LINGUIST List 7.1350

Sat Sep 28 1996

Disc: Natural language

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  1. Jouko Lindstedt, For discussion: Natural language

Message 1: For discussion: Natural language

Date: Mon, 23 Sep 1996 12:44:05 +0300
From: Jouko Lindstedt <jslindstcc.helsinki.fi>
Subject: For discussion: Natural language
It would appear that the primary object of study for linguistics
are the human languages, but usually the term "natural language"
is preferred. When you come to think of it, this seems a bit odd
term: social sciences or psychology do not study only "natural
society", "natural religion", "natural personality" or "natural
perception". What is, then, meant by "natural language"? I have
come across the following four criteria:

 (1) spontaneous creation (2) continuous tradition (3)
 existence of native speakers (4) existence of a speech
 community

These characteristics are not always distinguished clearly, and
there are problems with each of them:

Ad (1): Of course we do not know much about how language first
came into existence, but we can reasonably assume that it was a
process very different from the conscious effort that created
Esperanto and other artificial languages. However, the use of
this criterion seems to pressuppose that (i) the properties which
make a language a natural language are due to something that
happened tens of thousands of years ago; (ii) those properties
have remained basically intact ever since; and (iii) the creators
of all artificial languages have failed to imitate those
properties.

Ad (2): This is usually seen as a supplementary criterion to the
previous one. Most linguists would probably say that the more
than one hundred years of continuous oral and written use of
Esperanto do not make it a natural language, whereas a sign
language or a pidgin that is coming into existence before our own
eyes is much more natural because its shorter tradition stems
from a spontaneous source. The problematic case is Modern Hebrew
which is not linked to the spontaneous prehistoric origins of
Hebrew by an uninterrupted tradition. I am aware of the fact that
the written use of Hebrew never died out; but is it feasible to
say that Modern Hebrew continues Old Hebrew in, say, allophony or
pragmatics?

Ad (3): This criterion would rule out all pidgins, but if they
are not an object of linguistics, which science do they belong
to? On the other hand, Esperanto does have native speakers (less
than one thousand). They are often not considered to be "real"
native speakers, though. One reason is that they are all
bilingual or trilingual; but this would also rule out a great
number of minority languages of the world. Another reason is that
the parents they have learnt Esperanto from are not native
speakers themselves; but this would also exclude all
first-generation creole speakers which, in Bickerton's opinion,
should exemplify the human language capacity in its purest form.

Ad (4): As there are people who regularly communicate in Latin or
Esperanto, this criterion is usually understood to mean a compact
population of everyday users. But this would again exclude sign
languages, which certainly are an important object of study for
linguistics.

My preliminary conclusion from all this is that "natural
language" is a surprisingly ill-defined concept with unclear
ideological background. It should be replaced with "human
language" -- any oral, written or signed language used between
human beings and capable of encoding all human experience. I
assume LINGUIST's readers will have much to say about this.

Jouko Lindstedt
Slavonic and Baltic Department
University of Helsinki
e-mail: Jouko.LindstedtHelsinki.Fi
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