LINGUIST List 7.1463

Thu Oct 17 1996

Disc: Natural language

Editor for this issue: Ann Dizdar <>


  1. Stirling Newberry, Re: 7.1430, Disc: Natural language
  2. Boris Fridman-Mintz, Re: 7.1430, Disc: Natural language
  3. Ivan A Derzhanski, Disc: Natural language

Message 1: Re: 7.1430, Disc: Natural language

Date: Sun, 13 Oct 1996 08:50:52 CDT
From: Stirling Newberry <>
Subject: Re: 7.1430, Disc: Natural language

>Date: Wed, 09 Oct 1996 15:40:26 EDT
>From: ("Ellen F. Prince")
>Subject: Re: 7.1405, Disc: Natural language
>i've just read this thread for the first time and am surprised that
>it's controversial. fwiw, i've always understood _natural language_
>basically in larry trask's way -- a language that can be acquired as a
>native language by humans. of course, since we cannot yet characterize
>such a language, we must stick with those languages that actually were
>or are someone's native language. in fact, for many many linguists,
>the goal of linguistics is precisely to arrive at such a
>btw, esperanto is such a language -- i have met children with
>esperanto as their mother tongue. of course, how it differs from
>zamenhof's creation is an interesting research topic still waiting to
>be studied, so far as i know.

The distinction which people who construct languages use is more
subtle - does the language bear the signs of evolving over time - is
it an iterate? I could sit down this moment, write up a fairly
useless langauge - and if I and a few other adults used it exclusively
around children from birth they would learn it. That is they way
children are. But it would show the signs of not having been a primary
language in that it would have grave dificiencies of expression - and
there would be no internal geometry or logic save what I imposed on
it. It would seem more regular to the eye - but less regular in that
the reasons for the regularity and irregularity are arbitrary. Simply
because being a native tongue is means towards this process does not
mean that it is *sufficent* for it.

It does not take very long for a conlang to become a natlang (to use
the two common terms), witness ASL. But I would almost say that
definitional to the natural language is that it cannot be defined by
someone just sitting down and writing out all known rules and words -
that instead the language exists "out there" as the sum of its users,
both past and present.

THe function of an International Auxilliary Language is anti-thetical
to this proposition - you want a language uncluttered by the very
things that being a culture creates - parochailisms - focus on certain
concepts over others etc. This means that an attempt to make one also
must include a mechanism for maintaining the "unnaturalness" that is
desired. An example would be the chinese writing system. The idea of
the system was that any speaker of any version would be able to read
it and work in it for the purpose of running the empire. In order to
counteract the effects of "naturalization" the mandrin exams forced
one to be immersed in particular texts and ways of writing.

Even this was not sufficent - the writing system shows signs of being
used naturally, there are characters which are puns - some of them at
the phonetic values that were prevelant centuries ago. I put this case
before you: Classical Written Chinese is a natural language and yet
its, by design *no ones* native language.

Stirling Newberry
Boston, Massachusetts
Starting October 15th:
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Message 2: Re: 7.1430, Disc: Natural language

Date: Mon, 14 Oct 1996 13:42:56 MDT
From: Boris Fridman-Mintz <>
Subject: Re: 7.1430, Disc: Natural language
Jouko Lindstedt wrote the following:

>This would mean that the big change for Tok Pisin was when it got
>native speakers; but I have understood the issue is not yet settled
>whether the crucial step was indeed creolization, or rather the
>increasing use in different functions as an "extended pidgin" of a
>speech community. Similarly, I cannot distinguish an adult native
>speaker of Esperanto from any other fluent speaker of that
>language. Perhaps if there were a community of native speakers, it
>would create peculiarities of its own; but this means that the
>community is more important than the "mother-tongue- ness"...

What came first? The chicken or the egg? I find it hard to concieve a
speaker whose self is not determined at the same time by language and

> .... And as
>Nancy Frishberg and others assure me, deaf people can quickly become
>fluent in a sign languge even if they are not exposed to it at home
>and at an early age, as is the case with typical "mother
>tongues". This is not meant to suggest that it is not the native
>language for them, but to emphasize that for fluency you necessarily
>need contact with the community, not necessarily (though preferably)
>an exposure in early childhood. So, although I agree with Trask about
>the importance of the "mother tongue" and "speech community" criteria,
>I would weigh them in a different fashion.

