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

Riley Mason

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Re: What is language?
« Reply #15 on: March 03, 2014, 03:45 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.

I agree, which is why words have to be invented in order to understand at all, in my opinion.  I.e.

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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.


However, I disagree with

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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.

for if we don't have a word for something, I don't think we can understand it 'intimately' - or at least not fully.  At best, we can only understand it in terms of the words we already have and sort of amalgamate their meanings until we create a new word entirely.  Although I'd say that we can understand that an unnamed sensation is unique, without its own name I don't think we can understand it's uniqueness.

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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.

I agree, though I think that interpretation can only be subjective, even if is the result of learning.  That is:

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"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?

I think that 'meaning' can only be understood subjectively, i.e. that meaning means what you intend it to mean (because you construct your own meanings).  On the other hand, your meaning cannot be what I interpret it to mean, because then it would just be my meaning.  How could I know - I mean know - what you're referring to with a certain sign?  I can only use induction to guess, but that induction results in a constructed meaning which can only be my own.  Does that make sense?

Thus with the "transfer of ideas" (i.e. communication) thing, all that can be transferred are signs (forms), but their meanings cannot be transferred - they can only be induced.

Andreas Geisler

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Re: What is language?
« Reply #16 on: March 04, 2014, 01:48 AM »
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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.

...if we don't have a word for something, I don't think we can understand it 'intimately' - or at least not fully.  At best, we can only understand it in terms of the words we already have and sort of amalgamate their meanings until we create a new word entirely.  Although I'd say that we can understand that an unnamed sensation is unique, without its own name I don't think we can understand it's uniqueness.
How do you figure? Do you think an automotive engineer has to know that what he is inventing is a "carburetor" before he can know how to make it? That sounds like something from an Ursula Le Guin book (good books, but distinctly not realism). A name isn't, very clearly, that important. Also, think of yourself. Do you need to have a name to know yourself?

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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.

I agree, though I think that interpretation can only be subjective, even if is the result of learning.  That is:

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"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?

I think that 'meaning' can only be understood subjectively, i.e. that meaning means what you intend it to mean (because you construct your own meanings).  On the other hand, your meaning cannot be what I interpret it to mean, because then it would just be my meaning.  How could I know - I mean know - what you're referring to with a certain sign?  I can only use induction to guess, but that induction results in a constructed meaning which can only be my own.  Does that make sense?

Thus with the "transfer of ideas" (i.e. communication) thing, all that can be transferred are signs (forms), but their meanings cannot be transferred - they can only be induced.
Well, it is certainly true that only forms can be produced. And induction does then take a major role in the following. However, it is not entirely subjective, induction seldom is. In order to form an inductive expectation of meaning in an instance x, we must have a record of past communications, where we feel justified in thinking that we understood the meaning, or a similar meaning. So, we will be referrring to a potentially objective dataset (although our particular copy of it is subjective, and subject to idiosyncratic editing and annotation).
But induction does this very well. We are able to form such estimates of meaning, and indeed have formed such estimates, to the extent that it's "turtles all the way down", we've induced all the meanings of all the things we know the meaning for, from a very varied set of kinds of evidence.

Adam Griffith

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Re: What is language?
« Reply #17 on: March 04, 2014, 03:37 AM »
Language in my take is the ability to convey complex ideas e.g. Metaphor, Analogy, that have no relationship to the immediate environment. This is quite different from 'Communication' for example: Chimpanzees are known to make sounds that relay information to other Chimps with the meaning of 'Poisonous Mushroom' to warn them not to eat it. However, male chimps do not have the ability to go up to female chimps and quote Shakespeare "Shall I compare thee to a summers day?" Communication is directly related to the environment from a Cognitive angle.

Language on the other hand can convey a set of abstract ideas that have nothing to do with the immediate environment or even circumstances of the individual conveying them at the time. For example we could all be sitting around Stonehenge, and I could describe the Eiffel Tower in Paris, joking that sometimes a Cigar is just a Cigar. Not only would you know the structure I am talking about you would probably know the country, and get the cliche humor.

