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The Purpose of Language

dylancatlow
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3/16/2016 6:02:25 PM
Posted: 8 months ago
The renowned linguist Noam Chomsky has some unconventional views about language which aren't widely held by others in the field. One point of departure is Chomsky's belief that language evolved primarily as a means of facilitating thought rather than for communication. His stance on the issue can be summed up by the following quote:

"But for example, one general assumption about language -- almost a dogma in philosophy -- is that language is primarily a means of communication, and that it evolved as a means of communication. Probably, that's totally false. It seems that language is evolved and is designed as a mode of creating and interpreting thought. It's a system of thought, basically."

The reason he gives for this belief is described below:

"Its design seems to [...] undermine communication. If you look carefully at the structure of language, you find case after case, right at the core of language design, where there are conflicts between what would be efficient for communication, and what is efficient for the specific biological design of language. And in every case that's known, communicative efficiency is sacrificed. It just isn't a consideration."


Chomsky's interpretation is plausible and should be seriously entertained. However, I think there is another equally plausible interpretation which he seems to overlook. To see why communicative efficiency might yield to other considerations even when communication is the primary objective of language, consider the fact that communication and thought are linked at the most basic level: in order to meaningfully communicate one needs things to say. If language was hostile to the formation of thought -- if ideas were too easily forgotten, or too hard to keep track of, or took too long to formulate, etc. -- a language tailored for communicative efficiency would be of little use, because the ideas we wished to convey wouldn't be there when we need to convey them. It follows that a language designed for the purpose of communication cannot ignore thought, assuming it wants to be useful.

All that remains to be explained is why, as Chomsky argues, "communicative efficiency is sacrificed to cognitive efficiency in every case." If language evolved primarily as a system for communication, then it is a curious fact that cognitive efficiency takes precedence over communication every time the two conflict. Curious, but not inexplicable. I can think of at least four reasons why this could be the case, assuming Chomsky's assessment is accurate.

First, linguistic capacity that's efficient with respect to thought might be easier to achieve in evolutionary terms. After all, being "efficient for thought" could just mean mirroring the cognitive structures that give rise to thought. Since those structures were already present at the time humans began to develop language ability, the evolution of our language capacity wouldn't have to start from scratch, but instead could co-opt pre-existing cognitive structures for the purpose of language, thus creating the human linguistic faculty "in its own image," accounting for the compatibility between the two (and thus the efficiency). Language which conforms to pre-existing cognitive processes - that is, structured in terms of how we think - is probably both more efficient for thought and easier to evolve. In this scenario, human language ability did not decide to prioritize thought over communication; it had no choice in the matter, and simply took advantage of the evolutionary opportunities available.

Second, efficiency of thought might be the limiting factor when it comes to the effectiveness of communication. If the main obstacle to effective communication is our difficulty in thinking in linguistic terms, while we have "room to spare" in the communication department (that is, once we have a common language and speakers with thoughts to express), then clearly we need all the help we can get when it comes to the former, and it ought to be prioritized accordingly.

Third, prioritizing cognitive efficiency is "doubly efficient," in the sense that enhancing the cognitive efficiency of language has two benefits: it better facilitates thought as well as lays a more sturdy foundation for communication. Communicative efficiency lacks the former benefit.

Fourth, it may simply be that what we give up in terms of communication we make up for in thought but to a far greater degree. Thus, if we favor thought over communication in certain instances, that doesn't mean it's more important overall.
Diqiucun_Cunmin
Posts: 2,710
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3/17/2016 6:18:14 AM
Posted: 8 months ago
I'll look at your post in greater detail and possibly comment tonight... but I'll say that my opinion on this topic has changed since we last talked about it (the time bossy made a thread about Chomsky). :P
The thing is, I hate relativism. I hate relativism more than I hate everything else, excepting, maybe, fibreglass powerboats... What it overlooks, to put it briefly and crudely, is the fixed structure of human nature. - Jerry Fodor

Don't be a stat cynic:
http://www.debate.org...

Response to conservative views on deforestation:
http://www.debate.org...

Topics I'd like to debate (not debating ATM): http://tinyurl.com...
Hoppi
Posts: 1,655
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3/17/2016 6:29:27 AM
Posted: 8 months ago
At 3/16/2016 6:02:25 PM, dylancatlow wrote:
The renowned linguist Noam Chomsky has some unconventional views about language which aren't widely held by others in the field. One point of departure is Chomsky's belief that language evolved primarily as a means of facilitating thought rather than for communication. His stance on the issue can be summed up by the following quote:

"But for example, one general assumption about language -- almost a dogma in philosophy -- is that language is primarily a means of communication, and that it evolved as a means of communication. Probably, that's totally false. It seems that language is evolved and is designed as a mode of creating and interpreting thought. It's a system of thought, basically."

The reason he gives for this belief is described below:

"Its design seems to [...] undermine communication. If you look carefully at the structure of language, you find case after case, right at the core of language design, where there are conflicts between what would be efficient for communication, and what is efficient for the specific biological design of language. And in every case that's known, communicative efficiency is sacrificed. It just isn't a consideration."


Would you be able to give some examples of this?
Diqiucun_Cunmin
Posts: 2,710
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3/17/2016 6:00:48 PM
Posted: 8 months ago
At 3/17/2016 6:29:27 AM, Hoppi wrote:
At 3/16/2016 6:02:25 PM, dylancatlow wrote:
The renowned linguist Noam Chomsky has some unconventional views about language which aren't widely held by others in the field. One point of departure is Chomsky's belief that language evolved primarily as a means of facilitating thought rather than for communication. His stance on the issue can be summed up by the following quote:

"But for example, one general assumption about language -- almost a dogma in philosophy -- is that language is primarily a means of communication, and that it evolved as a means of communication. Probably, that's totally false. It seems that language is evolved and is designed as a mode of creating and interpreting thought. It's a system of thought, basically."

The reason he gives for this belief is described below:

"Its design seems to [...] undermine communication. If you look carefully at the structure of language, you find case after case, right at the core of language design, where there are conflicts between what would be efficient for communication, and what is efficient for the specific biological design of language. And in every case that's known, communicative efficiency is sacrificed. It just isn't a consideration."


Would you be able to give some examples of this?

Ambiguities and garden paths are Chomsky's favourite examples.
The thing is, I hate relativism. I hate relativism more than I hate everything else, excepting, maybe, fibreglass powerboats... What it overlooks, to put it briefly and crudely, is the fixed structure of human nature. - Jerry Fodor

Don't be a stat cynic:
http://www.debate.org...

Response to conservative views on deforestation:
http://www.debate.org...

Topics I'd like to debate (not debating ATM): http://tinyurl.com...
Diqiucun_Cunmin
Posts: 2,710
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3/17/2016 6:25:38 PM
Posted: 8 months ago
At 3/16/2016 6:02:25 PM, dylancatlow wrote:
Firstly, I think it's regrettable that you didn't post this in the science forum, where we can get experts on evolution to comment on the topic... Maybe you can start a post in the science forum recruiting those experts to come to this thread?

Secondly, I think these views are much more easily challengeable than linguistic innatism and the language faculty... Maybe you should consider shooting him another email about this :P
The renowned linguist Noam Chomsky has some unconventional views about language which aren't widely held by others in the field. One point of departure is Chomsky's belief that language evolved primarily as a means of facilitating thought rather than for communication. His stance on the issue can be summed up by the following quote:

"But for example, one general assumption about language -- almost a dogma in philosophy -- is that language is primarily a means of communication, and that it evolved as a means of communication. Probably, that's totally false. It seems that language is evolved and is designed as a mode of creating and interpreting thought. It's a system of thought, basically."

