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Thursday, October 13, 2005

Language Universals and Language Learning

This is a long post but it is leading up to something pretty wild and wooly.

I made reference tomy Rice professor, Trenton Wann, in my blog "What Constitutes a Human?" One of the things he taught me while I was at Rice (in class and in a lot of private chats thanks to his willingness to suffer my questions and arguments) was a deep suspicion of nativistic theories of human abilities. Before going to M.I.T., I knew that I would be running into the center of nativism in linguistics, for Noam Chomsky was arguing that we humans have an innate knowledge of language that takes the form of universal grammar. Naturally, I would be suspicious of that claim and I did not make myself popular when I expressed my doubts. One student called me "Stupid." That stung but I knew that she was being stunningly naive about what must be proved to prove that a human ability is innate. I didn't say so because I had not yet been fully admitted into the graduate program and she was a star student.

Chomsky did not hold that we speakers of English are born knowing English. That would be a very silly claim to make and Chomsky is not a silly man. It is evident to anyone who looks that the language anyone learns is a function of what language is spoken at home and, when it is different from the "official" language of the society, the language that is taught at school. Thus in the Arab world, everyone learns a regional variety of Arabic at home, and at school kids learn the standard language, which is more or less the language of the Koran. (I am not sure about the actual relationship between the standard language and the language of the Koran.)

What Chomsky meant by our having an innate knowledge of language is that we have an innate universal grammar. Against such a notion, it has long been recognized that languages can be very different in their "surface" structure, that is can be different as to such things as the specific sounds employed, how these sounds are organized into word bits called "morphemes", how these morphemes are combined to form words, and how words are combined to form phrases and sentences. There are languages like Vietnamese that exhibit very little morphology (noncomplex words not containing morphemes marking tense (walk vs. walked, number (boy vs. boys), gender (prince vs princess), case (she vs. her), etc. Such languages tend to exhibit strict word order so that case relations (subject vs indirect object vs direct object, etc.) are indicated clearly (Bill loves Sue doesn't mean Sue loves Bill). Other things marked by morphemes are provided by context in such languages. Though I have used English for all of my examples, English also exhibits very little morphology. Latin, as those who were, like me, forcibly introduced to it will know, exhibits a good deal of morphology and therefore can allow greater freedom in word and phrase order (such differences often reflecting other aspects of interpretation besides literal or conventional meaning).

There are polysynthetic languages like Inuktitut (an Eskimo language) in which whole sentences can be expressed in a single word thanks to the fact that many morphemes can attach to the word root that would in Vietnamese be individual words. This creates some serious problems for the notion of a universal grammar.

Most languages seem to distinguish the subject from predicate (verbs, both main and helping verbs, and direct and indirect objects and adverbials (prepositional phrases and one word adverbs such as to the store and there.) However, there is trouble in paradise. There are languages that vary substantively in the order of main elements. We have the SVO languages (subject, verb, object, as in English), SOV languages (Japanese), which though different from the English pattern, maintains the subject-predictate structure, VOS (a relatively rare type, but found in Malagassy, and also a language preserving the subject predicate distinction), and VSO (a very rare type, but found in Hixkaryana, which messes with the idea that every language exhibits the subject-predicate structure). And, to screw up the works some more, there are ergative languages like Basque (itself a total mystery as to its relationship to other languages) that treat the subject of an intransitive very like sleep and the object of a transitive verb like kiss the same way morphologically. The best web page I found in a quick Google search on language differences and similarities is one by Paul Hagstrom.

Despite all this variation there do seem to be some language universals which can be seen as evidence of the existence of universal grammar. As the site done by Hagstrom notes, many are implicational, stating for instance that if a language has property p, it will also have property q. So, if a language has nasal vowels (the vowel in the English word can) as part of its basic repertory of vowels (not true of English), it will also have nonnasal vowels (French is an example). But in general, to salvage the notion of universal grammar one must look to quite abstract language properties that are shared.

There is another factor to consider in evaluating whether there is a universal grammar that we are born with and this is that there seems to be a differential ability in learning languages between children (from 2 to12, roughly) and adults. Adults can clearly achieve great fluency in learning languages and some would argue that the difference has less to do with age, which equates to brain maturation and structural changes, than social, psychological, and educational factors (immersion vs learning in classes). For an overview, check out this site by
Ji-yeon Kook. I have significantly departed from my areas of expertise and won't take a position on this issue. However, it has been reliably reported that fluent nonnative speakers don't react instinctively to cursing they way native speakers do and that they are not as clear as to what is and is not a grammatical sentence in the dialect they share with native speakers.

One can also take the position that we have no language-specific innate cognitive capacity but rather we are born with a limited vocal apparatus that restricts us to a set of sounds that we can make with some being more easily made than others (stop consonants vs. others and nonnasal vowels vs. nasal vowels) and a powerful perceptual-cum-conceptual apparatus that allows us to learn that events exist that involve various sorts of relationships among them, such things as simple relations (John is tall or John kissed Mary involving an entity and a property or an actor, an action, and an acted upon) to complex causal connections (John killed the ant being cognitively parsable as John acted in such a way as to cause the ant to come to die). It could be argued that we bring that conceptual apparatus plus our developing capacity to master sound production plus our perceptual (visual and auditory) apparati to bear on language learning. (I know it is uncouth to use "plus" but I don't really care.) I would take the position that if we have these various nonlinguistic learning abilities they must themselves be innate to at least some degree for saying that we are born with a blank slate and we learn to learn before or as we learn things seems profoundly improbable.

There is still another possibility, of course, and that is that there are some language universals and there is an independent cognitive apparatus, both being innate, that we bring to bear on learning the language data we are exposed to. Nothing complex is ever just one way or the other contrary to what True Believers tend to think.

What I am going to assume here is that we do not start off with a blank slate upon which experience writes its lessons but that we have some sort of innate abilities that facilitates our learning languages. It is clear by now that though primates can be taught to communicate using symbolic language, none has ever acquired anything like a human language, namely a language that allows the embedding of one sentence inside another (I saw the boy who left) along with many other complex linguistic properties. However, the fact that they can communicate to some degree using symbolic language and can even, or so it is reported, learn some such symbols on their own does show that primates do enjoy some sort of very limited cognitive/linguistic abilities like ours. But, in contrast, human children not only learn language on their own (parents and others provide valuable input but don't teach their children their language -- they wouldn't know how) and vastly quicker than primates learn what they learn, they can learn several languages at once even when one is American Sign Language or some other sign language used by those who are hearing impaired (if that is the current PC designation.)

This is a long post, as many of mine have been, but I won't apologize for that. Let me add just one more thing. To prove that there are linguistic universals, there must be some property of one or more languages that cannot be learned from experience (from experiencing the primary language data they are exposed to and does not correspond to an independently needed cognitive ability (including thinking, memory, and all the rest). That is tough to do. But it is absolutely worth trying to do it.

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85 Comments:

Blogger L>T said...

language guy, Iam so glad you changed the suject! Last nite I dreamed of floating fetuses. I really am going to read this one allthe way thro, and try to give a inteelegent well thot out answer.

12:33 PM

 
Blogger cikuism said...

It's me again. Got to sleep later on.

This post reminds me of telepathy.
"Telepathy" is derived from the Greek terms tele ("distant") and pathe ("occurrence" or "feeling"). See more detail via http://www.themystica.com/mystica/articles/t/telepathy.html

Would like to read more but...(yawning)...will be back tomorrow, Mike. Good night.

