Thursday, May 19, 2005

Say anything

Look up language in the dictionary and you'll probably get a definition that discusses it's use as communication tooL


(2) : a systematic means of communicating ideas or feelings by the use of conventionalized signs, sounds, gestures, or marks having understood meanings


And some species of prescriptivists claim that prescriptivism is needed to preserve the communicative function of language. (see Liberman's type 4)

All this talk about communication seems intuitively right. We do in fact use language to communicate with each other. But it also strikes me as wrong. Was language really designed for communication? And if so, what type of communication?

Maybe it's just me, but I often find myself in situations where I'm struggling to say what I mean. Sometimes I have to say the same thing in different ways just to clarify the thought. And what about ineffability? I'm not talking about the mystical here, but the fact that certain sentences are ungrammatical based simply on their sytnax:


1. *What did Max eat steak and?
2. *Who did you hear the rumor that Frank kissed?


You can't say these sentences in English. You might not be able to say them in any language. Why would a communications system have that restriction?

It's kind of interesting to compare human language with other animal communication systems. Here's a typical human interaction, the type of thing you'll hear day in and day out.


Sue: Hey. How ya doing?
Bob: Not bad, and you?
Sue: Good. How about those Mets!
Bob: I'm telling you!


Compare that to a honey bee conversation (translation mine).*


Bee1: Lot's of nectar! 60 yards northeast of the hive.
Other bees travel off to nectar source.


Or to a typical vervet monkey discussion (translation mine).


Vervet 1: Look out! A Snake!
Other vervets stand up and look around.


In contrast, think about how human language fairs on communicating danger. How many times have you seen this conversation.


Fred: Hey look out for that cliff!
Barney: Huh, what? AHHHHHHHHHH


Vervets seem much better at listening to warnings.

Animal communication systems seem particularly tied to a single topic; where can I get food? is there danger? etc. But Language let's us talk about anything. But maybe not very well.


* News to me, there is some controversy as to whether bees actually use the dance to communicate at all.

1 comment:

Stuie said...

I want to go to the "human language fairs"!!

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