The reason he gives for this belief is described below:

"Its design seems to [...] undermine communication. If you look carefully at the structure of language, you find case after case, right at the core of language design, where there are conflicts between what would be efficient for communication, and what is efficient for the specific biological design of language. And in every case that's known, communicative efficiency is sacrificed. It just isn't a consideration."


Chomsky's interpretation is plausible and should be seriously entertained. However, I think there is another equally plausible interpretation which he seems to overlook. To see why communicative efficiency might yield to other considerations even when communication is the primary objective of language, consider the fact that communication and thought are linked at the most basic level: in order to meaningfully communicate one needs things to say. If language was hostile to the formation of thought -- if ideas were too easily forgotten, or too hard to keep track of, or took too long to formulate, etc. -- a language tailored for communicative efficiency would be of little use, because the ideas we wished to convey wouldn't be there when we need to convey them. It follows that a language designed for the purpose of communication cannot ignore thought, assuming it wants to be useful.
Agreed.
All that remains to be explained is why, as Chomsky argues, "communicative efficiency is sacrificed to cognitive efficiency in every case." If language evolved primarily as a system for communication, then it is a curious fact that cognitive efficiency takes precedence over communication every time the two conflict. Curious, but not inexplicable. I can think of at least four reasons why this could be the case, assuming Chomsky's assessment is accurate.
Chomsky's claim that communicative efficiency is always sacrificed is quite bold and, IMO, probably not testable, since we still lack a thorough understanding of the language of thought. Of course, we know that communicative efficiency is sacrificed in some cases; but cases where congruence to thought patterns is sacrificed for communicative ability is probably much harder to find, and the fact that we haven't found them doesn't imply that they don't exist.

I'll respond to the rest tomorrow, as well as give my own view on the question. :)
The thing is, I hate relativism. I hate relativism more than I hate everything else, excepting, maybe, fibreglass powerboats... What it overlooks, to put it briefly and crudely, is the fixed structure of human nature. - Jerry Fodor

Don't be a stat cynic:
http://www.debate.org...

Response to conservative views on deforestation:
http://www.debate.org...

Topics I'd like to debate (not debating ATM): http://tinyurl.com...
Hoppi
Posts: 1,655
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3/17/2016 6:31:52 PM
Posted: 8 months ago
At 3/17/2016 6:00:48 PM, Diqiucun_Cunmin wrote:
At 3/17/2016 6:29:27 AM, Hoppi wrote:
At 3/16/2016 6:02:25 PM, dylancatlow wrote:
The renowned linguist Noam Chomsky has some unconventional views about language which aren't widely held by others in the field. One point of departure is Chomsky's belief that language evolved primarily as a means of facilitating thought rather than for communication. His stance on the issue can be summed up by the following quote:

"But for example, one general assumption about language -- almost a dogma in philosophy -- is that language is primarily a means of communication, and that it evolved as a means of communication. Probably, that's totally false. It seems that language is evolved and is designed as a mode of creating and interpreting thought. It's a system of thought, basically."

The reason he gives for this belief is described below:

"Its design seems to [...] undermine communication. If you look carefully at the structure of language, you find case after case, right at the core of language design, where there are conflicts between what would be efficient for communication, and what is efficient for the specific biological design of language. And in every case that's known, communicative efficiency is sacrificed. It just isn't a consideration."


Would you be able to give some examples of this?

Ambiguities and garden paths are Chomsky's favourite examples.

I've looked it up and I've found this example: the old man the boat.

It's a grammatically correct sentence but it's misleading. I don't see how that applies to the current argument though because it's only misleading because it's written down. it wouldn't be misleading if it was spoken because of intonation, and it's spoken language that matters. Do you have an example in spoken language?
Diqiucun_Cunmin
Posts: 2,710
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3/17/2016 6:42:01 PM
Posted: 8 months ago
At 3/17/2016 6:31:52 PM, Hoppi wrote:
At 3/17/2016 6:00:48 PM, Diqiucun_Cunmin wrote:
At 3/17/2016 6:29:27 AM, Hoppi wrote:
At 3/16/2016 6:02:25 PM, dylancatlow wrote:
The renowned linguist Noam Chomsky has some unconventional views about language which aren't widely held by others in the field. One point of departure is Chomsky's belief that language evolved primarily as a means of facilitating thought rather than for communication. His stance on the issue can be summed up by the following quote:

"But for example, one general assumption about language -- almost a dogma in philosophy -- is that language is primarily a means of communication, and that it evolved as a means of communication. Probably, that's totally false. It seems that language is evolved and is designed as a mode of creating and interpreting thought. It's a system of thought, basically."

The reason he gives for this belief is described below:

"Its design seems to [...] undermine communication. If you look carefully at the structure of language, you find case after case, right at the core of language design, where there are conflicts between what would be efficient for communication, and what is efficient for the specific biological design of language. And in every case that's known, communicative efficiency is sacrificed. It just isn't a consideration."


Would you be able to give some examples of this?

Ambiguities and garden paths are Chomsky's favourite examples.

I've looked it up and I've found this example: the old man the boat.

It's a grammatically correct sentence but it's misleading. I don't see how that applies to the current argument though because it's only misleading because it's written down. it wouldn't be misleading if it was spoken because of intonation, and it's spoken language that matters. Do you have an example in spoken language?

Prosody is certainly affected by syntactic structure, but it's one thing to claim that there are differences from an articulatory and acoustic point of view, and another to claim that they can be easily perceived, which is a question of auditory phonetics. I'm pretty sure you've been through a situation where you misinterpreted what someone said, reacted to the misinterpreted sentence, and then the other person repeats his original sentence with exaggerated prosody. (I've experienced that a lot.)

With that said, there are a lot of ambiguities and garden paths where competing interpretations do not have obvious prosodic differences, and we would have to rely on pragmatics alone to determine the meaning. Scope ambiguity (which Chomsky also likes a lot, and has written some theoretical work on) is an example. Consider the sentence 'Everyone saw someone'. There are two possible interpretations (Hy = y is human, Sxy = x saw y):

W04;x(Hx->W07;y(Hy&Sxy))
W07;x(Hx&W04;y(Hy->Syx))

Some languages (e.g. Hungarian) do not have such ambiguities, but English and many others do, and this hampers communication.
The thing is, I hate relativism. I hate relativism more than I hate everything else, excepting, maybe, fibreglass powerboats... What it overlooks, to put it briefly and crudely, is the fixed structure of human nature. - Jerry Fodor

Don't be a stat cynic:
http://www.debate.org...

Response to conservative views on deforestation:
http://www.debate.org...

Topics I'd like to debate (not debating ATM): http://tinyurl.com...
Diqiucun_Cunmin
Posts: 2,710
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3/17/2016 6:42:55 PM
Posted: 8 months ago
At 3/17/2016 6:42:01 PM, Diqiucun_Cunmin wrote:
At 3/17/2016 6:31:52 PM, Hoppi wrote:
At 3/17/2016 6:00:48 PM, Diqiucun_Cunmin wrote:
At 3/17/2016 6:29:27 AM, Hoppi wrote:
At 3/16/2016 6:02:25 PM, dylancatlow wrote:
The renowned linguist Noam Chomsky has some unconventional views about language which aren't widely held by others in the field. One point of departure is Chomsky's belief that language evolved primarily as a means of facilitating thought rather than for communication. His stance on the issue can be summed up by the following quote:

"But for example, one general assumption about language -- almost a dogma in philosophy -- is that language is primarily a means of communication, and that it evolved as a means of communication. Probably, that's totally false. It seems that language is evolved and is designed as a mode of creating and interpreting thought. It's a system of thought, basically."

