Whats The Word?


”Language can also be compared with a sheet of paper: thought is the front and the sound the back; one cannot cut the front without cutting the back at the same time; likewise in language, one can neither divide sound from thought nor thought from sound.”
(Ferdinand de Saussure, Course in General Linguistics, 1916)

Saussure’s comment about sound is describing the way language is, not the only way it could be or had to be.  After-all it was he who said that signs are arbitrary in language. This implies that the medium is also arbitrary.  If the medium of vocalized utterances weren’t available or expedient, another medium could’ve very well sufficed. In this way, phonology is not the study of language, but the study of the medium of language. What Saussure called langue may be described as a stable system of interconnected sounds which are arbitrary and unintelligible to speakers of other systems. In fact, until the rise of national language in the modern sense, the people of one village would not be able to understand their neighbors just a few miles away.

The spoken word is a medium for expressing ideas. Sign language is an example of another successful medium. For many years many people believed congenital deafness deprived people of language. Many could not see sign language as a complete language that followed the same rules of syntax and grammar of spoken language.  In his book “Seeing Voices”, Neuroscientist and doctor Oliver Sacks explored just how rich and complete sign language actually is.

My assertion is that vocal utterance became the expression of language simply because because of the remarkable dexterity afforded humans by their vocal chord anatomy.  Morphology and phonology are concerned with encoding the medium of sound; they are neither syntax nor semantics.  They aren’t even thoughts. You could substitute one grammar of morphology and phonology for another, and still have an intact language, although no one might understand it. In fact, this happens in the context free grammars used for software programming, where coding languages need syntactic rules to function properly, while not needing semantics or meaning.

Perhaps, the only reason musical tones or paint daubs are not endowed with the explicit or precise meanings found in a system of spoken words, is because they didn’t need to be. Human sound was more readily available and efficient. Yet other mediums could’ve evolved into language systems as cohesive as spoken language if the situation required it. If the hidden cognitive structures of language were not afforded vocal utterances, they would’ve generated alternative systems of expression somehow.

Along this line of speculation, I like to think that music was a derivation of spoken words, and that a branch of painting became writing. Many different types of linguistic, anthropological, and cognitive scholars agree that for centuries writing and drawing were closely related. (The alphabet was mankind’s first abstract art.) My point here is not to assert that the corpus of painting and music are equal analogs to English or Chinese.  There isn’t a langue of musical notes or paint daubs producing the same level of mutual intelligibility of a shared language. My point is simply to suggest that if our species had the same brain, but different vocal instruments, an alternative sophisticated signal production system could’ve emerged.

All of this is a prelude to wonder if the cognitive pattern handling systems that manage formal language are also still involved in other areas of our behavior.  We study language as a complete and self-contained system. What if our concept of language as a discreet object is wrong? What if our true language systems extends beyond our verbal construction into behavioral syntax and grammars? What if language and art aren’t two different systems, but rather two manifestations of the same generative procedures, albeit with different outcomes and manifestations?

Modern linguistical analysis is based on the humble sentence. What if that premise is wrong? Rather then a study of sentence analysis,  should linguists be concerned with something akin to behavioral analysis? Linguist Kenneth L. Pike sums up the possibility succinctly, “Linguistic analysis must begin with the composite verbal-nonverbal behavior. Numerous recent authors continue to treat sentence as the basis of linguistic analysis.” He notes the majority of linguists “take the central problem of linguistic science to be the study of the formal, or syntactic, properties of sentences” He also made a point to quote eminent linguist Noam Chomsky from his landmark book Syntactic Structures, “from now on, I will consider a language to be a set (finite or infinite) of the sentences”

Yet Chomsky has also noted elsewhere that “Humans developed what we now have: a very wide range of creative capacities that are unknown previous record among other animals. There is no analog to them. That’s the core of the human cognitive… right at the heart of it was the emergence of language. In fact it’s very likely that language was delivered while other capacities developed. In fact other capacities may just be piggy backing off language…To the extent that we understand these other things, which is not very much, it seems that they’re using the same or similar computational mechanisms.”

So, what’s the word? Perhaps nothing that couldn’t be replaced with a body gesture, or paint strokes, or light flashes in another universe.

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