LINGUIST List 6.111

Wed 25 Jan 1995

Disc: Language and Species

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  1. Ecological Linguistics,Anderson,PAS, Conversations among birds dogs
  2. , Re: 6.88 Language and species

Message 1: Conversations among birds dogs

Date: 24 Jan 95 17:40 GMT
From: Ecological Linguistics,Anderson,PAS <ECOLINGAppleLink.Apple.COM>
Subject: Conversations among birds dogs

The discussion of whether other species have "language" is very much like other
discussion we are seeing currently. That is, if treated as an attempt to
answer such a question definitively, we can fight about it forever with little

Rather, the obvious answer is:

a) other species have something more like language than some of us have wanted
to admit for whom defining our "uniqueness" or specialness seems to be

b) other species have perhaps less of what we call language than some of us
have wanted to admit for whom proving the specialness of some particular simian
species is important

The experience in the history of science does I think show that the second
error is less serious than the first. That is, the first error
(overemphasizing our definitional uniqueness) tends to discourage, even block
and close down research. The second error leads to too much publicity with
less than full backup in facts. But at least it is more likely to lead to
accumulating more facts. Keep questioning those who claim it, to get them to
produce more!

The hardest part of this is that the way we ask our questions about "what is
language" are partly based on our scientific findings about language, *but only
partly*. As in any other field, there is a purely conventional component which
develops also, and can block new insights.

For those who wish to follow up on this, I would strongly recommend a book

The Human Nature of Birds
by Theodore Xenophon Barber
St. Martin's Press

(out on loan or I would give you the ISBN number)

This book surveys many years of research and case studies.
It has several sections which are bedtime reading, stories of particular
interactions, esp. chapters 5 and 8.
It has extensive reference to the literature.
It is sometimes a bit preachy, but given the topic one can certainly forgive
the author.

Perhaps the most interesting point for our discussion may be the author's
attempt to trace back the injunction

"Though shalt not anthropomorphize"

to the attacks on Darwin from a religious basis, not to any truly scientific
principles. In other words, one must anthropomorphize in order to gain insight
and discover supporting facts. More, I would add: one must anthropomorphize,
but using all the skills an anthropologist may ideally develop for not being
ethnocentric, for not assuming that the meanings of acts or communications are
"obvious". Especially cross-species. What is the interpretation for example
of Orcas marking the spot where the Sun will first strike the land each day?
Religion? Play? Certainly they are intelligent.

As an antidote to the injunctions against anthropomorphizing, note the

(1) One cannot study "conversations", if such there be among birds for
example, by large statistical studies and averaging. Imagine an "averaging" of
human speech across long discourses? The result is mere noise.

(2) One cannot study communicative intelligence without studying individual
personality differences. Again large "statistically valid" studies have no
hope of discovering the most important clues in individual conversations.

On the whole, our learning how to communicate with other species is almost
certainly at this time limited more by our abilities to get outside our own
skins than by theirs.

A couple of summaries from the book:
Birds are more intelligent than we are in navigation, and think faster than we
do (understandable!). Their music has the same esthetic as ours, in that it
has repetitions, variations, even inversions, etc. etc. There are enormous
differences in individual musical talent. Single birds will apprentice
themselves to skilled masters. In any given year, perhaps 90% of some species
will be singing the chic new song of the year, 10% will still be singing last
year's. The most salient difference in music is that Birds have a ten times
more rapid resolution ability than we do, so theirs needs to be slowed down by
a factor of ten for us to receive it easily.

A second book is perhaps better known via talk shows, but it raises other
issues of cross-species understanding.

The Hidden Life of Dogs (or The Inner Life ...? again out on loan),
by Elizabeth Marshall Thomas (I think), an anthropologist who treated them
somewhat as she would another group of human beings.
One salient contrast, that dogs use chemical communication more than we do, is
not surprising, but what does it do for attempts to compare us and them?
Stretch our minds some, I certainly hope. Find new questions to ask.

Since there is no real boundary between popular and scientific, nor between
case studies and statistical cross sections, only a continuum and mixture on
each dimension, I hope no one will be offended by my recommending these two
Recommending them does not indicate any less of a desire on my part to see more
evidence of simian skills than we so far have. Such evidence is probably going
to be accumulated mostly by people who take a positive attitude towards the
capabilities of other species, probably not as much by those who emotionally
want to deny the possibility. But biases in either direction can still lead to
discoveries and better science, as long as they truly converse with each other.

Personally, I want to see more cross-species understanding because it may
contribute to a more sensitive and responsible treatment of the earth and of
nature, to less selfishness and destructiveness by the human species. Like
empathy of any other kind even between members of the same species.

Lloyd Anderson
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Message 2: Re: 6.88 Language and species

Date: Wed, 25 Jan 1995 09:03:30 Re: 6.88 Language and species
From: <>
Subject: Re: 6.88 Language and species

Content-Length: 6593

David Pesetsky defends various linguist-writers against the charge that the
oft-made claim for the uniqueness of "language" to the human species was an
a priori one:

)But I see no reason to believe that these were "a priori" assertions.
)They presumably arose from the informal observation that no
)non-human animal naturally displays something that looks like
)human language (e.g. as presented in the Fromkin & Rodman textbook).
)The assertion may turn out to be wrong, like many assertions based on
)informal observation, but it is by no means a priori.