The reason he gives for this belief is described below:

"Its design seems to [...] undermine communication. If you look carefully at the structure of language, you find case after case, right at the core of language design, where there are conflicts between what would be efficient for communication, and what is efficient for the specific biological design of language. And in every case that's known, communicative efficiency is sacrificed. It just isn't a consideration."


Would you be able to give some examples of this?

Ambiguities and garden paths are Chomsky's favourite examples.

I've looked it up and I've found this example: the old man the boat.

It's a grammatically correct sentence but it's misleading. I don't see how that applies to the current argument though because it's only misleading because it's written down. it wouldn't be misleading if it was spoken because of intonation, and it's spoken language that matters. Do you have an example in spoken language?

Prosody is certainly affected by syntactic structure, but it's one thing to claim that there are differences from an articulatory and acoustic point of view, and another to claim that they can be easily perceived, which is a question of auditory phonetics. I'm pretty sure you've been through a situation where you misinterpreted what someone said, reacted to the misinterpreted sentence, and then the other person repeats his original sentence with exaggerated prosody. (I've experienced that a lot.)

With that said, there are a lot of ambiguities and garden paths where competing interpretations do not have obvious prosodic differences, and we would have to rely on pragmatics alone to determine the meaning. Scope ambiguity (which Chomsky also likes a lot, and has written some theoretical work on) is an example. Consider the sentence 'Everyone saw someone'. There are two possible interpretations (Hy = y is human, Sxy = x saw y):

Vx(Hx->=Ey(Hy&Sxy))
Vx(Hx&Ey(Hy->Syx))

Some languages (e.g. Hungarian) do not have such ambiguities, but English and many others do, and this hampers communication.

Oops! Please treat the V as the universal quantifier and E as the existential quantifier.
The thing is, I hate relativism. I hate relativism more than I hate everything else, excepting, maybe, fibreglass powerboats... What it overlooks, to put it briefly and crudely, is the fixed structure of human nature. - Jerry Fodor

Don't be a stat cynic:
http://www.debate.org...

Response to conservative views on deforestation:
http://www.debate.org...

Topics I'd like to debate (not debating ATM): http://tinyurl.com...
Hoppi
Posts: 1,655
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3/17/2016 6:47:04 PM
Posted: 8 months ago
At 3/17/2016 6:42:01 PM, Diqiucun_Cunmin wrote:
At 3/17/2016 6:31:52 PM, Hoppi wrote:
At 3/17/2016 6:00:48 PM, Diqiucun_Cunmin wrote:
At 3/17/2016 6:29:27 AM, Hoppi wrote:
At 3/16/2016 6:02:25 PM, dylancatlow wrote:
The renowned linguist Noam Chomsky has some unconventional views about language which aren't widely held by others in the field. One point of departure is Chomsky's belief that language evolved primarily as a means of facilitating thought rather than for communication. His stance on the issue can be summed up by the following quote:

"But for example, one general assumption about language -- almost a dogma in philosophy -- is that language is primarily a means of communication, and that it evolved as a means of communication. Probably, that's totally false. It seems that language is evolved and is designed as a mode of creating and interpreting thought. It's a system of thought, basically."

The reason he gives for this belief is described below:

"Its design seems to [...] undermine communication. If you look carefully at the structure of language, you find case after case, right at the core of language design, where there are conflicts between what would be efficient for communication, and what is efficient for the specific biological design of language. And in every case that's known, communicative efficiency is sacrificed. It just isn't a consideration."


Would you be able to give some examples of this?

Ambiguities and garden paths are Chomsky's favourite examples.

I've looked it up and I've found this example: the old man the boat.

It's a grammatically correct sentence but it's misleading. I don't see how that applies to the current argument though because it's only misleading because it's written down. it wouldn't be misleading if it was spoken because of intonation, and it's spoken language that matters. Do you have an example in spoken language?

Prosody is certainly affected by syntactic structure, but it's one thing to claim that there are differences from an articulatory and acoustic point of view, and another to claim that they can be easily perceived, which is a question of auditory phonetics. I'm pretty sure you've been through a situation where you misinterpreted what someone said, reacted to the misinterpreted sentence, and then the other person repeats his original sentence with exaggerated prosody. (I've experienced that a lot.)

With that said, there are a lot of ambiguities and garden paths where competing interpretations do not have obvious prosodic differences, and we would have to rely on pragmatics alone to determine the meaning. Scope ambiguity (which Chomsky also likes a lot, and has written some theoretical work on) is an example. Consider the sentence 'Everyone saw someone'. There are two possible interpretations (Hy = y is human, Sxy = x saw y):

W04;x(Hx->W07;y(Hy&Sxy))
W07;x(Hx&W04;y(Hy->Syx))

Some languages (e.g. Hungarian) do not have such ambiguities, but English and many others do, and this hampers communication.

I see what you mean. Thanks.
Hoppi
Posts: 1,655
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3/17/2016 6:50:32 PM
Posted: 8 months ago
At 3/16/2016 6:02:25 PM, dylancatlow wrote:
The renowned linguist Noam Chomsky has some unconventional views about language which aren't widely held by others in the field. One point of departure is Chomsky's belief that language evolved primarily as a means of facilitating thought rather than for communication. His stance on the issue can be summed up by the following quote:

"But for example, one general assumption about language -- almost a dogma in philosophy -- is that language is primarily a means of communication, and that it evolved as a means of communication. Probably, that's totally false. It seems that language is evolved and is designed as a mode of creating and interpreting thought. It's a system of thought, basically."

The reason he gives for this belief is described below:

"Its design seems to [...] undermine communication. If you look carefully at the structure of language, you find case after case, right at the core of language design, where there are conflicts between what would be efficient for communication, and what is efficient for the specific biological design of language. And in every case that's known, communicative efficiency is sacrificed. It just isn't a consideration."


Chomsky's interpretation is plausible and should be seriously entertained. However, I think there is another equally plausible interpretation which he seems to overlook. To see why communicative efficiency might yield to other considerations even when communication is the primary objective of language, consider the fact that communication and thought are linked at the most basic level: in order to meaningfully communicate one needs things to say. If language was hostile to the formation of thought -- if ideas were too easily forgotten, or too hard to keep track of, or took too long to formulate, etc. -- a language tailored for communicative efficiency would be of little use, because the ideas we wished to convey wouldn't be there when we need to convey them. It follows that a language designed for the purpose of communication cannot ignore thought, assuming it wants to be useful.

All that remains to be explained is why, as Chomsky argues, "communicative efficiency is sacrificed to cognitive efficiency in every case." If language evolved primarily as a system for communication, then it is a curious fact that cognitive efficiency takes precedence over communication every time the two conflict. Curious, but not inexplicable. I can think of at least four reasons why this could be the case, assuming Chomsky's assessment is accurate.

First, linguistic capacity that's efficient with respect to thought might be easier to achieve in evolutionary terms. After all, being "efficient for thought" could just mean mirroring the cognitive structures that give rise to thought. Since those structures were already present at the time humans began to develop language ability, the evolution of our language capacity wouldn't have to start from scratch, but instead could co-opt pre-existing cognitive structures for the purpose of language, thus creating the human linguistic faculty "in its own image," accounting for the compatibility between the two (and thus the efficiency). Language which conforms to pre-existing cognitive processes - that is, structured in terms of how we think - is probably both more efficient for thought and easier to evolve. In this scenario, human language ability did not decide to prioritize thought over communication; it had no choice in the matter, and simply took advantage of the evolutionary opportunities available.