12:39 PM

 
Blogger Christopher Willard author of Garbage Head said...

Easy for you to say.

12:47 PM

 
Blogger Language Guy said...

Ah, Chistopher, you have used an occurrence of "you" the referent of which is not clear.

1:38 PM

 
Anonymous Peter Kleiweg said...

Language Guy, you wrote: It is clear by now that though primates can be taught to communicate using symbolic language, none has ever acquired anything like a human language, namely a language that allows the embedding of one sentence inside another. Human language does not allow embedding of one sentence inside another. We just learn a few types of sentences, one that looks like a simple sentence, another that looks like a sentence within a sentence. If we could truly embed sentences within sentences, we would have sentences that look like a sentence within a sentence within a sentence, and sentences that look like a sentence within a sentence within a sentence within a sentence, etc. And that is not the case. Some theorist like Chomsky can use his rules to construct such a sentence within a sentence within a sentence within a sentence (and doing this, claiming he has identified the uniqueness of Home sapiens), in real life, those sentences do not occur. Simply, because we cannot produce them or understand them under normal circumstances.

Another thing you wrote: But, in contrast [to primates], human children not only learn language on their own. Actually, sign language was learned by primates from other primates. Humans taught sign language to one bonobo, others picked it up, and the bonobos used it among themselves.

Yes, there are differences between humans and other animals. But they are differences of gradation. None of these things are unique to humans. Either we don't have them, or we share them at least to some degree with primates.

And this universal grammar thing? It is just one more of the many things Chomsky made up without bothering to prove it.

4:23 PM

 
Blogger FARfetched said...

I was mulling over some of this a night or two ago, primarily the difference in language capability between humans and other species. While we tend to assume only humans can speak, animals have a number of means (besides vocalizations) for communicating: body language (including gestures), pheromones, dance (bees), and perhaps others.

Humans use some of these other means for communications as well, and I wasn’t really thinking about ASL. While we tend to think of speech as primarily a vocal function, we often use body language as an emotional marker — thus, one’s words may sound angry or horrified while facial expression or gestures might indicate a completely different emotion.

Unfortunately, as we do more and more of our communication online, we’ve found that body language is really what carries the emotional content — even more than intonation, although intonation can carry the day over the phone. But online, I can write something that I consider humorous or breezy, and others could find it insulting or robotic, because they can only deduce my emotional state from the words on their screen. Thus, we have smilies and other attempts to make emotional context explicit.

Coming back to Chomsky’s universal grammar, I’ve always wondered whether he was reading more into it than necessary. Saying we’re pre-wired to communicate using a spoken language is a great big DUH... it’s like saying that ants are pre-wired to communicate through pheromones. Trying to attach a deeper meaning than that is... I don’t know, self-defeating?

5:01 PM

 
Blogger Dancing Crow said...

One can also take the position that we have no language-specific innate cognitive capacity

Noam Chomsky was arguing that we humans have an innate knowledge of language that takes the form of universal grammar.

It is my position that language develops
to keep pace with an organisms increasingly complex life.

Technology, complex spirituallism, and
more complicated choices drive the developement of higher levels of communication.

This tends to support your assertion that we lack language-specific innate
cognitive ability. This ability could very well exist anyway but as a set of highly evolved learned behaviors.

6:27 PM

 
Blogger Language Guy said...

Peter, we can say thinks like "I think that you believe that Mary thinks Joe is happy but its not true." Show me a primate that can do that. I can't imagine anyone knowing much of anything about language who believes that primates have anything like a human linguistic ability. It is just so wrong.

I am no fonder of Universal Grammar than you are and as you should have inferred from my opening comment about my disbelief in nativistic theories in general. And I agree about Chomsky's theory fabrication. He went nonempircal decades ago. It was very disappointing.

6:28 PM

 
Blogger Language Guy said...

Dancing Crow I am with you more or less completely. If you look at my book "Speech Acts and Conversational Interaction" you will finding me arguing, indirectly, that we do not have "grammars" in our head of the sort Chomsky posits. Hence no universal grammars.

6:31 PM

 
Blogger arzenne said...

the way I see it nature is highly communicative in ways that we are not even cosciously aware of dna has permitted that if we look at the cave drawings that is very sophisticated communication and you combine that with hereditary learning and you realize that the human brain is ready to roll in terms of dna language and dna is universal

this isnt proper philosophical argumentation however I think I made a point?

6:40 PM

 
Anonymous Peter Kleiweg said...

Language Guy, funny you should give that example: "I think that you believe that Mary thinks Joe is happy but its not true." This is a sentence without embedding! The key question is, do you need recursive rules to describe the way we use language? Your examples gives a repetition, which can be described with iterative rules. You can use recursive rules to describe it, but you don't need to. People have no problem using this type of sentence, even if it grows much larger. It's just iteration, and that is not a language faculty that is unique to humans.

Let me give two examples.

With embedding: "The cat that the dog that the man bought chased died."

Without embedding: "The man bought the dog that chased the cat that died."

The first is hard to understand. Try inserting another subsentence within, and another, and it becomes utterly unintelligible. You don't have this problem with the second sentence. It stays intelligible because people can process it without having to apply syntax rules recursively.

(You should make the image for the word verification be sent with a no-cache paradigm. I got the same image as when I posted a comment earlier, and the text I type gets rejected.)

7:21 PM

 
Blogger LifeNLimb said...

I was just reading Thomas Kuhn and he was talking about how languages can't truly be translated,only interpreted, because words are social values, symbols that we use to, as Sartori would say 'slice up'our surroundings...good times

11:14 PM

 
Blogger L>T said...

O.K., I'm going to take a stab at this.
I think, perhaps...There is an innate ability that facilitates our learning languages. It's the drive to wrestle w/the concepts of the world around us. As our concepts mature, so does our need to communicate them to others, as we see other more mature humans do. That is the innate drive to develop language. As for linguistic universals, do you mean a universal sound or word meaning?
Phew! my brain hurts

11:53 PM

 
Blogger redhead83402 said...

Isn't language fascinating?? I have found that through learning Latin, you can decipher any Latin based language ~ and thereby understand the culture of that language all the better. For instance, in English, we say ~ What is your name? ~ and in Spanish, we say ~ Como se llame? ( which translated directly means What are you called) ~ and in French ~ translated literally ~ your title is? ~ All different ways of saying it, all clues into the mentality of the culture. So many languages deal directly with ideas, rather than separate words added together to make an idea ` such as saying ~You are welcome ~ in English, and saying ~Mi casa su casa ~ in Spanish, translated meaning, my home is your home. Fascinating!!

12:35 AM

 
Blogger Language Guy said...

Peter you are confusing self-embedding with embedding. I think you don't understand what embeddig means in linguistics. In "I know that John is here and you know it too" "it" refers back to "that John is here." "It" is a part of the main clause and it substitutes for an embedded sentence BY DEFINITION. Now do we need recursive rules or iterative rules. I am not sure there is a difference in such a case. And both raise the same question as to when do you cut the embedding/iteration off. Chomsky's position and it is quite reasonable is that it is arbitrary to cut it off after 3 or 5 or 10 recursions/iterations. Its better to say that so far as grammar goes it is endlessly recursive/iterative but our memory-cum-processing capability cannot handle recursions/iterations beyond a certain point.

