LINGUIST List 6.136

Tue 31 Jan 1995

Disc: Language and species

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  1. Gilbert Harman, Hawks and sparrows
  2. benji wald, Re: 6.124 Language and species

Message 1: Hawks and sparrows

Date: Sun, 29 Jan 1995 11:00:50 Hawks and sparrows
From: Gilbert Harman <ghhPrinceton.EDU>
Subject: Hawks and sparrows

As I recall, in Pasolini's movie, "The Hawks and the Sparrows," St. Francis
spends years trying to learn the language of the birds, chirping away at
them unsuccessfully, and finally discovers that they communicate by
hopping. This is fiction, of course.

Gilbert Harman Voicemail: 609-258-4301
Department of Philosophy Fax: 609-258-1502
Princeton University email:
Princeton, NJ 08544-1006
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Message 2: Re: 6.124 Language and species

Date: Mon, 30 Jan 95 20:51 PST
From: benji wald <IBENAWJMVS.OAC.UCLA.EDU>
Subject: Re: 6.124 Language and species

If memory serves, an article written by Chomsky for a conference about ape
languages in the late 1970s or early 1980s criticised the characterisation
of what apes can do as "language" because they did not show ability to use
pronominal reference, e.g., to use "he" "she" or "it" for referents previously
mentioned. He may also have referred to reflexivisation as a process not
demonstrated as learnable by apes but common to all human languages.
With regard to reflexivisation, I read somewhere else some issue about
whether apes can recognise their reflections in mirrors (I forgot what
the answer was, I think it was that they can). So reflexivisation is
a higher cognitive skill -- or more specifically "innate" linguistic
ability -- than recognising a reflection of yourself (though we know that
dogs can't do the latter, since one of them lost his bone when he attacked
his reflection in a pond). I could research this, but that would take
time, so I thought I'd just throw that into this discussion for consideration
and correction if my memory is deceiving me. In any case I thought the
observations were interesting, and should have been challenging to the
animal communication people. At the same time, I'm not surprised that they
were offended that Chomsky did not have the grace to say something good
about their research. I was particularly impressed that apes (if the
evidence has held up) can recognise objects in pictures. I think Chomsky
has a point about the fine points of reference in language, and a
comparison of what humans and apes can do should help us eventually
understand what is meant by an "innate linguistic capacity" (if it
exists and how it is separate from other points of human cognitive
capacities). Meanwhile, we have been surprised (some of us) by what
apes and other animals can do when we start paying attention and
doing intelligent experiments. If Chomsky's criticisms were as I have
stated then, why (if they haven't) haven't the ape language people
tried to teach apes to use pronominal reference and reflexivisation?
We may, and I would like to, be further surprised. I might even
give up eating meat (which might be good for me anyway, some friends
tell me -- maybe implications like what we can eat are the cause of
more resistance to other complex animals being like us than the more
academic-seeming concern with the uniqueness of "humanity" -- our
mating habits should be enough to establish us uniquely as a species.
No wise-cracks please) Benji
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