Comic suggests ‘putting down’ old physicists-turned-linguists

I seem to be the comic poster on this blog, but hey – Mark Liberman often quotes comics on Languagelog, and it’s before breakfast for me. So I feel ok with that.

(Update: I did beat Mark Liberman! By almost 5 hours! CF. http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=3856)

Anyway, I was reading Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal this morning, a comic that is occasionally quite good, and I came upon this gem. I wonder who exactly he is taking a jibe at with the physicist-turned-linguist mention. Any bets?

I’m glad he said first language, and not protolanguage. Proto-world isn’t the most likely thing we’re going to find – at best, we’ll be able to get half a dozen cognates, like Ruhlen did in 1994. Ruhlen is, of course, not a physicist, but a Greenbergian linguist, so he couldn’t have been the butt of the above joke. For that matter, I can’t be either – not because I am a linguist, but because I don’t believe there was one language, and I think it isn’t theoretically sound to stipulate that there was one language at any point in our history. My argument for this view (which I learned last week isn’t necessarily common) is that a) languages don’t exist outside of their host’s minds, anyway, so language needs to be redefined as a collaborative, shared signalling system b) this wouldn’t have occurred at any point in our history, excepting perhaps for the Adam and Eve time zones c) even then, we’d have different, contacting communities that would keep ‘language’ as such as a constantly changing system that would need to be defined most clearly in relation to the other contrasting systems, and d) even within the group, there would have been considerably idiolectic variation that would have, in my unfounded opinion, been much more rife in early language than today. I’m still working on backing that up theoretically, and hopefully one day with models.

Back to the comic, I hope you didn’t miss the reference to ‘tensors’ as well. Every time I see that word, I think of The Demolished Man, a truly fantastic science fiction book where a key point in the plot is that a man can block out psychics by repeating an annoying commercial meme – Tenser, said the tensor - in his head over and over again. Since we’re talking about science fiction, the comic above also reminds me of that one Star Trek episode where it is revealed that all Kaelon’s must commit mandatory suicide so that they don’t stress society by being elderly, sort of like Sarah Palin’s ‘death panels’.

  • http://new-savanna.blogspot.com/ BBenzon

    …languages don’t exist outside of their host’s minds, anyway, so language needs to be redefined as a collaborative, shared signalling system…

    Well, John Lawler agrees:

    My own take is fairly radical for a linguist, I’m told. There’s no such thing as “the English language” [for more generalizations, insert any language name here], for example. Instead, everybody makes up their own language, and then we all spend the rest of our lives trying to pass as English speakers, with varying degrees of success. “The ___ language” meme is the result. Not to mention “correct English”.

  • http://www.rlittauer.com Richard

    Yep. I’ve heard this a few other places, too — I think Mark Liberman and Geoff Pullum have said this before, and some others, but I forget who. The main issue with my hypothesis is the following points, i think.

    Thanks for the link. Hadn’t seen that before.

  • http://Schoolforlinguists.wordpress.com NemaVeze

    Murray Gell-Mann?

  • Kevin

    Your argument is a bit of a truism though – your definition of a language in a) is quite obviously self-defeating, and these days only the staunchest generativists would consider language to be anything but a collaborative, shared signalling system. Claiming that even the smallest possible population of two people wouldn’t speak ‘the same language’ is like refusing to classify any two creatures into the same species based on the smallest differences between them, rather than embracing a population-based conception which builds on criteria such as mutual intelligibility/sociolects/what-have-you. Of course you can do that, but there can be no ‘right’ definition of ‘language’ anyway, only more or less useful ones, and I’d suspect this would be one of the less useful ones.

    (Also, the idiolect-argument for not-one-language is based on inter-individual variation as if an individual’s linguistic performance was homogeneous, which is probably not what you want?)

  • http://www.rlittauer.com Richard

    Ooo, good call. It probably was Gell-Mann.

    Yes, it is a bit of a truism, but it still fits the shoe for the sort of argument that deflates the ‘Proto-world’ theory. Or, at least, it’s a spring board for my other points. I agree with you and wehre you’re coming from there.

    Aso for the idiolect, no, not what I meant. I meant that I think there would have been a lot more signalling that wouldn’t be shared within the group, but understood by the group. I’m talking about things like twin languages, where twins understand each other but no one else can. I think in protolanguage you’d have small groups of people that would know each other intimately, and would be able to store the small lexicons for each person that would comprise of someone’s signals. For instance, your uncle might use a different form for lexicalising a certain word than your sister, and one would store each form separately. This is conjecture, and I’m still working on ways of testing this in simulations (although I have been for years). There are some studies that might back this up – for instance, we tend to store words with the voices of the person who first said them (got this from a conversation at Evolang, not sure where or how verifiable.) But no, each person would be on the whole consistent, yes. And again – just guessing here without evidence.

  • Kevin

    Well, it also fits the shoe for the sort of argument which suggests that studying linguistics or conventions in any way is impossible, and I do think that there are better (i.e. more specific) arguments for criticising not the idea but the feasibility of a Proto-world theory. It’s also a straw-man argument in that you suggest a conception of language which makes establishing something like Proto-world impossible, just to immediately abandon it because you don’t endorse it either? The problem with most of these linguistic ‘studies’ by non-linguists is not that they have precise conceptions which are wrong or misleading, but that they don’t have any real idea or refined conceptions of the entities that they are dealing with at all. To put it strongly, my impression is that by trying to make sense of them you might actually be giving them more attention and credit than they deserve, because they didn’t put nearly as much effort into coming up with them than we do trying to pick them apart. (Plus we don’t get publications in Science or newspaper articles for it.)

    I see what you mean, the simplest model of such dynamics are probably Naming Games without synonymy-damping where, assuming some simplifications, you essentially end up with a ‘working’ communication system with N/2 different names for every object (where N is the total population size, see here or here). I myself think that it’s a shame that synonymy (or indeed any kind of variation) have been left out of Naming Game studies, and it’s also something I’m trying to address at the moment!

  • http://www.rlittauer.com Richard

    Good points, on all counts. For the most part, I haven’t yet run into any serious proto-world theories, so my straw-man does come from conversations with friends after a couple of pints. You’re right that they probably haven’t thought of this as much as I’ve thought of debunking them.

    Thanks for the links! Looking forward to diving into these. And yes, I agree completely about variation as an important piece of the puzzle, if not an essential one.