6:45 AM

 
Blogger Language Guy said...

lifenlimb, words carry conventional/literal plus social meaning with the latter having to do with meaning as significance rather than ligeral/conventional meaning. See the blog "The Meaning of Meaning."

6:47 AM

 
Anonymous Peter Kleiweg said...

Language Guy, I think I understand better than you do what embedding means. There is no such thing as a self-embedded sentence. You can only embed a sentence within another sentence. There is a distinction between embedding and centre-embedding, but that is just a technical thing. You can embed a sentence "within" another sentence before the first word or after the last word, and you can call this embedding, but it is as pointless as adding zero. When I refer to embedding, I refer to what the grammarians who want to be technically precise refer to as centre-embedding.

Embedding (i.e. centre-embedding) can only be handled by recursive rules, and that is were the memory limit comes in. You don't have this problem with iteration. People can handle very well a sentence with five, ten, or a hundred iterations.

Now, Chomsky may think that a recursive description of language is fine, that the memory limit is just a human thing and thus irrelevant to language, but in doing so, he separates language from language user. He poses properties about a theoretical language, not about a natural, human language. (Other such mirages are deep structure and transformations, and gaps and traces, all things that are shown not to exist in human language processing.)

You don't need rules for embedding if there is a limit to the embedding, and eliminating those recursive rules gives a language model that is much better in tune with what we know from cognition science.

Your example sentence "I know that John is here and you know it too" is not very relevant. Yes, you can also say "I know that John is here and you know that John is here too", and that looks like an embedded clause, but that does not mean that "it" in the first sentence substitutes for a part of the second sentence. The "it" is a reference to established meaning, like every word is a reference to meaning. It is part of pragmatics, not of syntax. It really has nothing to do with embedding. So I think you should show that definition, because I think you are misinterpreting something.

10:04 AM

 
Anonymous cj said...

So which is not true? What Mary thinks? or that Joe is happy? Inquiring minds want to know.

10:22 AM

 
Blogger Alex said...

"perceptual-cum-conceptual apparatus"

Is the key point here...

R2000

10:44 AM

 
Blogger psychdude said...

fascinating, but way over my head.

10:56 AM

 
Blogger Language Guy said...

Peter, I had a senior moment in my comment about self-embedding. You are right that there is no such thing.

As for the need for recursion, I actually suspect I have no dog in this fight. In my last book on speech acts and conversation, I presupposed a very different kind of grammar from anything that Chomsky has imagined, one in which syntactic, semantic, and pragmatic elements work together in sentence production and perception. Indeed, the model Chomsky put forth according to which we have a grammar in our heads that is put to use in language perception and understanding I reject totally.

Linguists typically come at language from the same persepective that language perceivers do, which is analytic. So, it makes sense to them that when we hear a sentence, we parse it formally (phonetically, morphologically, and syntactically), and then we asign a conventional/literal meaning to it, and then we assign an interpretation to it in context.

If you approach language from the other direction, namely speech production, that model becomes quite useless. It is quite clear that in perception what we go for is the "gist" of a sentence (much psychological evidence) and I argued in my last book that in language production, we have something we wish to communicate -- I called it a "gist" or an utterance significance -- and we associate with that various pragmatic elements reflecting style, register, politeness, etc., and then associate a linguistic form with it.

IMO, what we have in our head is a complex "munge" (as a computer science collaborator and I called it) consisting of a complex network of pragmatic, semantic, and syntactic elements that represents our lingusitic knowledge and that there is no grammar as Chomsky perceives it to be found there -- just grammatical knowledge.

That's probably not clear but I took a chapter or two in the book to talk about it.

1:10 PM

 
Anonymous Peter Kleiweg said...

I doubt there is any grammatical knowledge in our heads except the kind we learn at school. And we can do very well without that. Using language is all skill and no knowledge.

5:17 PM

 
Blogger remmaps said...

Dan "Dan Riehl" Riehl

Riehlworld "Riehlworld" Riehlworld

Riehl "Riehl Natalee" Natalee

Dan Riehl "Dan Riehl Lies" Lies

Dan Riehl "Dan Riehl" Lies

5:52 PM

 
Blogger Frida said...

Animals don't have a language because they don't have the desire or knowledge to express an abstract idea.

Humans have a language in which to express an abstract idea. This language follows very basic rules.

Children are immersed and assimilated into their language of the birth parents as well as their country.

Deaf babies babble with their hands.

Those are just the basic concepts.

Animals. Isn't possible, not probable but possible, that humans have missed the vocal or social cues that animals may have for abstract thought? Coco learned sign language, we have never learned gorilla. Coco signed “I love you.” You could argue she didn’t know what love was but can you tell me exactly what it is? No it is an abstract. It might be different for me.

Here's an idea, which may only be cognitive dissidence, Coco learned sign when she was no longer in the wild. She no longer had to focus solely on survival. Humans who are very focused on survival, not a comfortable living, seem to have poor communication skills. Do you think there is a connection? The proper usage verses life?

6:38 PM

 
Blogger Mistress Gita said...

Language guy, have you read Sartori? He diagrams the whole process...the connotation-denotation... like if I am talking about democracy there are many things that can fall under that umbrella-some things we could measure-like voter turn out-and other broader concepts you can't-like civic mindedness-i'd go on but it is late and my head is swollen with beer...

5:30 AM

 
Blogger J_G said...

Language Guy, I (meaning Jennifer Gallagher) am clearly out of my leagues (meaning I am not on the same level of education that you (meaning Language Guy) are).I will be reading (meaning learning and understanding) more about your understanding and knowledge of the Language in the future (meaning the many weeks to come). Your blog (weblog) is very informative and I am very interested in your subject of "Language and it use". I am a political observer and sometime participant, "blogger" (meaning I'm basically full of hot air) I do like to make a clear understanding of what I have written or said. My use of language is not quite as important as the forms of language that are used in the making and interpretting of laws, rules and regulations. I am very concerned with the ways language is used for those intended purposes though. I shall return. Thank you

10:00 AM

 
Blogger S.R. Deardorff said...

Will you, repeat after me, if you are your master, answer the question which came before the after?

12:55 PM

 
Blogger Salbert said...

Your post was so long I didn't read it. Check out my blog t coffeeandstockblog.blogspot.com if you like coffee, stocks, and everything in between.

2:45 PM

 
Blogger Engel said...

I just found your site. Consider it bookmarked! Now I can stop having Borders order linguistics books for me. Check out mine if you get a chance. I just wrote a blog referencing language.

5:16 PM

 
Blogger joan said...

Hi Mike,

I wanted to give you accolades for posting your clearly formed ideas in this blog. I hope that the nasty and cantankerous responses from Evangelical Christians will not wear you down.

I had to make that difficult decision about 5 years ago, and yes, I would have left the country to do it if I had been forced to.

The difficulty is exactly as you said, the far right has whipped this impossible-to-solve debate into a useful tool to continue to capture the minds and resources of their easily led bible thumping throngs.

I applauded Hillary Clinton's eloquence in her speech of 1-26-05:

"This decision, which is one of the most fundamental, difficult and soul searching decisions a woman and a family can make, is also one in which the government should have no role. .....This decision is a profound and complicated one; a difficult one, often the most difficult that a woman will ever make. The fact is that the best way to reduce the number of abortions is to reduce the number of unwanted pregnancies in the first place."

