Monday, September 15, 2008

Dr. Doolittle...

I am writing this in the hope that it will keep me from experiencing such intense fury during every class discussion. Perhaps it isn’t a bad thing that I get so worked up about language and its meaning, but the frustration I feel is keeping me from moving forward in trying to understand more about what we are studying.
I admit that I’m at fault, in at least one instance, but the conversation keeps heading this direction and I feel like it has to be addressed. I can’t contain my thoughts on this issue any further. We cannot prove that animals have language, and attempts to prove such by any logical argument will be futile.
I’m sure I’m pissing off a myriad of people. That’s okay. I will accept my role as pariah. This is something that people obviously feel passionately about from many perspectives, but for the sake of my sanity, I must say something about it.
I said in class on Friday that when humans say “ow!” in instances of pain it is no different than a dog whimpering when it is hurting. This was in no way intended to show that animals have language, but rather that our utterances in pain are primal in nature and can thus be void of content and convention. Our understanding of them as anything more, as a mode of communication for instance, is an assertion of our captivity in language and society. The fact that we view an animal’s vocal responses to painful stimuli as a type of language is too an instance of us placing the rules of our language games onto a situation where they are unnecessary. Basically, the noises made by any animal (human or otherwise) are not language or communication until we assign meaning to them, which we are prone to do, given language’s governance over the human experience as we know it.
Human beings are fascinating in the sense that we are wholly dependent on one another for our existence. The length of time that the human infant is reliant on another for its well-being seems to be exceedingly long (wherein we are not only reliant on another source for food, but also for mobility). I would argue that in this critical period we become so entrenched in language that there is no way for us to ever escape it. I say this because the moment we exit the womb we are bombarded with stimuli imbued with meaning, and we slowly learn how to respond in ways that others understand. We cannot help but learn how to speak the language in at least some way, to ease our own burdens as well as those of others. The minute a baby can learn to sign or say milk there is much less room for pangs of hunger that would result in a visceral, primal cry. I can concede the point that humans and other animals alike emit sounds in times of pain, or even pleasure; however, in humans those sounds are quickly responded to by another’s care at infancy so we quickly learn that we can make sounds to indicate need/desire. It is in humans and domestic animals that we see a quick response to noises that could be nothing more than a reflex in the nervous system. It can certainly be the case that an animal could make sounds in response to stimuli with never an answer.
It’s not that I don’t want to see animals communicating with humans or one another, I’m the first to talk to my dogs, or a horse I see; I imagine that they are communicating with me, too. However, I recognize this as an indulgence I allow myself in taking the rules and cues that govern language, perception and understanding and applying them to the world around me. I yearn to anthropomorphize the things I come in contact with, and I think we all do. By what other means are we to understand other creatures that seem so like us?
I know the response. Well, what about the way my dog gets excited whenever I say “walk” or “treat”? Why then does my horse come to me when I call its name? Why can a monkey learn sign language? To me, the response is fairly clear. It would be foolish for me to argue that an animal is unable to learn to respond to stimuli in a very specific way. For the same reasons that birds fly away when a predator pounces at them or animals seek shelter during thunderstorms, our animals learn that doing certain actions in the presence of certain beings increases the probability of food. Complex stimuli yielding complex responses does not language make, as there are physical, biological and chemical responses, even at the atomic level, that will respond in complex ways to complex stimuli.
We must recognize that as humans, bound in language, we are always going to describe and understand things by way of language. There is not a way for us to express the world around us, especially the actions of creatures that seem so like us, without using language at least as a referent, beyond its role as the means by which we make our stamp upon the world.
I say all of this not because I want people to stop conversing with their puppies or houseplants even. By all means, continue this if it provides you with a pleasing psychological effect, I know it does me. But let us not be so egotistical, so anthropocentric to think that because we as humans function in such a way, so too must the rest of the world mirror our motives and actions. Rather, let us move from the question of whether or not animals can and do talk to each other and us, and instead focus on the effect language has and can have on other humans and the world itself as its consequences far outweigh the importance of its origin.


Scott Abbott said...

I love your passion and admire your argument and you sure must be able to type fast! If you're right, and you obviously have thought about this more than I have, how do you explain or describe the moment when evolving relatives of bonobos became our ancestors? How was the leap made from the state you describe where animals respond to stimuli to a state of reflection and human language? Was it like a virgin birth? Deus ex machina?

Anonymous said...

I am a fast typer, but I wrote that last night and just posted it at the beginning of class today, so not THAT fast. The thing about this blog that makes me crazy is that I'm compelled to write about things that should/would take books and books to fill, so I feel like I can never really flesh out an argument.

The thing that's so frustrating about this is trying to pinpoint the transition from vocal response to stimuli to actual language, something I'm not very comfortable doing for the reasons I talk about in this post, namely, I know that there is no point in which my experience with language will not taint my argument; The transition will always be muddied for me (and all of us) because we cannot conceive of these in between times. They will always at least mimic our understandings of language because we have never been without it...such a fascinating subject. One that literally keeps me up at night, and of course sends me into furious outbursts. I should calm down, have some herbal tea or something ;)

Jorgen said...

