On Everett & Piraha & Pre-Darwinism

Salinas17 at aol.com Salinas17 at aol.com
Tue Apr 24 05:13:45 UTC 2007

In a message dated 4/23/07 5:22:47 PM, Dan Everett quoted Jagdish Jain:
<<3. Dan Everett confuses "language" with "communication."  Language, 
especially syntax, is a cognitive object involving computation (merging, adjoining, 
moving,etc.) with word-sized units.>>

I'm sorry for interjecting at this point with this reaction, and I hope it 
won't be taken as too antagonistic.  I know its not the issue Dan was addressing 
or how relativist Sapir was.

But reading the above paragraph is a shock.  I'm wondering how many on this 
list agree with that statement.

It would be just as easy to be contrary, and say that someone here has 
confused "language" with "computation (merging, adjoining, moving,etc.) with 
word-sized units."  

The description seems to describe language as some kind of ever-expanding 
cognitive Rubik's cube, but leaving out any mention of the objective of all that 
merging, adjoining, moving, etc. -- or why one bit of computation, merging, 
adjoining, moving might be preferrable to any another.

But that's not the especially troubling part.  Especially troubling is how it 
is even possible to think of separating language from communication. 

If communication is NOT inherent in this definition of language, then I take 
it that language can exist independent of communication.  

I would love to see such an animal, not described in generativist analysis, 
but actually in operation -- stripped of any semblence of communication, 
speaking to no one and saying nothing, but nevertheless clicking away madly in a 
vacuum, doing "computation (merging, adjoining, moving,etc.) with word-sized 

(And please don't say I've described a computer.  Computer operations are 
entirely shaped and designed to generate an output.  Input and output are the 
defining attributes of any computer process or operation.  They determine what 
the process will be, not the other way around.)

<<cultural meanings enter the language through its lexicon, metaphors, 
metonymies, conceptual blends, etc., NOT through syntax.>>

Will someone please tell me what kind of meanings there are besides 
"cultural" meanings?  What is the addition of the word "cultural" supposed to add to 

And by the way which kind of meaning is it that syntax supplies?  Or is it 
that syntax is meaningless?  

Wait, don't syntactical changes change meaning?  Then, what kind of meaning 
is changing, if not cultural?

One gets the feeling that all this has not been well thought out.

<<Communication involves exchange of ideas, emotional states, etc. between 
two parties...>>

Communication depends first of all and most of all on common reference.  If I 
don't know what you are talking about, there will be no exchange.  If anybody 
here has any argument against this premise, please, I'd love to hear it.

How does syntax, grammar, "generativeness" contribute to a common reference?  
Well what happens when there's a flaw in syntax, in grammar?  For one thing, 
there's a loss of common reference.  Could it be that simple?

Separating language from communication is a violation of the Origin of 
Species.  It dates back to the idea that human organs were made prefab before they 
were ever put to use.  The capacity to use language -- to speak -- depended on 
having someone to speak to, who could understand that speech.  Speaking to no 
one or for no reason was not how human language started.

Human language was either about communication or it would have had no 
survival value and would have been junked by natural selection as an extravagant 
trait a long time ago.  

And of course if evolution of language capacity was driven by the need to 
communicate, then the productive aspects of language -- grammar, syntax, "verbal 
cognition" -- developed to advance communication.  Otherwise, human language 
capacity is a case of divine intervention or alien contribution -- and its not 
for naturalistic science to entertain either possibility at this time.

<<it can be done without language, as it seems that the PirahaN people 
communicate with each other by prosodic means only (humming without using any vowels 
and consonants of their language, using nasal whines, popping or flipping 
their lips,etc.) >>

This is precisely what I heard when I first heard French being spoken out 
loud in a class room a long time ago-- nasal whines, popping and flipping lips.  
The reason for the complete failure of communication had nothing to do with my 
innate language mechanism.  The reason was because in the real world there is 
no such thing as "language."  There are only languages.  And what I lacked -- 
as listener -- was commonality with the speaker.  

To learn French, I had to overcome that lack of common reference.  But 
prosody didn't hurt in the mean time.

Steve Long

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