Language, communication and "meaning"

Denis Donovan dmdonvan at
Fri Apr 27 20:14:21 UTC 2007

At 1:05 AM -0400 4/27/07, Salinas17 at wrote:
>Even Pinker has not gone so far as to "discover" a self-blooming language
>that numbers only one person.  The pigdins or creoles that 
>supposedly support the
>LAD or UG always involve multiple speakers.  I know of no one who claims that
>learning a particular language does not involve communication.  One does not
>learn the rules of the English lexical item "put" without learning it from
>another English speaker.  Universal Grammar will not supply such information. 
>And even if it did, why would it have to be turned into sound unless someone
>else is supposed to hear it. (emphasis added)

Let me throw a pebble into this interesting stream. I can think of 
one striking case where learning a particular language didn't involve 
communication -- indeed, one where communication is of practically no 
interest to the learner. And the example involves the learning of a 
number of foreign (new) languages by the same individual. The example 
is Christopher, the subject of Ianthi-Maria Tsimpli and Neil Smith's 
book The Mind of a Savant. Smith and Tsimpli's linguistic savant is 
obsessed with learning new languages very much as one might learn 
lots of mathematical systems. His interest is in the structure, not 
the function, of language. To use Alan Watts's felicitous expression, 
in obsessively "acquiring" new languages, Smith and Tsimpli's 
linguistic savant consistently mistook the roadmap for the road. Or, 
more to the point, he can't see the road because he can't take his 
eyes off the roadmap.  This is a beautiful -- and, in my view, 
revealing -- example of the dissociability of syntax (pattern) and 
semantics (meaning), making for zero pragmatics.  Prodigious 
pattern-avidity plus prodigious memory do not (necessarily) make for 
language-as-communication. The other side of the coin, of course, is 
Williams syndrome.

Just a thought.

Denis Donovan

Bates, E. (1997). "On language savants and the structure of the mind: 
A review of Neil Smith and Ianthi-Maria Tsimpli, "The Mind of a 
Savant: Language Learning and Modularity"." International Journal of 
Bilingualism 1(2): 163-186.

Smith, N. and I.-M. Tsimpli (1997). "Reply to Bates." International 
Journal of Bilingualism 1(2).

Smith, N. V. and I.-M. Tsimpli (1995). The Mind of a Savant: Language 
Learning and Modularity. Oxford, Blackwell.

Denis M. Donovan, M.D., M.Ed., F.A.P.S.
Medical Director, 1983 - 2006
The Children's Center for Developmental Psychiatry
St. Petersburg, Florida

Mail:	P.O Box 47576
	St. Petersburg, FL 33743-7576
Phone:	727-641-8905
Email:	dmdonvan at

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