Danny Yee >> People >> Mike Salovesh
Date:         Fri, 25 Feb 2000 06:01:02 -0600
From:         Mike Salovesh <t20mxs1@CORN.CSO.NIU.EDU>
Subject:      Cross-cultural and/or cross-professional misunderstandings

Paulo Oemig has done us all a favor by citing long parts of Ullin T. Place's article, "The Role of the Hand in the Evolution of Language", published in Psycoloquy: 11(007) Language Gesture (1). Unfortunately, Place died before the article was published. Oemig's citation of the article as by "Place/Catania" recognizes that the article, as written by Place, was reasonably complete when Place died, but not in conformity with that journal's style sheet. PSYCOLOQUY Associate Editor A. Charles Catania did some minor editing in the final publication process to bring the manuscript into publication.

In saying that the long quotation does us a favor, I don't mean that Place is either accurate or trustworthy or even enlightening from an anthropological point of view. (I don't think he is.) Of course, there's no reason we should expect Place to satisfy the standards of anthropology. PSYCOLOQUY is sponsored by the American Psychological Association (APA). It's not aimed at enlightening anthropological theory.

The real favor we have received with these excerpts from Place lies in the fact that Paulo Oemig has directed our attention to a concrete case of exactly the kind of thing we have touched on in several current threads. (I'm happy to second Paulo Oemig's suggestion that we all read the whole article, although my reason for doing so probably is diametrically opposed to Paulo's reasons.)

Reminder: The article in question is available on-line at http://www.cogsci.soton.ac.uk/cgi/psyc/newpsy?11.007 The article is also available via ftp; see ftp://ftp.princeton.edu/pub/harnad/Psycoloquy/2000.volume.11/psyc.00.11.007.language-gesture.1.place

Place's article is reasonable, respectable, and acceptable in the world of psychology. It sounds pretty mainstream for one kind of approach to evolutionary psychology.

Place's article is hare-brained, off-the-wall, dead wrong nonsense in the world of anthropology. Any mainstream anthropologist should be able to demolish it from top to bottom without even breathing hard.

These wildly varying possible evaluations of a single piece of work are gorgeous illustrations of how professional contexts vary in approaching basic ways of evaluating theories.

I'll let Place do his own talking on a couple of central points in his exposition, starting with this:

> III.v. REFERRING TO AN OBJECT BY POINTING AT IT > >40. The practice of pointing with the index finger as a way of >establishing reference to objects in the common stimulus environment of >speaker and listener is a linguistic universal which by common consent >plays an essential role in the acquisition of word-meanings.

One sentence and he's lost me. Here's one reason why:

An old caricature of anthropologists used to circulate among some Native Americans. It's encapsulated in the story of an anthropologist talking with an informant in the informant's home. The anthro points at a chair, and asks "what do you call that?" Answer: "/ha?tok/" The anthropologist writes that down, then points at a saddle hanging on the wall: "What do you call that?" "/ha?tok/" The anthropologist then points out the open door to a tree near the house. "And that?" "/ha?tok/"

"Now hang on, friend, maybe I didn't make myself clear. You've got me all confused. Could you tell me how "/ha?tok/" can mean so many different things in your language?"

"As far as I know, it only means one thing."

"Well, when I pointed at that chair and asked you what you call it, you said "/ha?tok/", then you said the same thing when I pointed at a saddle and again when I pointed to a tree. So what does "/ha?tok/" mean?"

"Oh, is that what you thought you were asking? All I saw was you kept waving your finger and asking me what I called it. "/ha?tok/" is our word for "index finger"."

There are plenty of Native American groups who do not point with the index finger to establish reference to objects -- or places! -- within the common stimulus environment of speaker and listener. Oh, they do use body parts in gestures indicating "I mean this one over here, not that one over there". They just don't do it with their index fingers. Instead, it's customary in some groups to "point" with a jerk of the chin. Other groups get to the same general understanding by extending the lower lip.

Index-finger pointing is no more a linguistic universal than the word "horse". Any language can come up with some way of indicating, with words alone, "that big animal over there"; most languages I know about have some word that can safely be translated by the English word "horse". But that word could be cheval, or Pferd, or caballo, instead.

I don't know whether every language community has its own grammaticality of pointing; I'm pretty sure that there are plenty of languages/cultures out there where nobody has made the relevant observations. I wouldn't be shocked if someone were to prove that every language community has some means of using body parts to indicate specific objects by their spatial location. All I'm saying is that I'm not aware that anybody has yet taken the trouble to demonstrate the truth of the statement.

Anthropologists are, or at least should be, trained not to assume that body gestures they regard as "natural" will be understood by people of other cultures. Place builds a whole theory of language origins on his allegation that pointing with the index finger is a language universal. Then he plays a game of evolutionary guesswork, ending with the allegation that language in Homo sapiens could not have developed until after the evolutionary events that freed the hand from its previous use in locomotion.

