[Marxism] Re: human origins

Nick Halliday halliday.nick at gmail.com
Mon Aug 8 22:19:39 MDT 2005


>>Care to elaborate>>


>>.The 'arbitrary' aspects of language are adaptive. Symboling allows
messages to cross generations. This has adaptive advantages at human orgins>>

So are all forms of successful communication, including imitating the
roar of an approaching lion so we all know to flee. I sometimes wonder
if you aren't exaggerating just how much adaptively useful information
is making it across all those generations.

>>In this discussion, in what you describe here both the gesture and the
phonetic ability are SYMBOLIC>>

That was the point, to show that some symbols can be quite motivated
and not that arbitrary.

>>I agree that English spelling "rules" are not accurate generalizations.
One has to memorize mainly to know how to spell correctly in English. It is
very arbitrary.>>

Yet it is not completely arbitrary. English spelling shows an
alternation of vowel and consonant sounds, and once you speak the
language it can enable counting syllables. Also, there are a few
motivated elements to spelling, such as the letters <l> and <r>
indicating point of articulation.
Also, it's possible to say all alphabets are motivated to the extent
that they say there is this naturally occuring object called a phoneme
(a sound category) that letters can represent. So even if the
relationships across the spelling <d-o-g> and the human concept of
'dog' and any dogs living or pictorially represented coming into our
perception is arbitrary, the facts that the spelling alternates
consonant-vowel-consonant, has only three letters to represent 3
categorical sounds, etc. isn't.

>> To recap, we are talking about human expressions that represent
"something".  The photograph or x-ray are one step from a drawing. The
point is they - photograph, x-ray, drawing - _do_ all clearly attempt
to imitate what they represent from a human standpoint of perception.
When we compare a drawing or photograph with what they represent, they
look alike. In alphabetical representation there is clearly no effort
to imitate what is represented in the thing representing. The letters
d-o-g and what it
represent don't look alike, sound alike, smell alike, fell alike.>>

I can't follow. If anything, a drawing is further removed from a
photograph because in making it the human must interpret and create,
not simply represent non-symbolically. Again, I would go with a range
of purely arbitary to purely motivated and then see what you come up
with. As I said, a written word like 'dog' is mostly arbitrary, though
its phonemic aspects are not completely. Where as 'bow-wow' and 'woof
woof' are more motivated but still contain a lot of arbitrariness and

>>CB: It very interesting to me, in anthropological and Marxist terms.
 Speakfor yourself.>>

I always do. I guess I should thank you for the backhanded way you
accepted the argument about psychology though.

>>The key is bees don't have symbols for dead bees. The symbols aren't
used to transcend the death of individuals for the species as
multigenerations.  Non-imitative representation, arbitrariness, is
for this transgenerational communication, because dead individuals of the
species cannot, obviously , demonstrate something to be imitated. No
monkey see, monkey do of dead monkeys. Must use symbols to get the
message of what dead monkeys or bees did while alive. Bees and monkeys
don't do that.>>

Wow, human language is a symbol for all those dead humans? Truly, I
can't see your point about transgenerational communication in the case
of oral language. All it takes is a continuous passing down of
information from generation to generation. No doubt spoken languages
augment this, with, for example, huge taxonomic vocabularies used to
linguistically map the environment and food sources. But until the
creation of written language, it still took face-to-face encounters,
despite the use of full-blown language and such elements as
complexity, large lexicons, grammatical encoding, multiple layers of
encoding (redundancy), etc.

>>B: A sign language has _distinctive features_ , as phonology does. Any
language has distinctive features and something corresponding to
phonemes, like "gestureemes">>

And my point was the full blown human languages still have an element
of gesture, and gesture is more motivated than, for example, a system
based on only sound-encoding (which doesn't really characterize any
spoken human language I know). OTOH, sign language becomes much more
stylized and arbitrary than many non-users or non-linguistics think.
In other words, what makes human sign languages language is much the
same as what makes spoken languages language.

Also, I was trying to discuss getting beyond static structuralist
units like phonemes and features and seeing human language for the
actual units it displays--what articulatory phonologists call 'the
articulatory gesture'.

>> CB: However, it is not the individual experience or pragmatic
experience of living _individuals_ that generates the existing system
of symbols. That
would be positivistic.>>

No, that would be individual romantic psychologization, which I didn't
see anyone arguing here.

>>The main thing is infants can learn from dead ancestors with language.
The main thing is not infants' brains making inputs into language, but
receiving from it.>>

I can't see how this is exclusively the realm of language. Look at how
so many other aspects of culture are passed down from generation to
generation, though cross-cultural contact and assimilation can put an
end to it. I think post-modern sociolinguistics doesn't agree with
your drift here, CB. In the case of pidgins turning into creoles, it
really does take the creative element of a full population of young
speakers grammaticalizing the lexis. Then subsequent generations turn
the language into a literary creole, if the culture is highly oral and
then highly literate. You could argue the language we are now using
shows this. Anglo-Saxon met Danish and creolized into an early form of
something we call 'English', and this got re-lexicalized with Norman
French (and then lots of Latin and Greek a half a century later), and
we got to the stage of literary creole about the time of Chaucer.


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