Originally Noam Chomsky hypothesized that we Humans had what he coined a Language Acquisition Device (LAD). This is to say, that we have a built in module in the brain that is specifically geared to pick up language. However, after years of research and debate he eventually conceded to the view that we do not have a specific module for this rather that it just happens that during a certain developmental window we are prone to pickup language. No real big defeat to Chomsky considering how well we get language right down to syntax, and the innumerable ways to construe sentences.

There does seem to be a distinct difference between spoken language, and written language. It is well known that our vocabularies increase when we write things down as opposed to speaking on the fly. We are more thoughtful of what we write. We have more time.

Steven Pinker does an excellent job delineating this.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q-B_ONJIEcE

Andreas Geisler

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Re: What is language?
« Reply #18 on: March 04, 2014, 04:48 AM »
You are talking about advanced languages. We do not know any non-advanced languages, so it is not really possible to say that the first languages would have been able to do all that our languages can do today. In fact, it is a matter of historical record that modern languages benefited from the attempts to translate classical literature, since this forced them to assimilate new ways of handling information.

I think Chomsky is probably completely wrong about language, as his approach isn't very scientific, but that's an aside.

Riley Mason

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Re: What is language?
« Reply #19 on: March 04, 2014, 02:54 PM »
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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.

...if we don't have a word for something, I don't think we can understand it 'intimately' - or at least not fully.  At best, we can only understand it in terms of the words we already have and sort of amalgamate their meanings until we create a new word entirely.  Although I'd say that we can understand that an unnamed sensation is unique, without its own name I don't think we can understand it's uniqueness.
How do you figure? Do you think an automotive engineer has to know that what he is inventing is a "carburetor" before he can know how to make it? That sounds like something from an Ursula Le Guin book (good books, but distinctly not realism). A name isn't, very clearly, that important. Also, think of yourself. Do you need to have a name to know yourself?

By "name" I assume you meant 'sign'.. e.g. a word? 
Edit: by the way, I have a highly limited education in language philosophy, especially its widely used terms, as I'm sure is probably evident... By a 'sign', I think I mean it's 'form'.  E.g. a 'sign' to me is the actual word (e.g. 'tree') and then its meaning is its actual reference.  That is, the sign 'tree' means the wooden leafy plant thing, because it refers to that thing.  Just in case that was causing confusion.


The way you 'know' things is by reflecting upon their concepts.  How are you to reflect or think about what a carburetor is - for yourself - without signs by which to refer to it?  My argument is that you cannot know something if you cannot even think on (or consider or reflect on) it, and to think is to demand a sign by which to actually refer to it thoughtfully.  You may ask "what or who am I?" but your answer must take the form of signs - words, whatever (even if they're too abstract to even express outwardly), and indeed cannot manifest any other way.

There may be mental processes going on, but without language as the actual manifestation of reflective thought, how are you to know something?  That would require an absence of referring to it in any way, which would preclude the possibility of forming knowledge.

Personally, that's why I think (most) animals don't 'know', because they lack any language by which to refer and therefore reflect upon things.


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Well, it is certainly true that only forms can be produced. And induction does then take a major role in the following. However, it is not entirely subjective, induction seldom is. In order to form an inductive expectation of meaning in an instance x, we must have a record of past communications, where we feel justified in thinking that we understood the meaning, or a similar meaning. So, we will be referrring to a potentially objective dataset (although our particular copy of it is subjective, and subject to idiosyncratic editing and annotation).
But induction does this very well. We are able to form such estimates of meaning, and indeed have formed such estimates, to the extent that it's "turtles all the way down", we've induced all the meanings of all the things we know the meaning for, from a very varied set of kinds of evidence.


Well, I think induction is based on perceived trends, which are evident in communication - so it's objective in that sense.  But I think that the meaning of such communication is constructed subjectively because meaning is the link between signs and concepts in the mind, which - being in the mind - are only accessible by oneself.  The sign "oijsvwef" means something to me.  It probably doesn't to you - or at least not the same meaning.  By this 'objective' and mutually-accessible sign, I mean "tree."  But what then do I mean by the sign "tree"?  How could you know what I mean?  I say you can't.  You can only access your own constructed meanings.