Second, efficiency of thought might be the limiting factor when it comes to the effectiveness of communication. If the main obstacle to effective communication is our difficulty in thinking in linguistic terms, while we have "room to spare" in the communication department (that is, once we have a common language and speakers with thoughts to express), then clearly we need all the help we can get when it comes to the former, and it ought to be prioritized accordingly.

Third, prioritizing cognitive efficiency is "doubly efficient," in the sense that enhancing the cognitive efficiency of language has two benefits: it better facilitates thought as well as lays a more sturdy foundation for communication. Communicative efficiency lacks the former benefit.

Fourth, it may simply be that what we give up in terms of communication we make up for in thought but to a far greater degree. Thus, if we favor thought over communication in certain instances, that doesn't mean it's more important overall.

Or maybe we shouldn't think of the individual as the unit of thought, that thought is of its nature transactive and so thinking and communication are part of the same process.
dylancatlow
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3/17/2016 7:57:02 PM
Posted: 8 months ago
At 3/17/2016 6:00:48 PM, Diqiucun_Cunmin wrote:
At 3/17/2016 6:29:27 AM, Hoppi wrote:
At 3/16/2016 6:02:25 PM, dylancatlow wrote:
The renowned linguist Noam Chomsky has some unconventional views about language which aren't widely held by others in the field. One point of departure is Chomsky's belief that language evolved primarily as a means of facilitating thought rather than for communication. His stance on the issue can be summed up by the following quote:

"But for example, one general assumption about language -- almost a dogma in philosophy -- is that language is primarily a means of communication, and that it evolved as a means of communication. Probably, that's totally false. It seems that language is evolved and is designed as a mode of creating and interpreting thought. It's a system of thought, basically."

The reason he gives for this belief is described below:

"Its design seems to [...] undermine communication. If you look carefully at the structure of language, you find case after case, right at the core of language design, where there are conflicts between what would be efficient for communication, and what is efficient for the specific biological design of language. And in every case that's known, communicative efficiency is sacrificed. It just isn't a consideration."


Would you be able to give some examples of this?

Ambiguities and garden paths are Chomsky's favourite examples.

I imagine the argument goes something like this: if language evolved as a means of communication then we should expect a linguistic design which does its best to root out ambiguities so as to enhance communication. Since we don't observe this, communication is not a primary concern.

I don't think this is a good argument. For one thing, ensuring that others correctly interpret your sentences is just an inherently more demanding task than thinking on your own, since you're essentially doing another thing on top of formulating your thoughts -- namely, understanding how others are likely to interpret the corresponding sentences given that they don't share all of your background knowledge. Thus, communication might be the primary concern of language, but the possible ambiguities inherent in our language just don't place enough selective pressure to improve our "linguistic empathy" any further, because either (a) the occasional ambiguities just aren't important enough or (b) there are enough ways to get around them.

For another thing, a language whose grammar tried to completely eradicate ambiguities would end up being cognitively wasteful; time and energy would be spent clarifying things which were obvious to everyone anyway all just to save the language users the trouble of dealing with an occasional ambiguity which could in any case be circumvented with alternate phrasing.
Diqiucun_Cunmin
Posts: 2,710
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3/18/2016 4:03:21 PM
Posted: 8 months ago
At 3/17/2016 7:57:02 PM, dylancatlow wrote:
At 3/17/2016 6:00:48 PM, Diqiucun_Cunmin wrote:
At 3/17/2016 6:29:27 AM, Hoppi wrote:
At 3/16/2016 6:02:25 PM, dylancatlow wrote:
The renowned linguist Noam Chomsky has some unconventional views about language which aren't widely held by others in the field. One point of departure is Chomsky's belief that language evolved primarily as a means of facilitating thought rather than for communication. His stance on the issue can be summed up by the following quote:

"But for example, one general assumption about language -- almost a dogma in philosophy -- is that language is primarily a means of communication, and that it evolved as a means of communication. Probably, that's totally false. It seems that language is evolved and is designed as a mode of creating and interpreting thought. It's a system of thought, basically."

The reason he gives for this belief is described below:

"Its design seems to [...] undermine communication. If you look carefully at the structure of language, you find case after case, right at the core of language design, where there are conflicts between what would be efficient for communication, and what is efficient for the specific biological design of language. And in every case that's known, communicative efficiency is sacrificed. It just isn't a consideration."


Would you be able to give some examples of this?

Ambiguities and garden paths are Chomsky's favourite examples.

I imagine the argument goes something like this: if language evolved as a means of communication then we should expect a linguistic design which does its best to root out ambiguities so as to enhance communication. Since we don't observe this, communication is not a primary concern.

I don't think this is a good argument. For one thing, ensuring that others correctly interpret your sentences is just an inherently more demanding task than thinking on your own, since you're essentially doing another thing on top of formulating your thoughts -- namely, understanding how others are likely to interpret the corresponding sentences given that they don't share all of your background knowledge. Thus, communication might be the primary concern of language, but the possible ambiguities inherent in our language just don't place enough selective pressure to improve our "linguistic empathy" any further, because either (a) the occasional ambiguities just aren't important enough or (b) there are enough ways to get around them.

For another thing, a language whose grammar tried to completely eradicate ambiguities would end up being cognitively wasteful; time and energy would be spent clarifying things which were obvious to everyone anyway all just to save the language users the trouble of dealing with an occasional ambiguity which could in any case be circumvented with alternate phrasing.

I agree but, well, in Chomsky's (partial) defence, there are kinds of ambiguities that would be pretty easy to fix. Scope ambiguity is one of them. If human language were designed like a formal language, it wouldn't have such ambiguities, since instead of 'everyone loves someone', the language would put it as some equivalent of 'for all x, there is some y whom x loves' or 'there is some y for whom x loves for all x'. (These are lengthy sentences, but they wouldn't be lengthy if English had been designed specifically to produce this kind of sentences.)
The thing is, I hate relativism. I hate relativism more than I hate everything else, excepting, maybe, fibreglass powerboats... What it overlooks, to put it briefly and crudely, is the fixed structure of human nature. - Jerry Fodor

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Diqiucun_Cunmin
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3/18/2016 4:19:44 PM
Posted: 8 months ago
At 3/16/2016 6:02:25 PM, dylancatlow wrote:
First, linguistic capacity that's efficient with respect to thought might be easier to achieve in evolutionary terms. After all, being "efficient for thought" could just mean mirroring the cognitive structures that give rise to thought. Since those structures were already present at the time humans began to develop language ability, the evolution of our language capacity wouldn't have to start from scratch, but instead could co-opt pre-existing cognitive structures for the purpose of language, thus creating the human linguistic faculty "in its own image," accounting for the compatibility between the two (and thus the efficiency). Language which conforms to pre-existing cognitive processes - that is, structured in terms of how we think - is probably both more efficient for thought and easier to evolve. In this scenario, human language ability did not decide to prioritize thought over communication; it had no choice in the matter, and simply took advantage of the evolutionary opportunities available.
Agreed. In fact, when cognitive scientists like Fodor and Jackendoff articulate their theories of the language of thought, one of the constraints they have in mind is that LoT should resemble human languages. Their justification is of course that there is no reason, evolutionarily speaking, for language to adopt a structure that diverges radically from the structure of thought.
Second, efficiency of thought might be the limiting factor when it comes to the effectiveness of communication. If the main obstacle to effective communication is our difficulty in thinking in linguistic terms, while we have "room to spare" in the communication department (that is, once we have a common language and speakers with thoughts to express), then clearly we need all the help we can get when it comes to the former, and it ought to be prioritized accordingly.
I'm not sure I understand this completely. (Hmmm, inefficiency of language...) Kidding aside, do you mean that a big increase in efficiency of thought will not substantially reduce effectiveness of communication, so we prioritise the former?
Third, prioritizing cognitive efficiency is "doubly efficient," in the sense that enhancing the cognitive efficiency of language has two benefits: it better facilitates thought as well as lays a more sturdy foundation for communication. Communicative efficiency lacks the former benefit.
I have to agree here, as a language tailored to our cognitive processes is inherently easier to parse and comprehend.
Fourth, it may simply be that what we give up in terms of communication we make up for in thought but to a far greater degree. Thus, if we favor thought over communication in certain instances, that doesn't mean it's more important overall.
Yep. (If I understand your second point correctly, isn't it a bit similar to it?)
The thing is, I hate relativism. I hate relativism more than I hate everything else, excepting, maybe, fibreglass powerboats... What it overlooks, to put it briefly and crudely, is the fixed structure of human nature. - Jerry Fodor

