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Wednesday, May 19, 2010

The Sounds that We Make

Yesterday, when the two little boys were visiting, one of them asked about our rooster who was crowing. "Why does it make those sounds?" It's sometimes hard to answer that kind of question, because we're not sure from what perspective to tackle it. I went for the easy answer: "That is its nature. Roosters just do that." The answer was not altogether satisfying, so the question got asked a few more times.

That single question might have been referring to several different issues. It could have been asking: "Why does the rooster make those sounds, rather than some other sounds?" The answer would have been: "It's something to do with the way his articulatory system is constructed." Or the question could have meant: "Why does the rooster feel the need to make any sounds at all? Why doesn't he stay silent?" The answer might have been something like: "He wants to express his feelings." Or "He is announcing his dominion over this roost." Or it could have been: "Even though his cries sound identical to us, he is saying different things at different times, and we just don't know how to listen properly." I don't know which is the right answer, but these are the sorts of answers that the question might have called for.

The same type of confusion exists where human language is concerned. In fact, there is wide disagreement on the question: "What is language?" Some people think that language has everything to do with the types of sounds that we make, and little to do with the way they convey meaning.

In a recent correspondence with a fellow linguist concerning Bow's language use, this issue came up. This particular colleague is sympathetic to my research, and he doesn't doubt that it is Bow who is pointing at the letters. But he does have a different outlook on what it all means. Here's what he wrote: "Bow certainly can communicate a lot that (I agree) comes from him, and he's a well-educated fellow. So he has a communication system, but is it equivalent to a human linguistic system? "

I answered him like this: "I see language as a system of contrasts. It doesn't matter if you use morse code, ASCII or your articulatory system, if something is in English, it's in English. If it's in Hebrew,  it's in Hebrew. Bow uses both English and Hebrew. Because we can recognize the contrasts, and we use them to refer to the same things in reality, then Bow is using language same as we do."

The other linguist replied: "Not necessarily, it may only be the same semiotic system, which is not necessarily a language.  Furthermore, what Bow uses is mainly written language, though with some very clever sound-symbol manipulation."

That very clever sound-symbolism manipulation is pretty much what I think of as language. It is not the sensual modality that makes it language. It isn't the way it physically sounds or looks or feels that makes it language. Those things are only incidental, like the rooster's crow sounding like a rooster's crow, because his throat is built that way.  But the real question is: what if anything is the rooster using his crowing to say? What information is being conveyed and which differences in sound are related to differences in meaning?

Human beings make a lot of sounds, too. We cough. We sneeze. We clear our throats. But that isn't language. When we write somebody an email, that's language. When that somebody reads the email out loud to himself, that's language. If he doesn't read it out loud, but he reads it silently instead, it's still language.

Why do any of us make the sounds we make? Well, there are physical reasons that set the parameters for the sounds each person can or cannot make. But that isn't language. That's acoustics. Language is what gives us the ability to convey information to one another using a limited system of contrasts. Bow has that. Does our rooster have it, too? To be perfectly honest, I don't know. I don't know why he makes those sounds!

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