Paul P. Mealing

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Saturday, 24 March 2012

How does language work?

This topic became a source of disagreement on Rust Belt Philosophy a couple of weeks ago, so I would like to point out that this essay was written prior to that discourse.

In fact, the title is the ‘Question of the Month’ in the last issue of Philosophy Now (Issue 88, Jan/Feb 2012). That issue contained selected entries of the previous Question of the Month, which was ‘How can I be happy?’ I (amongst 7 others) won a book for my entry (On Evil by Adam Morton). The editors invited me to submit for the next question of the month, hence this post.

I know of at least one professor of linguistics who reads this blog, so he may wish to challenge my thesis or theses.

Human language is unique to humanity in many respects. For a start, we think in a language and secondly it’s a cultural attribute that is effectively downloaded, independently of our genes, from generation to generation. Language in other species is ‘hardwired’ or genetically determined, like nest-building is in birds, and it’s hard to imagine that any other species thinks in a language the way we do. So what do they think in? I suggest that dreams provide the answer because we dream in imagery and emotion, and I suspect most animals think emotionally. There are animals that use logic, which we witness when they use ‘tools’, including other primates and some birds like crows, but they can only express that logic through demonstration rather than through language.

For each and every one of us there is an external and internal world and the most familiar bridge between those worlds is language. Herein lies the key because language reflects the modality of the world in form as well as function. The smallest ‘atomic’ component of language is individual words, but it’s only in the context of a sentence that they gain leverage in meaning, because the entire sentence provides a meaning that the individual words cannot. Sentences are combined to provide arguments, stories, explanations, just like I’m doing now. But the external world follows this same model because it is made up of ‘atoms’ at various levels that combine into entities, like, for example, individual cells forming a fully developed human being. The human brain can ‘nest’ concepts within concepts and language is the most familiar manifestation of this unique ability. Furthermore, language allows us to not only express concepts within concepts, but to actually think them, and these concepts within concepts are analogous to the worlds within worlds that we investigate and explicate.

But human language has another unique feature that has allowed us to leave all other species in our cognitive wake. Language allows us to carry memories across generations - even before scripts were invented - and this has led to the development of cultures and civilizations that grow with accumulated knowledge. Ultimately, language allows us to think and conceptualise as well as record, and that is what makes humanity unique.


Addendum: Speaking of Philosophy Now, here is someone who claims that chimpanzees can be taught language.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

i still don't understand.

Paul P. Mealing said...

Maybe that's why this is the only submission I've made to Philosophy Now that hasn't been published (4 others have).

Language works because it allows us to think and communicate in concepts that are concordant with the real world. Also because the human brain allows us to combine words in an infinite array of patterns to portray an infinite array of meanings.

We only learn something new when we integrate it into something we already know. Example: when you look up a word in a dictionary, you will only understand its meaning if it's explained using words you already know.

When you follow a story you are constantly integrating new knowledge into existing knowledge as the story proceeds. Only humans have the cognitive ability to do this, and we can only do it because of our special innate ability to learn a language.

Not sure if that helps.

Regards, Paul.