I was a working woman in my early 40s, on birth control. The pregnancy was discovered weeks after the demise of a three year relationship. It was a very difficult decision that I still have a hard time with, but I very much believe it was the right thing for me to do. My beliefs are such that I feel that the entity and my God were fully accepting of the situation, I neither feel or felt judged or wrong.

I hope that you can keep up the good work trying to dook it out with these literally 'unreasonable' people.
Unfortunately there is a simingly unlimited number of 'comers' who will incessantly attack.

See you in your blog... (I actually just have an interest in linguistics and recently have become semi fluent in Italian, so that is how I found your blog, not the 'debate'.

7:17 PM

 
Blogger Dancing Crow said...

I am in over my head here.
Seriously out in the deeps in this blog.

I have one sort of off topic item to add to this discussion though.

I have been told education starts out as divergent subjects, but the further one progresses in any divergent field, the more likely one starts to find the material turning convergent.

Your discussion is a good case in point. You started out in advanced English and now the discussion resembles Developmental Psychology!

Wow! this is too much for me. Cool!

8:39 PM

 
Blogger TRis. said...

Really interesting post, LG. If you want some interesting reading, I recommend a book I'm reading right now about a pygmy chimp (bonobo) male named Kanzi who learned language and was very able to communicate with his mother and his human keepers through symbols. It's called Apes, Language and the Human Mind by Savage-Rumbaugh.

8:49 PM

 
Blogger L>T said...

Where is the promised wild & woolly? You know the lusty one needs the wild & woolly. We luv you, Language guy.

1:06 AM

 
Blogger Mr. Baatard said...

That was so interesting, I think i'm going to post a link to your blog on my blog.

1:14 AM

 
Blogger L>T said...

Oh gosh, I am sooooo embarrased (you ever notice how embarrased sounds like bare-assed) forget I said the luv word, O.K.? I do think smart is sexy, though.

1:23 AM

 
Blogger stephen blogger said...

About: a greeting…a feedback comment…a story…a invitation:
Hello to the "articulate guy" from Bill (alias stephen blogger)My word, you are good at too. Interesting post, so here is a feedback.
Q: What is a human being?
A: For here lies creativity
With endless possibility
Primordial and balanced by Nature.

Just a friendly note and short story to introduce myself on your Blog. I can be found on http://mybloggingoodday.blogspot.com/ if you wish to do the same.
If not, that’s okay too.
Kind regards – Bill.
Now for the short story, but in colloquial English:

The Celestine Potholes by Stephen Blogger:

Anyways, I’ve just found the “extra manuscripts”. You know the ones that got lost in South America, or was it India? Anyways, it’s addressed to J. Redsfields, but I don’t know him…I’ve never met him, although I have read his book about “The Celestine Potholes”. Anyways, The Newspapers, Boobs @ Abs Magazine and other Comic Books would not publish my translation ‘cause I’m not famous with my boobs and abs.

The Commercial Television stations don’t want a bar of it ‘cause it ain’t got no Products in it. The BBC said to send it to the ABC for translation first, The Gover’ment said I’ve gotta become a Politician before they will read it and Science don’t understand it – neither do I, so the best place for it is on the Garbo-net…sorry, I mean the Internet. So if someone out there that understands it…and can read my rotten writing? then please let me know A.S.A.P. when I get back from my Paste-up Travels. Well here goes…my techno translation of “The Celestine Potholes” that is.

p.s. Don’t know whether it’s important or not, but there’s something really weirdo at the bottom of this manuscript, it says (i times d) plus the square root of (m) plus (LN times CM) equals H this-way-Albert”. Must be something to do with Albert Stein – or was it Joe Stein? Maybe it was Eff Stein, anyway some Stein – have included it in case it helps Academia and Hollywood…not forgetting the Pentagon either, as they know everyfing what is going on in the world first from the late night show on the Commercial television.

Plus, it says what’s faster than the Speed of Light? the Speed of Thought of course…and that’s really weirdo, `cause every one knows that the speed of light is the fastest thing in Relative Creation. At least that’s what it says in all the funny science books that I pinched, sorry, I mean borrowed from the library. You know, E equals MC squared or somefing, not T equals PP squared to infinity, like what Alfiewhatsitallabout says. Anyways, you’ve got the brains, so work it out and post me back the answer…so I can get some sleep.

p.p.s. There’s a load more here – manuscripts that is! So I’ll go a paste a few up on some Notice-boards down Town, O.K?...just to keep the ball rolling while you sort it all out and I can translate the rest of the manuscripts into good English and good American…for the Pentagon that is. Plus the one I’m on at the moment don’t make sense at all – so I’ll have to go and see the “Boss” about it on the way – after my Tea break that is.

Signed – Stephen Blogger @ www.alfsworldgripes.com

9:01 AM

 
Blogger Frank Sauce said...

It has been some years since my "I love Chomsky" days, but I remember that he was a structuralist and his theory was called "Deep Structure," not universal language. I don't believe he went as far as to say it was genetic, either. However, "Colorless green ideas sleep furiously" is a semantically meaningless/absurd, but syntactically correct for a sentence in English. Perhaps there is something to be said for genetic predispostion to a certain "deep structure?" Most of us in the west have our genetic sources within the west.

The other thing of note is about language acquisition. Language acquisition becomes much more difficult for people around the ages of 13-15 (yes, of course, there are acceptions, but this is a general observation). A person of the age of 10 will learn fluency much more rapidly then a person of 30. The 10 year old's ability to understand idiomatic expression may be more substantial, also. The younger person is still in the stage of behavior development, thus their behavior (the individual expression of a culture's norms and mores) is much more elastic.

Deep Structure as a theory should be dead. While I can't quote any sources, my memory is that Chomsky later redefined his theory through the lens of post-structuralist theory. His brilliance currently concerns itself with the socio-political realm of the mass-media and people of the US would be much better informed if they heeded a few of his more important lectures.

A great blog though, language guy. Thank you.

1:39 PM

 
Blogger J_G said...

I hope this isn't going to be another one of those pseudo-intellectual conversations on abortion. I was hoping to find better ways of using the language that I believed I understood. I am a Christian and I don't like being made fun of because of my faith. I can talk intelligently enough to say that just because someone is well educated in one subject it does not always mean that a person is educated enough to talk intelligently in another subject. This is your blog LG but I am hoping that you can stick to the subject of language and not let your political leanings or whatever hostilities you have for Christians interfere with that subject. I have friends that are atheists and we steer clear of subjects that we know we will disagree on. My atheist friends and I can talk about subjects that are common interests to us without the need to try and belittle or injure each other. I know it is hard to do but disagreeing without being disagreeable is something we can all work towards.

2:33 PM

 
Blogger Language Guy said...

Peter says "Using language is all skill and no knowledge." This is total nonsense as it stands. Are you saying that speaking German is like skills like riding a bicycle or skiing down hill or kicking a ball into a net putting a wicked curve on it? If so, you couldn't be more mistaken. What is worse even these "skills" presuppose acquired knowledge.

There is a notion of "expert sytems" that I should blog about some day that could be what you are getting at. Our language processing is blazing fast and that wants an explanation. I believe it is inconsistent with the idea that we employ a grammar in the ordinary sense of the term and run through the rules of phonology, morphology, etc. in processing it. Rather, it seems that we short-circuit the process that we employ what computer scientists would call "compiled knowledge." It is something like that that seems to underline certain skills like medical diagnosis.

