Language, communication and "meaning" (2)

Salinas17 at Salinas17 at
Sun Apr 29 05:29:08 UTC 2007

In a message dated 4/27/07 4:16:24 PM, dmdonvan at writes:
<< 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,... >>

Denis - The case you refer to, described in "The Mind of a Savant: Language 
learning and modularity", clearly states not only did Christopher communicates, 
he did so in multiple languages.  The authors state so expressly: "He first 
came to attention because of his remarkable ability to translate from and 
communicate in any of a large number of languages."

Denis, you also wrote:
<<This is a beautiful -- and, in my view, revealing -- example of the 
dissociability of syntax (pattern) and semantics (meaning), making for zero 

I'm not sure where you got zero "pragmatics" from.  But the disassociation of 
syntax and semantics seem to have little to do with any problems Christopher 
had with such things as discourse structure or non-literal meanings (if that's 
what you mean by pragmatics).  

In fact, the authors claimed that when it came to English, the L1, 
Christopher's performance was "perfect" on sentence testing for morphological and 
syntactic violations, but that he ONLY occasionally missed on items that required 
"semantic and pragmatic" judgments.  Being UGists, they ascribed this misses to 
problems with input from central cognition, not to any "special" diassociation 
between semantics and syntax.  

The disassociation of syntax and semantic was rather something that the 
researchers attempted to do in their research, especially with the L2 languages and 
the artificial language they had Christopher and the controls learn.

>>From my perspective, a distinction between "syntax and meaning" is like the 
difference between the trees and the forest.

Syntax is regularly necessary at the sentence level for communication.   I c
an't string a run of words together and hope you will understand them unless we 
share a COMMON understanding of the relationship of the words to one another. 
 If you don't catch the relationships -- differentiate the noun from the 
verb, etc -- I will be miscommunicating.  In that sense, syntax is simply one more 
form of common reference.  

With good syntax, we both understand the communication, because syntax 
disambiguates a string of words that otherwise could be interpreted in any number of 

Without syntax, you might hear "Spring flower flower run run."  What am I 
saying? Can you guess?  There are quite a few possible interpretations.

With syntax, you'll hear "It's Spring.  Flowers flower, and the run runs."  
The ambiguoty of the first sentence is substantially reduced.  Shared syntax 
substantially improves communication.

There's really no true disassociation between meaning and syntax.  In fact, 
in the sense of acheiving common reference -- so that we both know what we're 
talking about -- they are fundamentally the same thing.  They both mean we are 
referring at the sentence level to the same things.  

At least as much as human language permits a common understanding without the 
aid of either ESP or UG.

Steve Long

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