Assumptions about Communication

Steve Long Salinas17 at AOL.COM
Tue Feb 20 17:01:32 UTC 2001

[In a message dated 2/17/2001 5:58:34 PM, tgivon at OREGON.UOREGON.EDU
William Mann writes, regarding the mass of assumptions and definitions in his
summary, "What is Communication?":
<<  Promises, beliefs, doubts, accusations or other effects are commonly
recognized as representing, in summary form, results of interaction. Yet
there seems to be little reflection in the literature of this notion, nor of
how participants have been affected, nor of the connection between the words
used and the effect produced.>>

Nor of the effect intended?  Nor of how the history of effects in the past
determine the future effects expected?

(Please forgive what may be obvious observations, but William Mann is talking
about basic assumptions here.  And so it seems pertinent to write:)

Whether communication might make more sense conceptualized as something like
"promises, beliefs, doubts..." or as "saying, gesturing, writing to get
somebody else or myself to do or feel something,"  the startling absence from
William Mann's survey is the absence of focus on the intended effect in
defining communication.

Unless we are all Walt Whitman, by himself shouting Homer in Greek at the
waves on an empty Long Island beach, communication must have something to do
with the results of using language or gesture.  (Of course, Whitman did tell
everybody about it afterwards, so even that piece of apparently effectless
interaction had other intended effects.)

If I say the same words -- "Stop that" -- loudly, softly, matter-of-factly,
questioningly ("Stop that"?), laughingly, pleadingly or just with an upraised
hand , am I "communicating an idea?"

Or am I exercising my options in trying to getting an intended result from
the listener, based on my past experience in using those options?  Can we
even be sure of what these words 'mean' if we are just observers and don't
know that history?  ("She said "stop" but she didn't mean it..." - E.

Which of the two approaches is a more useful way to study this matter?

Traditional linguistics, without looking at intended consequences first, has
a devil of a time knowing what counts as communication and what doesn't.  A
classic question is whether a phoneme is "productive" (and not just a random
additional sound that someone gives off "just for effect.")  I suppose that
is a kind of structural definition of communication, versus just making
random sounds, gestures or squiggles on a piece of paper.

Verrazano, in navigating the New England coast, encountered some locals on
high, unreachable cliffs baring their bottoms to the crew.  Was this gesture
"productive?"  Was their intention to "communicate an idea"?  Or is it more
accurate to say that they were attempting to effect action -- or frustration
-- in their audience, without regard to a specific 'idea'?

Consistent with the "funk" in Funknet, one might see the problem as a
function first problem.  Human organisms need to eat and if they can use
their mouths (communicate) in strikingly complex ways to get food, they will.
 When Whitman told everybody about reciting Homer to the ocean, they bought
his book and that paid for his daily bread.

So I'd like to humbly suggest that the problem in defining communication just
might be the same old problem, an over-emphasis on structure as opposed to
hard scientific cause-effect.  The definition of communication might be the
function of communication.  "The meaning of a word is the effect it has."

In this regard, perhaps William Mann's bibliography might have also included
something as basic as Skinner's Verbal Behavior, where communication is
called of course quite basically, "behavior."

Steve Long

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