LINGUIST List 7.1405

Wed Oct 9 1996

Disc: Natural language

Editor for this issue: Ann Dizdar <>


  1. Peter Daniels, Re: 7.1350, Disc: Natural language
  2., Re: 7.1350, Disc: Natural language
  3. Joseph F Foster, Re: 7.1350, Disc: Natural language
  4. Michael Pickering, Natural Language
  5. "Larry Trask", Disc: natural languages

Message 1: Re: 7.1350, Disc: Natural language

Date: Sat, 28 Sep 1996 14:08:18 CDT
From: Peter Daniels <>
Subject: Re: 7.1350, Disc: Natural language
Esperanto and (arguably) Basic are also human languages; but both
invented spoken languages and computer languages are known as
"artificial" languages. "Natural" is simply a convenient antonym of
"artificial" (cf. "natural foods" which contain "no artificial
ingredients"). Thus "natural language" is the unmarked term in a
privative opposition and requires no particular definition. Also,
it's an ordinary-language term, not a technical term, and can be used
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Message 2: Re: 7.1350, Disc: Natural language

Date: Sat, 28 Sep 1996 20:48:57 CDT
From: <>
Subject: Re: 7.1350, Disc: Natural language
Charles Hockett did a couple of interesting papers touching on the
question of what a natural language--or human language--is. He
handled the problem by proposing a set of design features needed to
describe human languages.

I don't have either the references or the lists of design features
here at home, but I'd be glad to supply those when I get back to the
office next week.


+ Herbert F. W. Stahlke, Ph.D.	 ||	Email: 00HFSTAHLKEBSU.EDU	+
+ Professor of English		 ||	+
+ Ball State University		 ||	Phone: 317-285-3954		+
+ Muncie, IN 47306		 ||	Fax: 317-285-3765		+
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Message 3: Re: 7.1350, Disc: Natural language

Date: Sun, 29 Sep 1996 18:30:39 EDT
From: Joseph F Foster <Joseph.FosterUC.Edu>
Subject: Re: 7.1350, Disc: Natural language
Mr. J. Lindstedt raises an interesting issue and correctly points out
that we are still in want of a good airtight definition of "natural
language". He suggests, if I understand aright, that we replace that
term with "human language", into which presumably Estonian, Esperanto,
and European Sign would fall.

There is however, or so seems it to me, a set of differences between a
language like Estonian or English and one like Esperanto. For
instance, are the stops of Esperanto aspirate or nonaspirate. How can
we find out? Dr. Zammenhof didnt tell us--presumably he was unaware
languages could differ in this way--and there are no "uncontaminated"
native speakers who can serve as final authroities. What happens to
the voice pitch on, before, or after a stressed syllable? And one
could go on. Ive picked phonological examples but one could do the
same for syntax as well. I have no doubt Esperanto is a human
language, but it is not a natural one in the same sense that Estonian
or Finnish are. I do think the distnction, though fuzzy around the
creole edges, is an important one.

Joe Foster
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Message 4: Natural Language

Date: Tue, 01 Oct 1996 13:26:18 -0900
From: Michael Pickering <>
Subject: Natural Language
Re- Jouko Linstedt's posting on the term "natural language": I have
been using the term "human natural language" (HNL) for some
time. "Human language" is good, but artificial languages (Esperanto,
programming languages) are the products of humans too. "Natural" seems
to be closely connected with spontaneity, as he points out, but I have
recently noticed that the criterion which he finally appends ("capable
of encoding all human experience") seems to win out over the
others. If this is so, then what we need is a single word that encodes
this concept. "Human general language" (much less "human universal
language") won't do. What will? Michael Pickering
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Message 5: Disc: natural languages

Date: Tue, 01 Oct 1996 18:09:21 BST
From: "Larry Trask" <>
Subject: Disc: natural languages
Jouko Lindstedt raises the question of how we should define the term
`natural language', and suggests that this term should be abandoned as
unhelpful or worse and replaced as the object of investigation in
linguistics by `human language', which he defines as "any oral,
written or signed language used between human beings and capable of
encoding all human experience".

He anticipates that some readers may not be happy with this, and I am
one such.

To begin with, I think the concept of a natural language is much less
problematic than he supposes. Let me try to cut the Gordian knot by
proposing the following definition: A natural language is any language
which is, or once was, the mother tongue of a group of people.

For the moment, I shall assume (perhaps rashly) that `mother tongue'
is itself an unproblematic concept; I return to this below.