Exposure to a first 'natural language' is essential for Deaf children
at an EARLY childhood... Just like for any human being it is essential
to grow in a social and linguistic environmet which is accesible to
them. Late aqcuisition of the first language does have its
consequences, not all subjets will become fluent...

Boris Fridman Mintz Universidad de Colima, ENAH-INAH

Apartado 309 Tel. 52(331)411-85
Colima, Colima, 28000
Mexico Fax 52(331)303-97 (trabajo)

Libertad 199
Col. Jardines de la Corregidora
Colima, Colima, 28000
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Message 3: Disc: Natural language

Date: Wed, 16 Oct 1996 10:19:55 PDT
From: Ivan A Derzhanski <>
Subject: Disc: Natural language

Anecdote has it that Charles Darwin's students once decided to play a
joke on him. They caught and dismembered several insects and, taking
each body part from a different donor, glued together a hitherto
unseen creature, which they brought to Darwin. `We caught this bug in
the garden,' they declared. `Can you tell us what it is?' Darwin
eyed the fabulous monster briefly. `Did it hum when you caught it?'
he inquired. `Yes,' the students replied, nudging one another.
`Well, then,' Darwin said, `it is a hum-bug.'

I was reminded of this when I read Jouko Lindstedt's lines (7-1430):

[re Esperanto]
> [...] it is quite trivial that a language derived from
> natural languages and modelled on them behaves structurally
> as a natural language. The question is, how much language
> standardization and planning may change the "basic" language(s)
> before we get something "artificial".

Even a language derived from and modelled on natural languages is
likely to contain certain features not present in any of its sources
(cf. the assignment of nominative case by prepositions in Esperanto),
and there is no guarantee that even those features which are `natural'
by virtue of being borrowed from the `basic' languages won't be
combined in an `artificial' way.

I don't find it hard to believe that `the creators of all artificial
languages have failed to imitate [...] the properties which make a
language a natural language' (JL 7-1350). The universal properties
which (we believe) characterise natural languages, which must be
present in them in order to make them acquirable by the human mind,
and which it is our errand (as linguists) to explicate and motivate
are not at all trivial, and no one has ever had exhaustive conscious
knowledge of them (whether anyone ever will is a separate issue). How
likely is it, then, for any creator of an artificial language to have
imitated them flawlessly? Do we really know for a fact that there is
nothing about the structure of Esperanto, Volapu"k, Klingon or Lojban
that would allow a Martian linguist (or, for that matter, a Terran
one) to identify them as humbugs?

Of course, the proof of the pudding is in the eating, and of the
natural (or quasi-natural) language in the learning. If a feature of
a conlang (even one which is not found in its sources) can be acquired
natively, then it is obviously not at variance with UG. But how can
the creator predict whether this will be the case? Will his intuition
(as a native speaker of one or more natural languages) suffice? There
doesn't seem to be anything to prevent one from proposing, say, a
language in which a clause is negated by reversing the linear order of
its words, or one in which inflexion depends on whether the number of
phonemes (or letters) in the stem is prime or composite. Admittedly
those are extreme examples of very obviously `unnatural' features.
But how can we draw the line in the general case without actually
running an experiment on real live babies?

Incidentally, if Esperanto is demonstrably natural by virtue of being
natively acquirable, why aren't Esperanto data appealed to for support
of any theory of phonology or syntax? (Or are they?)

"mIw'e' lo'lu'ta'bogh batlh tlhIHvaD vIlIH [...]
 poH vIghajchugh neH jIH, yab boghajchugh neH tlhIH"
 (Lewis Carroll, "_Snark_ wamlu'")
Ivan A Derzhanski <,>
Dept for Math Lx, Inst for Maths & CompSci, Bulg Acad of Sciences
Home: cplx Iztok bl 91, 1113 Sofia, Bulgaria
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