LINGUIST List 11.564

Tue Mar 14 2000

Disc: Species Extinction vs Language Extinction

Editor for this issue: Karen Milligan <>


  1. Jos� Luis Guijarro Morales, Re: 11.552, Disc: Species Extinction vs Language Distinction

Message 1: Re: 11.552, Disc: Species Extinction vs Language Distinction

Date: Mon, 13 Mar 2000 11:42:13 +0100
From: Jos� Luis Guijarro Morales <>
Subject: Re: 11.552, Disc: Species Extinction vs Language Distinction

Hola, buenas!

Here we go again. Nothing to do, though, with "Species Extinction vs
Language Distinction, I am afraid! But still...

Dan Moonhawk wrote:

>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.

JL: I'm sorry I can't follow you here. I have no idea as to HOW you can see
what's there and be content with that. I see (i.e., "discover") the sun
moving in the sky every day and I now know (or is it "project"?) that it is
the earth which is moving, although I don't feel (i.e., "discover") the wind
in my hair and a sense of speed which would be a "normal" (?) thing to feel.
I am simply unable not to "project" onto nature, though in my youth I
intended to discover The Way by trying the mystic approach of Yoga, Zen and
whathaveyou. I failed completely, I assure you: Therefore, I never tried it
again. Perhaps you have a new suggestion to make?

>DM: I see language andculture 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.

JL: OK, I have no quarrel with your mental representations; they are fine if
they make you happy and give you some kind of inner argument to behave and
go on living the way you have decided. As you remember, I jumped into this
"arena", not because I wanted to make you change YOUR mind, but because you
wanted to heal us, chomskyans, from our ways of thinking about language.
What I tried to show was that some of us don't feel ill or otherwise insane;
that we have OUR reasons to think the way we do, and so on. 

I am also sure that "pre-chomskyan greats" were fine, and had their own
reasons to think they way they did. In my profession, as you can see
underneath my signature, I am considered a "man of LETTERS" (I think you
call it "Arts" in the US) and not a scientist (i.e., I don't "project" laws
on the Physical or Chemical reality of nature).This has always buggered me
up! I think science is not a question of "topic"; Rather, it is a way of
thinking about things. In the "Humanities" (Letters or Arts) you can always
go back to Plato, Aristotle and even farther to construct your
representational castles and be content with that. But I can't think of any
serious discussion in Astronomy, Physics, Chemistry, Biology, etc. where the
ideas of such "great pre-decessors" are given a thought, slight as it may!
In he Humanities, we go on interpreting, i.e., putting ideas together with
no real constraints on them. You can build whatever you want, and if other
people are not happy with your mental castle, they can invent their own.
There is never a clear line which shows a direction forward in this kind of
thinking. What you get is more representations (more bricks, as it were) to
build your personal mental castle, but never a sensible plan as how to do it. 

In the scientific mode of thought, we have tried to put heavy constraints on
interpretation. Not all representations are useful; only those which have
some reality out there to which we can point out in one way or another
(Chomsky called it ages ago, the constraint of observational adequacy); we
then have to find a way to describe them in a clear manner (descriptional
adequacy), and explain their functioning so as to be able to reproduce it
(explanatory adequacy). It is by reproducing it that we can prove whether it
works the way we thought it did or not. If it does, we advance a step
forward in our knowledge (nobody can say that the sun circles around the
earth nowadays without being considered a joker or a lunatic); if it doesn't
we have falsified our hypothesis and we have to start again until we
succeed. Is this a reductionist way of knowing, as you say it is? Well, it's
your representation. But it is not mine and, as long as I can, I shall try
to stick to it, even if it sometimes terribly difficult to do so and one is
tempted to fall back into non-constrained interpretations which are a lot
more comfortable and easy to come by. 

>DM: We lose an important human, grounded connectedness when we do >that, no
matter how expedient it may seem at the time.

JL: We gain accurate and precise ways of thinking which, among other things,
would make clear what "an important, grounded connectedness" really amounts
to "out there", in the wild, as it were. Not in your mind, where I can't
enter, even if I try to. This is exactly the sort of representations that
get my students a bad mark when they let them percolate in their essays and
exams. Not because I am AGAINST them as such, mind you. But because I don't
understand them, and so I can't value them. And (to be frank) because I am
on the right side of the situation too!

>DM: And yes, I agree -- shall we discuss what reality is?

JL: I suppose I have discussed it a little in the preceding paragraphs. If
you are not content, we may want o do so next time, although this is going
very far way from language extinction, don't you think?

>DM: Yes, with "language" being the formal stranger-talk explicit level,
>corresponding to Piaget's formal operations level of thinking, which
>animals do not have.

