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What is language? (was: OT hominids)

From:R A Brown <ray@...>
Date:Sunday, January 1, 2006, 14:38
Paul Bennett wrote:
> On Sat, 31 Dec 2005 13:21:41 -0500, Andreas Johansson <andjo@...> > wrote: > >> Quoting R A Brown <ray@...>: >> >>> I understand that (some) social insects have sophisticated communication >>> systems. Would these be called language, or does language have to be >>> primarily vocal? >> >> >> AFAIU, the communication of insect likes bees is structurally very >> different >> from human language, so I'd be disinclined to call them language >> quite apart >> from the difference between vocal and gestural communication. > > > The last time I read anything about bee communication, bee "dances" > provided nothing more than bearing and range information to nectar > sources, in a stereotypical, formulaic way.
Yes - tho I guess a formal grammar could be derived to describe this and thus it would qualify as a 'formal language', i.e. a language generated by a formal grammar.
> That's IMO even less like > language than birdsong -- at least some birdsong is capable of > expressing more than one notion.
I agree it is even less like natural language* than birdsong. The bee dance, as I understand it, is 'pre-programmed' instinctual behavior; but while birds may have a 'hard-wired song faculty', the actual song is not innate but, like human language, has to be learnt anew by each fledgling. I am told that over the generations changes do take place and that different dialects of the same original song do arise. *natural language = "Any language which is, or once was, the mother tongue of a group of human beings" [Trask]
> Ants, on the oher hand, seem to communicate via something at least > potentially approaching the complexity of real language; a combination > of sign language, touch language and chemical language.
Yep - that is the sort of thing I had in mind. I seem to recall that someone on this list outlined ideas for a 'pheromone language' for intelligent alien insects.
> As far as I > know, though, it's even less well understood than bee dances or birdsong.
Yes, that's what I understand also. It will be interesting to see if further discoveries are made.
> I'd really like to get up to speed with the latest research on dolphin > language. It seems they're capable of describing things using sonar > "pictures", and that they have matrilinear personal names, as well as > obviously having enough of a language facility to understand > combinations of sign and vocal language from humans.
Extremely interesting. My contention is that communication has always gone on among sentient beings. At the low level, such communications are simple and instinctual. But the evidence of birds and especially of dolphins and other cetaceans suggest to me that the human facility for language is the result, as I have written before, of billions upon billions of years of evolution & development. I am noticing that my grandson of six-months is making all sorts of interesting articulate sounds: he has at least a low vowel & a high back vowel, and all sorts of consonants including quite an impression range of click consonants. It is strange to think that in another six months or so, he will have lost the latter, as they do not form part of English phonology. Most of this behavior seems to be 'testing out' his vocal tract and producing these sounds for the sheer delight of producing sound. I am sure that as soon proto-humans acquired a vocal tract (which I do *NOT* believe happen to certain individual overnight!), they were making all sorts of sounds; I just cannot believe that they would have been content with just grunts. ========================================= Jefferson Wilson wrote: > R A Brown wrote: > >> I understand that (some) social insects have sophisticated >> communication systems. Would these be called language, or does >> language have to be primarily vocal? > > > Language doesn't have to be primarily vocal, I agree - American Sign Language, British Sign Language, Paget-Gorman Sign System and other such systems make this quite clear. If we ever do make contact with intelligent beings elsewhere in the universe, I suspect we may well discover some very interesting non-vocal languages. >but exactly what > "sophisticated" means in a linguistic context would fill volumes. Indeed. > Unfortunately, I'm no expert on the subject, Nor am I - but 'tis interesting. -- Ray ================================== ================================== MAKE POVERTY HISTORY


Cian Ross <cian@...>
Hanuman Zhang <zhang@...>