Language About Language

How is it, then, that we can talk about talking? If you are willing to assume the existence of basic perceptual and cognitive capacities, a relatively simple answer follows immediately. The sounds of talk are, after all, sounds like any other sounds. We can perceive them in the same way we perceive the sound of a waterfall or a bird’s song, a thunderclap or the rustling of leaves in the wind, a cricket’s chirp or the breaking of waves on a beach. All are things we can hear, easily and naturally, and so it is with the sound of the human voice.

Roman Jakobson famously theorized that language has six functions: referential, emotive, poetic, conative, phatic, and the metalingual function. That’s the function we’re interested in, our capacity to speak about speech. Jakobson talked of the metalingual function as an orientation toward the language code, which seems just a bit grand. For I’m led to believe that many languages lack terms for explicitly talking about the ‘code.’ Thus, in The Singer of Tales (Atheneum 1973, orig. Harvard 1960), Albert Lord attests (p. 25):

Man without writing thinks in terms of sound groups and not in words, and the two do not necessarily coincide. When asked what a word is, he will reply that he does not know, or he will give a sound group which may vary in length from what we call a word to an entire line of poetry, or even an entire song. [Remember, Lord is writing about oral narrative.] The word for “word” means an “utterance.” When the singer is pressed then to way what a line is, he, whose chief claim to fame is that he traffics in lines of poetry, will be entirely baffled by the question; or he will say that since he has been dictating and has seen his utterances being written down, he has discovered what a line is, although he did not know it as such before, because he had never gone to school.

While I’m willing to entertain doubts about the full generality of this statement – “man without writing” – I assume the it is an accurate report about the Yugoslavian peasants among whom Milman Parry and Albert Lord conducted their fieldwork and that it also applies to other preliterate peoples, though not necessarily to all.

Given those caveats, the paragraph is worth re-reading. Before doing so, recall how casually we have come to see language as a window on the workings of the mind in the Chomskyian and post-Chomskyian eras. If that is the case, then what can one see through a window that lacks even a word for words, that fails to distinguish between words and utterances? And what of the poets who don’t know what a line is? The lack of such knowledge does not stand in the way of the poeticizing, no more than the lack of knowledge of generative grammar precludes the ability to talk intelligently on a vast range of subjects.

What do we make of the apparent fact that watching Lord (or Parry) transcribe their songs into lines allows the poet to understand what a line is? Could it be that the centuries-long process of inventing and using writing systems forced our ancestors to think about language in new ways, to develop new concepts? In Information Ages (Johns Hopkins 1988) Michael Hobart and Zachary Schiffman the lists found in an Assyrian collection of cuneiform tables from the seventh century BCE (p. 45):

Of the seven hundred extant cuneiform tablets in the royal library, the largest group consists of three hundred “omen texts.” These lists consist of short, conditional statements correlating various phenomena with predicted outcomes, such as “If a man’s chest-hair curls upwards he will become a slave.” The next largest group, two hundred tablets, comprises sign and word lists organized according to a wide variety of principles, largely to aid Akkadian-speaking scribes in mastering Sumerian, a dead language early in the second-millennium. A related group of one hundred tablets provide interlinear translations of Sumerian incantations and prayers. Finally, some one hundred tablets contain assorted conjurations, proverbs, and fables, of which only about forty record epics, like the famous story of Gilgamesh.

What does one have to think about, explicitly, in order to make such lists? And what might one discover by reading through collections of such lists? In particular, how must one think about language in order to do that? In so thinking about language those ancients were, in the Chomskyian and post-Chomskyian view, indirectly thinking about their own minds.

What I have in mind in all this as that the metalingual function of language has, over time, functioned as a bootstrap mechanism through which we have been able to create ever more powerful conceptual systems, including systems of thought about thinking. Over time those new systems of thought will themselves become objects of scrutiny, and so on. And yet, at no point in this process have been ever been in a position to directly observe the inner mechanisms of language, or of thought.

We certainly aren’t in such a position now. Chomsky conjoined the notion of grammar with the workings of metamathematical proof theory and produced: 1) a family of new models for syntax, 2) a new way of thinking about the innateness of language, and 3) a new way of arguing about psychological theories (which he employed against behaviorism). But at no point did he ever observe language mechanisms themselves. Nor, of course, did he make such a foolish claim.

Even as he was writing his dissertation and then pamphleting it in Syntactic Structures, other groups of thinkers had taken upon themselves the task of using computers to translate from one language to another – my teacher, David G. Hays, was among them. They developed other formal models and checked their consistency and usefulness by running computer programs that embodied those models. But whether or not any of those models embodies the mechanisms that we humans use, that’s another matter. If you wish to assert that, you need to provide additional arguments.

And so it goes with neural observations and models. We can make crude observations about how the brain deals with language. No doubt we will be able to make better observations in the future – higher spatial and temporal resolution, more naturalistic conditions of observation. But those observations require quite a bit of interpretation before we can see mental mechanisms in them. We will not be ‘seeing’ those mechanisms as directly as we can hear the sound of our own voice. And yet basic perceptual capacity is at the root of the long process of cultural evolution that has led us to this point and that will, with a bit of luck, take us beyond it, to a world of concepts that will come easily and naturally to our grandchildren, but will seem strange a forbidding to us.

Cross posted at New Savanna.