LINGUIST List 6.61

Mon 16 Jan 1995

Disc: Linguistics as speciesist?

Editor for this issue: <>


  1. Dan Alford, re: Racist Linguist Plot (LINGUIST List: Vol-5-1467)

Message 1: re: Racist Linguist Plot (LINGUIST List: Vol-5-1467)

Date: Mon, 9 Jan 1995 13:00:34 -re: Racist Linguist Plot (LINGUIST List: Vol-5-1467)
From: Dan Alford <>
Subject: re: Racist Linguist Plot (LINGUIST List: Vol-5-1467)

Regarding Steven Schaufele's recent posting on "Language amongst
the Anthropoidea, or, the Racist Linguist Plot", wherein he claims
never to have noticed any anti-animal "racism" in his training:

I remember knowing about racism but not yet knowing about
institutionalized racism -- wherein an institution is so permeated
with racism that people are not even aware that what they say or
do is racist.

But let's change the word "racist" to *species-ist*, since 1) racist
doesn't exactly fit cross-species issues except in the older
meaning of "human race", 2) species-ist points more clearly to our
anthropocentrism, and 3) I no longer like to use the current concept
of race because the history of its use over only the past 100 years
with this particular meaning (check the OED) has not proven useful
to me for inclusion into any explanations.

Dr. Schaufele says,
) i certainly don't remember anything in the introductory survey
) courses I've taken myself ... so much as hinting that it is an
) a priori assumption of the field of linguistics that language
) is the exclusive prerogative of Homo sapiens.

Maybe the hints were all around, but never noticed. Let's next
consider whether linguistics may be guilty of not overt but *covert*
and institutionalized species-ism, embedded so pervasively as to be
invisible to some. Moonhawk's Institutionalized Species-ism
Hypothesis predicts that unwitting species-ism will be reflected:

* in textbooks through the positing of such processes as syntax
 and morphology (which we claim animals don't have) as
 "universals of language"

* in the use of metonymy (part for whole) to define *language*
 in terms of these putative universals, syntax & morphology,
 processes we claim only humans have, and then in calling
 everything else without such machinery *communication*
 (which *true linguists* don't study or publish on. (N.B., it's not
 like you can go to a School or Department of *Communication*
 to study how animals communicate --- so this is terminological
 limbo: few linguists really care what animals do; it's seen as

* such truisms as "there are no primitive languages" in our
 intro classes -- where primitive is tacitly understood to mean
 "with reduced or without the machinery of morphology & syntax".
 (This automatically disallows what apes, cetaceans and others do
 from being called language, given our other claims above.)

* the omission of "Chimpanzee" in the inventory of world's languages

* such constructs as LAD (Language Acquisition Device) and "innate
 predisposition to language" applied uniquely to humans. (Have
 you ever seen anyone positing either construct for the great apes
 or cetaceans?)

* in standard theories and stories on the "origins of language" with
 exclusively human protagonists (Bow-Wow and Yo-He-Ho Theories,
 Biblical Tower of Babel)

* in Language Acquisition classes that study primarily what humans
 do, with some emphasis on how humans diverge from animals just
 for comparison's sake, to see how we take off developmentally
 from where they stop

* in such phrases as "uniquely human" and "social contract"("Signs
 of the Apes, Songs of the Whales,", NOVA, 1984, discussing Washoe's
 use of ASL: "Washoe has crossed the line into exclusively human

These are just the tip of the iceberg, off the top of the head. Look
around with sensitive eyes and you'll see the subtle signs of this
species-ism everywhere. No one has to plot or say anything overtly
species-ist because, given the totality of our system, animals can
never break through our self-imposed cultural DEFINITIONAL language
barrier (as Sue Savage-Rumbaugh so aptly notes). If a chimp and a
child perform exactly the same behavior, the child's is adjudged
*linguistic* and the chimp's is not, because children, unlike chimps,
are said to be "on their way to language" (i.e., syntax).

[Thanks to Marilyn Silva for her assistance to this point; she
thoroughly disavows any connection with what follows!]

Just so that we may see this species-ism more clearly, first a teaching
I've posted before, and then a brief outline for a model from a
species-inclusive point of view that flows from the teaching.

 "Long ago, men and animals and spirits and plants all
 communicated in the same way. Then something
 happened. After that, humans had to speak to each
 other in human speech. But we retained The Old
 Language for dreams, and for communicating with
 spirits, animals, and plants."

This is what a non-species-ist (Cheyenne) language origin story looks
like -- all of nature communicating in a common way, and then
*humans* moving out of that system and doing something different,
the human kind of language, but remaining still connected to the
original language processes whether they know it or not. Wilhelm von
Humbolt, founder of linguistics as a university discipline, observed:
"Man, regarded as an animal, belongs to one of the singing species;
but his notes are always associated with ideas." Non-species-ist
accounts are alway inclusive and evolutionary, not exclusive.