JL: Just a question. Can you explain to me what is the interpretation of the
word FORMAL which you want me to accept? It seems to me that this one word,
"formal" points to different interpretations in our two minds. Let me tell
you what the interpretation in my mind is by quoting Edwin Hutchins (1995)
_Cognition in the Wild_, the MIT Press:

"The idea of a formal system is that there is some world of phenomena, and
some way to encode the phenomena as symbols. The symbols are manipulated by
references to their form only. We do not interpret the meanings of the
symbols while they are being manipulated. The manipulation of the symbols
results in some other symbolic expression. Finally, we may interpret a newly
created string of symbols as meaning something about the world of phenomena.
(...) If we built the right formal system, we could now describe states of
affairs in the world that would have been impossible or impractical to
observe directly.(...) I consider mastery of formal systems to be the key to
modern civilization. This is a very, very powerful idea" (pp. 359-360). 

Does this idea seem irrational to you? If we are able to describe ANYTHING
in that way, what is the problem for you? The problem for me is, precisely,
that we still have difficulties in doing that sort of encodings. However, a
"difficulty" is not an "impossibility"; we are trying to ADVANCE in that
line. You can't laugh at our efforts if we haven't reached ALL the answers
yet. Give us time, man. Or better, give a hand and we will achieve results
in a shorter time.

>DM: 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.

JL: That's the point! You should give us a hand and try to "formalise"
(i.e., make the phenomenon understandable and manipulable) all these
otherwise vague ideas and representations of yours.

>DM: 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

JL: You can do whatever you think is worth it. Even give old names to new
representations of yours. The only think I am asking again is that you try
to EXPLAIN things (i.e, put such strong constraints on your interpretations)
so that we can profitably know what you mean by them. I warn you, it is a
simple petition, but a very very hard one to obtain.

>DM: I agree that's a shocker, but I think we need a wider notion of culture,
>trans-human, just as for language. Plenty of research 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.

JL: I agree. Naming is not understanding. Naming is taking a pointer. Now
you have to be able to point it to some place. That's the level of
OBSERVATIONAL adequacy. Are you pointing it towards the things snakes
acquire?/learn? from the environment?/their own folk?... what? How do you
DESCRIBE culture then? A drive?/a disposition? And, above all, how are you
going to EXPLAIN its existence? Chance?/evolutive plan?... which? ... and
(the big question) WHY?

>DM: 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. 

JL: You see how dangerous it is to rely only on pointers, without directing
them to some place or other? I wouldn't say there is a (gut-feeling) MEANING
on those occasions. For me, there is an INTERPRETATION of premises, those
you expressed above: (1) a pair of fangs /a naked knife (2) coming directly
at some part of my body. Conclusion: scram!. What if the premises would have
been: (1) a pair of fangs /a naked knife (2) Natural History class / Piece
of ham on the kitchen table? A different MEANING (in your terms) or a
different INTERPRETATION (in mine)? You decide which pointer is better
pointed to "reality". The same with body language, of course (except,
perhaps, for inborn codified signals or, even, imprinted after birth). 

>DM: (...) 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

JL: We are again pointing at different places with the same pointers. It is
natural that if you think body language (& al) do have meaning it should
have a syntax (i.e., a structured way of being codified). But if you were
pointing to the interpretation place with your pointer, you wouldn't need a
codified syntax as urgently as you imply. You could MAKE SENSE of a lot of
things by using inferencing rules only. In any case, the distinction between
coded and inferred elements is not totally clear to me yet. It needs a lot
more thinking and devising models that act in one way or the other and,
above all, that change one into the other. This is perhaps the way evolution
of language could be explained in an interesting way.

>DM: (...) PEOPLE, not abstract projections, are the center of study for

JL: Are you an artist? Are you a mystic? I know of no other way to approach
reality with a "subjective" attitude (i.e., where the the subject is in
direct contact with reality) than those two possibilities. In every other
approach, we need an abstract projection (i.e., an object --a mental
representation. That's why we call it "objective") in order to handle it.
You have a representation of PEOPLE which is not "people" at large. You can
use this representation in your head to make it "the centre of study" and
you can try to make it manifest to other people in communicating your mental
constructions with it. You could not do these, or indeed any other, things
with "people" at large.

>DM: 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.

JL: What do you call the classical form/meaning balance? Switch back to my
quote of Hutchins if you don't understand this question.

>DM: 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. 

JL: But it isn't! I tried to show that your only English word "language"
points to three places at least which in Spanish have a different pointer
for each (our privilege!). Nobody discusses that Kanzi or, as a matter of
fact, Quino, my wee black dog, have some way of representing reality
(language/LENGUAJE) which can be further represented publicly in
communication. What they don't have is language/LENGUA which is our
species-specific way to organize some of our mental representations in
chunks that can be made manifest to others; nor do they have
language/IDIOMA, which are, among others, the language of God, Spanish, of
course, or any other human language, such as English, for example.

DM: 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

JL: I agree. But in the frame of my three-term representation of language. 

I suppose I did not change any of your mental representations on these
topics, though. But still, I enjoy debating. Thanks for your time!


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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