adrenalin so
you can get the hell away from what you will at some point translate as

> What is a level "judged syntactically", for God's sake?

Sorry -- my jumbled way of saying that body language has its own kind of
syntax, of well-formed sequences; that emotional tones and tunes have
their own kind of syntax; that even the idiomatic and formulaic forms of
"simple English" -- which crash syntactic machinery -- have their own,
larger-chunked kind of syntax; and that the very word "syntax" should be
loosened up to mean more than just the fine-grained syntax of the formal,
written level. I'm saying we can't use formal syntax to see whether these
other levels have it -- they don't! But they have a different kind of
syntax we will not discover if we use formal syntax as our only lens of

> 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.

My experience is obviously different from yours. I got the full Chomskyan
training at UCLA in its Ladefoged/Stockwell/Fromkin days, went to Montana
singing its praises, and then ran head-on into the Cheyenne language --
and began discovering another way of conceiving of language that better
fit the indigenous languages, since Chomsky's model wasn't helping me
understand how they worked.

> 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. 

Yes, while PEOPLE, not abstract projections, are the center of study for

> 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:
> thatthatisisthatthatisnotisnotthatthatisisnotthatthatisnotnoristhatthatisnot
> thtatthatisisthatit

[snip discussion, which somehow assumed that I want to get rid of the
formal syntax level, which I don't -- I just want to put it in its place
as a way of regaining a more classical form/meaning balance.]
> 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.

My point is simply that with our current definition of language, Kanzi's
actions in the kitchen with Sue Savage-Rumbaugh, understanding her simple
spoken English, are anathema -- language means human-only language, and
there is no evolutionary explanation for Kanzi comprehending language this
way. Kanzi understands through gesture, emotional tunes, and simple words,
just as our children do, because we share evolutionary brains and much
neural structure. I totally agree that the Chomskyan algorithms have
nothing to do with Kanzi's understanding English, but I do wonder what
does make it possible, and I do think it has something crucial to do with 

> [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].

Thanks for the reference.

warm regards, moonhawk
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