Language and "Self-Expression"

Alexander Gross2 language at
Thu May 10 04:34:32 UTC 2007

I was pleased to read the exchange between Aya, Denis, & Steve on autism &
language learning.  Perhaps you are already aware of the achievements of the
English autistic savant Daniel Tammet in this regard.  He has been dubbed
BRAIN MAN and is frequently featured on TV, radio, and in the press.  If
you're not aware of his abilities, you might want to obtain a copy of the
Discovery/Science Channel one-hour program devoted to him, also called
BRAIN MAN, as it might be useful for presenting to students.  You can read
extensively about him both on wikipedia and his own website, at:

The one-hour program contains an account of his having learned Icelandic in
a single week, sufficient to be interviewed in that tongue on an Icelandic
TV program at the end of the week.  I certainly respect him as one of the
most remarkable linguists I know of, but I still have a few doubts about
this feat.  He admits in the blog on his site to having made a few mistakes
in grammar and makes an essentially anti-mainstream argument that grammar
isn't all that important.

Here are some more comments I made about him a year ago on LANTRA, a
discussion group for professional translators:


Compared to Kim Peek, perhaps the best known autistic savant as the model
for the Dustin Hoffman film Rain Man, Daniel Tammet is quite well-spoken &
comes across as close to "normal."  And unlike Peek, his abilities extend to
a talent for learning & speaking foreign languages.

In fact, the TV producers threw in a "test" to prove these abilities.  Like
so much on television, this test was full of holes, a bit like assuming that
children who win nationwide spelling bees are actually learning something
important about language. but it was nonetheless impressive in its way.

They challenged Tammet to learn a language well enough in a week to be able
to appear speaking it on a live show with native TV news people.  The
language they chose for him was Icelandic, which they spent some time trying
to convince viewers is incredibly difficult to learn, flashing screen shots
of its slightly offbeat written form with its extra letters.  The audience
was told that he was starting entirely from scratch, though it wasn't
mentioned that he was in fact starting from a closely related language,
English. And since he was already described as a master linguist, he could
well have already known German as well.  Perhaps even another Scandinavian
language, which would have made the whole "test" something of a setup for

We were told none of this, possibly because even the show's producers
weren't aware that it was important.  Anyway, we saw him pass the test with
what appeared to be flying colors by "speaking Icelandic" with Icelanders in
excerpts from his TV appearance.

Okay, i don't want to pull any kind of personal rank as a linguist, as i am
deeply in awe of several LANTRA members for your prodigious language
accomplishments.  And for many years i have also had the good luck of
counting among my friends the UN translator Alex Schwartz, whom the Guiness
Book of Records names as the "greatest US linguist."  So I know I have a few
skills but i don't truly measure up  to what some of you on LANTRA have

But I do know i could have come close to matching Daniel Tammet's feat, at
least when i was a bit younger, if not in a week, then certainly a month.
What's more, I don't truly regard learning languages that way as any deep
test of linguistic skill, in fact I find I sometimes have to STOP myself
from learning another language I may find interesting, since I'm all too
keenly aware of the many other requirements for truly deep & useful
knowledge of a language.


None of which detracts from Tammet's many remarkable skills.  On his
website, you'll find that he also offers courses on how to learn languages
more easily.  And he has also created a language of his own, perhaps as a an
outgrowth of his condition.  It is based on Estonian, whose vowel sounds he
finds particularly attractive.

I guess I should confess that I have some practical and personal reasons of
my own for my interest in the Autism/Asperger's Spectrum.  Both my wife of
48 years & her late brother have a place on it: though an "Aspie," Ilene is
an accomplished artist/designer with a prodigious memory, Morton was a high
functioning autistic genius, the very first electronic engineer to be hired
by IBM back in 1949. He served as a VP during some of their most famous
projects, including their early MT program, which he believed would solve
most of the linguistic and technical intricacies and be ready as a
functioning prototype in time for the NY World's Fair of 1963.

all the best to all!


----- Original Message -----
From: "A. Katz" <amnfn at>
To: <Salinas17 at>
Cc: <funknet at>
Sent: Friday, April 27, 2007 10:58 PM
Subject: [FUNKNET] Re: Language and "Self-Expression"

