Friday, August 20, 2004

Getting pedantic with pedantry I

During my dark time in internet isolation, I seem to have missed a very interesting post by Scott Martens of FFOE and Pedantry which responds--in part--to my “Language is misunderstanding” post. In it, Martens argues for a particular lexicalist model of ”grammar“ (although he seems not to like that word) and has some interesting things to say about a number of other topics. Although it has been some time since this post was made, I still have a few things to say about it (which will come in installments).

Central to Scott's post is the idea that language is not a collection of words and rules that reside in the minds of speakers, but rather a set of social conventions that reside in a community:
What this means is that English is defined not by a body of rules and a set of words, but as the protocol English speakers use to communicate when they believe they are speaking English. This shifts the definition of English to a definition first of the English-speaking community, and second an explanation of why they identify some communicative acts as speaking English and other communicative acts otherwise. This makes language not a property of individuals but a communal property. It sets the boundaries of what is and isn't English, and what is and isn't language, where it belongs: in the field of socially constructed categories.

I think it is undeniable that languages are social constructs, just like any other part of culture. The idea that language is purely a social phenomenon is problematic, however.

Supposing that we define English as Scott does, consider the following thought-experiment: take a group of monolingual pre-adolescents from the American heartland, who are not aware of a distinction between speaking and speaking English (anecdotally, I know that such kids exist). Transport them to a desert island. Leave them there for a generation, where they form their own isolated community. Will the language spoken by their children be English? Certainly, it will share many of the formal properties that we recognize as characteristics of English, and would be mutually intelligible with most varieties of English. However, the speakers would neither be part of the larger English speaking community, nor would they be aware that they were speaking English.

Now take a more extreme example: send a single individual of the type we have described to a desert island, sentenced to a life of isolation. Would language cease to exist in this individual? If personal experience is any guide, they are likely to continue speaking to themselves in their native language, both vocally and subvocally. This language is likely to retain almost all of the properties we identify as “English” even though it has ceased to function as a social medium. I do not believe that the social definition of a language that Scott gives us quite captures what we mean when we talk about languages. In fact, I have to concede that Chomsky has a valid point when he points out that most of the language is not spoken or written, but instead is the substance of internal monologues. There is something about language that is not social, but cognitive (a fact which Scott accepts as well). Scott denies, however, that there is any body of knowledge that can be called language, labelling the information about language stored by speakers as the lexicon. However, I think that his species of lexicon (strikingly similar to the Constructicon in some versions of Construction Grammar) is closer to the conventional sense of the word language than his social definition. I think we both agree that, the solipsist-idealist view of language that characterizes much of Chomsky's (and his fellow traveller's) thought on the subject offers little hope of really understanding why languages are structured the way they are, or why they change in the ways that they do.

What am I saying, then? Arguing whether language is a social phenomenon or a property of the minds of individuals is pointless, because it is clearly both, in the same sense that all social phenomena are constrained by the facts of individual cognition. Our theories about linguistics are constrained by these same facts, which facts explain, for example, why we don't do linguistic description with neural nets. Linguistics, as a discipline, will only be mature when the majority of its practicioners realize that there can be no single, God's-eye model that answers the ends of all linguistic investigations, be it social, formal-computational, or cognitive.


At 12:45 PM, Blogger Jason said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

At 1:13 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi, sorry, I can't remember my blogspot account or password. I just got into the office and saw your comment on Pedantry. Yes, the account of language I'm putting forward draws in part on Construction Grammar. Furthermore, I got started in the business through lexicography, translations studies, and machine translation - all areas where the weight placed on syntax as something abstracted from the lexicon has done considerable damage. So, I'm biased about claims built up around the word "grammar."

As for the individual speaking to himself, there's a rather interesting bit from Vygotsky on that. He spent a good deal of time studying young children who talk to themselves and came to the conclusion that they are rarely if ever talking to themselves. He proposed that they were talking in the belief that their words would be understood and acted upon by others. He makes a fairly convincing case that what is really going on is that the child doesn't really understand pragmatics very well. They fail to understand the notion that their speech should have an intended recipient in order to be effectively communicated. Having spent a couple years watching a toddler do just that, I suspect Vygotsky was on to something.