Doctors do not go back to medical first principles and reason from them and your symptoms to a diagnosis. They seem to short-circuit the resoning process and go directly from the symptoms to the diagnosis employing compiled knowledge, i. e., an expert system. IMO, that is what goes on in language processing. You can call it a skill if you want to but there is knowledge in the head underlying it.

8:07 AM

 
Anonymous Peter Kleiweg said...

Total nonsense, yeah, that is a very good argument, Language Guy. I get the strong impression you don't really know much about language. Like Chomsky, you make things up while you go along, assuming things are such and such because that is how it makes sense to you. Please show me how using language involves any language knowledge, not with more assumptions, but with fact.

10:19 AM

 
Blogger Language Guy said...

Peter, I can't argue against a position that has not be articulated. You don't say what you mean by "skill" and you don't provide any arguments in support of your view. When you do, I will argue against it. Until then, I will go with what I think "skill" means and say your position is nonsense since skills presuppose knowledge. You are the one who has made up something -- this utterly mysterious notion of "skill" that does not presuppose knowledge. I am done with you until you articulate what you mean.

7:22 AM

 
Anonymous Peter Kleiweg said...

Well, Language Guy, "skills presuppose knowledge". What dictionary are you using? You are the one who is doing the presupposing, not me. It is not my task to prove the nonexistence of pink elephants. You come up with all these ideas about language, based on a lot of assumptions. I just point out the false or unproven assumptions. You're done with me? Well, if "you don't understand" and "total nonsense" are your arguments, you better just keep ignoring anything that doesn't fit with your ideas. You look so much smarter that way.

11:20 AM

 
Blogger Marc André Bélanger said...

Once again, coming late...

I mostly agree with LG's position. I have so far never encountered a true language universal that couldn't be explained.

A few comments on the comments:
About (centre-)embedding, the sentence "L'homme qui a vu l'homme qui a vu l'ours est mort" is readily understandable in French. I know of no native French speaker who would have problems with it. Perhaps, in discussing things like embedding, in the context of "universal grammar" we should have example from other languages than English.

I concur with LG's observations on the "angle of approach" of linguistics studies. There is a kind of "top-down" vs. "bottom-up" distinction. Coming from a theory (psychomechanics) which was more into the bottom-up approach, this is even more obvious to me. In this theory, sentence construction starts with words, not structure.

Peter: when you say "I doubt there is any grammatical knowledge in our heads except the kind we learn at school" could you define "grammatical knowledge"? Do you mean grammarbook-type knowledge, or knowledge of how words work with each other?

Frank: "Colorless green ideas sleep furiously" could mean "New [green] ideas with no political orientation [colorless] are left unsaid [sleep] though they rage in some minds". "Most of us in the west have our genetic sources within the west". My friend whose parents are Hungarian (not a Western language) is a native English speaker.

I agree the skills imply knowledge. Unless we agree on a mcuh more restrictive definition of what constitute "knowledge". Knowledge is not necessarily "sayable". Cannot necessarily be expressed in words. Before going further, I think that both LG and Peter should tell us what they mean by that word, and by "skill".

12:10 PM

 
Anonymous Peter Kleiweg said...

The sentence L'homme qui a vu l'homme qui a vu l'ours est mort has only one level of embedding. I doubt the French can understand a sentence with four or more levels of embedding, any better than other people.

Marc André Bélanger, I don't think there is any point trying to define something that isn't there. If people claim we use grammatical knowledge when we use language, it is up to them to define it.

How does skill imply knowledge? When I ride a bicycle, usually, I use knowledge about my environment. I know the traffic rules. I know where I am, I know where I want to go, and I know what route to take to get there. But I don't know how to actually ride a bike. I don't know how to keep from falling over, and yet I don't fall. Put me on a bike on the middle of a square, with no other traffic to consider, with amnesia as severe as for me not to remember my name, and I can still ride on my bicycle. It is a skill. Riding itself does not involve knowledge.

1:57 PM

 
Blogger Language Guy said...

Thanks Marc André. The problem of understanding here between Peter and me may turn on the distinction Chomsky made ages ago between explicit and tacit knowledge. When Peter speaks of grammatical knowledge our teachers taught us, he is, I imagine, speaking of explicit knowledge -- the sort of knowledge you could recall and recount to others. However, as Chomsky correctly argued the linguistic knowledge even untutored speakers have is tacit knowledge.

The notion of tacit knowledge must sound mysterious to some. There is evidence of such knowledge in the native speaker's ability to make judgments about their languages they can't explain. Everyone who knows English natively knows that there is something wrong with "Who did the boy who kissed left town." However, the average speaker couldn't explain why he knows that. Similarly, most speakers know that "Lions have manes" and "If something is a lion, it has a mane" are both true and make similar claims. They furthermore know that the fact that female lions don't have manes doesn't falsify "Lions have manes" but does falsify "If something is a lion, it has a mane." Again, most speakers can't explain facts like these. Speakers know that "kfit" couldn't be an English word but couldn't tell you why. In each of these and numerous others that could be cited we are dealing with things speakers know, but can't explain. That is what Chomsky meant when he spoke about "tacit" knowledge. I may disagree with Chomsky on a lot of things but not this.

Peter will have to explain what he means by a skill that doesn't presuppose knowledge of any kind. Walking might be an example. Talking definitely isn't.

2:41 PM

 
Blogger Marc André Bélanger said...

Peter doesn't "think there is any point trying to define something that isn't there." How can you say that something isn't there if you do not know what it is? If we don't define (even a little) that "thing", if we don't agree on what it is or not, how can we know if it exists or not?

As for skills: "But I don't know how to actually ride a bike." For starters, you know how to sit on the bike, where to put your feet, etc.
"with amnesia as severe as for me not to remember my name" you're still talking about expressable knowledge. Is that, in your mind, the only kind of knowledge there is?

3:50 PM

 
Anonymous Peter Kleiweg said...

Tacit knowledge, another invention of Chomsky? Language Guy, you have a way of using a lot of words to keep avoiding the question: what is the knowledge that is involved in using language? Instead of knowledge, now it is "tacit knowledge". Knowledge, but not exactly knowledge, and you can not call it skill. Well, that really make things very clear.

In what sense is talking different from walking? Not just different, but definitely different? In what sense is Who did the boy who kissed left town different from walking in two left shoes?

3:53 PM

 
Blogger Marc André Bélanger said...

Peter, you still haven't define what you mean by knowledge, what it encompasses and not. As for "tacit knowledge" that is far from being an invention of Chomsky.

As for the L'homme qui a vu l'homme qui a vu l'ours est mort, it may be just me, but I see 2 levels of embedding: L'homme [qui a vue l'ours [qui a vu l'homme]] est mort.
We could say and understand, without much problem, i>L'homme qui a vu l'homme qui a vu l'homme qui a vu l'homme qui a vu l'ours est mort...

3:58 PM

 
Anonymous Peter Kleiweg said...

Marc André, read back my first and third message on this page. I ignore the trivial case of embedding that is not centre-embedding. The "embeddings" you see are not centre-embeddings, and can be described as iterations. The example you give is known as pied piping, famous because it contrasts with centre-embedding. Centre-embedding is hard because it requires recursion. Pied piping is not hard because it does not require recursion.

And stop asking an atheist to define God.