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Diqiucun_Cunmin
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3/18/2016 4:39:59 PM
Posted: 8 months ago
I have been converted to the anti-Chomsky chance on this issue, and this is the main reason for it: Why else would language make extensive use of our vocal apparatus?

There is no question that our vocal tract is more suited for speaking than those of other animals. Although Fitch showed that the animal larynx also descends when the animal vocalises, the fact that the human larynx permanently descended indicates that our larynx has evolved to adapt to linguistic needs.

Moreover, language inherently involves sounds produced by our vocal apparatus. Although syntax and morphology are essential parts of language, so is phonology. Without phonemes to create meaningful distinctions between words language would collapse as a system. If language were intended for facilitating thought alone, then why does it consist of speech sounds? Can't we also facilitate thought with, say, systems of images? (That might actually be more cognitively efficient, considering the work of Talmy, Lakoff and others on image schemas.)

Of course, language also made huge contributions towards facilitating human thought. It would be very hard to think rationally and consciously without language. But considering the fact that language inherently involves sound, I don't see how it can be that communication, rather than facilitating thought, is the epiphenomenon.

Besides, contrary to what Chomsky sometimes implies, language likely did not pop up abruptly in the course of human evolution, but rather developed slowly and gradually. There is much evidence for that - Pinker, especially, has presented quite a bit of evidence for this view. In that case I don't see why it couldn't have been developed for both communication and thought; after all, a creature with increased ability in both would be much less likely to be eliminated by natural selection. However, I don't think it's plausible that human language developed first for thought, with communication being an epiphenomenon.
The thing is, I hate relativism. I hate relativism more than I hate everything else, excepting, maybe, fibreglass powerboats... What it overlooks, to put it briefly and crudely, is the fixed structure of human nature. - Jerry Fodor

Don't be a stat cynic:
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vortex86
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3/18/2016 6:24:45 PM
Posted: 8 months ago
To better make sense of this idea, I look at the absence of language. The easiest example would be a feral child. How would you describe their impaired language learning. Is it because they are not able to think? Or a lack of practice communicating?

Everyone keeps using language strictly in an auditory sense. Sign language is a good example of an alternative as are constructed languages. There are also languages that are predominantly written and rarely spoken (Latin comes to mind).

Language is the intermediary between thought and expression of the thought. It is a tool used to communicate the thought. So you could say the original purpose of language is to facilitate communication.
dylancatlow
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3/18/2016 7:17:08 PM
Posted: 8 months ago
At 3/18/2016 4:19:44 PM, Diqiucun_Cunmin wrote:
At 3/16/2016 6:02:25 PM, dylancatlow wrote:
Second, efficiency of thought might be the limiting factor when it comes to the effectiveness of communication. If the main obstacle to effective communication is our difficulty in thinking in linguistic terms, while we have "room to spare" in the communication department (that is, once we have a common language and speakers with thoughts to express), then clearly we need all the help we can get when it comes to the former, and it ought to be prioritized accordingly.
I'm not sure I understand this completely. (Hmmm, inefficiency of language...) Kidding aside, do you mean that a big increase in efficiency of thought will not substantially reduce effectiveness of communication, so we prioritise the former?

Let's say that the communication process runs roughly as follows: first we generate an idea which is understood at an intuitive level, then we convert this thought into linguistic form, which we then express through speaking, which then gets interpreted by the listener and converted into the original idea. If the weak spot in this chain is step two (converting ideas to linguistic form, or alternatively thinking in linguistic terms) then improvement in other parts of the chain might be pointless as long as overall communicative efficiency is limited by our difficulty in dealing with step two. Thus, even if communication is the ultimate goal of language, optimizing the cognitive efficiency of language might still be the best move.
dylancatlow
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3/18/2016 7:41:39 PM
Posted: 8 months ago
At 3/18/2016 4:39:59 PM, Diqiucun_Cunmin wrote:
I have been converted to the anti-Chomsky chance on this issue, and this is the main reason for it: Why else would language make extensive use of our vocal apparatus?

There is no question that our vocal tract is more suited for speaking than those of other animals. Although Fitch showed that the animal larynx also descends when the animal vocalises, the fact that the human larynx permanently descended indicates that our larynx has evolved to adapt to linguistic needs.

Moreover, language inherently involves sounds produced by our vocal apparatus. Although syntax and morphology are essential parts of language, so is phonology. Without phonemes to create meaningful distinctions between words language would collapse as a system. If language were intended for facilitating thought alone, then why does it consist of speech sounds? Can't we also facilitate thought with, say, systems of images? (That might actually be more cognitively efficient, considering the work of Talmy, Lakoff and others on image schemas.)

Of course, language also made huge contributions towards facilitating human thought. It would be very hard to think rationally and consciously without language. But considering the fact that language inherently involves sound, I don't see how it can be that communication, rather than facilitating thought, is the epiphenomenon.

Besides, contrary to what Chomsky sometimes implies, language likely did not pop up abruptly in the course of human evolution, but rather developed slowly and gradually. There is much evidence for that - Pinker, especially, has presented quite a bit of evidence for this view. In that case I don't see why it couldn't have been developed for both communication and thought; after all, a creature with increased ability in both would be much less likely to be eliminated by natural selection. However, I don't think it's plausible that human language developed first for thought, with communication being an epiphenomenon.

Very good point, although I can think of at least two ways Chomsky could respond to this.

1. What's the alternative? We only have five senses to work with. The more basic concepts that language uses as its building blocks (example, sounds) need to be varied enough in order to provide the foundation for a complex linguistic system, and the human vocal system is ideal in this regard. It's portable, uses negligible resources, and is capable of generating a significant number of distinguishable sounds that can be combined with ease. If you think about it, humans need to be able to generate the building blocks of language because they can't really be found in nature, and there are really only two ways to do this that I can think of: the human vocal system, and something to do with our hands.

2. Our evolutionary ancestors use their vocal system to communicate, so we were already good with differentiating sounds.
Diqiucun_Cunmin
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3/20/2016 4:18:14 PM
Posted: 8 months ago
At 3/18/2016 7:41:39 PM, dylancatlow wrote:
At 3/18/2016 4:39:59 PM, Diqiucun_Cunmin wrote:
I have been converted to the anti-Chomsky chance on this issue, and this is the main reason for it: Why else would language make extensive use of our vocal apparatus?

