Cognition + Culture + Communication = Language

By Matt Balasis on May 6, 2012

With this formula as shorthand, in his new book Language: The Cultural Tool, linguist Dan Everett argues that the variability in human cultural life explains the variability in human languages.

MINNESAPOLIS (Herald de Paris) — I read an NPR linked article yesterday which reminded me of an old language debate we discussed in grad school. Condensed here, (perhaps absurdly so considering the incogitably complex evolution of language research) into a kind of “nature / nurture” paradigm, the debate centers on whether we are biologically “hard wired” for language production or whether language is a purely utilitarian intellection that exists only because it serves a practical purpose. Part of the dilemma in traversing the mountains of doctrine and research is that the field is no longer as distinctly polarized as it was even when I was in college. Noam Chomsky managed to largely create this debate by so eloquently defining his side of this linguistic spectrum. To say he defined the notion that humans possess a universal predilection to language acquisition as a largely innate mechanism, is both a gross simplification and probably off the mark, as Chomsky was, if anything, quite objective in his approach to language structure. He described and observed grammatical commonalities which concluded with the probability that we possess some sort of language acquisition device and was deductive in his reasoning. Opponents naturally have built their argument over the years on the premise that language is a function arising from the intersection of our social environment with various processing centers in our brains … language thus becomes a kind of operative by product — it fulfills a need and would probably not exist were it not for that need. Anyway that is the gist of the argument as best as I can describe it here, and while there has been more in recent years along grayer lines straddling both philosophies, the debate has persisted in one form or another as it is one of these issues that people love to argue about, but which may, in the end, be without resolution — that is unless we actually find the “device,” namely, a specific anatomical structure in the human brain devoted to language acquisition.

Dan Everett in his book on this subject, Language: The Cultural Tool, at one point brings primates into the fray by showing how, when socialized and immersed in an environment rich with symbols and signs, higher primates begin to develop a linguistic propensity and will use their acquired signs to communicate both with their human trainers as well as with each other, thus reinforcing the notion that language is ultimately a social utility. But one could also argue that chimpanzees (and bonobos for that matter) are unique in the animal kingdom reflecting a complex social order (in the wild), showing abilities such as tool making and even an appreciation of humor. Now this is an interesting question, do monkeys perceive humor? It often appears that they do. They will shriek and wave and do flips in excitement when a coconut hits their neighbor on the head. By all appearances they look to be laughing, but even more interesting is the response of the coconut victim (who would probably elicit a pain response if alone), in that he also will go along with “the joke” and appear to respond with something like laughter in the company of his cackling companions. We all know that feeling, better to laugh with than to be laughed at! Humor itself, however, is hard to define in linguistic terms. Humor can range from Horatian satire to a pie in the face, but what makes something funny is a quality that might be described as a moment that triggers a perceptual quirk, some element of normal reality so far out of context it would make a dog turn his head in puzzled fascination and make children chuckle. Humor also often involves highly metalinguistic word play, multiple meanings abound in jokes and words used improperly often create embarrassing and hilarious punchlines and serve as springboards for humorous narratives and comedy vignettes. The “misunderstanding” is quite often a central element of comedic routines, but you have to understand word play to understand humor and in that sense humor is symbolic and provides us with a distorted, out of place, and funny version of reality. It is, an abstraction.

Groucho Marx once said, “Outside of a dog, a book is man’s best friend. Inside of a dog it’s too dark to read.” The humor here is that “outside of a dog” is interpreted literally with the obvious correct meaning of “outside” (which  here would be “other than,”) missed entirely. The resultant hilarity ensues from the “it’s too dark to read inside of a dog” image left in the wake of this misunderstanding. Now a monkey wouldn’t get this joke, but a monkey would have to be able to juxtapose normal reality with the out of place (or unexpected) to understand why the coconut hitting his friend is funny, and that is a rather complex thought process. A monkey would have to intuit that under normal conditions coconuts don’t hit monkeys in the head, but on this day, one did hit cousin Jojo Bonobo right in the noggin and all of Jojo’s buddies had a good laugh watching him stumble around afterwards. Does this in and of itself prove that monkeys are perhaps too close to their human counterparts to be used as subjects in somehow proving that non-human animals are in fact capable of linguistic ability (provided they are embedded in a societal structure that demands the use of symbols)? It may, but I’ve told my dog plenty of jokes and haven’t gotten so much as a snicker, so either animals don’t get humor or I’m just not very funny. But in seriousness, monkeys may be a tad too close to us on the evolutionary ladder to qualify for experiments such as these. Even dogs will perceive the unexpected for what it is and due to their pack mentality might partake in the ensuing mirth by perhaps jumping around and barking, but I don’t think they “get it,” monkeys on the other hand I’m not so sure about.  Anyway, as I read through this article one quote in particular jumped out at me:

“Each language is a cognitive tool for its speakers,” he writes, “and comes to encode their solutions to the environmental and other problems they face as a culture.”

The notion that Language is “a tool for it’s speakers” seems overly simplistic at best and remarkably narrow at worst given the incredibly complex nature of language acquisition in humans. Language is more than a utilitarian construct, there is a collectivism in language populated by a myriad assemblage of cultural interfaces that become more than the sum of their parts … If it is to be described as a “tool” then it is more like a sort of collective super-processor that eventually becomes self aware and takes on a life of its own, spawning its randomized intertwined confluences that branch out without reason or purpose — slang for instance doesn’t always fill a semantic void, sometimes it springs from the arbitrary combination of formerly diverse and distinct elements. New forms of expression generated from a vast plurality of linguistic edifices are very often less than practical and are in fact frequently rooted entirely in the sublime. Language is more than a tool, a pencil is a tool, language is expression, it is art, and as such it can reflect anything from the fluid assault on the senses that is graffiti on a subway car to the benevolent and divine inspiration of ancient scripture. In the end, language is not simply a “tool” because it evolves from it’s own after-life. It is both a becoming, and a result. Literature leaves its momentary impression on our collective consciousness altering at once both the medium as well as the resultant literary artifact — in essence language changes on its own through the symbiosis of it’s many diverse contingent elements because it is ultimately a reflection of the human condition. Language is constantly changing and is, in a very real sense, alive. It is less a collection of paints and brushes and blank canvasses, and more the artwork itself.

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