Author Topic: What is language?  (Read 503 times)

Andreas Geisler

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What is language?
« on: February 21, 2014, 04:51 AM »
I would like to map out the starting area for this, since what we will be embarking on is a journey through a land to which we all are native citizens, yet for which mostly false maps exist.
So, to start it off broadly, what is language?

[This has been moved from Semiotics, because it can serve as thread for preliminary questions. Feel free to ask.]

David Harvey

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Re: What is language?
« Reply #1 on: February 21, 2014, 08:43 AM »
Wow, now that is a broad question! I shall try to sum up my relatively newly found position as concisely as I can, but my thoughts on language is that it is essentially a way of expressing and communicating to others about shared concepts or experiences.

"The Master and His Emissary" is a book which explains briefly the workings of the brain, touching on its evolutionary history.  The book discusses how the brain has come to work by the right hemisphere looking for patterns and categorising.  We are obviously built for our environment and for us, it is more useful to come up with categories for certain objects which are similar.  We have categories like "animal" which divide into sub-categories like "dog" which again can be split into further sub-categories like "Labrador" or "Golden Retriever".  Our language doesn't get much more specific than this but no two labradors are the same, neither are two golden retrievers.  Naming of specific pets or animals is really where referencing comes into language.

With this in mind (and considering also the idea that language is suggested to be a by-product of matured vocal chords, originally suspect to be used for musical purposes - see birds) it leads me to believe that language is but a tool we use (often an imprecise one at that - e.g. see "heap" or "tallness") for generalising concepts and experiences of such concepts to others.

So language refers to specific or general things and indeed we can say whether it is being used correctly by first bearing that in mind, and then looking at our conventional usage. In this sense, my position is almost an amalgamation of the two Wittgensteinian theories "picture" and "tool".

I'd happily move on to the implications of this, but I don't feel that's what the question demands so I shall start by leaving this for deliberation and wait enthusiastically for other approaches to the subject.

Andreas Geisler

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Re: What is language?
« Reply #2 on: February 21, 2014, 11:44 AM »
Language is definitely a method of communication that relies on categories.
Are categories then among the basic units of language?
You touched on the nestling of categories, do you find it likely that categories are built, starting from the more general?
Have you ever seen an animal?

Or are the categories predefined, as Chomsky seems to suggest?

Andreas Geisler

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Re: What is language?
« Reply #3 on: February 21, 2014, 12:21 PM »
Full disclosure, I intend to extract the upcoming topics list from this preliminary discussion  ;)

Ryan Evans

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Re: What is language?
« Reply #4 on: February 22, 2014, 01:03 AM »
I define language as the approximated expressive qualifiers/actions corresponding to otherwise uncommunicative perceptions within mind originating from physical/non-physical input mechanisms existential and innate within the actuality of being.

There is much language exclusive of categorical or codified verbalizations of socialized sound utterances.

Like: me being perceived as harsh, blunt, or brash in daily communications despite exacted vernacular of meaning conveyance intent.

How do you define language? Is it inherently subjective depending on one's capacity to receive, from whatever source may communicate (physical/emotional/spiritual)?


Andreas Geisler

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Re: What is language?
« Reply #5 on: February 23, 2014, 06:08 AM »
Thanks Ryan, do you mind if I ask some questions about that?
I define language as the approximated expressive qualifiers/actions corresponding to otherwise uncommunicative perceptions within mind originating from physical/non-physical input mechanisms existential and innate within the actuality of being.
I am probably misunderstanding you, because this seems either circular or self-contradictory. How is a perception "otherwise uncommunicative"? Or by contradiction, what would be an otherwise communicative [X] within mind? Would we have to agree on what a mind is, before being able to delve into language?

There is much language exclusive of categorical or codified verbalizations of socialized sound utterances.

Like: me being perceived as harsh, blunt, or brash in daily communications despite exacted vernacular of meaning conveyance intent.
Are perceptions communicative? If your intent is not to be harsh, blunt or brash, then it would fail the likely definition of communication, that is, an intentional transfer of ideas from one self to an other. Do you mean that communication also includes all other means of learning about the world?