There is no question that our vocal tract is more suited for speaking than those of other animals. Although Fitch showed that the animal larynx also descends when the animal vocalises, the fact that the human larynx permanently descended indicates that our larynx has evolved to adapt to linguistic needs.

Moreover, language inherently involves sounds produced by our vocal apparatus. Although syntax and morphology are essential parts of language, so is phonology. Without phonemes to create meaningful distinctions between words language would collapse as a system. If language were intended for facilitating thought alone, then why does it consist of speech sounds? Can't we also facilitate thought with, say, systems of images? (That might actually be more cognitively efficient, considering the work of Talmy, Lakoff and others on image schemas.)

Of course, language also made huge contributions towards facilitating human thought. It would be very hard to think rationally and consciously without language. But considering the fact that language inherently involves sound, I don't see how it can be that communication, rather than facilitating thought, is the epiphenomenon.

Besides, contrary to what Chomsky sometimes implies, language likely did not pop up abruptly in the course of human evolution, but rather developed slowly and gradually. There is much evidence for that - Pinker, especially, has presented quite a bit of evidence for this view. In that case I don't see why it couldn't have been developed for both communication and thought; after all, a creature with increased ability in both would be much less likely to be eliminated by natural selection. However, I don't think it's plausible that human language developed first for thought, with communication being an epiphenomenon.

Very good point, although I can think of at least two ways Chomsky could respond to this.

1. What's the alternative? We only have five senses to work with. The more basic concepts that language uses as its building blocks (example, sounds) need to be varied enough in order to provide the foundation for a complex linguistic system, and the human vocal system is ideal in this regard. It's portable, uses negligible resources, and is capable of generating a significant number of distinguishable sounds that can be combined with ease. If you think about it, humans need to be able to generate the building blocks of language because they can't really be found in nature, and there are really only two ways to do this that I can think of: the human vocal system, and something to do with our hands.
Like I said, I think manipulating visual imagery in our heads is a good way to facilitate thought, if we accept Lakoff et al's theories of cognition. Much of language is based on image schemas like force dynamics, and by developing a sophisticated visualisation ability, perhaps we could have come up with a sophisticated system for facilitating thought as well. Language, which is relatively opaque and distant from the LoT, is not as efficient as imagery. (Think about the last time you explained a concept to someone using a diagram after trying in vain to explain it in words.)
2. Our evolutionary ancestors use their vocal system to communicate, so we were already good with differentiating sounds.
But aren't we good with differentiating sounds because of the evolution of language?

If you look at the calls of most animals, you'll find that they are quite semantically impoverished. Even if you look at the proto-languages of animals like gibbons and vervet monkeys, which do use different sounds for different meanings, you'll find that they don't have discrete sounds or duality of patterning, and thus are quite unproductive compared to human language. Our pre-linguistic forebears probably had communication systems comparable to those of these animals. Thus, vocal sounds probably did not have a clear advantage over other mechanisms for our ancestors.

Abilities like detecting and differentiating phonemes, etc. probably did not develop until we found a reason to do so (communicate with language). I doubt our pre-linguistic ancestors could tell between a voiced alveolar plosive and a voiceless one.
The thing is, I hate relativism. I hate relativism more than I hate everything else, excepting, maybe, fibreglass powerboats... What it overlooks, to put it briefly and crudely, is the fixed structure of human nature. - Jerry Fodor

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Diqiucun_Cunmin
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3/20/2016 4:18:55 PM
Posted: 8 months ago
At 3/18/2016 7:17:08 PM, dylancatlow wrote:
At 3/18/2016 4:19:44 PM, Diqiucun_Cunmin wrote:
At 3/16/2016 6:02:25 PM, dylancatlow wrote:
Second, efficiency of thought might be the limiting factor when it comes to the effectiveness of communication. If the main obstacle to effective communication is our difficulty in thinking in linguistic terms, while we have "room to spare" in the communication department (that is, once we have a common language and speakers with thoughts to express), then clearly we need all the help we can get when it comes to the former, and it ought to be prioritized accordingly.
I'm not sure I understand this completely. (Hmmm, inefficiency of language...) Kidding aside, do you mean that a big increase in efficiency of thought will not substantially reduce effectiveness of communication, so we prioritise the former?

Let's say that the communication process runs roughly as follows: first we generate an idea which is understood at an intuitive level, then we convert this thought into linguistic form, which we then express through speaking, which then gets interpreted by the listener and converted into the original idea. If the weak spot in this chain is step two (converting ideas to linguistic form, or alternatively thinking in linguistic terms) then improvement in other parts of the chain might be pointless as long as overall communicative efficiency is limited by our difficulty in dealing with step two. Thus, even if communication is the ultimate goal of language, optimizing the cognitive efficiency of language might still be the best move.

Yep, that makes sense.
The thing is, I hate relativism. I hate relativism more than I hate everything else, excepting, maybe, fibreglass powerboats... What it overlooks, to put it briefly and crudely, is the fixed structure of human nature. - Jerry Fodor

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Diqiucun_Cunmin
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3/20/2016 4:26:32 PM
Posted: 8 months ago
At 3/18/2016 6:24:45 PM, vortex86 wrote:
To better make sense of this idea, I look at the absence of language. The easiest example would be a feral child. How would you describe their impaired language learning. Is it because they are not able to think? Or a lack of practice communicating?
I'm not sure if you can use this argument against Chomsky. Feral children cannot learn to speak because they lacked linguistic input during their critical period of language acquisition. However, even if language were originally primarily for thought, it would have been a pretty bad idea to encode it all in our DNA since that would be incredibly inefficient, and hence we developed a process of language acquisition where linguistic knowledge is transmitted culturally.

Moreover, you're using evidence from ontogeny and using it against a point about phylogeny... and I'm not sure all people will accept that.

Everyone keeps using language strictly in an auditory sense. Sign language is a good example of an alternative as are constructed languages. There are also languages that are predominantly written and rarely spoken (Latin comes to mind).
I'm not sure what point you're trying to make in this paragraph, or what bearing it has on this paragraph. In any case, sign languages aren't always constructed. They can arise from nowhere out of a need to communicate in a deaf community, Nicaraguan Sign Language being the most celebrated example. Latin was originally a spoken language before it became a written one.

Language is the intermediary between thought and expression of the thought. It is a tool used to communicate the thought. So you could say the original purpose of language is to facilitate communication.
The thing is, I hate relativism. I hate relativism more than I hate everything else, excepting, maybe, fibreglass powerboats... What it overlooks, to put it briefly and crudely, is the fixed structure of human nature. - Jerry Fodor

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dylancatlow
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3/22/2016 3:09:25 PM
Posted: 8 months ago
At 3/20/2016 4:18:14 PM, Diqiucun_Cunmin wrote:
At 3/18/2016 7:41:39 PM, dylancatlow wrote:
At 3/18/2016 4:39:59 PM, Diqiucun_Cunmin wrote:
I have been converted to the anti-Chomsky chance on this issue, and this is the main reason for it: Why else would language make extensive use of our vocal apparatus?

There is no question that our vocal tract is more suited for speaking than those of other animals. Although Fitch showed that the animal larynx also descends when the animal vocalises, the fact that the human larynx permanently descended indicates that our larynx has evolved to adapt to linguistic needs.

Moreover, language inherently involves sounds produced by our vocal apparatus. Although syntax and morphology are essential parts of language, so is phonology. Without phonemes to create meaningful distinctions between words language would collapse as a system. If language were intended for facilitating thought alone, then why does it consist of speech sounds? Can't we also facilitate thought with, say, systems of images? (That might actually be more cognitively efficient, considering the work of Talmy, Lakoff and others on image schemas.)