Well, Place does tell us enough to demonstrate that his ideas won't stand up to anthropological assault.

Let me try another example of Place's lack of appreciation for the wide range of variations that can be found by looking across cultral boundaries.

> III.x. COUNTING AND THE COMMUNICATION OF NUMBER USING THE FINGERS OF > TWO HANDS > > 45. No one would seriously dispute the claim that the earliest form of > counting consisted in the practice which is found in every human > culture of counting up to ten on the fingers of the two hands, and > displaying the result to others by holding up the relevant number of > fingers. This practice can, perhaps, be seen as an outgrowth of the > ability to refer to objects by pointing at them.

Sorry, but I would seriously dispute that. This time, we're biased in favor of Place's allegations because Indo-European languages generally accomodate pretty well to decimal counting and calculating systems. What has disappeared from view? Well, the Babylonian sexagesimal system, for one. That's the heritage from which we derived such interesting divisions as the 60-minute hour and 60-second minute, not to mention division of circles into 360 degrees. If you take Place seriously, vigesimal systems (counting by twenties) wouldn't have come into existence unless both the hands and the feet were freed from locomotion. (I can almost conceive of the battle-cry of a new American Revolution: No vigesimal calculation without teleportation!)

It's time to reveal, once more, that I count on my fingers using a binary system. In my system, each finger can take one of two positions: up (standing away from the palm of my hand) or down (pressed against the palm). All ten fingers down (the equivalent of binary 0000000000) means zero. Left little finger up, all others down, means the same as decimal 1 (or binary 0000000001). Left ring finger up, all others down, is the same as decimal 2 (binary 0000000010). Raising both the left little finger and the left ring finger means decimal 3 (0000000011). Raising the left middle finger alone is not an obscene gesture; it's the equivalent of decimal 4 (binary 0000000100). Moving from little finger to thumb on my left hand, the fingers indicate the binary equivalents of decimal 1, 2, 4, 8, and 16, and I can use those five fingers to show any number from 1 to 31. With ten fingers, I can count up to 1023.

(It's not directly relevant to the present discussion, but if I've understood a point Robbins Burling made to Place, then my way of conting on my fingers surely is NOT iconic: it's symbolic in ways that ten-digit counting on the fingers is not.)

What do I do with this system? Well, for one thing, if I'm trying to approximate a two minute interval, I count up to 120 in the (highly anthropological!) sequence 1 chimpanzee, two chimpanzees, three chimpanzees, four chimpanzees, etc. Once the rhythm and timing are set, I simply raise or lower my fingers to keep the count. When the thumbs and index fingers of both hands are up, with all other fingers down (that is, when the position of my fingers is equivalent to binary 0001111000) I know I've counted 120 beats that are fairly close to one second each. Voila! My two-minute eggs are ready!

Place's attempt at developing a universal sequence for the development of languaging based on (counting) gesture falls apart as soon as the viability of a non-decimal system is demonstrated. The cross-cultural reality is that other cultures follow multiple alternatives; not everyone counts on fingers the same way.

There's a reason why I say "other cultures" when talking about the way I count on my fingers. I didn't invent that system. I read it in an article in a magazine that was then called Astounding Science Fiction, sometime around 1950 plus or minus five years. Science fiction fandom was at least a subculture separate from the (more sane) surrounding larger society. We fen (the fannish plural of "fan") were few in number, but in science fiction circles I saw a high proportion of people counting on their fingers the same way I do. Our finger-counting in binary was a culturally shared trait. (It also gave us a head start in understanding the binary logic of computers.)

Let me haul all the foregoing back to the discussion of what "professional" means. One of the things that characterizes standard anthropological practice is that we sit around and wait for yet another theorist given to equating specific local customs with human cultural universals. As soon as that theorist says something that amounts to "all human beings know that the natural way to do X is to do it just like my folks do", we pounce with anthropology's deadliest weapon. We say: "Nice try, but it won't work. The people of Ungo Bungo never do it the way you say all humans do! You don't have a handle on human nature in your theory; you're just describing one limited possibility in a universe of near-infinite possibility. Don't you know you're being ethnocentric in thinking that everybody has to do it your way?"

It shouldn't be too surprising to learn that a lot of people out there find anthropologists terribly annoying.

Anthropology is the one profession that dedicates itself to looking across cultural boundaries, and habitually faces the practical question of how to understand people of other cultures on their own terms. I keep asking why anthropologists are so seldom consulted by those who want to communicate with, or work with, or just live in a world where others have their own views of what is right, or natural, or desirable. I deeply fear that a large part of the answer lies in the natural resentment we've sown so often with our habit of puncturing other people's balloons dealing with so-called human universals. People with visions of helping their neighbors to become just like themselves don't appreciate being told that their insights are culture-bound, ethnocentric, and contradicted by the facts of the real world.

-- mike salovesh <salovesh@niu.edu> PEACE !!!