> Communication can be intentional or unintentional. Vocalization can be
> voluntary or involuntary. In the context of a discussion of the
> separability of language structure from communication, "self-expression"
> means a form-to-meaning mapping that encodes information where the speaker
> had no intent to communicate with another.
> Sometimes the vocalization is involuntary. The speaker just couldn't help
> himself. He might prefer not to communicate, but the need to express his
> thoughts and feelings overrides his concern about sharing information. At
> other times, the speaker may be unaware that he has an audience.
> When someone cries out in pain, everyone who hears understands the
> message. But it is not a message that the injured party necessarily meant
> to send out. The urge to cry out is difficult to overcome. We might not
> others to know we are suffering. Nature made sure we would let others
> know, because it might save the lives of our group mates, who would be
> alerted to the danger.
> Babies are born with a repertoire of cries that alert caretakers to their
> needs. But a newborn does not know that there are others. The concept of
> self versus other develops much later. When a baby cries out, it is
> self-expression, regardless of the fact that for hearers the cries
> function as a form of communication, in that the baby supplies them with
> important information about its needs.
> If Abraham Lincoln had composed and spoken the Gettysburg Address without
> intending it for an audience, then it would have been mere
> self-expression. Since he did intend it for an audience, we can safely say
> that it was an intentional act of communication.
> Some people with autistic spectrum disorders master both grammar and its
> mapping onto meaning, without developing a theory of mind. When they
> speak, they comment on reality without taking into consideration what
> others will make of their comments. Their speech is motivated by self-
> expression, but they are using a language they picked up from their
> environment, so anybody listening in can understand what was said.
> Best,
>       --Aya Katz
> ================================================================
> Dr. Aya Katz, Inverted-A, Inc, P.O. Box 267, Licking, MO
> 65542 USA
> (417) 457-6652 (573) 247-0055
> =================================================================
> On Fri, 27 Apr 2007 Salinas17 at wrote:
> > In a message dated 4/27/07 4:34:58 AM, amnfn at writes:
> > <<The motive for sound-to-meaning mapping on the part of speakers can be
> > self-expression, even though the overall effect is communication with
others.  In
> > all likelihood, self expression was the initial motive of speakers, even
> > though it was communication with others that served as the force that
kept that
> > motive a part of our human behavioral repertoire.>>
> >
> > This is an example of how absolutely critical *common reference* is to
> > language.  Are Aya and I talking about the same thing when we talk about
> > "self-expression"?
> >
> > I'm not sure what Aya means by "self-expression."  I've heard the term
> > course many times.  But I'm unsure what it specifically refers to, in
> > context.
> >
> > The term "self-expression" has been used in discourse analysis, general
> > sociolinguistics and even marketing research to refer to the
> > element in language or how something is congruent with one's own sense
of identity.
> > In these areas, it's not really separate from communication, but more
> > the opposite of "group-expression"  -- conformity of ideas, styles or
ways of
> > thinking.  Look up "self-expression" on Google and you'll see that, in
> > vernacular, it usually doesn't mean anything like
non-communication"  -- quite the
> > contrary.  I believe Chomsky has used the term in connection with his
> > Speech position, which is also inherently about communication.  (Nobody
has to
> > be concerned about Free Speech if they never intend to express their
ideas to
> > anyone else.)
> >
> > Chomsky has also distinguished "self-expression" from communication, but
> > must confess I don't understand the contrast.  "Self-expression" seems
to be
> > about the origin of the message, not about who it's meant for.   When
> > spoke the Gettysburg Address, that was self-expression.  If I just quote
> > Gettyburg Address in a speech, without regard for what the words mean,
that is not
> > self-expression -- it's somebody else's.  This seems to be a logical
> > understanding of the word.
> >
> > But the context of Aya's message seems to suggest that there is some
kind of
> > non-communal use of language called "self-expression."
> >
> > I take it that this means talking to one's-self instead of anyone else.
> > would call this "self-communication", I guess.  There's no doubt it
happens all
> > the time, but just as a matter of sequence in the acquisition of
language, it
> > can only be a secondary effect.
> >
> > In order to talk to myself in English, I have to learn English first.
> > English is a communal language, shared by billions of people who spoke
it before I
> > was born.  Every single one of those people without exception were not
> > speaking English.  It had to be shared with them.  Communication is how
> > single person in the world learns a language.  No one speaks raw
> > Grammar and that's a good reason to think no one speaks it to himself
> >
> > Now, let's say I have another language -- my own private language -- my
> > "self-expression" language.  Since I don't use it for communicating with
> > but myself, it is not a normal language.
> >
> > But let's say I constantly violate the rules of grammar in my private
> > language.  What is the consequence of my violation?  Are those
expressions I make to
> > myself "unacceptible", "incomprehensible" or simply "ungrammatical?"  In
> > cases, would I say I do not understand my own private language?  Do I
> > myself on my knuckles for using bad grammar and correct myself?
> >
> > Of course, there is an advantage to this private language.  I don't have
> > worry about sharing common references with anybody else.   In English, I
> > to call a horse a "horse", or a self-expression a "self-expression" or I
> > have poor hope of being understood.  However, in my private language, I
> > call a cow a "horse", a spotted dog a "horse" and a self-expression a
"horse" and
> > have no problem with understanding myself.  I even always know which
kind of
> > "horse" I am referring to, and can also use the word as a verb or a
> > because I always know what I am referring to, even if I'm using the same
> > all those different ways.
> >
> > And no one's going to correct my "self-expression" because communication
> > others has no importance.   Turning this into audible speech, however,
> > present a problem.
> >
> > We don't hear such private "self-expression" languages spoken out loud
> > around town.  People who spout incomprehensible "self-expressions" on a
> > basis are not treated with much understanding by most folk.  They are
> > diagnosed as having mental problems.  Perhaps it would be more
enlightened to
> > consider them just people who have choosen to use their LADs and UGs for
> > non-communicative purposes.
> >
> > Regards,
> > Steve Long
> >
> >
> >
> >
> >
> >
> >
> >
> >
> >
> >
> >
> >
> >
> >
> >
> >
> >
> >
> >
> >
> >
> >
> >
> > <BR><BR><BR>**************************************<BR> See what's free
> ></HTML>
> >
> >

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