Of course, language also made huge contributions towards facilitating human thought. It would be very hard to think rationally and consciously without language. But considering the fact that language inherently involves sound, I don't see how it can be that communication, rather than facilitating thought, is the epiphenomenon.

Besides, contrary to what Chomsky sometimes implies, language likely did not pop up abruptly in the course of human evolution, but rather developed slowly and gradually. There is much evidence for that - Pinker, especially, has presented quite a bit of evidence for this view. In that case I don't see why it couldn't have been developed for both communication and thought; after all, a creature with increased ability in both would be much less likely to be eliminated by natural selection. However, I don't think it's plausible that human language developed first for thought, with communication being an epiphenomenon.

Very good point, although I can think of at least two ways Chomsky could respond to this.

1. What's the alternative? We only have five senses to work with. The more basic concepts that language uses as its building blocks (example, sounds) need to be varied enough in order to provide the foundation for a complex linguistic system, and the human vocal system is ideal in this regard. It's portable, uses negligible resources, and is capable of generating a significant number of distinguishable sounds that can be combined with ease. If you think about it, humans need to be able to generate the building blocks of language because they can't really be found in nature, and there are really only two ways to do this that I can think of: the human vocal system, and something to do with our hands.
Like I said, I think manipulating visual imagery in our heads is a good way to facilitate thought, if we accept Lakoff et al's theories of cognition. Much of language is based on image schemas like force dynamics, and by developing a sophisticated visualisation ability, perhaps we could have come up with a sophisticated system for facilitating thought as well. Language, which is relatively opaque and distant from the LoT, is not as efficient as imagery. (Think about the last time you explained a concept to someone using a diagram after trying in vain to explain it in words.)

Diagrams are ideal for some concepts but terrible for others. I mean, try representing the conversation you and I are now having using only diagrams. It's not going to happen. I think any successful human thought system needs to make use of symbolic shorthand to represent concepts and the relationships between them. It can't just rely on literal visual representation because that's way too hard (maybe even impossible), which sort of rules out "the manipulation of visual imagery" as a viable system for facilitating thought. So that really only leaves two options: a system of thought where discrete sound units are the building blocks, or a system of thought where visual symbols are the building blocks. The verbal option has the benefit of requiring no external hardware, in the sense that you can talk to yourself without any supplies, whereas a linguistic system that used visual symbols as its building blocks would need a place for the symbols to be written down. Of course, you could argue that the language users could keep it all in their head, but that seems like it would be too abstract. In order for language users to be comfortable with the symbols it seems like they would need to be consistently exposed to them -- that is, they would need to constantly hear/see them.

2. Our evolutionary ancestors use their vocal system to communicate, so we were already good with differentiating sounds.
But aren't we good with differentiating sounds because of the evolution of language?

If you look at the calls of most animals, you'll find that they are quite semantically impoverished. Even if you look at the proto-languages of animals like gibbons and vervet monkeys, which do use different sounds for different meanings, you'll find that they don't have discrete sounds or duality of patterning, and thus are quite unproductive compared to human language. Our pre-linguistic forebears probably had communication systems comparable to those of these animals. Thus, vocal sounds probably did not have a clear advantage over other mechanisms for our ancestors.

Abilities like detecting and differentiating phonemes, etc. probably did not develop until we found a reason to do so (communicate with language). I doubt our pre-linguistic ancestors could tell between a voiced alveolar plosive and a voiceless one.

Well, it means that the instinct to attach meaning to arbitrary sounds was already in place. We don't need to assume that this system started out sophisticated enough in order to posit that our language ability grew out of it.
Hoppi
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3/23/2016 2:18:03 AM
Posted: 8 months ago
At 3/20/2016 4:18:55 PM, Diqiucun_Cunmin wrote:
At 3/18/2016 7:17:08 PM, dylancatlow wrote:
At 3/18/2016 4:19:44 PM, Diqiucun_Cunmin wrote:
At 3/16/2016 6:02:25 PM, dylancatlow wrote:
Second, efficiency of thought might be the limiting factor when it comes to the effectiveness of communication. If the main obstacle to effective communication is our difficulty in thinking in linguistic terms, while we have "room to spare" in the communication department (that is, once we have a common language and speakers with thoughts to express), then clearly we need all the help we can get when it comes to the former, and it ought to be prioritized accordingly.
I'm not sure I understand this completely. (Hmmm, inefficiency of language...) Kidding aside, do you mean that a big increase in efficiency of thought will not substantially reduce effectiveness of communication, so we prioritise the former?

Let's say that the communication process runs roughly as follows: first we generate an idea which is understood at an intuitive level, then we convert this thought into linguistic form, which we then express through speaking, which then gets interpreted by the listener and converted into the original idea. If the weak spot in this chain is step two (converting ideas to linguistic form, or alternatively thinking in linguistic terms) then improvement in other parts of the chain might be pointless as long as overall communicative efficiency is limited by our difficulty in dealing with step two. Thus, even if communication is the ultimate goal of language, optimizing the cognitive efficiency of language might still be the best move.

Yep, that makes sense.

Not to me. There's no evolutionary advantage in communicating some kind of idea or representation. There's only possible advantage in action. Language must have evolved linked to actions. A lot of actions don't need language. Lots of animals move around together and help each other in groups without language.

I think language must be for coordination, and particularly for the creation of roles and distribution of tasks within a group. If that's the action that's being selected for, then language doesn't need to be precise.

For example, suppose we were on the plains of Africa, and we were splitting up to do different tasks, and I said to you, "I'll meet you at the lake". You know what I mean because we've met at the lake before. You know which lake, and where on the lake. If you were a stranger, that phrase would have very little meaning. The meaning exists in the routines of our cooperation which have been established over time. So "lake" means more a procedure and an event than it does an actual lake.
skipsaweirdo
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3/23/2016 2:02:51 PM
Posted: 8 months ago
At 3/16/2016 6:02:25 PM, dylancatlow wrote:
The renowned linguist Noam Chomsky has some unconventional views about language which aren't widely held by others in the field. One point of departure is Chomsky's belief that language evolved primarily as a means of facilitating thought rather than for communication. His stance on the issue can be summed up by the following quote:

"But for example, one general assumption about language -- almost a dogma in philosophy -- is that language is primarily a means of communication, and that it evolved as a means of communication. Probably, that's totally false. It seems that language is evolved and is designed as a mode of creating and interpreting thought. It's a system of thought, basically."

The reason he gives for this belief is described below:

"Its design seems to [...] undermine communication. If you look carefully at the structure of language, you find case after case, right at the core of language design, where there are conflicts between what would be efficient for communication, and what is efficient for the specific biological design of language. And in every case that's known, communicative efficiency is sacrificed. It just isn't a consideration."


Chomsky's interpretation is plausible and should be seriously entertained. However, I think there is another equally plausible interpretation which he seems to overlook. To see why communicative efficiency might yield to other considerations even when communication is the primary objective of language, consider the fact that communication and thought are linked at the most basic level: in order to meaningfully communicate one needs things to say. If language was hostile to the formation of thought -- if ideas were too easily forgotten, or too hard to keep track of, or took too long to formulate, etc. -- a language tailored for communicative efficiency would be of little use, because the ideas we wished to convey wouldn't be there when we need to convey them. It follows that a language designed for the purpose of communication cannot ignore thought, assuming it wants to be useful.

