Analytic languages and their function. (8)

Salinas17 at Salinas17 at
Tue May 30 03:33:55 UTC 2006

In a message dated 5/29/06 2:18:53 PM, amnfn at writes:
<<When my daughter wanted one of us to come help her with something, she 
would call out: "Mama! Mama!"  It doesn't matter what the nanny or I originally 
thought "Mama" meant. It doesn't matter that most people use that word as a 
nominal or participant reference. For my daughter, it was the way to summon help. 
It was not a way to refer to anyone, because she never pointed at any person 
and said Mama.>>

I'm not sure what this proves.  The child wanted help but did not have a word 
for help?  Or were her words for "help me with something" less effective than 
saying "Mama."  What if she said "Mama! Mama! and nobody came?  Obviously, 
the listeners did not care about what she said, because they came anyway.  This 
is not special to human language.  Sound draws attention and aimed at the 
right audience will draw a response.  If "mama" has been effective on mother, it 
may be effective on others.  If "bobo" is more effective than "mama" at drawing 
a response, start using "bobo."

Of course, if "Mama" works, use it.  It's the real world consequence that 
drives language, cognition is only an intermediary.

Once again, a man touring a candy factory falls into a vat of chocolate.  He 
yells "Fire! Fire!"  After being rescued he is asked why he yelled, "Fire! 
Fire!"   He answers, "If I yelled, 'Chocolate, Chocolate', do you think anyone 
would have come?"  

All this is a completely different issue than common reference.  If Aya's 
child started calling her Taiwanese nanny, "Queen Mary" or asking for help by 
saying "leg of lamb," the anecdote was have been quite different in the point it 
was making.  Where common reference is clearly off the track, that is 
categorized as a serious language problem.

The reason we even have a guess at what a child or an adult "means" by spoken 
word is based on an assumption of commonality of reference.   If a child says 
"ya ya" to indicate that he needs to go to the bathroom, we have to learn 
that reference and incorporate it into our own set of references for 
communication to be effective.  If a child says "bathroom" to indicate that he needs to go 
to the bathroom, that is within our common reference, and it takes less work 
on the LISTENER's part to understand the intended result the child is after -- 
assuming the listener is interested in what the child is after.

<<My point with regard to the development of early human language is that 
using a symbol to stand for a concrete object which is stable through time and 
space is a very late development in language, both in ontology and phylogeny.>>

That's true and that is because -- before sounds become symbolic -- they were 
merely auditory attempts to manipulate the environment.  Yelling "Mama! 
Mama!" where "Mama" has no connection to any particular object, process or 
relationship, is equivalent to yelling "Bobo" -- the sound may elicit a response just 
because it is a sound.  What separates human language is the extent of common 
reference.  The other sounds we make are not really different than those made 
by cicadas and chimps.

<<...the parts are presented to us already broken down. However, for someone 
who has never had language comprehension, getting to that point is a very big 
deal. It's not the first thing that happens for infants, and it was probably 
not the first step we took as a species on the road to modern language.>>

The "parts" of language are merely representations of the "parts" of the 
world.  There are many folks out there who never really thought about the world 
being separable into objects and actions, despite the fact that it is easy for 
them to distinguish the two for the most part, once they think about it.  There 
are many folks out there who never really thought about language being 
separable into nouns and verbs, despite the fact that it is easy for them to 
distinguish the two for the most part, once they think about it.  

This correspondence between symbol and the real world, when it is made common 
by a common language, is what makes human language particularly effective.  
Most examples of the "holistic" nature of language are either deducible 
shorthand versions of complete statements, or examples of arbitrary sound-generation 
that acts as a simple discriminative stimulus -- whether the sound is a bell, 
a buzzer, a child shouting an ambiguous "mama" or a mating songbird repeating 
tweets and warbles in a consistent pattern.  The fact that the sound is not 
symbolic does not keep it from being effective.  But it is not distinctively 
human speech.

Steve Long

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