Of course communication facilitates what are probably similarities in meaning, because (assuming a realist interpretation of reality) there are 'objective' things which we are referring to (meaning) with our signs, and since those things are objective, we use induction and communication to form similar signs.  What's happening is that we're just changing or learning new signs to match our own, personal, subjective meanings, such that we can - equally subjectively - interpret the signs of others in ways that we recognize as conducive to life.

So, sure, we have mutually-accessible 'objective data-sets,' but these are sets of signs.  Not meanings.

I don't even see why it's true that "we must have a record of past communications."  Language has not always been around, and needed to come about somehow - and without previously established language to build upon.  Although we do and have used communication and induction to form our personal signs, it doesn't mean that's what language necessarily is. 

It seems perfectly reasonable to me (though correct me if it's completely moronic) that at the beginning of human life, individuals were absent language (and thus any reflection on concepts), but would develop language by recognizing, and essentially habituating, signs for which they established similar - though inherently subjective meanings.  Perhaps I see a mammoth to kill and grunt once to get your attention.  It works, so next time I do the same thing.  Thus, naturally, I always 'refer' to mammoths with one grunt.  The same could happen every time I see a tiger, though this time I grunt twice to get your attention (not once, because it's not a mammoth after all).  Then I can extend and nuance the system of grunts, having different dialects for some, etc etc, until I have English.  Then I just teach it to my kids in the same way that I taught you - induction and habituation.

This is how I've always just assumed language to have come about, which evidences how it is that signs are communicable, but not meanings (you had to establish the connection between single grunts and mammoths on your own).

Additionally, I'd say that the fact that we can only explain things with language - even if we're trying to explain what I mean by something - shows that we can only transfer signs. 

Andreas Geisler

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Re: What is language?
« Reply #20 on: March 05, 2014, 12:37 AM »
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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.

...if we don't have a word for something, I don't think we can understand it 'intimately' - or at least not fully.  At best, we can only understand it in terms of the words we already have and sort of amalgamate their meanings until we create a new word entirely.  Although I'd say that we can understand that an unnamed sensation is unique, without its own name I don't think we can understand it's uniqueness.
How do you figure? Do you think an automotive engineer has to know that what he is inventing is a "carburetor" before he can know how to make it? That sounds like something from an Ursula Le Guin book (good books, but distinctly not realism). A name isn't, very clearly, that important. Also, think of yourself. Do you need to have a name to know yourself?

By "name" I assume you meant 'sign'.. e.g. a word? 
Edit: by the way, I have a highly limited education in language philosophy, especially its widely used terms, as I'm sure is probably evident... By a 'sign', I think I mean it's 'form'.  E.g. a 'sign' to me is the actual word (e.g. 'tree') and then its meaning is its actual reference.  That is, the sign 'tree' means the wooden leafy plant thing, because it refers to that thing.  Just in case that was causing confusion.


The way you 'know' things is by reflecting upon their concepts.  How are you to reflect or think about what a carburetor is - for yourself - without signs by which to refer to it?  My argument is that you cannot know something if you cannot even think on (or consider or reflect on) it, and to think is to demand a sign by which to actually refer to it thoughtfully.  You may ask "what or who am I?" but your answer must take the form of signs - words, whatever (even if they're too abstract to even express outwardly), and indeed cannot manifest any other way.

There may be mental processes going on, but without language as the actual manifestation of reflective thought, how are you to know something?  That would require an absence of referring to it in any way, which would preclude the possibility of forming knowledge.

Personally, that's why I think (most) animals don't 'know', because they lack any language by which to refer and therefore reflect upon things.

Ok, first of all I should explain the Saussurean sign, which is at the basis of both Linguistics and Semiotics (which Saussure called Semiology):
The sign is an arbitrary coupling between form and content. The form is physical act or object, whereas the content (or meaning) is a reference to a mental construct.
In other words, the meaning of the word can't ever be an ontological entity. Ontological entities are merely theoretical, while mental constructs induced from perceptions are very real (real in the sense that we know they exist, but of course, not real in the way that they exist ontologically, that they most certainly do not, unless solipsism is true).

