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Primitives, was Re: Left / Right, was Re: Count and mass nouns

From:Philippe Caquant <herodote92@...>
Date:Wednesday, January 28, 2004, 13:00
Well, the point is that we first have to define the
concept of “primitive” itself. I can see at least 3
points of view (i.e. 3 methodologies) on that,
although there are probably more:

1/ the “child-learning” perspective
Using that method, we observe how both knowledge and
language come to a child’s brain. What concepts the
child is able to master first may be considered as
“more primitive” that the ones it will take him years
to master. “Mummy”, “milk” and “pussycat” (or
“me-wet-no-good”) would probably be more primitive in
that case than “mammal”, “geometry” or “stockmarket”
for ex.

2/ the “every-natlang-in-the-world” perspective
This is Wierzbicka’s and Goddard’s method. The
concepts we can prove existing in every (known)
natural language in the world are considered to be
primitives. Ex: I, You, Someone, Something, People,
One, Two, Many, All, Do, Happen, Good, Bad, If,
Because, Like, Move, There Is, Live… (hypothesis: less
than 100 of them).

3/ the “definition-dismounting” perspective.
We here  search for various definitions of a term in
several dictionaries (and in our own mind), we split
homonyms and polysemic terms apart, and we try to find
the elements of meaning which are building the
concept. These elements usually can be analysed again,
and so on, until it is no more possible to divide them
unless using higher-level concepts. For ex, it seems
very hard to go beyond concepts like “existence”,
“difference”, “abstract property”, and so on.

A 4th method would consist in scientifically analysing
the world itself, then we would come to primitives
like “neutron”, “electron”, “quark”, “time”,
“rotation”, “energy” or whatever, but that has little
to do with language primitives, it would be
“real-world” primitives, in case such things exist.

For some or other reason, I incline towards the 3rd
method. For ex, I don’t consider that “good” and “bad”
are two different concepts, I think there are just
indissociable polarities of a single evaluation scale,
the “good/bad” one. And I don’t think that “cat” or
“tree” are primitives: they are just our usually
privileged focus (before “Persian cat” or “elm”,
“mammal quadrupede” or “plant”), but that just means
that our “conceptoscope” is currently focused  on cat-
or tree-level, just like a microscope can be focused
on scales 30x to 1,000,000-x. You would never think
that what you perceive with a, let’s say 1.000x
enlargement is more primitive that what you can see at
30x or at 1,000,000x, just because you usually work at
a 1.000x scale.

--- Nik Taylor <yonjuuni@...> wrote:
> Christophe Grandsire wrote: > > Except that I don't believe in the existence of > such primitives. The way I > > see the lexicon of any language built, each word > is defined in relationship > > with others, but also with its own specific > primitive nucleus. The area of > > meaning is necessarily continuous. I don't believe > you can cut it into > > primitive units of meaning. > > Lakoff's "Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things" is an > interesting argument > for that very notion. Basic terms, he believes, are > concepts that can > be applied to sensory gestalts. Terms like "man" or > "cat" or "tree" are > the basic terms, and other concepts are derived from > basic terms by > either refining (old man, Persian cat, Elm) or > grouping (person, animal, > plant). > > That's somewhat simplifying his notion, but it makes > much more sense to > me than the "primitives" notion. Those primitives > aren't concepts that > are easily conceived by the conscious mind, so I > have a hard time > believing that a child learning a language uses > them. I agree with > Lakoff's belief that language uses the same > cognitive capacities as > other forms of reason and thought.
===== Philippe Caquant "Le langage est source de malentendus." (Antoine de Saint-Exupery) __________________________________ Do you Yahoo!? Yahoo! SiteBuilder - Free web site building tool. Try it!