Wednesday, October 8, 2008


The history of the biological basis of language*

Language has been thought of as being the expression of man’s reason, the result of onomatopoeia, invented as a means of communication, considered basic to the formation of society, or simply a gift of God. Each of these definitions of language has been used in the construction of a multitude of language theories [1]. We shall not be concerned with the development of these theories, but limit ourselves to a discussion of the recurrent emergence of the thoughts on the biological basis of language.
The idea that language is on of man’s inherent characteristics, like vision or hearing, is found in some myths on the creation of man [2]. In these myths, language is given to man in conjunction with his senses, so that apparently it was considered on of them, and not part of man’s cultural or social functions (which are also described as given or taught by the gods). By no means can these assertions of a divine origin be considered antithetical to a natural origin of language; on the contrary, everything natural to man was God’s gift to him.
Between the reaslm of mythology and science stands the experiment of the Egyptian King Psammetichos of the seventh century B.C. and related by Herodotus (fifth century B.C.). Psammetichos supposedly tried to have two children raised by shepherds who never spoke to them in order to see what language would develop [3]. This experiment is relevant to our discussion in so far as its design implies the belief that children left to themselves will develop language. Psammetichos thought he would be able to demonstrate which language was the oldest, but apparently did not doubt that even untutored children would speak.
Language first became the subject of discussion by the pre-Socratic philosophers in the latter part of the sixth century B.C. The setting up of antitheses, typical for Greek philosophy, was also applied to the problems which language posed. But discussions of language were limited to a mere consideration of naming and were purely secondary outgrowths of the philosopher’s search for general truths. In order to understand the statements on language made by the Greek philosophers, it is essential to give an idea of the context in which they were made and briefly describe the evolution of the meaning of the two ever recurring terms nomos and physis in which language was to be discussed. Nomos was later replaced by theses and was often wrongly translated as convention while physis has been incorrectly equated with nature.
For Herakleitos (ca. 500 B.C.), nomos was the order regulating the life of society and the individual, but he did not see it as a product of society [4].The nomos of society was valid, but not absolute. Similarly names were valid as they reflected some aspect of the object they named. (Apparently, he did not consider them physis as had been thought)[5]. Physis would have implied that names are an adequate expression of reality or of the true nature of things, an idea to which Herakleitos did not subscribe.
Parmenides, (fifth century B.C.) thought that originally names had been given to things on the basis of “wrong thinking,” and that the continued use of the original names perpetuated the errors of men’s earlier thinking about the objects around them. To him, and to Anaxagoras and Empedokles, names and concepts were synonymous. Their concern with conventional names and their condemnation of them as nomos was related to their critical view of conventional thought. To these philosophers’ nomos and conventional thought had acquired the connotation of incorrectness and inadequacy as opposed to the truth and real nature or physis which they were seeking [5].
Pindar(522-433 B.C.) considered all of man’s true abilities innate. They cannot be acquired by learning bt can only be furthered by training [6]. For him the rules of society which are nomos were God-given and, therefore, contained absolute truth. Nomos and physis were not purely antithetical as it was for Parmenides and his school. It is also well to keep in mind that nomos and physis had not been antithetical in Greek ethnography. Nomos referred to all peculiarities of a people due to custom and not attributable to the influences of climate, country, or food. So Herodotus had ascribed the elongated heads of a tribe, due to their binding of the infant’s skull, to nomos, but he believed that this would become hereditary (physis). In medicine of the fifth century B.C., physis came to mean normal [7].
Although we find the nomos-physis antithesis in all Greek philosophy and science, the exact meaning of the terms would have to be determined in each case, before we might claim that one of the philosophers made certain pronouncements about language. We have attempted to indicate that none of the pre-Socratic philosophers were concerned with language as such, nor with questions of its origin or development, and in no case could their statements be said to establish language as cultural or natural to man.
In classical philosophy, the relationship of the name to its object continued to be the focal point in discussions on language: naming and language were synonymous. Did the object determined in some way the name by which it was called, just as its shape determined the image we saw of it? In his dialogue, Cratylos, Plato (427-347) attempted a solution of this problem. If the name was determined by the nature of the object to which it referred, then language was physis, that is , it could be said to reflect the true nature of things, but if it were nomos, then the name could not serve as a source of real knowledge. As Steinthal [8] pointed out, language was taken as given, and the philosophical discussion had not originated from questions about the nature of man or language. Plato’s answer could, therefore, have only indirect implications for questions about language origin which were to arise much later. He overcame the antithesis by demonstrating that the name does not represent the object but that it stands for the idea which we have of the object. Furthermore, he declared that the name or the word is only a sound symbol which in itself does not reveal the truth of the idea it represents. Words gain their meaning from other oodes of communication like imitative body movements or noises. The latter are similar to painting in that they are representative but not purely symbolic as is language. The only reference to the origin of language in Cratylos is Socrates’ statement that speaking of a divine origin of words is but a contrivance to avoid a scientific examination of the source of names [10].
Aristotle’s (384-322 B.C.) interest in language was both philosophical and scientific. In his book on animals the ten paragraphs devoted to language follow immediately after a discussion of the senses. His differentiation of sound, voice, and language is based on his physical concept of sound production. In his opinion, voice was produced in the trachea and language resulted from the modulation of the voice by tongue and lip movements. Language proper is only found in man. Children babble and stammer because they have not yet gained control over their tongues. Among the animals only the song of birds is similar call, “kak kak” in one vicinity and “tri tri” in another and as the song of a bird will differ from that of its parents’ if it grows up without them. Language, like the song of the nightingale, is perfected by training.
Aristotle had based his differentiation of man’s language (logos) from the language of animals (phonē) biologically, for he thought that man’s language was produced mainly by movement of the tongue and the sounds of animals by the impact of air on the walls of the trachea. He did not think that human language could have been derived from sounds, noises or the expression of emotions seen in animals and children. “A sound is not yet a word it only becomes a word when it is used by man as a sign.” “The articulated signs (of human language) are not like the expression of emotions of children or animals. Animal noises cannot be combined to form syllables, nor can they be reduced to syllables like human speech” [12]. He rejected an onomatopoeic origin of language and established the primacy of its symbolic function. Because he recognized that the meaning of spoken language was based on agreement, it has been claimed that he thought language to be of cultural origin. I terms of the old antithesis of physis versus nomos, Aristotle saw both principles operative in language. Physis meant to him the law of nature without the virtue of justice which it had contained for Plato, and Nomos was replaced by thesis and had come to mean man made. Language, as such, he considered physis, and the meaning of words he attributed to thesis [13].
The question of the origin of language had not been raised in Greek philosophy until Epicurus (341-271 B.C.) asked:”What makes language possible? How does man form words so that he is understood?”[14]. He concluded that neither God nor reason, but Nature was the source of language. To him, language was a biological function like vision and hearing. A different opinion was held by Zeno (333-262 B.C.) the founder of the Stoa, to whom language was an expression of man’s mind and derived from his reason. He believed that names had been given without conscious reflection or purpose [15].
Although Epicurus had been the first to contemplate the origin of language, Chysippos (died about 200 B.C.) a stoic, was the first to consider language in terms broader than names. Before him the ambiguity of some names had been noted but no satisfactory explanation had been found. Chrysippos proclaimed that all names were ambiguous and lost their ambiguity by being placed in context. Thereby he drew attention to the importance of the grouping of words but his belief that language did not follow logic kept his inquiry from proceeding any further [16].

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