No subject

Daniel Everett dan.everett at
Tue Nov 12 08:00:57 UTC 2002

Valentina's message on the nature of discourse brings out fairly
clearly the kinds of differences that can emerge between perspectives
of social aspects of discourse-as-communication vs. linguistic aspects
of discourse-as-form-meaning-composite. The two perspectives are
related, clearly, but far from identical.

On the one hand, most species communicate. This is clear. So, E.O.
Wilson has richly documented ant-communication. All communication
relies on a form (the 'phonetics') and function ( the  'semantics') as
a bare minimum. For an ant, for example, a communication might have as
its meaning that 'there is a piece of bread here' and as its phonetics
the chemical trail it leaves (which incorporates meaning in it as
well). In the advanced social structures of primates, one expects there
to be communication at a much more advanced level and this has been
abundantly documented. In the sense then of socially mediated exchange,
I think it is fair to say that primates have discourse.

However, the research questions that animates most linguists can be
quite different from this. For most linguists, even so-called
functionalists, it is clear that Homo sapien discourse is distinguished
from that of other species by an incredibly complex 'syntax engine'. In
studying gibbon discourse, for example, one will not expect to find
clausal transitivity or absolutive case marking or telic vs. atelic
aspects playing a major communicative role. The question that readers
of this list will ask is whether this syntax engine is different in
degree or in kind from what other primates (and other living things)
possess. Chomsky's answer is that when looked at carefully, Homo
sapiens syntax is utterly unlike anything possessed by any other
species (to take one example, no other species possesses the basic
syntactic feature of recursion). Other linguists disagree and see the
syntax engine in other species, just to a more limited degree.

As someone on this list said, this latter question should be a matter
of research, not fiat. I agree enthusiastically (though Chomsky
wouldn't. It is a matter, to him, of thinking about your subject
clearly. It makes no more sense to him to debate whether, say, gibbons
have discourse than whether Wall Street bankers can fly by flapping
their arms - something falsified in any case in the late 20s and early
30s). But we do need to be clear what is meant when we talk about
discourse: if just communication and social relations, then I agree
with Valentina to some degree. If including the syntax engine, well,
that is harder to assess, but many will lean towards Chomsky's view.


Dan Everett
Professor of Phonetics and Phonology
Department of Linguistics
University of Manchester
Oxford Road
Manchester, UK
M13 9PL
Phone: 44-161-275-3158
Department Fax: 44-161-275-3187
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