Now, you seem to think that we think in language. We don't. And it would cause an unsolvable conundrum if we did, as we are able to learn a language, using a process that requires thought.

Only the most superficial faculties of the brain can even be described as linguistic, although language can provide extraordinary assistance in the formation of new ideas.

Does that make sense?

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Well, it is certainly true that only forms can be produced. And induction does then take a major role in the following. However, it is not entirely subjective, induction seldom is. In order to form an inductive expectation of meaning in an instance x, we must have a record of past communications, where we feel justified in thinking that we understood the meaning, or a similar meaning. So, we will be referrring to a potentially objective dataset (although our particular copy of it is subjective, and subject to idiosyncratic editing and annotation).
But induction does this very well. We are able to form such estimates of meaning, and indeed have formed such estimates, to the extent that it's "turtles all the way down", we've induced all the meanings of all the things we know the meaning for, from a very varied set of kinds of evidence.


Well, I think induction is based on perceived trends, which are evident in communication - so it's objective in that sense.  But I think that the meaning of such communication is constructed subjectively because meaning is the link between signs and concepts in the mind, which - being in the mind - are only accessible by oneself.  The sign "oijsvwef" means something to me.  It probably doesn't to you - or at least not the same meaning.  By this 'objective' and mutually-accessible sign, I mean "tree."  But what then do I mean by the sign "tree"?  How could you know what I mean?  I say you can't.  You can only access your own constructed meanings.

Of course communication facilitates what are probably similarities in meaning, because (assuming a realist interpretation of reality) there are 'objective' things which we are referring to (meaning) with our signs, and since those things are objective, we use induction and communication to form similar signs.  What's happening is that we're just changing or learning new signs to match our own, personal, subjective meanings, such that we can - equally subjectively - interpret the signs of others in ways that we recognize as conducive to life.

So, sure, we have mutually-accessible 'objective data-sets,' but these are sets of signs.  Not meanings.

I don't even see why it's true that "we must have a record of past communications."  Language has not always been around, and needed to come about somehow - and without previously established language to build upon.  Although we do and have used communication and induction to form our personal signs, it doesn't mean that's what language necessarily is. 

It seems perfectly reasonable to me (though correct me if it's completely moronic) that at the beginning of human life, individuals were absent language (and thus any reflection on concepts), but would develop language by recognizing, and essentially habituating, signs for which they established similar - though inherently subjective meanings.  Perhaps I see a mammoth to kill and grunt once to get your attention.  It works, so next time I do the same thing.  Thus, naturally, I always 'refer' to mammoths with one grunt.  The same could happen every time I see a tiger, though this time I grunt twice to get your attention (not once, because it's not a mammoth after all).  Then I can extend and nuance the system of grunts, having different dialects for some, etc etc, until I have English.  Then I just teach it to my kids in the same way that I taught you - induction and habituation.

This is how I've always just assumed language to have come about, which evidences how it is that signs are communicable, but not meanings (you had to establish the connection between single grunts and mammoths on your own).

Additionally, I'd say that the fact that we can only explain things with language - even if we're trying to explain what I mean by something - shows that we can only transfer signs.

This should probably be rephrased, using the Saussurean sign, if you don't mind?

Riley Mason

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Re: What is language?
« Reply #21 on: March 05, 2014, 03:40 PM »
Sure, thanks for helping me out  :)

In my opinion, 'reference' can only occur with language - where meaning is that reference.  And, vitally - in my opinion - conscious, active thought is manifested by that reference.  'Mental constructs', as you mention, must be established as mental images or representations or whatever, accessible only by reflecting upon them (for they must be pre-established in order to access), and this reflection occurs by referring to those concepts.  When I actively think of something, I bring it up or recall or refer to it implicitly in the mind.  And how else are we to refer to something without having a signatory construct by which to reference it? 

Thus it is that this 'sign', which refers, must also have a form by which to refer.  So this is why I think active thought, fundamentally, must manifest through language.

