Analytic languages and their function. (4)

jess tauber phonosemantics at
Sat May 27 23:01:03 UTC 2006

Steve Long wrote:

>In theory at least, what you have in a pidgin is humans building a language from scratch.<

With all due respect, pidgin speakers do not start from scratch. The words they use COME from other languages, with their own individual evolutionary histories. And combinational habits from these languages may effect what the pidgin ends up with. Even signed languages 'from scratch' use pre-existing movements and gestures. Sure, in all cases invention may occur, but I doubt that it is purely creative and inspired, and it never totally replaces bits and pieces coapted from other functions. Twin-speech might come close, but then twins may be more easily able to come to mutual understanding, being clones, than the average genetically mixed population.

Unless one believes in TOTAL form/meaning arbitrariness, one must suspect that forms drawn into pidgins will have subtle effects on the developing system, even when the lexical mapping has shifted radically. If this is so then the nascent pidgin is in some sense 'pre-chewed' by all that went into it.

As for animal 'cries', depending on what species you look at, what particular signal, function it is used for, etc., there are quite radical variations in the complexities involved (which I was trying to point out in my last post). How much information, for instance, is in the signal? How much is still separable (analytically extractable by receiver)? How compressed is it? Does it need repeating (enhancing signal/noise ratio for discrimination/reception purposes)? And what about the receiver? Does he/she need to respond with a back-communication, or by other behavior? How simple or complex are these? In hormonal signaling systems a single molecule can release a wave of increasingly complex responses, if the receiving system is set up to do this. A single word can mobilize an army, but only if prior arrangements have been made. Otherwise one might need to lay out exactly what needs doing responsewise.

I don't think bee communication is all that sophisticated compared to many communications of higher animals- for instance the growing known number of chimp food calls. We have no idea how many calls there are ultimately, how they can be internally or externally modified, etc. Chimps do coordinated hunting- are there signals there we've missed? The problem with terms like 'cries' is that they are somewhat dismissive in import.

Lastly, I'll bet that the animal signals are often a bit less symbolic and far more iconic representationally. Eugene Morton (National Zoo) with his 'Motivation Structure Theory' showed that many (most?) calls used in intraspecific conflicts and their resolutions were part of the same system of signal modulation, across quite a few different vertebrate species. Some had more, some fewer, but they fit the same pattern. Interestingly frequency ranges and timings changed radically between species, but the pattern persisted. Threat calls such as in monkeys for predators may also be iconically representing the overall SHAPES of the threats, allowing the receivers to quickly home in on the threat through the connotational connection (but without unambiguously denoting it). Food calls may well be similarly structured (shape, size, texture, ripeness/food value, etc.).

Can't assume English human as the standard reference model.

Jess Tauber

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