LINGUIST List 6.88

Sat 21 Jan 1995

Disc: Language and species

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  1. , Species discussion
  2. David Pesetsky, ape riori assumptions

Message 1: Species discussion

Date: Fri, 20 Jan 1995 17:13-ESTSpecies discussion
From: <Marion.KeeA.NL.CS.CMU.EDU>
Subject: Species discussion

Is anyone on the list acquainted with the extent of what is known about
cetacean communication? Is there a sufficient basis of knowledge in this
area for making claims about the structure of that communication? In
particular, is there a basis for claims about the presence, or absence,
of syntax and morphology, or their functional equivalents? I realize
that it has been claimed on this list that these features are unique to
human language. I am trying to find out, with reference to cetaceans
in particular, if this is an _a priori_ assumption.

Since cetaceans use echolocation to explore their surroundings, as well
as passive hearing, it seems to me that their dominant sense
perceptions are probably aural. With humans (excepting the blind), the
dominant sense is sight. This may not appear to be relevant to possible
differences in the structure of communication, because human language
manifests primarily as sound. However, I am sure that it is relevant to
brain structure, and brain structure is relevant to language (in
humans, which so far present the only know case of language use,
conservatively speaking.) Thus, it occurs to me to wonder if we
as primates are influenced in our language abilities by our
visually-dominated ways of conceptualizing the world, and if so, in
what ways? If we are thus influenced, then how might things be
different if our primary sense perceptions were not visual?
How do our limitations influence our perceptions of how members
of other species communicate between themselves?

To comment on Celso Alvarez-Caccamo's response: I may not be willing
to be a species chauvinist, but I am willing to be an intelligence
chauvinist (with a fairly broad view of what consitutes intelligent
behavior.) Slugs are stupid. Dolphins are not stupid. A slug has
roughly the potential computational power of a VAX 780 (wouldn't it be
great if we could just hook them up like that? you could run an entire
"smart house" from just a few slugs in the garden.) It would require
a supercomputer to simulate (real-time) the dophin's trick of
echolocation. Then they can pass along the information in that
"sonogram" to other dolphins, and I don't think they're using
pheremones to do it. That makes me curious. (Hey, who knows, maybe
cetacean poetry is better than a lot of the stuff that gets published
these days?) So I don't think it's anti-scientific to wonder about
these issues, not at all. There are plenty of interesting angles of
investigation, and what I want to know is, how much exploration has been


Marion Kee | All opinions are my own;
Knowledge Engineer, Center for Machine Translation | when CMU wants my opinions
Carnegie Mellon University Pittsburgh, PA, USA | it pays for them.
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Message 2: ape riori assumptions

Date: Sat, 21 Jan 95 12:10:35
From: David Pesetsky <pesetskMIT.EDU>
Subject: ape riori assumptions

In response to Schaufele's remark:

) 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.

 -- Jane A. Edwards cites passages from Bolinger, Fromkin & Rodman, and
Lenneberg which assert that language of the sort found in homo sapiens
is not found outside of homo sapiens. 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.

Contrast this with the position taken by Savage-Rumbaugh and Lewin in
the book on Kanzi whose NY Times review provoked Schaufele's message.
They seem to adopt the a priori position that bonobo chimpanzees have
something called "language". Consequently, properties of human
language that might elude the bonobo chimpanzee must be trivialities
not worth worrying about -- especially syntax, which gets
dismissed again and again as "the holy grail of linguists" (p.53),
definitely not "the essence of language" (p.60). The level of
discussion can be seen from remarks like:

"But this left the field firmly in the hands of linguists, to whom
syntax is sacred." (p.55)

"I knew linguists would dismiss it all as unimportant because syntax was
not required..." (p.69)

"Most researchers in the field paid little attention; the supposed
primacy of syntax still held them in its thrall." (p.82)

Later in the book, the authors actually move towards the claim that
Kanzi displays a human syntactic system after all. Oddly enough, given
their attitude towards syntax, they get excited about this finding, as
should we all. But has the work achieved the appropriate level of depth
to actually support this claim? The popular book makes me pessimistic.
Certainly if Kanzi understands complex sentences and follows TV shows,
as the authors assert, some of the methodologies that effectively elicit
quite detailed information about syntactic knowledge in children could
be explored with Kanzi, but I don't see any sign of this in the popular
book. (Perhaps the more technical publications have more to offer on
this score.)

After all, the discovery of counterparts to language in closely related
species would be important for the study of cognition in both man and
ape, for some ofthe same sort of reasons comparative studies of closely
related languages in humans is important. For all I know, there might
be a huge overlap between the cognitive capacities of humans and
bonobos, just as the authors of the Kanzi book claim. This overlap might
even include much that goes under the name "language". Learning what
the common elements are, and studying their expression in different
biological settings, could teach us a lot about all aspects of language
 -- the common elements and the elements not held in common. But at the
moment, if the Kanzi book is any guide, the discussion is so
politicized (with linguists practically cast as enemies of the apes
themselves) that I wonder whether any productive discussion can take
place at all.

 -David Pesetsky
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