However, I've included a clarification - namely, that I'm speaking about 'active', 'conscious', reflective thought.  Of course it's not that literally all of our mental processes occur linguistically, but without language we can only be 'aware', in terms of thought.  My body can sense that I'm hungry and, with the appropriate mental processes I may pursue food.  But I don't even know what I'm doing or thinking unless I reflect on that action or that thought, and this where language is necessary.

So, I suppose it's more accurate to say that 'reflection' requires thought?  This, as 'active' thought, as such, is what I meant.  Do you still disagree?  I'm sure it annoys you that I change my language, and it would be completely understandable if it does, for which I'm sorry - but it's still the same idea.


I tried to exemplify this idea with the prehistoric hypothetical.  In it, we're essentially proto-humans, being a new stage in primitive evolution (e.g. homo gautengensis).  (Excuse the 30-second wikipedia'd archeological ignorance and innaccuracy) Language is not yet a phenomenon for us.  But we live, we hunt, just like other animals.  One day we're hunting and I grunt to get your attention about a mammoth I see.  You respond to the grunt in the way that I was hoping, and we kill it.  This happens the next day, and repeatedly for a time after.  It becomes habitual.  I grunt for mammoth, you respond to it - internalizing the grunt as meaning mammoth.  This is all that language is: where the form is a grunt, and it refers to - means - a particular mental construct (a mammoth).  We both use induction to solidify it for ourselves.  The same occurs with two grunts for a tiger, a grunt and a moan for a sexy female homo gautengensis, etc.

Then, importantly, when I'm with her later, I can reflect on the mammoth we killed, and - necessarily - I do so by thinking about a grunt.  I have to associate the concept with the grunt, using the latter to refer to the former, because that's what reflection demands.  Beforehand, I couldn't have even reflected on (thought about) my own ideas because I didn't have things by which to refer to them.

So we can learn language without previously having it, by habit and implicit induction, where mental processes occur.  But reflective thought is a mutual (with language) development, whereby language is the medium of reflection, affording us conceptual tools (signs) to think about our own thoughts, as it were.  It's why dogs don't 'know', or why pre-homo gautengensis didn't either - because they don't have linguistic tools (signs), and thus lack a medium for reflection.  Again, that's been my assumption.  Do you buy it?

(Or, more easily: toddlers learn language by their parents pointing to things and repeating 'forms' of signs.)


Then, the subjectivity of meaning merely, I think, arises out of the fact that my mental constructs can only be my own - because you can't access my thoughts.  You can't know what my meanings are if you can't know the constructs to which they refer.  Meaning is a relationship between forms and constructs, and if the latter is inaccessible to you, then your ability to access the relationship (knowingly) also collapses.

Of course you can induce and guess (and, maybe, accurately) what I'm referring to with a particular form - you certainly did with my grunt and the construct of the mammoth - but you can't actually know.  For instance, I meant by "sign" what I think you mean by "form," and it certainly seems that we can communicate efficaciously and get on the same page, per se.  But from a purely epistemic point of view, I just simply cannot know what it is that you're actually referring to with your signs.  Just as you can't know what I'm referring to with the sign "vql@54-09d12," I can't actually know what you're referring to with any sign at all.

Andreas Geisler

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Re: What is language?
« Reply #22 on: March 06, 2014, 12:05 AM »
How do you know that thoughts have to be represented by a linguistic marker? Neurology doesn't support it, and there are several logical problems with it as well.

The form contains no information, and all that is referred to already exists in the brain in the form of stored and correlated percepts. The referent is just a particular configuration of that percept-based knowledge.

Riley Mason

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Re: What is language?
« Reply #23 on: March 06, 2014, 04:35 PM »
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The form contains no information, and all that is referred to already exists in the brain in the form of stored and correlated percepts. The referent is just a particular configuration of that percept-based knowledge.

My concise responsive answer's at the bottom.