5:35 PM

 
Blogger Marc André Bélanger said...

Okay, Peter, I must concede the embedding thing (syntactical structures were never my forte). I actually agree that iteravity is one of the key factors in language. Embeding is just a limited side effect (mostly limited by processing limitation and memory).

To claim to be an atheist you must at least have an idea of what God is, before rejecting his existence. Otherwise, it's just not thought out. The atheist will say that he doesn't believe in a supreme being/power, or an interventionist god, etc.

You still haven't told us what, in your view, is knowledge and what it comprises and doesn't.

10:48 PM

 
Anonymous Peter Kleiweg said...

You: There is a dog on my shoulder.
Me: I don't see a dog.
You: Sure there is! Shoulder presupposes dog! Definately!
Me: But I don't see a dog. What dog?
You: It is a lopsided dog. It doesn't bark.
Me: I still don't see it.
You: Define dog.

5:13 AM

 
Blogger Marc André Bélanger said...

Are you trying to tell me that everybody knows what "knowledge" (especially in this context) is, and what it is not, that they all agree on its meaning, like they do for "dog"? I think the conversation is actually closer to:

Me: There's an animal on my shoulder.
You: I don't see an animal.
Me: Sure there is! Don't you see it!
You: I don't see any animal. What animal?
Me: That bug there.
You: That's not an animal.
Me: What constitutes an animal for you?


[Well not exactly, because whereas "insects" is a subset of "animals", skill is not a subset of knowledge, but language skills presupposes knowledge (we'll leave other skill aside for now).]

So, since you are unwilling to tell us what knowledge comprises, in your view, or just what "grammatical knowledge" means for you (even if just to homour me), let me ask you this: Do you deny that in order to speak, we need to know words?

9:24 AM

 
Anonymous Peter Kleiweg said...

Marc André, since you (and Language Guy) haven't pointed out any linguistic knowledge in language use, I cannot deny that it is knowledge. Just show me your bug, and we have something to talk about it.

[This is exactly the problem: you just presuppose the need for knowledge in language skills.]

Yes, we "know" words. More precisely: we have words at our disposal. But we don't have knowledge about words. We use words to create meaning, like we use our legs to create movement. Any knowledge we have is a result of using language, not the other way around. Knowledge results from a specific skill to assign meaning, a skill that has existed in a more primitive form since (animal) life began: the skill to communicate. Interaction. Socialising. We still use language for those purposes, but we can do much more, because in Homo sapiens, the skill is sophisticated enough the handle meaning in a constructive way.

Speaking of bugs, they too communicate. Even bacteria communicate. They can eat, they can move, the can multiply, they can talk in their own way. What knowledge do they have that is required to eat, to move, to multiply, to talk? Going further back, what knowledge do atoms and molecules possess that is required to create life?

Everything starts from scratch. You can point it out. "No," say others, "everything start from God, the most complex that exists". But you can't point out God. You can assume God as a prerequisite, as you can only assume knowledge as a prerequisite for language.

We are a knowledgeable species as a result of our advanced language skills, just like the cheetah is a fast animal as a result of its advanced running skills.

11:27 AM

 
Blogger Marc André Bélanger said...

(Since we didn't seem to have the same meaning for "knowledge", I first had to know what you meant by it. But I think I understand better, thank you for this clarification.)

You say that we do not exactly know words, but have words at our disposal. I disagree. Words do not exist independently. I order to use them, we have to know them, to know how to use them. They are at our disposal once we have integrated them into our knowledge.
Words, at least in my view of linguistics systems (and I know that there are those who disagree), hold in themself grammatical information. So to know words is to have grammatical knowledge.

"Any knowledge we have is a result of using language, not the other way around." My definition of knowledge is perhaps less restrictive than yours. For example I know my friend. I know what she is like. I know her eyes. Although I would be hard put to describe them, even to describe her, in words. My knowledge (partial as it is) of her did not all come through language. Academic knowledge comes in great part through language. But not all. So comes from personal discovery that does not involve language.

I agree that their is a skill, predating language, by which we assign meaning, by which we make sense of the world, at different levels. To transform sensory data into meaningful information, into knowledge. And language is built upon that foundation. Which does not mean that it is limited to it. Language uses knowledge (acquired by this skill) to create a new instrument of communication. One that is not just skill (to interpret our surroundings and act on them) but knowledge of words, of what they mean, to what they refer, and how they can act.

Communication, and the ability to make sense of the world, exists before language. On that I think we can all agree. Language is something that goes on top of this. But it goes beyond just a skill. The reason I presuppose the need for knowledge in language skills is that it has, at every generation, to be recreated based on what we have learned from our surroundings. Based on what knowledge our other perceptual and communicational skills have given us. This knowledge that, as you have pointed out, results from a specific skill to assign meaning that has existed since animal life began.

2:55 PM

 
Anonymous Peter Kleiweg said...

A young infant moves its arms and legs in the cradle. It makes grabbing motions with its hands. It perceives lights and sounds. Soon it recognises voices as human. It makes all kind of babbling noises. But it can't walk. It can't pick up and handle an object. It can't see. It can't talk. It can't understand what is being said. Each of these are skills that have to be learned through practice. There is nothing unique about language in that it has to be learned.

Don't confuse information with knowledge. Our genes store information. It isn't knowledge. There are plants with much more genes than we have, but those plants are not smarter than us, though they possess a lot of skills that we don't have. (And they don't need practice to develop them.)

Why is Esperanto, contrary to Esperantists' claims, such a difficult language? Its grammar rules are few and simple. The lexicon is very small, uniformly extendible with a set of affixes. All can be easily memorised. It is difficult because that knowledge does not substitute for the skill to actually use the language.

Once we have learned language, we can use knowledge to learn new words, or learn a whole new language. Knowledge guides our study, but it doesn't substitute for practice. Practice produces skill, and when we use the language we have learned, we are using a skill, not the knowledge that we might have used to guide our study. Applying knowledge is much too slow to keep up with the fluent stream of words we utter in an animated conversation.

5:17 PM

 
Anonymous Peter Kleiweg said...

John: I know many words.
Mary: What is the word for bla bla bla?
John: I don't know. What?
Mary: The word is foobar.
John: I knew that!

6:05 PM

 
Blogger Marc André Bélanger said...

I never said (or mean to say) language was unique because it has to be learned. What I said is that it is built upon what we have gathered through our sense, this information that we have integrated, processes and which has become knowledge.
In the case you give, of Esperanto, what you memorise information, not knowledge. It is the knowlegde of the words and their grammatical content, that allows you to speak the language. If Esperanto is a difficult language to learn (I personality couldn't say), it could be because, although the grammar rules may appear simple from the "outside", since they are artificial, the grammatical aspects of the words might not be quite as simple. Languages are not governed by rules as they are usually thaught in school, but by the grammatical and semantical significates of the words (at least, that's my position).
No, knowledge does not subsitute for practice (nor have I ever claimed so), and yes, there is skill involved in language, I have never pretended otherwise. What I said was that it is not simply a skill.
(By the way, babies recognize human voices from birth, through exposition in the womb).

6:27 PM

 
Anonymous Peter Kleiweg said...

Marc André, you said language presupposes knowledge because language has to be learned. But there are many things you need to learn (walking, handling objects, riding a bicycle, seeing). Do these skills presuppose knowledge?

