Analytic languages and their function (6)

Salinas17 at Salinas17 at
Mon May 29 15:37:03 UTC 2006

In a message dated 5/28/06 6:02:35 PM, amnfn at writes:
<< Conversely, I'm not sure that beginning English speakers at the one word 
stage are actually using nouns when they say things like "dog" or "ball" or 
"Mommy". I don't think the category noun can have any significance if there isn't 
another category to contrast it with. >>

If all the child says is "dog" or "ball" or "Mommy" and he does not connect 
those words with anything in particular, yeah, he's just imitating sounds.  

If however he correctly identifies a dog, a ball and Mommy and does not apply 
these words to the kitchen cabinets or the trash can, then we have a clear 
"contrast" -- there is Mommy and there is all that is not Mommy.  There is a 
ball and all that is not a ball.  This is the most basic kind of definition that 
we can give any item x -- x is all that is not y.  This kind of "contrast" is 
at the very core of perception and logic - the discrimination of stimuli so 
that they achieve a less then ephemeral identity.

These words -- "dog" or "ball" or "Mommy" -- may or may not be "nouns," but 
they are certainly "nominative" in the classic Aristotelian sense of a naming.  
Animals, right down to amoebas, are able to perceptually distinguish 
modalities in their field of perception, to "contrast" some shape or form or sound 
against others, to discriminate.  But most non-human animals are simply not very 
adroit at creating observable symbolic equivalencies of those perceptual 
modalities, whether made by sound or some other form of communal signal.

What "dog" or "ball" or "Mommy" are doing is giving those objects a NAME -- a 
label, a symbolic equivalency, an independent representation made with 
specific sounds.  If I hide the ball and ask the child to find it and he looks for 
it, that shows he has grasped the symbolic nature of the word versus the 
object.  This is something that some animals can do, but compared with even very 
young human children, their repetoire appears to be small.

If the same child points out a running dog to me and says "run," he's 
probably not using a verb, he's probably naming an action.  Before the child can 
start constructing noun-verb formations, he must also be able to name actions, 
processes or relationships as well as objects.  Otherwise there is no contiguous 
material to build grammar with.

Theorists have been prone to jump to grammar and syntax in setting the 
boundary of human language lately.  (I'm reminded of what Frans de Waal said about 
the reaction after Washoe learned ASL -- ""The linguists then came up with a 
definition that emphasised syntax much more than symbols," says de Waal. 
"Sometimes we feel it's a bit unfair that they move the goal posts as soon as we get 

The basic mistake in this I believe is the artificial discontinuity created 
between the grammatical and vocabulary.  Grammar is actually a more subtle and 
intricate form of naming, but it is naming none the less.  Marked features are 
actually shorthand descriptions of relationships in time and space that could 
also be "worded-out", but are adopted for their economy.

The core of human language is a common symbolic system that approximates (to 
varying degrees of accuracy) objects, processes and relationships in the real 
world.  Any "model" that diminishes this core nature at any point is going to 
be faulty.

<<A one word language serves no function, and nobody will wait around to 
learn the
second word.>>

A one word language may not get you far.  But a vocabulary of about ten words 
helped me survive in southeast asia -- so I'm pretty sure you're wrong about 

<<Our ancestors, before they were truly human, already had a communication 
system much like that of present-day primates. Do you think they would discard 
it for something whose communicative function was much weaker, in the hopes of 
one day working their way up to modern language?>>

So you are saying a human pidgin with the barest minimum of grammar is 
"weaker" in communicative function than the "communication system" of present day 

I don't think you have that quite right.

Steve Long

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