And now for a model that flows naturally from the story. 1) We now
call *language* every "Natural System" which has utterances (incl.
sound, gesture, chemical, etc.) combined with meaning. 2) We notice
that as well as this sharing, humans also have differences -- different
language processes that animals don't seem to have (morphology &
syntax), so we call them two processes of human-specific language,
the human kind of language, or just *human language* -- but we no
longer designate it by merely the bare word *language* in the old
exclusivist, species-ist way.

This model declares that humans partake of other processes in the
more inclusive *language* as well as those of specifically *human
language*, so we look for similarities between humans and animals.
Indeed, both have motor/gestural components and spatial syntax
associated with utterances and meaning, and both (at least those with
limbic systems***) modulate emotions into their utterances.

And, perhaps most important of the similarities, both utter IDIOMS!
Idioms are funny critters, when you think about it; as the George
Foremans of the *hidden side* of linguistics -- the part of human
language that doesn't work by normal human language rules -- they
tend to knock out every bit of morphological and syntactic machinery
they encounter, not play by the rules, and consequently can help us
question our culturally condoned uniqueness attitude as well. Let me

It struck me recently, and I've never encountered anyone else
discussing this similarity, that the DEFINITION of idioms or
formulaic speech -- utterances whose meaning cannot be
pieced together from the meanings of the pieces, but must be
attached to the whole utterance -- is EXACTLY the same as
the definition for any act of non-human communication you
can find in the textbooks (for bee dances, bird songs, etc.).
In fact this definition is perhaps WHY non-human beings are
usually said not to have (human) language -- because the pieces
of their utterances can't be added up to make the whole meaning
the way we say we can using morphology and syntax in human

Humans and animals thus intersect in *language*, in its entire
evolutionary range, at MOST levels -- idioms, sounds, emotions,
gestures (pheromones?) -- and then humans only SOMETIMES also
construct new utterances from scratch. Most typically we tend to use
more idioms & formulaic speech with those we know well, and use it
less with strangers, with whom we tend to use more formal and public
speech. Bees and birds and trees tend to know each other in their
groups very well and can therefore be said to use idioms in their own
languaging. Just like us! -- that is, unless we want to call ourselves
sub-human and merely communicating, not using language, when
WE use idioms and formulaic speech. This move, should you accept it,
irrevocably puts humans, land animals, sea creatures, trees, and maybe
more, all on the same *language* map. But can these 'wild' speculations,
however evolutionarily based, actually be accomodated within a "real"
linguistic theory?

About 15 years ago, Charles Fillmore was working on a unified
approach I really admire (and perhaps it's a partial fulfillment of the
reconciliation Annabel Cormack called for in Vol-5-1469 on trends in
Lx), which goes something like this (any errors are mine): When we
are "online" composing/speaking, which I now must see as similar to
Dan Slobin's "thinking for speaking" mode, our process is to 'reach'
first for a handy ready-made piece of formulaic speech, and then,
failing that -- lacking a 'match' or not liking the proffered 'match' --
we go on to construct from scratch. Nature simply doesn't have the
further "from scratch" level, but shares everything to that level.
Fillmore's formulation seems to fit quite nicely the picture of the
evolutionary development of language (and its synchronic effects)
that I have attempted to sketch here. (Sorry for any embarassment
my use of it may have caused you, Chuck!)

The degree to which the above species-inclusive formulations may
tend to disturb you quite faithfully reflects, I would guess, the
degree to which you are embedded in the institutionalized
species-ism so pervasive in linguistics, since these formulations
are quite possibly the first truly *alternative* origins theory
you have ever seen.

Because language and intelligence are usually linked, this
more compassionate model also has the advantage of placing
intelligence in Nature and not so much the burden of just human
beings. With this approach, linguistics could forge an academic
path toward reconcilliation between Western minds and Nature
that could provide a powerful rationale for at least slowing down,
if not stopping altogether, the current ecocide, and instituting a
new-though-ancient attitude of *respect* for the intelligence of
Nature. No linguist who sincerely wants to understand what
*language* is all about can any longer afford to ignore its
deeper processes in Nature -- Natural Language, of which human
natural language is an important subset.

***Anyone wishing to see how this inclusive approach further
includes brainmind research -- the relevant evolution of brain
structures and of brainwave rhythms -- can contact me at
 -- Moonhawk (%-))
 ("The fool on the hill sees the sun going down and)
 (the eyes in his head see the world spinning round")
 (-- McCartney/Lennon)
Mail to author|Respond to list|Read more issues|LINGUIST home page|Top of issue