LINGUIST List 6.355

Sat 11 Mar 1995

Disc: Human and Non-human Languages

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  1. george elgin, suzette elgin, human and non-human languages
  2. , THINKING in other species

Message 1: human and non-human languages

Date: Wed, 1 Mar 1995 20:44:53 -human and non-human languages
From: george elgin, suzette elgin <>
Subject: human and non-human languages

In a recent posting, Steven Schaufele proposed that in Native Tongue (a
novel) I proposed that an Alien (extraterrestrial) language was "so
radically different from human language in its structural organization that
no human seems to be able to get the hang of it (several people die
trying)." I think I can clarify; I hope so. The linguists in the novel, as
subcontractors for the U.S. government, allowed their infants to acquire
humanoid Alien languages by putting the babies into close and extensive
contact with native speakers; standard "immersion" stuff. The government
wanted the linguists to try the same thing with nonhumanoid Alien
languages; the linguists refused. When the government tried that on its
own, the babies did not survive the experiment.

The hypothesis I was using in the novel was that native language acquistion
in infants is accomplished by entrainment -- the infant's brain waves
entrained to the brain waves of the older speaker. The linguists insisted
that there was no way to know what effect such entrainment would have when
the native speaker did not have a humanoid brain and refused to risk their
kids to such a process; they were right. It was fatal.

Please note that I am not proposing that human infants in the "real world"
acquire their first languages (or any other languages) by entrainment; the
idea was a plot for a series of science fiction novels, and much fun to
work with. The "people" who died trying in the book were all infants; the
entrainment ability was confined to infants. I'm orthodox, even in fiction.

 One of the perennial panels I get put on at science fiction conventions
is the one where everyone else defends the concept of the "universal
translator" -- point the gizmo at the Alien and instantly you hear the
Alien speaking English and the Alien hears you speaking whatever language
he/she speaks. I always say that there's no reason to believe that if an
Alien did have a language it would be recognizable as such by a human being
(unless it is a humanoid Alien, as in Frank Herbert's Dune series); we go
around and around. They say that unless the thing meets the specifications
for a human language it ipso facto is not a language; I tell them that they
are making my point.

I hope this is more clear.

Suzette Haden Elgin
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Message 2: THINKING in other species

Date: Thu, 2 Mar 1995 10:33:44 -THINKING in other species
From: <>
Subject: THINKING in other species

Thanks much to Greg Schaufele for the very nice discussions of Human and
Non-Human language.

Just a couple of comments.

The interesting question for me is what it means to say other species THINK,
and how they think in ways both similar and different to each other and to
us. (We are merely one of the group.)

Greg lists two possible interpretations for why another species might not
learn a human language:

(a) it's too complex for them
(b) they have a system equally complex, but organized differently so blocks

to which I would add a third

(c) they are predisposed to *not be interested* in our way.
(I think I have actually seen this mentioned in the past, at least obliquely,
and there are similar genetic predispositions such as babbling which gives
experience of the feedback connection between what one does and what one

It can never be emphasized too often how we more easily recognize concrete
meanings, and I applaud Greg's mentioning Larry Gorbet's suggestion on this.
 The Intrinsic Bias in analysis by outsiders towards what is easier for them
to analyze.

We do this to other human beings as well. For example, a common title which
has been read in Maya Hieroglyphs has been rendered into English as "sky
penis". Some Mayans themselves who have learned enough of the hieroglyphs to
be involved in these things say it means "celestial progenitor". It cannot
be emphasized too often, there is no burden of proof for the more abstract
meaning, because that would be an empirical claim that the people in question
are more primitive. Respect for them dictates we assume they thought much
more philosophically than we will ever know, our knowledge biased by what can
be preserved archaeologically or despite their being partly overwhelmed by
centuries of change and a Hispanic culture.

If we do this to other humans, how much worse must we do it to other species.

Greg (forgive me, loved your message!) actually does this once (and I have
caught myself doing it too at various points in life). Thus he writes:

"...the ability of the Chinese, or of fluent signers, to communicate highly
abstract concepts by means of what is essentially visual imagery"

The fact that sign language moves in space and time, rather than being like
the tongue mostly invisible, leads many people to assume it is visual
imagery. Psychological experiments seem to establish that the
grammatica/linguistic use of space in signing is regulated by the left brain,
while the space-descriptive use of space (a subcomponenet of signing) is
regulated by the right brain. I am oversimplifying of course. But all the
arguments that the etymologies of signs, their so-called "iconicity", is
irrelevant to the actual use of signs because they are simply conventional,
are relevant here.

However, Greg's main point I heartily support, in fact it is the same one I
am making here, that abstract ideas can be conveyed by what we interpret as

So, again, it is THINKING in other species (or other humans) about which we
are really concerned. Understanding their thinking is an essential element
in even asking questions about how their communication resembles or does not
resemble human language.

Lloyd Anderson
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