A General Theory of Human Language

November 21, 2012

We do not know how language works.

We just speak, and hear (and think) in words.
We do not think before we think.

We only know we can play the game. And that the game is works—and is good.

(Why is the game good? That we do not know.) We do not know who we would be without language.

We cannot describe the background-contexts of our words

We cannot describe how we use them. When we use them. How we can combine them into an indefinite number of sensible and seemingly-sensible sentences. Or the responses our words engenders. Setting aside a few simple cases ("The cat is on the mat.") the background-context is very complex.

We have no words to talk about how a language game works Or how to describe it. Most of it is unknown to our conscious selves.

We have no words for how we use words. It may be that there are no words for this. Not only our language, but our minds, may be inadequate to understand this.

We have things we call "understanding language"

But they do not get us far. They are certainties to get our minds off thinking about this.

There is the field of linguistics, but that is of little interest here. It is like describing the seams on the various baseballs using around the world. Or the particular paints used in a painting by Rembrandt.

We are ignorant of its activities.

How do we choose the right word? What effects do people's words | songs | literature have on us? How can people speak sentences we have never heard before and how can we think we understand these. How do we keep track of all the many realms of discourse: a sentence said in play, the same sentence in a theater, or in a linguistic textbook, or spoken ironically. This is not a question of mere identification, but of bringing up a whole new set of responses and 'sponses.'

We will remain ignorant of it here.

One does not speak from understanding language. It will never remain transparent to us. As we speak we simply speak. We do not know anything about the society of processes in use in our brain, or how we pull out and assemble and learn our words.


Language builds on pre-existing structures.

When we see how words are extended through metaphors, and how most words have a concrete etymology, we see that our hundreds of thousand words are developed from preceding structures, even through they are no longer used in a simple way.

Since this is just the kind of development Minksy speaks of in The Society of Mind, it is plausible our words are built up and developed from numerous structural and existing processes in the human brain.

Language is socio-biologically inspired.

Speaking in words take place against a background of both human interactions and human understandings, and human individual existence within that context. These things developed and evolved together: human brains, human animals, human societies, human cultures and human language.

Language elements (particularly words) are re-purposed.

While actual details are unknown, linguistic elements are re-used and extended in all sorts of ways. This is the machinery behind family-resemblance but also the use of slang.

There are (always) multiple processes going on at once.

Always keep in mind that in being human, there are multiple thought processes going on at the same time. And that always keep in mind that we are conscious of only a small number of these. We are unaware of most of them. But we are influenced, and influencing, by all of them. Our choice of words, our thoughts, our behavior are all the result of these processes.

Language too is built on this platform. The mechanics of language are also nearly all hidden from us.

About Words

Traditionally words are the first candidate for presenting an analysis of language. They are seen as the building blocks of speech and language.

We teach children to speak by teaching them words. How we teach children to use words is not clear to us. (We can't teach a dog, or even a parrot, to speak.)

The metaphor of words as building blocks (like all metaphors) has a certain plausibility to it, but it also hides a lot.

If you don't understand language, you might be tempted to take a simple sentence and analyze it in minute detail. But the macro/micro relation does not work in language. This would be like trying to understand baseball by analyzing a ball, or a pitch.

We can of course say that words have meaning.

"It may justly be urged that, properly speaking, what alone has meaning is a sentence. Of course, we can speak quite properly of, for example, 'looking up the meaning of a word' in a dictionary. Nevertheless, it appears that the sense in which a word or phrase 'has a meaning' is derivative from the sense in which a sentence 'has a meaning': to say a word or phrase 'has a meaning' is to say that there are sentences in which it occurs which 'have meanings'; and to know the meaning which the word or phrase has, is to know the meanings of sentences in which it occurs. All the dictionary can do when we 'look up the meaning of a word' is to suggest aids to the understanding of sentences in which it occurs. Hence it appears correct to say that what 'has meaning' in the primary sense is the sentence."

(John L. Austin, "The Meaning of a Word." in Philosophical Papers, 3rd ed., edited by J. O. Urmson and G. J. Warnock. Oxford Univ. Press, 1990

Words only exists in one of many language games. (And parrots cannot play these.)

More About Words

Don't get hung up on words.

To speak in words
we must speak about words.

"Word" is a word.
"Philosophy" is a word.

Do we have to talk about words?
Only if we talk in words.

Words are slippery and misleading.

We must speak about words,
and about their slipperiness
in slippery deceitful words.

How are they slippery?
We loose our footing on them.

Because we naturally make sense of what someone says, we change contexts without us having any awareness thereof.

Concrete nouns are not the philosophical problem. Abstract nouns are the problem.

When I speak of this salt-shaker in front of me we are on solid ground, It is made of glass, bullet-shaped, with red bands around it and a red plastic cap. Soon it will need to be refilled?
"Is the salt damp?"
"No. I live in a dry area."

The problem is:

How do we talk about the world, and about language, using these slippery words that lose their meaning as we try to speak about the main structures of life.

How can we build a solid structure out of wet noodles?

Language and Philosophy

I will speak

We will take it as a given that there are many things we can legitimately call philosophy. It is an abstract word that flows in many directions. My generalizations will cover just a few of these.

Philosophy preserves the traditional and unproductive concepts of the past
To the extent that teaching philosophy is teaching the history of philosophy, philosophy soon embeds us in the traditional swamps of thoughts.

How long do we have to work with the concepts of the past before we abandon them? They are like a bad Scrabble hand.

In particular Cartesianism

(Cartesianism is a vague term covering a lot of intellectual tendencies of thought) The individual mind is primary. We are individuals first, a clean machines placed in a complex material situation that we deal with. Already we are off in a wrong direction.

The first mistake of philosophy is to assume that philosophy exists

The mistake is to think that all the traditional concepts are actually describing something, we just haven't been able to get a good handle on it in the intervening centuries.

on Wittgenstein

One can get lost in the writings of any great philosopher.

Instead of hearing what Wittgenstein is saying one can get lost in determining exactly what W. was saying.

What about exploring the secondary literature on Wittgenstein? (or Heidegger?)

The trouble is that those who write and study Wittgenstein (or Heidegger or Kant or Aristotle), are no Wittgenstein (or Heidegger or Kant or Aristotle).

Overly simple theories about language

The purpose of language is to communicate

What about the generally accepted theory of language: people use arbitrary signals to communicate? This is the simple-minded story of language. It is just a way of not thinking about it, and moving on to the next paragraph in your linguistic book. "Communicate," another abstract noun, adds nearly nothing to a description of language. "Communication" covers as much territory as language. What does a novel communicate? And besides, although language may often be used to communicate (for facts or statements about a generally accepted world) it is also used as a kind of body-language.

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