And by the way (not as if I hadn't asked this many times before), how about giving an actual example of knowledge that is involved in language use. And I don't mean knowledge about things you talk about. I mean knowledge about the act of talking itself. Tell me something you know about language that you need to know in order to be able to talk. Tell me something that a child knows about language when it utters its first word, that it needs to know before it can start talking. Tell me, what is this linguistic knowledge that Chomsky speculates about, but that no linguist has ever been able to identify?

8:15 PM

 
Blogger Marc André Bélanger said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

9:53 PM

 
Blogger Marc André Bélanger said...

No, I said that language is constructed upon what we have learned, unconsicously, about our surrondings.

The skills you speak of do not presuppose knowledge, unless you define knowledge to include "physical knowledge" which I do not prentend to do here.

And the one thing an infant has to know, the one piece of knowledge he needs before he utters his first real word, is that word. He needs to know, to understand, that this word is not just a sound, not just a stimulus, he needs to know that it has meaning. As I have said before.

That is one piece of linguistic knowledge, though it might not be the one Chomsky talks about, since he clearly saw grammar as something that is outside of words. Whereas to me, as I have indicated, it comes with the words.

So, we need to know words and what they are, not pluck the information out of the air, put integrate the notion. And since words carry grammar, we need grammatical knowledge to be able to speak and make sentences.

9:59 PM

 
Blogger Marc André Bélanger said...

I meant "but integrate the notion", not "put". Sorry for the typo.

10:00 PM

 
Anonymous Peter Kleiweg said...

Marc André: "we need grammatical knowledge to be able to speak and make sentences." That is what you keep saying, but you haven't made sense of this assertion yet. You are walking backwards. Where does knowledge come from? If knowledge exists on a level below, if it is not created by language, then what creates knowledge? How does knowledge express itself on a level where no language yet exists? You seem to suggest that only knowledge can create something that can create knowledge. Then what is the knowledge that creates that which creates the knowledge that creates language? Is it turtles all the way down?

8:52 AM

 
Anonymous Peter Kleiweg said...

Does the cheetah need speed before it can run?

The assertion that talking has to depend on knowledge seems to me like the refusal of the creationist to accept the idea that something can come from nothing.

9:08 AM

 
Blogger L>T said...

Good fight(opps! hillbilly language) I mean debate. I'm sorry but I must cheer for Peter. In the snippets of conversation that I understand He has the the best base logically. It's like you guys are trying to argue what comes before the foundation, "I think therefore I am." When of course It's not possible as far as I know, but I am not a philosopher. Speaking of, when I was a very young child living in the hills, no T.V. or toys to speak of I would read all the time. My dad belonged to a book of the month club. Remember those? I would try to read Plato etc. It was so fruserating! Only when i got older did I realize he and others like him could of made A point in one sentence instead of three pages.
I know you all enjoy doing this as Plato did. But, it is an interesting observence for me.

11:03 AM

 
Blogger Language Guy said...

You are backing the wrong horsel>t. Peter has not made a single claim that he has both clarified and defended. Marc Andre is trying to do both. So, since Peter is in pure attack mode and Marc Andre is actually trying to say somethat that is clear and defendable, he is in the exposed position. That does not mean he is in the weakest position. Quite the reverse.

11:29 AM

 
Anonymous Peter Kleiweg said...

Language Guy, when are you going to clarify and defend your presuppositions? And no, your "it is so!" does not count as a valid defense.

2:04 PM

 
Blogger Language Guy said...

I should have kept my mouth shut. Believe what you want, Peter. I, as Rhett famously said, don't give a damn. I was writing in response to l>T not you.

2:58 PM

 
Blogger L>T said...

L. guy you encourged me by acually talking to me. I must of done some thing right. You'll probabally regret it, because you might find i have a lot to say. Even though I ain't smart, I've never had trouble jumping in & giving my opinion. I thought I'd approach this debate by looking in the big Dictionary at 'knowledge' & 'skill', because it seems to me the debate is going around in circles. There are 7 meanings for knowledge which I think might have been used interchangebly:
1. a clear and certain perception of something; the act, fact or state of something.
2.learning; all that has been preceived or grasped by the mind.
3. practical experence or 'skill'.
4. acquaintance or familiarity(with a fact, place, etc.)
5. cognizance; recognition
6.information
7. acquaintance with facts; range of awareness or understanding.

Then of course is 'skill' witch has 4 meanings:
1. Great ability or proficeincy; expertness.
2. An art craft or science.
3. Ability in art, craft or science.
4. 'Knowledge'; understanding; judgement.
I would say everyone needs to pick one meaning & stick w/it first without splitting hairs.

7:56 PM

 
Blogger Marc André Bélanger said...

" everyone needs to pick one meaning & stick w/it"
Exactly (and I said so in my first intervention), that is why I asked Peter many times to define knowledge, which he still hasn’t. As I have said, knowledge, to me, is information that has been processed, comprehended at some level (so, something like 1, 2 5 and more or less 7 in your list).

"It's like you guys are trying to argue what comes before the foundation, "I think therefore I am." No, because we never said that language is the foundation.

You say that Peter has the best base logically. How so? Has he ever answered (or tried to) a single question put to him to clarify what he meant? Has he tried to define what knowledge and skill mean in his view? Perhaps if I knew that, let say, to him "knowledge" is what can be learned and expressed through language, it would have been simpler, I would have known that it was just a case of discrepancy of definitions. The only time he came close to such a definition ("Any knowledge we have is a result of using language") he went against it in the next sentence ("Knowledge results from a specific skill to assign meaning, a skill that has existed in a more primitive form since (animal) life began").

I tried to define knowledge and grammatical knowledge, though Peter does not seem to have noticed that. Maybe only because we don’t have the same definition, I don’t know, he won’t tell us what he means. He keeps wanting other to define their terms, but never do his, under the pretext that he doesn’t believe in such and such. That is no sound logical base.

But to answer Peter latest intervention:
This grammatical knowledge is the knowledge of what words are and what they can do. I’ll try to be more specific. The knowledge, the understanding that words are "the smallest autonomous bit of meaning" in the language (to quote an old definition); and the knowledge of what each of those words, depending on their makeup, can do, how they can be used. For example, that (in English) an adjective (unless nominalized) needs the support of a noun to work nicely. This knowledge does not come all at once, part of it comes before language (or the first steps towards it), some as we go along; for example, there is the knowledge that words can be put in relations with each other (the two-word phase in language acquisition), and that these relations can be put in relation with others (when the infant goes from two-word utterances, to many-word sentences).

"Where does knowledge come from?" As I have said, it comes from "we have learned, unconsciously, about our surroundings." And part of what we learn is that there is this thing people use to communicate, that is made up of words.

"If knowledge exists on a level below, if it is not created by language, then what creates knowledge?" It comes from our reasoning faculty ("Language is built upon what we have gathered through our sense, this information that we have integrated, processes and which has become knowledge"), our prelanguage ability to make a bit of sense of the world, as I have said. It is through this reasoning that knowledge can exist on a level where no language yet exists. Knowledge is not necessarily expressed in language, nor have I ever claimed it was.

"You seem to suggest that only knowledge can create something that can create knowledge." Sorry if that’s what it might have sounded like. I said that knowledge can create language, but I never said that language was to only thing that creates knowledge, quite the contrary.

"Does the cheetah need speed before it can run?" This presupposes that language is only a skill. Which you still haven’t demonstrated it is.