All that remains to be explained is why, as Chomsky argues, "communicative efficiency is sacrificed to cognitive efficiency in every case." If language evolved primarily as a system for communication, then it is a curious fact that cognitive efficiency takes precedence over communication every time the two conflict. Curious, but not inexplicable. I can think of at least four reasons why this could be the case, assuming Chomsky's assessment is accurate.

First, linguistic capacity that's efficient with respect to thought might be easier to achieve in evolutionary terms. After all, being "efficient for thought" could just mean mirroring the cognitive structures that give rise to thought. Since those structures were already present at the time humans began to develop language ability, the evolution of our language capacity wouldn't have to start from scratch, but instead could co-opt pre-existing cognitive structures for the purpose of language, thus creating the human linguistic faculty "in its own image," accounting for the compatibility between the two (and thus the efficiency). Language which conforms to pre-existing cognitive processes - that is, structured in terms of how we think - is probably both more efficient for thought and easier to evolve. In this scenario, human language ability did not decide to prioritize thought over communication; it had no choice in the matter, and simply took advantage of the evolutionary opportunities available.

Second, efficiency of thought might be the limiting factor when it comes to the effectiveness of communication. If the main obstacle to effective communication is our difficulty in thinking in linguistic terms, while we have "room to spare" in the communication department (that is, once we have a common language and speakers with thoughts to express), then clearly we need all the help we can get when it comes to the former, and it ought to be prioritized accordingly.

Third, prioritizing cognitive efficiency is "doubly efficient," in the sense that enhancing the cognitive efficiency of language has two benefits: it better facilitates thought as well as lays a more sturdy foundation for communication. Communicative efficiency lacks the former benefit.

Fourth, it may simply be that what we give up in terms of communication we make up for in thought but to a far greater degree. Thus, if we favor thought over communication in certain instances, that doesn't mean it's more important overall.
I wonder how Chomsky explains a conundrum. Discovered feral children have demonstrated consistently that people cannot develop a code, or language as it were, independently of an intelligent source that already possesses the language in the first place. Being a special pleading fallacy in regards to how "language" evolved is something that this opinion relies on and it contradicts the science behind the human brain and the process of it acquiring language.
Deb-8-A-Bull
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3/25/2016 3:33:43 PM
Posted: 8 months ago
The purpose of language.

This might sound stupid to you lot but I think language is all about, food.
And hunger would have to start it.
then dividing food, which means language was for counting . not numbers, but for making piles.
dylancatlow
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4/7/2016 5:54:38 PM
Posted: 8 months ago
At 3/23/2016 2:02:51 PM, skipsaweirdo wrote:
At 3/16/2016 6:02:25 PM, dylancatlow wrote:
The renowned linguist Noam Chomsky has some unconventional views about language which aren't widely held by others in the field. One point of departure is Chomsky's belief that language evolved primarily as a means of facilitating thought rather than for communication. His stance on the issue can be summed up by the following quote:

"But for example, one general assumption about language -- almost a dogma in philosophy -- is that language is primarily a means of communication, and that it evolved as a means of communication. Probably, that's totally false. It seems that language is evolved and is designed as a mode of creating and interpreting thought. It's a system of thought, basically."

The reason he gives for this belief is described below:

"Its design seems to [...] undermine communication. If you look carefully at the structure of language, you find case after case, right at the core of language design, where there are conflicts between what would be efficient for communication, and what is efficient for the specific biological design of language. And in every case that's known, communicative efficiency is sacrificed. It just isn't a consideration."


Chomsky's interpretation is plausible and should be seriously entertained. However, I think there is another equally plausible interpretation which he seems to overlook. To see why communicative efficiency might yield to other considerations even when communication is the primary objective of language, consider the fact that communication and thought are linked at the most basic level: in order to meaningfully communicate one needs things to say. If language was hostile to the formation of thought -- if ideas were too easily forgotten, or too hard to keep track of, or took too long to formulate, etc. -- a language tailored for communicative efficiency would be of little use, because the ideas we wished to convey wouldn't be there when we need to convey them. It follows that a language designed for the purpose of communication cannot ignore thought, assuming it wants to be useful.

All that remains to be explained is why, as Chomsky argues, "communicative efficiency is sacrificed to cognitive efficiency in every case." If language evolved primarily as a system for communication, then it is a curious fact that cognitive efficiency takes precedence over communication every time the two conflict. Curious, but not inexplicable. I can think of at least four reasons why this could be the case, assuming Chomsky's assessment is accurate.

First, linguistic capacity that's efficient with respect to thought might be easier to achieve in evolutionary terms. After all, being "efficient for thought" could just mean mirroring the cognitive structures that give rise to thought. Since those structures were already present at the time humans began to develop language ability, the evolution of our language capacity wouldn't have to start from scratch, but instead could co-opt pre-existing cognitive structures for the purpose of language, thus creating the human linguistic faculty "in its own image," accounting for the compatibility between the two (and thus the efficiency). Language which conforms to pre-existing cognitive processes - that is, structured in terms of how we think - is probably both more efficient for thought and easier to evolve. In this scenario, human language ability did not decide to prioritize thought over communication; it had no choice in the matter, and simply took advantage of the evolutionary opportunities available.

Second, efficiency of thought might be the limiting factor when it comes to the effectiveness of communication. If the main obstacle to effective communication is our difficulty in thinking in linguistic terms, while we have "room to spare" in the communication department (that is, once we have a common language and speakers with thoughts to express), then clearly we need all the help we can get when it comes to the former, and it ought to be prioritized accordingly.

Third, prioritizing cognitive efficiency is "doubly efficient," in the sense that enhancing the cognitive efficiency of language has two benefits: it better facilitates thought as well as lays a more sturdy foundation for communication. Communicative efficiency lacks the former benefit.

Fourth, it may simply be that what we give up in terms of communication we make up for in thought but to a far greater degree. Thus, if we favor thought over communication in certain instances, that doesn't mean it's more important overall.
I wonder how Chomsky explains a conundrum. Discovered feral children have demonstrated consistently that people cannot develop a code, or language as it were, independently of an intelligent source that already possesses the language in the first place. Being a special pleading fallacy in regards to how "language" evolved is something that this opinion relies on and it contradicts the science behind the human brain and the process of it acquiring language.

Chomsky never claimed that children are hardwired to invent language from scratch. Having an instinct for language acquisition doesn't mean that one has an instinct to invent one's own language. There's no reason to think that humans would be hardwired to invent their own language, because it's such a rare occurrence that someone would benefit from that skill, and even if they benefitted from it, it's unlikely that they would pass down their genes, since they are probably isolated (and thus unable to have children) if they are inventing their own language.
dylancatlow
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4/7/2016 5:56:48 PM
Posted: 8 months ago
At 3/25/2016 3:33:43 PM, Deb-8-A-Bull wrote:
The purpose of language.

This might sound stupid to you lot but I think language is all about, food.
And hunger would have to start it.
then dividing food, which means language was for counting . not numbers, but for making piles.

Lots of species are able to divide up food without needing a language system as complex as ours.
Deb-8-A-Bull
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4/7/2016 6:36:42 PM
Posted: 8 months ago
At 4/7/2016 5:56:48 PM, dylancatlow wrote:
At 3/25/2016 3:33:43 PM, Deb-8-A-Bull wrote:
The purpose of language.

This might sound stupid to you lot but I think language is all about, food.
And hunger would have to start it.
then dividing food, which means language was for counting . not numbers, but for making piles.

Lots of species are able to divide up food without needing a language system as complex as ours.

OK dylan. I've been keeping interest in your posts and other talk about this topic , I find it great to think about. I'm sure I'll crack it 1 day . Thanks for the reply.