This defense is quite implausible to me---without taking it too literally,
I seriously doubt that Bolinger, Fromkin, Rodman, et al. made *any*
observations even *intended* to describe the communication systems of a
modest sample of the animals believed to e most "intelligent" at the time
they were writing (much less *adequate* to make the determination in
question). If Pesetsky intends "observations by other than the authors",
where are the citations (of even broad, popularized work) where such
observations or findings were made? Did those authors in fact read such?

I rather suspect that the claim is like the wilder "Eskimo snow" claims in
that it gets made largely without much thought and without evidence as a
result of simply parroting what others have written and said. I say this,
however, without claiming that it is also false---it might be a true myth.

Think for a moment about what *would* be necessary to support the claim.
Though very few who make it have consciously (much less explicitly and
publicly) laid out a set of criteria for a communication system to be a
language, let's simplify and suppose that minimally there must be a fair
degree of openness achieved by structured combination of elements ("syntax"
perhaps) and that there are also some message-content requirements (e.g.
displacement). I hasten to point out that I assume that both the makers of
such claims and those who might dispute it (such as Savage-Rumbaugh) do not
intend it to be tautological ("language is a system of communication used
by humans..."); a decent heuristic might be to ask what we would expect of
a system used by previously unknown non-human extra-terrestrials in order
that it be called "a language".

To determine that a given system of communication is NOT a language, then,
one has to determine some things about its formal structure and also about
its semantics/pragmatics. Neither is trivial for many animals.

Apart from the logistics of observation, determination of the formal
structure in the absence of semantic information can be *very* difficult.
I am not aware of any adult human language which has been partially
analyzed (to a nontrivial degree) this way---i.e. in terms of the
distribution of *objectively* characterizable formal elements in natural
speech. Note that even phonological analysis relies on the semantic
information of contrast and that one cannot presume word boundaries or even
sentence boundaries.

When one comes to the semantics, there are lots of problems that linguists
typically don't think about. For example, any formal element whose meaning
includes displacement (or more generally, *any* fairly abstract meaning)
will be intrinsically difficult to recognize as such, simply because the
"search space" (for the observable behavior that points to meaning) is so
large. The result is an *intrinsic* sample bias in semantic analysis:
concrete meanings are more likely to be *discovered* than are more abstract
ones, relative to their actual frequency of occurrence. In addition to
abstract meanings in the more obvious sense, meanings which concern
internal states (e.g. "emotions") can be difficult to discern if one
doesn't experience those states or similar ones. In the real world, of
course, identifying even very concrete, non-displaced meanings often
requires sophisticated knowledge of the species in question's general
behavior, ecology, etc. In fact, I suspect most specialists in the study
of communication in more complex species would assert that knowledge of
*individuals* is often a prerequisite.

The blinders that we linguists tend to have is that we have spent our
careers studying (parts of) the communication systems of beings who are in
many ways almost identical to ourselves and so we can get away with
*assuming* a lot, especially about semantics and pragmatics. Many of those
assumptions are unconscious and not easy to see even when we try. Faced
with beings who are *not* just like us, we drop those assumptions and
ascribe the consequently weaker conclusions we draw to differences in the
communication systems. In fact, some part is due to that and some is due
to the absence of the assumptions. There really is a Catch-22 here: the
assumptions we use in interpreting human communications are not valid in
studying other species, but omission of those assumptions---or, rather, of
the equivalent assumptions appropriate to the species we are
studying---renders the results of our investigations of human and non-human
systems non-comparable. Kinda like comparing a Federal Reserve Board
analysis of the U.S. economy with a Geertzian ethnologist's analysis of the
Swedish economy. This dilemma is perhaps clearer if "reversed": imagine
studying human language, even child language, using identical methods to
those used (or advocated!) for the study of other species. Much that is
pretty uncontroversial would become quite elusive, especially if we didn't
already know the answers. Arguably, many linguists insist that other
species must be studied using just the methods that Chomsky criticized in
his review of _Verbal Behavior_. None of this disproves the uniqueness
claim. But it is misleading and undermines our credibility to present what
is mostly a hunch as a demonstrated research result.

As linguists, we are all too aware that colleagues in other disciplines
often do not share our appreciation of the complexity and subtlety of
language and its systematic study.
On the other hand, it is unfortunate when respectable linguists make strong
claims about other areas which they have neither investigated nor made an
earnest effort to read first-hand work in or consult with serious
researchers in. A good rule-of-thumb is that when non-specialists make
stronger claims than do specialists in a particular domain, the skeptical
eye should at least be opened.

Larry Gorbet
Anthropology & Linguistics Depts. (505) 883-7378
University of New Mexico
Albuquerque, NM, U.S.A.
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