Re: Origin and function of language

Paul Crowley (
Sun, 30 Jun 96 11:49:13 GMT

In article <> "Mark Leney" writes:

> On Mon, 24 Jun 1996, Paul Crowley wrote:
> > I can see no problem with this. One just has to look at the immense
> > cultural differences today between, say, Americans, French, Italian,
> > German and British, and how those differences are embodied in
> > language. It's also easy to see how in total war those differences
> > could (and, to some extent, did in WW1 and WW2) lead to success or
> > failure. I don't think any scientist would suggest that these
> So, (apologies for wandering off the subject here) you are saying that
> the results of WW1 and WW2 were in part due to linguistic differences
> between the warring nations. I think that is about the same as saying
> that Yiddish caused the Final Solution.

What I said was clear enough--and nothing like your interpretation.
Also this discussion is not off-topic as about the best starting
point when considering the function and origin of language in
earlier hominid societies is to try to comprehend its role in our
own. This role is so deep, so pervasive and so all-encompassing
that it's almost impossible to talk about it. But I'm sure it's
the best place to start; one should try to move from the known to
the unknown. That's why I suggested that we could take recent
historical episodes with known results (WW1 & WW2) and consider
how they were determined by culture (and therefore language).
Such an approach involves enormous simplifications or general-
isations, but at least they can be pointed out.

The alternative approach is to attempt to conceive of "societies"
without language, such as we observe in animals, and then try to
imagine how they would acquire it. But to do this would be to state
what it is to acquire language; or, in other words, to state what it
is to be a human being. Inevitably we will get into fearful
philosophical complexities. We will be using language to say what
language is. We will constantly be on the borders of what it is
possible to say.

> I think that social interaction is by far the most complicated thing we
> do with language. Lecturing and writing up scientific research is really
> very simple by comparison.

You are not facing up to the philosophical complexities. You do not
appear to have thought about what it means to have acquired a language
in the first place. You seem to believe that we could exist as
human beings--in much the same condition--without language; that it
is some kind of add-on or dispensible luxury; that it is a tool we
can use, sometimes for social interaction, sometimes for lecturing,
sometimes not at all. It's the Cartesian view of reality:-- we exist
inside our heads and optionally decide to use language for
communication with others who also exist inside their heads.

I know this is difficult, but the difficulties have to be faced.
Generally in PA they are ignored. However, language goes to the
very essence of our being. All the words we use (such as "society"
or "language") derive their sense from our everyday applications and
when we casually extend them to animals we are often improperly
extending them in an inappropriate sense. Another great difficulty
is that in trying to comprehend earlier hominids we have to imagine
societies with a smaller language capacity than our own, which still
functioned as more or less normal societies.

> The maintainance of a complex web
> of social alliances is computationally very difficult. I think we tend to
> trivialise the importance of it because our brains (well, for most of us)
> are extremely good at it, precisely because they have evolved to do this.

But all kinds of animals and *insects* maintain complex webs of "social
alliances" without large brains or a complex language.