How do you define language? Is it inherently subjective depending on one's capacity to receive, from whatever source may communicate (physical/emotional/spiritual)?
In my training I have been given a simple definition of language: A codified method of communication, but it may be that that definition is not the best for this forum, I guess we'll see about that.
I would say that the impression received by a person is full of subjective things, even if people can agree on what was actually said. I.e. what a person says is partially subjective (separately for each participant), and partially objective.

Ryan Evans

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Re: What is language?
« Reply #6 on: February 23, 2014, 11:21 AM »
Thanks Ryan, do you mind if I ask some questions about that?
I define language as the approximated expressive qualifiers/actions corresponding to otherwise uncommunicative perceptions within mind originating from physical/non-physical input mechanisms existential and innate within the actuality of being.
I am probably misunderstanding you, because this seems either circular or self-contradictory. How is a perception "otherwise uncommunicative"? Or by contradiction, what would be an otherwise communicative [X] within mind? Would we have to agree on what a mind is, before being able to delve into language?


I was attempting to imply that without a method of expressive qualifiers/actions then that which we may possess as knowledge, whether from physical senses, some manner of cosmic consciousness interacting with our mind (supposing mind is immaterial), or some manner of spiritual revelation (supposing a spiritual level of reality exists) would result in no abilities to extrapersonally evaluate those possessions of knowledge. So language is the resultant inevitability to express any qualifiers/actions socially or extrapersonally.


Yes, I must conclude that the concept is not mutually exclusive to the philosophy of mind.

There is much language exclusive of categorical or codified verbalizations of socialized sound utterances.

Like: me being perceived as harsh, blunt, or brash in daily communications despite exacted vernacular of meaning conveyance intent.
Are perceptions communicative? If your intent is not to be harsh, blunt or brash, then it would fail the likely definition of communication, that is, an intentional transfer of ideas from one self to an other. Do you mean that communication also includes all other means of learning about the world?


I'd say perceptions are communicative though not necessarily volitionally controllable since external perceptions are subjectively recognized.


I'd disagree that the divergence between my intent and external perceptions of linguistic conveyance necessitates a failed communication. Though I could recognize the resultant limits of communication effectiveness. Simply because I'm 6'2" with a bodybuilder frame, a deep voice, and a fierce brow causes external perceptions to be evaluated within the context those physical factors irrespective of the exacted vernacular of linguistic communication precision.


I'd agree that communication is the totality of vernacular, body language, tone, and physical constraints of the communicator. Do you disagree?

How do you define language? Is it inherently subjective depending on one's capacity to receive, from whatever source may communicate (physical/emotional/spiritual)?
In my training I have been given a simple definition of language: A codified method of communication, but it may be that that definition is not the best for this forum, I guess we'll see about that.
I would say that the impression received by a person is full of subjective things, even if people can agree on what was actually said. I.e. what a person says is partially subjective (separately for each participant), and partially objective.



I agree that impressions are factors of communications. One of the flaws of the solely linguistic communications of an on-line forum - it's near impossible to discern the true meaning of the communication without tone/inflection/emotion/body language/etc.


But maybe I'd disagree with your definition that language must be codified. There may be potential aspects of communication that are inherently unable to be codified - intuition or other personality manifestations.

Andreas Geisler

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Re: What is language?
« Reply #7 on: February 23, 2014, 01:24 PM »
What if I propose the following:
Language is the category of codified systems of communication.
A language is a codified system of communication.
Communication is the intentional transfer of ideas, regardless of whether the active communicator reaches its intended audience, or whether the actual ideas transferred are the ones the communicator intended.

From this, the formation of an impression about the manner or personality of another, on the basis of their behavior in communicating, may be communicative, since the communicator may be attempting to transfer an idea about their manner or personality... but it is not language, unless the means of this transfer is codified.

Many gestures are, however, codified.