Errin, I enjoyed reading this. I'm interested in working this out for myself, I wish there were more people studying this subject.

I know they just found that bonobos possess some human characteristics with their language/communication. I should post the article.

Brian said...

This may seem an obvious question, but when you say "animals [other than humans] don't have language," with what definition of language are you working?

Surely, the vocalizations of animals are not engaged in the complex referential relationships seen in human languages, but is it not possible that they are a rudimentary version of the same thing?

I don't think anyone would argue that dogs are prone to discussing deep metaphysical topics, but there is certainly something to the noises they make. Without question, these noises are responses to stimuli (the sensation of hunger, the presence of prey/competition et cetera), but is human language much more than a collection of responses to stimuli (if I may play the determinist card)?

Grabloid said...

Great had me all riled up throughout the entire post... :)

(From your post):
"Complex stimuli yielding complex responses does not language make, as there are physical, biological and chemical responses, even at the atomic level, that will respond in complex ways to complex stimuli."

My response:
Given this phenomena that you've described, and then claiming that it is not language - I would be interested in hearing your definition of language. What does language make, then?

It sounds awfully close to language to me...I tend to side with what Brian and Scott are saying (in the previous comments). Certainly animals don't communicate the way humans communicate (not as complex and referential, not as memory based, animals don't understand irony/humor the way humans do, etc.), but I see definite evidence of a more basic, rudimentary, and primal form of language in animals.

And I believe (I'll see what I can find, and post it soon) there is a large amount of diverse research showing pretty sophisticated patterns of communication between animals. (Most fresh in my mind being cases between dolphins...from the new Herzog film, a documentary he made in Antarctica, he doesn't explore the language questions so much, he is just recording their sounds at one point, and then I remember reading about dolphins communicating direction and so forth to each other. You may well say this is only a sort of basic signal/response system of positioning, but isn't even simple signaling/responding a basic essential of language?)

Plus, didn't you ever see that movie "The Horse Whisperer"? You can't deny that! (hahaha)
Also, just ask Alex about his conversations with his cat...he'll set you straight.

Grabloid said...

and how about them bonobos?!

Brittany said...

In response to how we're defining language I would like to mention Charles Hockett's assertion that human language is indeed much more than a collection of responses to stimuli. His design features of language assert that there are at least 9 features we share with primates and 7 that distinguish humans from all other animals - response to stimuli is just one aspect of language.

The statement that the non-linguistic communication that animals engage in is a rudimentary version of human language is assuming that this version will eventually evolve into more complex and even linguistic communication if given time, is it not? That we became humans because our brains developed this ability first? Does that also mean that animals will eventually be as sophisticated as we? Will they evolve into more human-like beings once they develop complex human-like language? Does this make sense? Should we be worried?

The difficulty of talking about language origin is that our definitions of language are all different and science's definitions are constantly evolving. Goodness if we aren't careful we'll have nothing left to distinguish ourselves from the Bonobos! How very exciting.

Grabloid said...

In response to you, Brittany, what comes to mind is what Scott said above:

"How was the leap made from the state you describe where animals respond to stimuli to a state of reflection and human language? Was it like a virgin birth? Deus ex machina?"

This may be the point where some of us begin disagreeing based on a broader worldview. Was language a strict evolution from more rudimentary response to stimuli and so forth? Is it something that humans have, some kind of trait/gift/physical characteristic which all other animals don't have, and/or cannot have? Why? Did God give us language?

I love this discussion. Keeping these questions questions (and continually exploring them) is more interesting me more than finding definitive answers.

Anonymous said...


As far as what language is, I have to say it's a shared system of meanings and representations communicated within and between cultures.

My point is not necessarily that animals do not have language, but rather we as human beings will never be able to prove it because any interpretation we have of their actions will be pre-determined by our own experience within language, and our desire to make all things understandable to the human mind. I think that doing this actually closes us off from more diverse and metaphysical experiences.

As I mentioned to Scott and Alex after class last week, I am confounded by the fact that in what I am likely to refer to as "the soul" I truly believe that animals can communicate and have language; however, I think that trying to find a "logical" or "scientific" response to whether or not animals have language, or communicate does nothing more than show the human desire to categorize and name all things.

Perhaps my issue is not with "talking animals" per se, but with the notion that science should gain access to that arena. We (namely in Western culture) have given such primacy to logic and "proof" that I am hesitant to allow for science/linguistics/what have you come in and make claims where they are clearly being influenced by the culture they were raised in and language they use.