By this criterion, then, English, Swahili and Isthmus Zapotec are
natural languages, because they are mother tongues today, and Latin,
Etruscan and Cornish are natural languages, because they were mother
tongues once.

American Sign Language is a natural language for the same reason, at
least as used by native signers. So is Israeli Hebrew. I can see not
the slightest difficulty here in reaching this last decision; what is
problematic about Israeli Hebrew is the nature of its relation to
Biblical Hebrew, but this question is neither here nor there in the
present context. And, by my criterion, the Esperanto spoken by native
speakers (if these exist) must also be a natural language. The
non-native Esperanto of other people is a different matter, but then,
when I declare that Spanish is a natural language, I certainly don't
have in mind my own halting Spanish.

On the other hand, pidgins, Volapuk, Glosa, the official written
Turkish of the Ottoman Empire, and probably even the stilted and
neologistic high Basque used by Basque television newsreaders, all
fail to be natural languages by my definition -- reasonably enough,
some readers might think, but many of these things would certainly
fall under Lindstedt's definition.

I absolutely can't see that either the origin of a natural language or
the length or continuity of its tradition is of any significance.
Creoles, ASL, Israeli Hebrew, native Esperanto -- all these have what
we consider unusual origins, but so what? We might like to think that
English is directly descended from an unbroken line of ancestors
stretching back to the origins of human speech, but we don't *know*
that this is true -- for all we know, PIE itself might have been
descended from a very ancient creole. Once a natural language exists,
it is indistinguishable from any other natural language (as far as we
can tell). Surely a Martian linguist ignorant of the historical facts
and ignorant of English would have no reason to suspect that the Tok
Pisin of native speakers was anything other than one more natural
language of New Guinea.

Of Lindstedt's other two points. of course I take the existence of
native speakers (at some point in time) as criterial. The existence
of a speech community, again at some point in time, is also crucial --
but I confess I find it hard to imagine a language with only one
native speaker, except in the obvious, and (I think) trivial case of
the final stage of language death.

There are a few potential problems with identifying a mother tongue,
but they don't strike me as serious. You might start learning one
language as your mother tongue, then change environments and begin
learning a different one. You might lose your mother tongue in
adulthood through long disuse. And I'm sure readers can think of
other awkward cases. But I can't see that such events, which chiefly
affect only individuals, render the concept of a mother tongue
unacceptably nebulous.

More serious, perhaps, is the point developed by Bob Le Page in his
various writings: the observation that speakers of a language are
constantly engaging in conscious and unconscious engineering of that
language, by making choices, by introducing innovations, by adjusting
their speech this way and that. Le Page's conclusion, derived largely
from his observations of creole continua, is that what we call a
language is in substantial measure only the distilled reification of a
complex mass of linguistic behavior. Interesting, and troubling, but
I can't see that Lindstedt's new definition allows us to avoid
confronting these difficulties at all.

Anyway, the most egregious cases of deliberate language engineering
are largely confined to exclusively written media. The tortured
written Turkish of the Ottoman period was no one's mother tongue, and
was very likely never spoken by anybody, and it has been suggested to
me that the seemingly stupefying complexities of written Old Irish
might have constituted another such case. Lindstedt would have us
treat these odd cases on a par with vernacular English; I'd rather
not -- which is not to say that I'm not interested in them at all.

Finally, I would suggest that Lindstedt's criterion of being "capable
of encoding all human experience" is much trickier than it might at
first appear. Lots of languages are not *currently* capable of
"encoding" thermodynamics, but they are *potentially* capable of doing
so. On the other hand, it looks as though Lindstedt is eager to
incorporate pidgins under his new rubric, but surely pidgins are not
capable of this feat at all. They might gain this capacity, of
course, but then they wouldn't be pidgins any more.

So: what is the subject matter of linguistics? Natural languages, of
course -- but that doesn't mean that we can't or shouldn't scrutinize
things that are not natural languages. Like everybody, we should
extract useful information from wherever we can find it. Biology is
the study of living creatures, but that doesn't stop Richard Dawkins
from examining the "genetics" and "evolution" of the artificial
creatures he creates on his computer and learning interesting things
which are relevant to his field. Why shouldn't a linguist look at,
say, monkey calls, if she thinks she might learn something interesting
as a result? But doing so doesn't make monkey calls part of the
subject matter of linguistics.

Larry Trask
University of Sussex
Brighton BN1 9QH
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