Ryan Evans

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Re: What is language?
« Reply #8 on: February 24, 2014, 12:25 PM »
Communication is the intentional transfer of ideas, regardless of whether the active communicator reaches its intended audience, or whether the actual ideas transferred are the ones the communicator intended.

... but it is not language, unless the means of this transfer is codified.
Generally, I agree except I'm not convinced communication must be intentional. An unwarranted sigh of frustration or look of disgust on a face are codified expressions, perhaps universally but at least codified within a culture similar to individual languages.

Maybe I'm being overly picky because I do like your definition.


Andreas Geisler

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Re: What is language?
« Reply #9 on: February 24, 2014, 01:02 PM »
Ah, excellent point.
I would say that that is a language of its own. It is involuntary, so perhaps it's not "us" talking?
If, say, our "lizard brain" communicates on top of our higher language functions, it would explain a good deal, or what?

Ryan Evans

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Re: What is language?
« Reply #10 on: February 24, 2014, 03:02 PM »
Ah, excellent point.
I would say that that is a language of its own. It is involuntary, so perhaps it's not "us" talking?
Perhaps. They do appear to be subject to will though there is also an emerging field of microexpressions so I'm unsure. If it is a different language then I would say it would be a sublanguage of  linguistic language since it appears to act as a modifier to verbal communications but that may be irrelevant.

If, say, our "lizard brain" communicates on top of our higher language functions, it would explain a good deal, or what?
Perhaps, indeed. I've understood the lizard brain to be "below" higher functioning: such as basic survival functions but I'm not fluent in the field of neurobiology.

Also, I wonder if you should qualify codified with 'socially'. If one invents some system of codified expressions, is it still language if it's unintelligible to others?

I suppose that begs the question if language exists within thoughts? If not, I suppose that we would have to conclude that potential telepathy is impossible.

I'm all over the place but I find this fascinating.

Riley Mason

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Re: What is language?
« Reply #11 on: February 24, 2014, 07:54 PM »
To throw in my two cents, I'd say that language is anything that has meaning, where meaning is the relationship between signs and referents (i.e. reference).  (I suppose that may at first seem circular, because I'm specifically talking about 'linguistic' meaning - but I don't know any other kind.  (A 'meaningful' life, for instance, rather 'means' (linguistically) a purposed or valuable life...)).  I suppose it's tautological instead.  Language is the formula, or codification, of meaning, as it were.

Language, in my opinion, is not only the expression (communication) of concepts, but also the manifestation of them.  Something can only be intelligible to us if we understand what it 'means', and we can only understand a 'thing' if we attribute some sort of linguistic signs to it: whether the word (sign) "tree," or a certain hand gesture, etc.  And this relationship - between signs and concepts/referents (whatever) - which is meaning, is what makes the 'thing' intelligible to us.

So, I agree with Andreas:

Quote from: Andreas Geisler
What if I propose the following:
Language is the category of codified systems of communication.
A language is a codified system of communication.
Communication is the intentional transfer of ideas, regardless of whether the active communicator reaches its intended audience, or whether the actual ideas transferred are the ones the communicator intended.

From this, the formation of an impression about the manner or personality of another, on the basis of their behavior in communicating, may be communicative, since the communicator may be attempting to transfer an idea about their manner or personality... but it is not language, unless the means of this transfer is codified.

Many gestures are, however, codified.

(I would say that 'meaning' necessarily requires 'codification,' though I'm not sure whether it's to the same extent that you're implying?)


Additionally, I think we should recognize the implications of language being not only the method of expressing ideas, but actually being their intelligible manifestation (that is, if you agree to such a claim).  If my take on language is accurate, then I would say that 'communication' includes 'thinking'.  And by 'thinking,' I just mean conscious formulation of ideas.

I would say that thought is 'communication' because you're using language mentally, constructing signs to symbolize things that you perceive, expressing them internally in the mind, where you are are your own audience.  I think this is intuitive enough, if you consider the actual form that your thoughts take; 'thought' (at least for me, and I assume for you as well) always takes on the form of speech or conversation. 


