bird song/conversation analysis

Sherman Wilcox wilcox at
Fri Jun 18 21:40:40 UTC 2010

On Jun 18, 2010, at 3:22 PM, A. Katz wrote:

> I think equating "language" with "human language" makes the question meaningless. If a language is defined as something spoken by humans, then clearly anything used by non-humans is not a language, by definition. That kind of answer is not very enlightening.

I guess this was directed to me. I'm not saying it's very enlightening. I don't think it is. I'm also not saying that I say this. I'm saying many of our colleagues do (I'm not thinking of anyone on this list). 

I just find the whole enterprise of starting with a definition to be the wrong way to approach the question. It reminds me again of my visit with Allen Gardner in Reno. He told a story about presenting some of the Washoe data early on at a psychology conference. A young professor stood up and asked, "What's your definition of language?" Allen replied, "We don't have one." The guy shot back, "Then why should I pay any attention to you?" [Allen says he's convinced that if he'd started with some definition of language -- which at the time probably wouldn't even have included ASL -- Project Washoe would never even have gotten started.]

A really insightful article on this topic is by Matt Cartmill (1990), Human uniqueness and theoretical content in paleoanthropology. International Journal of Primatology, 11(3), 173–192.



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