Yes, there are percepts and instinctual urges that exist and function in the mind independently of language, so this type of implicit 'thinking' isn't mutually inclusive with language.  It's essentially equivalent of the unreflective 'thinking' of other animals.  However, it's 'blind', as it were, to its own self and it's limited in what it can actually accomplish mentally; it's not a sort of thinking that refers to things, but rather is just aimed towards them (e.g. basic drive for food). 

But when we look to 'thought' in terms of considering decisions (instead of just merely making them), interpreting precepts, and forming propositions for knowledge about reality, these necessarily require language - because they necessarily require a reference to concepts.  At one level, you just see something and react, and at another level - that of reflective thought - you interpret what you see - you think about what is already in your mind.  You necessary and implicitly refer to such a concept (like a precept) with language, because language is the process of reference.  You need a form by which to refer, without which you can't.

Conceivably, I could possibly even form all of these concepts without language, but I can't even know what they are or that I'm even thinking them if I don't have language by which to refer and reflect upon them, and thus establish them as linguistically accessible propositions.

When you make propositions, such as "I see a mammoth" or "Ugh", you're referring, and you're thinking, and it is this reference that actually constitutes this thought.  You think about X which is just a concept in your mind, you think about thought by reflecting on your concepts, and thus you need a form for X so that you can actually conjure it in your mind to refer to it. (Otherwise there isn't anything accessible for reference).

Quote from: Riley Mason
In my opinion, 'reference' can only occur with language - where meaning is that reference.  And, vitally - in my opinion - conscious, active thought is manifested by that reference.  'Mental constructs', as you mention, must be established as mental images or representations or whatever, accessible only by reflecting upon them (for they must be pre-established in order to access), and this reflection occurs by referring to those concepts.  When I actively think of something, I bring it up or recall or refer to it implicitly in the mind.  And how else are we to refer to something without having a signatory construct by which to reference it?


Basically, I know that reflective thoughts have to be represented (rather, manifested) by linguistic markers because they refer, and reference is manifested by linguistic markers.  How are there logical problems, especially with my examples of how this could conceivably function in language development?

Andreas Geisler

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Re: What is language?
« Reply #24 on: March 07, 2014, 02:41 AM »
Basically, I know that reflective thoughts have to be represented (rather, manifested) by linguistic markers because they refer, and reference is manifested by linguistic markers.  How are there logical problems, especially with my examples of how this could conceivably function in language development?
That appears to be a circular argument. That would be one of the logical problems with it.
Another is that thought clearly predates knowing a language developmentally, and would seem to be a requirement for learning a language.

Riley Mason

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Re: What is language?
« Reply #25 on: March 07, 2014, 05:27 AM »
Basically, I know that reflective thoughts have to be represented (rather, manifested) by linguistic markers because they refer, and reference is manifested by linguistic markers.  How are there logical problems, especially with my examples of how this could conceivably function in language development?
That appears to be a circular argument. That would be one of the logical problems with it.

I think it's rather tautological.  Language is literally the medium of reflective thought because reflective thought is the reference to concepts (and that's all that language is too).  Those concepts, such as the image of a mammoth, can arise without language - because the act of perception occurs independently of it.  But we don't even know that we're perceiving a mammoth unless we reflect on that perception and interpret it.  (And interpretation, as reflective thought, which must refer to the concept, must manifest linguistically.)

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Another is that thought clearly predates knowing a language developmentally, and would seem to be a requirement for learning a language.

My mammoth example was specifically against this.  There's 'thought' as in the whole of mental processes, and then there's 'reflective thought' as those mental processes that are active, reflective, propositional.  Only the latter is linguistic.

Andreas Geisler

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Re: What is language?
« Reply #26 on: March 07, 2014, 03:34 PM »
No, tautology is something that is true because it says nothing.
A circular argument is one that claims to be true, and tries to refer to itself for evidence that it is true.

You will not find a single linguist or neurologist in the entire world who will agree with you that though is linguistic.
Not one. We actually have very clear evidence that it is not the case.

Riley Mason

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Re: What is language?
« Reply #27 on: March 07, 2014, 06:59 PM »
I explained, very clearly I think, my reasons for why I think language must be the manifestation of referential thought.  I also gave a pretty intuitive example of how this avoids the problem of the precedence of mental processes to language, as I've repeated several times over that I'm not talking about all thought.