This is perhaps more 'linguistics' than 'semiotics'.. but I'd say that the two are necessarily mutual, especially when you're talking about thought and what language is...?

---

As for intentional vs unintentional language, I'll offer my perspective too.

Quote from: Ryan Evans
Generally, I agree except I'm not convinced communication must be intentional. An unwarranted sigh of frustration or look of disgust on a face are codified expressions, perhaps universally but at least codified within a culture similar to individual languages.

I think this is obviously a complex part of language.  Personally, I would say that if you're doing something unintentionally, then there's no possibility that you've included 'meaning' within the expression.  (There may of course be causal factors, e.g. base emotional reactions, but that's independent from actual linguistic meaning).  The lack of meaning on the actor's part, however, doesn't mean that others can't interpret meaning within her actions.  The look of disgust for instance, could be utterly unintentional, and therefore meaningless for the person making the face (at least until they would realize that they've made the face, at which point they would probably interpret their own meaning as well).  However - before the disgusted person would have interpreted her own action - others could still recognize the expression and interpret their own meanings.  They would therefore be using language on their own (because they'd be interpreting the face, finding meaning in it, thinking about it). 

However, I don't think you could label their interaction as linguistic communication, because there was no transfer of ideas nor even signs - there was only separated, subjective interpretation(s).


What do you think?

Andreas Geisler

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Re: What is language?
« Reply #12 on: February 24, 2014, 11:51 PM »
Excellent points! I think there may a problem with positing that humans can only understand things they have a word for, there seems to be at the very least the recursiveness problem to it. Also, from language acquisition, it seems to me that we formulate concepts inductively, whether or not we are provided words for them, which is supported by our ability to recognize when a new concept arrives, so that we can make up a word for it.
In order to make up a word for a new concept, one must be able to understand that concept intimately, even without having a label for it.

Also, signs are what we are talking about of course, and signs have a form and a content. Now, clearly the person interpreting the manner of another does pick up "forms". There are distinct signs that they are noticing, consciously or subconsciously, and they do apparently match an acquired code, otherwise they would not be interpreted.

Summing up:
"Meaning" is a big problem. Does what I say mean what I intend it to mean or what you interpret it to mean? And does it matter to whom?

Intent seems to be relevant, but its role is not immediately obvious.

And the same with "Transfer of ideas", it's important, but it doesn't have an immediately deciding role.

David Harvey

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Re: What is language?
« Reply #13 on: February 27, 2014, 06:54 AM »
Have you ever seen an animal?
I had a go at answering the other questions from this post on another thread which seemed a little more specific to the area.

However, this question demonstrates for me a common misconception about the philosophy of language. For a lot of philosophers, when someone asks a question such as "have you ever seen an animal?" which doesn't refer to any specific thing, it creates problems. For me, it is about what the asker of the question is trying to reference. To pretend for an instance that we are not in this philosophical discussion, I would assume what you mean is have I ever seen an animal in the sense of any animal; indeed this is my guess judged from the conventional uses of the words. However, I think in this discussion, you may be trying to ask if I have ever seen an animal where an animal is something which defines animal exactly and could not be anything else. This is, I believe, what throws people with these sorts of questions. In this case, I may respond no rather than yes.  The point is, however, that communication of reference has passed in both cases, but that there is no problem with the language because the two different cases reference two different things to the extent that case A's "animal" is no similar to case B's "animal" than a "hat" is to a "beach".  Those two words clearly reference two different things, yet because the words are the same between "animal" and "animal", the ambiguity and difference is not as clear and often not even conceded.

This was probably not even the point you were after with that particular question considering it was amidst other questions, but I just thought I'd take the opportunity to develop my thoughts a little further.

Andreas Geisler

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Re: What is language?
« Reply #14 on: February 27, 2014, 01:15 PM »
Indeed, it poses no problems for our processing, but it poses massive problems for the theory hypothesis that categories have anything to do with ontology.
The categories are built bottom-up, and have no explanatory properties.