LINGUIST List 6.124

Sat 28 Jan 1995

Disc: Language and species

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  1. Jacques Guy, Language and species

Message 1: Language and species

Date: Fri, 27 Jan 1995 11:29:47 Language and species
From: Jacques Guy <j.guytrl.OZ.AU>
Subject: Language and species

A few posts on the subject have pleased me: I am perhaps not alone in
having eccentric beliefs about non-human languages. It had started when
I was hoping, after finishing my PhD, to work on dolphins' language; it
had continued when I read, somewhere, that the deaf's sign language was
not a language (how did those people whom I saw meeting regularly in the
pub down the road communicate, then, if they did not have a language? I
often envied them being stone deaf -- cursed with hearing as I am, I
dislike noisy pubs and restaurants).

 A that stage, it got me thinking that "proper" human language dealt
with encoding an n-dimensional conceptual universe into one-dimensional
strings (perhaps with a degenerate dimension extra, if you pay attention
to prosodic features). That, sign language, on the other hand, encoded
it into definitely two dimensions or more -- even though I could not
figure out how many, let alone which, having found so little in the
literature (just as anyone doing linguistics should know at least a few
foreign languages, perhaps, perhaps they should know at least some sign
language, and have practiced it. When I say "perhaps" I mean
"definitely", of course. "Perhaps" is a euphemism, a weak excuse for not
having taken the time to learn and practice sign language).

 Later, about dolphins' languages, no *cetacean* in this case, I read,
somewhere, the circumstances under which orcs had learnt to avoid boats
equipped with harpoon guns, which seemed to mean that they must have
been "told" how to recognize them by the first to meet those boats for
the first time. This seemed too efficient. You just try to explain to
someone how to recognize a contraption never encountered before. No
paper and pencil, just words. Misunderstandings galore. That got me
thinking about another possible form of communication. Cetaceans "see"
by sonar, like bats. They communicate, we read, by sound, in a very wide
range (a few hertz to 100KHz or more if memory serves). What if they
actually communicated by *projecting* sonar images then? Paintings as it were,
along with stylized representations. Animated too, that's quite possible.

 Later again, I tied that in with what some will tell you about the
intelligence of birds, how some mynah birds seem to understand a few
words and use them in the proper context. The complexity of bird songs.

 The hopelessness of some schemes dreamt up to find out if animals
communicated through language strikes me now. Putting birds, or
whatever, in different cages or pens, training one set to push the third
lever from the left to get food; see if they communicate their discovery
to the those in the other pen. If they communicate by projected sonar
image we are looking for the needle in the haystack. By song modulation,
ditto. There would be, at any rate, dozens, nay, hundreds of ways of
explaining "push the third lever". How would *you* say "lever" if you
had never had anything like it in your environment? "Third"? "From the
left"? So even if they jabbered in a human-like language, one phoneme
after the other, we would have a very hard time of spotting their
exchange. You know the story about how they said "piano" in
Beach-la-Mar: "big fella box, he got black and white teeth, missus
belong white master he fight'im belong him, box he cry now". There's
more than one way to say "piano" that way!

 I have, then, come to this notion that, when we meet non-human,
sentient beings, we probably won't recognize the fact. That those
definitions (and redefinitions) of language as human language with these
and those features, and if it hasn't got it then it isn't language, are
utterly uninteresting. They would be at best entirely useless, only
vacuous tautologies (isn't that self-referencing!). But in fact they can
only be obnoxious, leading to methods incapable of recognizing and
analyzing "non-human" languages. Such as ASL (insert a sarcastic smiley

 To conclude on a related theme. I keep reading how the reconstructed
vocal tract of Neanderthals shows that they could not have a full
language, because ... blah blah (I really am loath to repeat the
argument). How about the vocal tract of a parrot, reconstructed from its
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