Have you ever listened to someone talk to themself? I'm not sure there's any real effort to use language going on. It's as if the language part of our brain is cogged into some other elements of cognition, and sometimes gets set in motion automatically when we start thinking. In social contexts, the spoken output is suppressed by social inhibition. Vygotsky drew some deep, and I suspect false, conclusions about the link between speech and thought from this, but the notion that speech is cogged to thought in some way has some resonance.

But it leads me to propose an alternative understanding of talking to oneself. If we understand cognition as a primarily social process (like Bateson, or Latour for somebody more recent), we can imagine talking to oneself as the equivalent of a computer with its ethernet cable unplugged sending pointless pings to its gateway server. We talk when we think because that's how we do things, even when we're not specifically talking to someone. It has some social and evolutionary advantages (which does not mean that I think it is instinctive). It's comparable to the notion of "situation awareness" in aviation - talking keeps others on top of what is going on and listening keeps us aware of what others are doing.

Again, this is a fairly widespread behaviour. Consider a mover who lets out a string of cuss words when he drops a piece of furniture on his foot. This is a communicative act, even without intended recipient. It mobilises aid and stops others from doing work that you need to pay attention to but can't. But, the same mover working alone does exactly the same thing if he drops somethign heavy on his foot.

The idea is that a socially inculated tendence to group activity keeps us talking even when there is no group to talk to.

As for taking children who speak English - but have no conception of it being called English or being a specific language at all - to a remote island, they of course would never think of what they speak as English. If some observer comes along and remarks at how this isolated tribe is speaking English, they are certainly giving it a socially constructed label. Imagine we had taken a group of Jamaican or Hawaiian children, who spoke native dialects that are already only marginally comprehensible as English. Then, after several generations, they spoke something that was not really comprehensible as English to a middle American visiting this lost island, but was comprehensible perhaps to a Hawaiian or Jamaican. Would we still want to label it as English?

Actually, I agree with you about the need to abandon the idea of a single all-encompasing conception of language. Language is too tied up in everything else. We would need a complete theory of everything to have a complete theory of language. I still end up in arguments with people about artificial intelligence on basically the same grounds. My main target was a different argument, with someone who probably isn't reading it, about the questionable insights of strict methodological individualism when confronted with language. I was hoping to draw him out but haven't.

As for describing linguistics with neural networks... that is not that remote from exactly what I have in mind. Actually, the structure I have in mind is a bit more general than a neural network, but it has some clear roots in linear algebra.

Scott Martens

At 12:58 PM, Blogger David Mortensen said...


Interesting reply. A couple of comments. First, I am conscious of the fact that I think, very often, in words and sentences--unuttered linguistic constructions. It seems pretty plausible to me that language, in this way, facilitates certain types of cognition that would be difficult or impossible without language and this use of language, as a cognitive tool, is not inherently social (although, as I have said, I think that the superficial structure of the tool is clearly the product of social interaction). I frequently talk to myself, which I justify as "thinking out loud", and I don't think that this justification is completely fraudulent.

On the subject of kids and islands, I am not disputing that the label "English" is social constructed--it certainly isn't rooted in biology, for example ;) Instead, I'm arguing that it is sometimes useful to characterize language as a formal (albeit underdetermined) system seperate from its social function. One could not argue that, after one generation, my isolated native American English speakers would be communicating with one another in a code more different from American English, on purely formal grounds, than other things that are recognized as "English". There must, in other words, be something that those individuals have internalized which corresponds to the cultural construct "English". My argument, of course, is not that there is nothing social about langauge. I suppose I am, instead, arguing against a strict methodological collectivism, since I think that individualist methodologies have their place in understanding what individuals internalize as language and what congitive endowment allows them to manage this feat.

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