I'm fully certain that Charlie says "LEMMEOUT" or that my dog Toby's first word was "Lola," but I can't say those things with scientific certainty, and I shouldn't have to. That's where I think this argument reaches futility. It's like trying to mathematically prove the existence of God. Even if someone had an algabraic equation that proved God's existence, people still wouldn't believe, and would spend the rest of their lives trying to disprove a mathematical certainty because they had no faith to back it up, while a person of faith would only use the mathematical proof to bolster their belief, or let it go by the wayside because an argument of logic doesn't belong in a matter of faith.

For lack of a better way to describe it, the thoughts/feelings/language of animals to me are unknowable in the logical/scientific sense. Hence the disprovability and futility of the endeavor.

I'm pretty sure I didn't make any sense at all in this but that's what I get for trying to think at the end of a long work day...

Anonymous said...

Also--I was reminded of how frustrated I got during Kaspar Hauser at the attempts to try and classify him in a way that made him safe, at least as a concept, for everyone. I prefer letting things rest in the unknown, especially when it's something that I know is only my (or my culture's) imposition onto something.

Brittany said...

I guess my answer is that we don't know the answer. I think it's good to have a list of possibilities though. While we can never be sure about deity's role in the matter science has been able to come up with some pretty convincing ideas about nature's role. I agree though about keeping the conversation one of questions.

As far as "leaving it alone" because it's futile, I would say that abandoning inquiry into the unknown is not only much less fun but also less beneficial. While we can't solve or prove everything, aren't the things we learn while asking questions of value?

Regarding our cultural impositions on things - I don't think we should give up trying to be objective and trying to understand things just because we'll never have a perfect and culture-free understanding of them. We do have to have some sort of framework within which to form our ideas and we'll always be confined by those. That being said even being aware that we have those limitations allows us to begin to exceed them, does it not?

Anonymous said...

@ brittany

Certainly in being aware of our cultural limitations we are able to maybe see a bit further. However, I still contend that language is a cultural boundary that we are never able to look beyond or step outside of.
The thing I think is unfortunate, again, is the primacy we are willing to lend to the so-called "sciences" and their languages as being places of truth and answers.
Like I said before, I find something sublime in NOT categorizing, NOT finding answers.

I think there is incredible sorrow in language. While language, whether written, spoken or signed, adds an incredible amount of convenience to our lives I think we lose something in every word or concept. By making the thing I understand relatable to you or anyone I have to agree that what I feel or think is similar or the same as the thing you feel or think. I feel loss in the word that never matches the thought or feeling, and I feel loss for the fact that our communication is all a lie, a deception, so many steps away from those initial un-nameable feelings. I wish I could give up convenience for the sake of honesty.

Grabloid said...

great stuff, i'm going to start sitting in on this class on a regular basis...

in response to the overarching sentiments of the comments:

a central theme in the language class of last year (sparked by the reading of Goethe's "The Sorrows of Young Werther") was the varying degrees between language being incredibly enabling, as well as severely disabling. it's definitely in Herzog's film - how language enables/disables Kaspar. In Werther's case (from the Goethe novel) he ends up killing himself. Werther is so passionate and able to have some of the most beautiful experiences and conversations in and about nature, while also having severe difficulty explaining his emotions and love for a married woman. the enabling aspects are exciting and inspiring, and the disabling aspects are flat out depressing and alienating.

i agree with what you are saying, Errin. our desire to classify everything, make everything safe and categorizable...puts a strangle hold on our humanity (a major theme in Kaspar Hauser). to define is to limit, to betray, and is easily taken to far, but there is need for specificity.

so, i also agree with what Brittany pointed out, i think 'giving up' on attempts to understand, explore, express, and shape our suicide (Werther's case). we are creative beings, "wired" to make meaning...language is what we are left with...what else do we do?

so i guess this speaks to many peripheral things in this conversation, but also shines a light on what seems to be 2 dichotomous viewpoints on the origin of language. for me (hopefully i'm not being redundant) keeping that origin question a question is, in my mind, necessary if we want to avoid drifting into the fragile/dangerous degrees/extremes of the examples mentioned above (Kaspar/Werther).

also, concerning the question of origin. it donned on me that i also like the method that Nietzsche tends to employ with questions of origins, i personally like it:

(this is my own personal interpretation of one of Nietzsche's 'genealogical' methods)
-MAKE UP an origin story (this is what all explorations, religious/scientific or otherwise are really doing), if it resonates, makes sense for you, rings true, adds to your exploration, is constructive/builds upon your humanity,---then accept it and use it---but dogmatism will not give you THE answer, it'll only stunt growth, so, i think his advice is to not be afraid to abandon your story for another, entirely different story that also resonates with you...(which will be fruitful in different ways).

ugh, i hope i'm not ranting...i don't believe i've resolved anything, i'm so unresolved and conflicted with these issues...just trying to think about ways to navigate difficult and ambiguous space.

Jorgen said...

It looks like we need to start a new blog for this post alone.


Anonymous said...

To Any
we have had a plethora of posts about different types of animal communication and in my opinion they have and use language not that differently than us. A prime example of a post is the bee post which shows how they communicate.