Consider the Brazilian Pirahã people, who have no words for discrete numbers beyond one and two, and cannot distinguish accurately between large quantities when asked.  They just can't.  They have no words and thus they cannot refer to what may be a clearly accurate percept in their mind - namely, that they may perceive 20 sticks - but can't reliably produce that same number later.  They have no referential signs, and thus cannot have referential thought - because there's nothing to refer with.

I'm not saying I'm right, because I don't know.  But if it's wrong, I'd be interested in how it's wrong.

'Others think you're wrong' is not sufficient, nor is asserting that you have 'clear evidence' without even providing it.


Alain Van Hout

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Re: What is language?
« Reply #28 on: March 08, 2014, 03:05 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?

I'm sorry to be a bit late to this conversation, but as a first contributions (using the word loosely), I thought it best to answer, from my point of view, the original question:

Partly because of my background as a (behavioural) biologist, I approach language as a vocal method of communication, i.e. a method that conveys information to other individuals. In language, that information typically involves concepts, which are mental models of (part of) reality, which are communicated through an organised set of sounds that in themselves can be organised on a higher level to create more complicated bundles of interacting concepts.

With regard to what's already been mentioned about language being referential, I somewhat agree, though with the specification that it's concepts (mental models) that are being referenced, not (directly) reality itself. As a result, for language to serve as a means of communication, the individuals that are attempting to communicate must share the concepts that are being communicated, or to be more precise, they must posses concepts that are sufficiently similar so as to allow for sufficiently effective/efficient communication. A simple example would be when talking about 'a Labrador retriever' and the recipient/listener not knowing that breed of dog; in that case, unless it's essential to the rest of what is communicated, if the listener possesses the concept of 'a dog', that's sufficient to allow communication to proceed with a higher enough level of reliability.

In the example of the Pirahã people (where I'm going to base myself on what's been mentioned here), the closest conceptual match they have for 8, 15, 20, etc, seems to be 'more than two' (in the Discworld troll vernacular: 'lots'). This raises another (to my mind) important point about language: while its original, and most used, purpose is conveying information under the form of concepts, the fact that more advanced versions of language allow for the combination of concepts leads to our ability to create new concepts. This is however an exaptation of (complex) language, not inherently necessary (and definitionally required) part of 'language'.

Andreas Geisler

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Re: What is language?
« Reply #29 on: March 09, 2014, 03:13 AM »
There's 'thought' as in the whole of mental processes, and then there's 'reflective thought' as those mental processes that are active, reflective, propositional.  Only the latter is linguistic.
What you may be referring to is called "thinking for speaking", it is largely inconsequential, and not in the scope of this discussion.

The kind of thought we are discussing is the kind of thought involved in deciding what you want for dinner at a diner, or catching a fastball thrown at your head or learning a language or reacting to what someone is saying by formulating a response (this does not necessarily happen through thinking-for-speaking, which is often too slow to keep up).

Alain said
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With regard to what's already been mentioned about language being referential, I somewhat agree, though with the specification that it's concepts (mental models) that are being referenced, not (directly) reality itself. As a result, for language to serve as a means of communication, the individuals that are attempting to communicate must share the concepts that are being communicated, or to be more precise, they must posses concepts that are sufficiently similar so as to allow for sufficiently effective/efficient communication. A simple example would be when talking about 'a Labrador retriever' and the recipient/listener not knowing that breed of dog; in that case, unless it's essential to the rest of what is communicated, if the listener possesses the concept of 'a dog', that's sufficient to allow communication to proceed with a higher enough level of reliability.
Exactly, we have various input, sensory input and linguistic input as a subset of that. The sensory input lets us form inductive theories of existence, i.e. mental models that assert the identity of supposed ontological entities with parts of the sensory stream.
We also can build inductively theories of usage of linguistic forms, to the extent where we are able to reconstruct the mental models of others from various cues, because there is a limited way in which to segment reality so that it fits with the observed use of terms and grammar.