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Wittgenstein and private language; was: revealing your status as a conlanger

From:Sally Caves <scaves@...>
Date:Friday, June 18, 2004, 17:03
----- Original Message -----
From: "Dan Sulani" <dansulani@...>

> On 18 June, Sally Caves wrote: > > > ----- Original Message ----- > > From: "John Leland" <Lelandconlang@...> > > > > > In a message dated 6/16/04 12:23:06 PM Pacific Daylight Time, > > > joerg_rhiemeier@WEB.DE writes: > > > > > > << When I mentioned it in his presence, he said that > > > what I am doing was meaningless because Wittgenstein said that > > > "private languages are impossible". I am not an expert on > > > Wittgenstein's philosophy, but I think my brother has interpreted > > > Wittgenstein's words wrongly. What Wittgenstein meant was, I think, > > > that a language can never be private in the sense that no-one else > > > can learn it. Conlangs thus *aren't* "private languages". >> > > > > Here's something I quoted from Wittgenstein: > > > > Could we also imagine a language in which a person could write down or > give > > vocal expression to his inner experiences -- his feelings, moods, and
> > rest -- for his private use? Well, can't we do so in our ordinary > > language? -- But that is not what I mean. The individual words of this > > language are to refer to what can only be known to the person speaking;
> > his immediate private sensations. So another person cannot understand
> > language. -- Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations par. 243 > > > > Wittgenstein calls a "private language" that which has no circulation in > the > > real world, or which cannot be used as a means of communication with > another > > person, because it is made up of words that refer only to the speaker's > > PRIVATE and idiosyncratic experiences and sensations. Since language is
> > public consensus, using words that are agreed upon publically to express > > even private feeling, then a private language is an impossibility. The > way > > we relate to each other, the way we know red is called "red" or nausea
> > called "nausea" is through a common use of language which is an
> > BECAUSE public, symbology of our inner feelings. Wittgenstein, I
> > is trying to argue against solipsism, the belief that the self is the
> > thing that has reality. He's popular, because so much contemporary > > metaphysics and philosophy of language (Nietzsche, Judith Butler) argue > the > > opposite, that self is created BY language. Or that self doesn't exist
> > can't be gauged. A thorny issue. > > I am having a problem with the idea of a polarized division of a > person's linguistic actions. Either public or private, no in-between. > Speaking as a speech-language-pathologist: > in practical terms, if I come across a person who is making noises with
> vocal apparatus that mean nothing to me, (and believe me, I have!) > and he seems to be satisfied with the results, how do I know that I am in > the presence of a "private lang" and not a confused, psychotic, or aphasic > person?
I agree with you, Dan. These theories don't seem to cover all the gray areas in between. I was only trying to clarify what I thought was Wittgenstein's definition of a "private" language--which is entirely theoretical, and has none of the practical applications and observations that you speak of.
> If he uses the sounds to relate to me, such as showing me pictures
> more or less have something to do with a certain sound-sequence of his > "private" speech, it's already not so "private". > And what happens if I were to "adopt" his sounds to signify my own
> sensations and he were not to object to that. Would his lang be becoming > public? Would he still retain a "private" lang? > And could I, though therapy, _force_ a public meaning upon his private > sounds > (not that I would --- I'm not so sure as to how ethical it would be!), > would he still have a private lang? > And what if I taped all his utterances over a long span of time > (in order to get a good sample of his speech in diverse situations) > and then, without his consent, or even knowledge, > created a publicly shared conlang based upon the lang sample --- > would it be the same lang? What would you call a lang that > has the exact same apparent phonology and morphosyntax as another lang, > but with absolutely no words sharing a common meaning?
Wittgenstein's "private language" was meant to serve as an example of the public nature of MOST language. I don't know if he talks about speech pathology as private or public; I don't think he was interested in that. These observations, though, are interesting.
> Why I bring all this up, is that it reminds me of what I do all the
> in my work. > For example, when teaching a word to a kid who has no lang whatsoever, > let's say that I teach him the sound sequence [kise], > which is Hebrew for "chair". > What else do I teach him? I surely don't teach him all the possible types
> chairs that exist today, let alone all the types of seats that have been > used by all peoples throughout all time!
Well, isn't that the nature of language, not to have a separate word for every leaf in the forest, but to reduce things to IDEAS? Helen Keller finally grasped it. I don't teach him all the private
> associations that I have accumulated over the years to the idea of
> including all my personal memories of a few particularly comfortable
> (and some not so comfortable seats I had to endure in high school !
) )
> It's actually amazing how _little_ information I impart to him about
> before I turn to the next word, resting assured that he can use it > whenever he needs to in public or private.
I think you are making Wittgenstein's point for him. He's arguing that that's the nature of used, communicable language. Private chairs, everyone of which one has had an experience of, or has dreamt about, can only be reduced to a few signs in used language.
> At first, I know what he knows because I put it there, so it's more or
> totally public. But from then on, how do I know what private associations > he'll form with that word? I guess what I am trying to say is, IMHO, > all lang-use by people, whether natlang or conlang, is a continuum, > with a private aspect at one extreme _and_ a public one at the other!
Exactly!! That was my point with my dream analogy. I can write the dream down and someone else can read it, but will they see it as I saw it? will they experience the same frisson? the same sense of nostalgia, the same coloring of private memory? Will they see the hills lit by the same light? Understand that north means the unknown? To them, my words will be open signifiers, existing in public language, to which they'll apply their own experiences. Or just find the dream boring or inexplicable. I find Judith Butler's insistence that everything is public a little grating, sometimes. The "soi" does exist. But it is, as you say, incommunicable on one end of your continuum. Do we understand Middle Earth as Tolkien imagined it, laden with his personal associations and emotions? As he saw it in his mind?
> How much must this continuum be wieghted towards shared use in order > to describe the person's utterances as public?
I don't know. I once described a plunger as a "kleegle." I was four, I was in the bathtub and I pointed to the toilet plunger and asked my mother "what's that kleegle over there?" (already conlanging) Mom still uses the word to mean an object you don't have a word for. It's a private joke, a word only our family knows. I suppose if I were a famous author and wrote about it, it could fall into public use. There are thousands of examples like this, including all the ones you've had experience with. Your question is a valid one.
> And the resverse: how much must the continuum be weighted towards > idiosyncratic and "non-sharedness" for it to be described as private? > A thorny issue indeed!
Yes, indeed; but for Wittgenstein, my point was only that he didn't think a "private language," insofar as it has a private word for myriad specific experiences of "chairness," was possible *in the public realm.* We can agree with him or not, but I think he was trying to make a comment about used language and its public nature through this analogy. Your job sounds fascinating, Dan. I've told you this before!! Sally klygl an unknown thing one has no name for. klyglabrarem, to speak in an unknown language.