Also, your "it is so!" (or more precisely, "that is skill and this is knowledge because I said so") does not count either.

The funny thing is, like Language Guy and Brett, I actually don’t actually give a damn about what Peter thinks, because I know that no matter what we may say, he’ll stay on his positions, thus precluding any real debate. We all need to doubt, which he doesn’t seem to in this case (okay, it might not be obvious to all, but I’m open to rebuttals, just as long as they are fleshed out). But it is sometimes fun to argue against someone so convinced, it helps clear up your thoughts.

10:18 AM

 
Anonymous Peter Kleiweg said...

You disappoint me, Marc André. Language Guy has made it clear from early on that all he cares about is the admiration of his readers who lack the academic background to know that half he writes is just stuff he made up. He wants to sell his book, and anyone exposing him as a fraud is nothing but a nuisance to him. But you, Marc André, I thought you actually were interested in a discussion. Apparently, all you want is win an argument, and if you fail to convince, you blame it on my bad intentions. Well, let me tell you, your "I actually don't actually give a damn" doesn't make you look like a winner.

I could say I don't see any Brett in here, but then you'd probably demand of me to "define Brett". Best leave it be. I'm going to spend my time reading people who actually know what they are writing about, like languagehat and Language Log.

2:06 PM

 
Blogger Marc André Bélanger said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

4:02 PM

 
Blogger Marc André Bélanger said...

Suit yourself, Peter. And think what you will. I actually enjoyed trying to clarify my point of view with you. I just wish you could have given me a better idea of just what you mean by "knowledge" (not "grammatrical knowledge"). Would have made the discussion easier.

4:30 PM

 
Blogger L>T said...

Marc, give me a break. 1,2,5 and more or less 7? You might as well say presuppose. It's about as vague. The base that I was talking about, & I'm not syre base is the right word, is that I can see that Peter sees human language as a human condition common to the species; human. Not french humans or some human culture, but humans, period. (Peter, sorry if i presuppose what you are trying to say) A foundation is only as far as you can know, backwards. think of it as digging a 'foundation' for a house. Peter is humble, as is; he knows where to stop. Not to say he doesn't foolishly let himself be drawn into arguments about emmbedding & such.
Marc, you say stuff like, "I tried to define knowledge & grammarical knowledge but Peter wouldn't listen."
You sound like a damn Lawyer.
Acually, you all sound like Lawyers.
The Tart is having a brain drain & must sign off.
i must say, you fellas make me think.

11:45 PM

 
Blogger Marc André Bélanger said...

"It's about as vague." Yes, it is vague. It is very difficult to define knowledge. That is why I had a problem with Peter being so categorical about where it ends, and why I wanted him to tell us what, for him, knowledge comprises and does not.
Yes, language is a human condition common to the species, there is no denying that. And it is hard to dig deeper. But not impossible, because there are things underneath, there are things we do without language. It is hard, and it will be a long long while until we can agree on anything. But to say we cannot try to peer behind the curtain of language is to refuse the value of linguistics.

(I admit, I went a bit overboard with the “wouldn’t listen” part – I did sound like some sort of lawyer. And I can't believe the number of mistakes I made, must have been a bit tired. Monday morning, you know ;-)

8:56 AM

 
Blogger L>T said...

Well Marc, I think you are a nice guy.
You do pay attention to what is directed at you & can also criticize? youself. Also & this is probabally most important, it seems you can see past a persons vernacular & converse w/them on the same level.
I realize that there is a lot more to language & many levels i do not understand.
I've already learned alot from your site, L.Guy. about this. Thanks again.

9:40 AM

 
Blogger L>T said...

P.S. prehaps, I am confusing 'language' w/'cummunication.

9:46 AM

 
Blogger L>T said...

Hey, L. Guy, the wild & wooley has happened! I think I'm having a mental (hmmm, what's the word I'm looking for, starts w/O).
Ha, Ha!

11:50 AM

 
Blogger L>T said...

You know how sometimes you say something, like on someones answering machine or blog site and can't take it back?
YIKES!

6:33 PM

 
Blogger thinking girl said...

I kinda think that the only thing that is innate about language is that humans have a seemingly innate desire to find a means of expression for their thoughts and feelings that others can understand - the desire to communicate.

1:09 PM

 
Blogger Justin Patrick said...

the language guy,

(I'm not sure if my previous comment was posted or not. I'm not sure if they're reviewed by you or not first, so I'll try again.)

"However, it has been reliably reported that fluent nonnative speakers don't react instinctively to cursing they way native speakers do and that they are not as clear as to what is and is not a grammatical sentence in the dialect they share with native speakers."

Regarding the cursing, this is interesting, but the reactions of the native speakers may be from being punished for using the curse words. Adults aren't really punished like children, and they just know which words are "bad" from the context and know to avoid them.

As for the other one, I would like to see the study. I wonder what languages were used and in what context they were learned/acquired.

Thanks. ^_^

5:02 PM

 
Blogger Language Guy said...

Justin, check out this site: http://www.bu.edu/phpbin/news/releases/display.php?id=635

I have little doubt that this is a Pavlovian thing. I googled these terms "second language response to taboo words" and got this and other things you may want to look at.

5:43 PM

 
Blogger Justin Patrick said...

thelanguageguy,

Thanks. ^_^

As for the grammatical correctness, I wonder if the problems with language use by people who learned it as adults arise from their not growing up sharing the people's values, and that different ways of talking, the different idiomatic ways of using grammar, arise from not having been a part of the same group. It's a bit difficult to suddenly become part of a new group after you're already grown up and set in your ways.

I recall a Japanese friend of mine who moved (or she says "ran away") to the States at around age 18 and lived for 20 years before returning to Japan. She says she knows that when she talks now, the other Japanese immediately mark her as an outsider, because she doesn't talk like them, having been away from them for so long. She doesn't share their values any more.

I wonder if that is a cause of not quite mastering a dialect. I remember reading somewhere that grammar originates from idioms, and perhaps not being quite in "tune" with other people one has difficulty with such idioms?

It may also explain why people with Asperger's syndrome (who have difficulty relating to other people), have such idiosyncratic use of language and often don't fully comprehend the meanings of others.

It's all very interesting....

1:26 PM

 
Blogger Justin Patrick said...

Sorry for double posting. As for the cussing, I wonder if nowadays in America a young adult with English as their native language would be relatively unaffected by hearing curse words in his own native language. I wonder if young people nowadays have been allowed to become more accustomed to these words.

1:28 PM

 
Blogger dmitri said...

Just a couple corrections: Hixkaryana is OVS, not VSO, which topology is not that rare: The Celtic and Polynesian languages use it. There may be others but I've not yet encountered them.

1:16 PM

 
Blogger Mango-Tango said...

interestingly, I have noticed, people in India are more tolerant toward cuss words in English than they are in their native tongue. I am from India and people speak well over 30 completely disparate languages (not dialects) but the tolerance is well observable in any part of this country. I believe this is an innate characteristic and is independent of nationality. This could be because of the fact that English, as a second language, is introduced at quite a later stage in the life of a person's education here and the language carries with itself a particular social gravity in this country.

I am currently running a project on simplifying the process of learning Spanish for expats and am blogging at easiestspanish to share my ideas with my peers. Strangely, I have notices a somewhat similar trait among the foreigners too!

4:25 PM

 

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