What is language?

Daniel Everett recently gave a talk on his language-as-a-cultural-tool idea at our UC Irvine Center for Language Science.  (Here‘s a decent review of his recent book.)  It was an entertaining talk but misses the point, in my view, regarding what language really is.

Today I’m reading a very nice review paper by Agnes Roby-Brami and colleagues on the relation between language and praxis (suggested by a sage reviewer of a submitted paper of mine).  It’s worth a look.  Very informative and scholarly, but that’s not what I want to talk about here.  Instead I want to focus on their definition of language:

Language refers to a system of signs (indices, icons, symbols) used to encode and decode information so that the pairing of a specific sign with an intended meaning is established through social conventions.

This definition is exactly the kind of conception about language that lends itself to Everettesque monologues about language as culture.  Yes, yes culture is reflected through language, but it doesn’t mean that language IS culture.

But back to signs: how does the notion of language as a system of signs tilt the playing field toward a language as culture viewpoint?  It does so by focusing on the arbitrary aspects of language, those aspects that most closely related to “cultural conventions”; things like words.

It’s not the signs that define language.  To see this, think about Roby-Brami and colleague’s definition in visual terms:

Vision refers to a system of objects (forms, movements, and so on) that contain information so that the pairing of a specific object with its associated meaning is established through social conventions.

What?! Vision isn’t a social convention, you say.  It’s a neural system that analyzes visual form, motion, and location to transform physical information into conceptual representations or into motor patterns for interacting with those objects.  Vision is NOT in the objects themselves!

Of course you are right.  But we can easily think of vision as social if we misconstrue it.  Take any number of your modern objects and show them to a member of a hunter-gatherer society.  Take your iPhone, you coffee maker, your bicycle, your eyeglasses, your credit card, your zipper, your whatever.  They will have no idea what those objects are.  These “object-signs” have no meaning to them. We know what they are only because we have learned the object-signs through cultural experience.  It’s as if we are “speaking” different visual languages!  Therefore,  we should conclude, vision is a cultural system.

We can see the flaw in *that* argument, of course.  What vision takes as input and what previous associates we have with particular objects and their uses doesn’t define the perceptual/perceptual-motor system.  What defines vision are the computations that are used to extract form, motion, and location and associates these with higher-order conceptual systems, motor systems, and so on.

Why can’t we see that the same flaw holds in the language argument?  The “word-signs” with their culturally agreed on meanings don’t define language.  What defines language are the computations that are used to extract sound patterns from acoustic babble, to segment them, to combine them, and ultimately link them to complex conceptual representations or to motor speech gestures.

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