ON COMMUNICATION


Investigations of human communication can no longer begin with the distinction between "language" and "speech". For a critique of this distinction, and in particular the concept of "language", see the attached page on language. Much of what follows is also critique, by implication.

When treating human communication, one must also bear in mind the relation between the observer and the observed, the linkage between the investigator and the system under observation.

Notes - possibly Dewey

Communication - "the establishment of cooperation in an activity in which there are partners, and in which the activity of each is modified and regulated by partnership."

The "conditions" of communication are, therefore, those of cooperation - a context of mutual assistence and direction.
"The heart of language is not "expression" of something antecedent, much less expression of antecedent thought. It is communication"

The key to understanding the development of language lies in the establishment of agreement in action - the arrangement of conditions such that mutual, coordinated action is possible. (note that this does not imply that "deception" is not possible as a higher-order behavior)

Animal studies - the "limitations" on primate within-species communication must be seen in light of morphological particularities that do not provide a varied enough communicative modality (chimps - articulate vocalizations) as well as adequate span of attention - the capacity for shared, focal attention during periods of rest to objects - the "teaching" or "showing" context coupled with the capacity to relate present action with later communication.

When a context of cooperation, of assistence and direction, is thrust upon them, as well as a choice of modality, chimpanzees are able to develop communicative abilities of a more complex character. The fact that they don't develop these communicative abilities in their natural habitat and within their usual social structure should not surprise us. First, they lack a communicative modality of sufficient flexibility and controllability which may be captured (trained) as an instrument. Second, their precocial character compared to humans makes them more independent at birth and thus the necessity if intense parental participation in their training is not necessary.

Even though these crucial conditions are lacking, when a chimp is coupled to a human, more complex behavior arises than "normal." It does us no good to ask why this behavior is possible but does not appear in the typical chimp context - we have to remember that without such a context, neither would the human infant develop language capabilities.

Each evolutionary and developmental elaboration of communication mechanisms performs its respective functions, but these do not supplant those of more primitive levels. The analysis is but carried to further refinements.

The language of linguists does not furnish us with evolutionary categories. Logical categories do not evolve. Evolution of speech has been one of transformations in biopsychological processes.

Communication is embedded within more general perceptual and information collection and transmission activities of the organisms:

  • There must be commonalities between information pickup from language and other info sources and modalities.
  • Speech does not totally supplant the more primitive functions served by other info exchange.


Primary sources on human communication:

Malinowski, B. (1934-35). An ethnographic theory of language and some practical corollaries. In B. Malinowski, Coral Gardens and Their Magic. New York: American Book Co.

Malinowski, B. (1923). The problem of meaning in primitive languages. In Ogden & Richards, The Meaning of Meaning. New York; Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc.

De Laguna, G. (1927). Speech: Its Function and Development. Yale University Press, New Haven, Connecticut.

Firth, J.R. (1957). Papers in Linguistics, 1934-1951. London: Oxford University Press.

Firth, J.R. (1964). The Tongues of Men and Speech. London: Oxford University Press.

Dewey, John - various writings, including Experience and Nature.


Inspired by De Laguna:

The above writers all have in common an approach which places primary emphasis on the function of speech in coordinating activities among members of a group, and therefore on the role of speech in the maintenance of social organization. Speech is therefore a form of action. This is to be contrasted with the approach which considers the primary function of speech to be the expression of ideas or thoughts.

As such, analysis is open to considering the relation between human speech and animal cries (both of which are seen to serve the same basic function of coordination), and the relation between speech and other forms of action which also function in the maintenance of the group. Furthermore, this approach should be explored for light it may shed on the evolution of language/speech and of human intelligence.

Speech undoubtedly arose in human groups when more flexible social organization and more complex coordination became necessary. The patterning of vocal conduct ought to bear the marks of this adaptation.

A type of behaviorism is necessary. Not the S-R behaviorism of Watson and Skinner, but one which does focus on the actual vocal output.

Understanding the evolution of vocal conduct is made difficult by:

  • Vocal conduct does not leave any archeological evidence.
  • All extant languages are modern - they all show the marks of a long evolutionary history and none can be said to be more primitive than any other.
  • Possible evidence from child development (recapitulation) is not valid because children develop in a context of an already present language.
  • The link between reason and vocal conduct, which makes consideration of the evolution of vocal conduct dependent on a co-theory of the evolution of reason.
Analysis: On the Intellectualization of Vocal Conduct, Its Divorce from Situated Praxis, and the Sterility of Explanatory Tools.

To state that language is primarily a means of expressing or communicating thought is to begin with an assumption about the relation between thought and vocal conduct which gets in the way of an adequate analysis of the nature of either.

"The trouble does not lie in the fact that men have begun their investigations of the subject with a ready-made definition instead of waiting until the end to formulate one on the basis of their findings. One must inevitably begin an investigation with some preconception as to the sort of thing one is to investigate, if only for purposes of identification. The trouble in this case lies in the essential sterility of the preconception. It is doubtless true enough that language, as least in its highly evolved forms, does serve to communicate ideas and thoughts. But to assume that this is its original and funcamental function is hopelessly to intellectualize it, and to divorce it, as something merely external, from the essential business of living and thinking. For why should ideas be expressed or communicated? Why, to go deeper, should the very having of ideas depend on the possibility of expressing them? Speech must be envisaged as effecting something vital in the practical life of men, as performing some objective and observable function, before one can hope to discern the factors which have led to its development, or even the source of its interdependence with thought (p. 9- 10, emphasis added)."

To state that speech is the communication of thought is to complicate the issue of its evolution, and to essentially make it unsolvable. If we make this assumption, we also must assume that animal cries on the other hand express feelings or emotions, and we are faced with the problem of explaining how emotions have given rise to ideas. Secondly, ideas are assumed to exist prior to their expression. However, "there exists no communicable content except in so far as its mode of expression is already developed (p. 10)." The "significance" or "meaning" of any act of vocal conduct is first and foremost to be found in its function in the coordination of behavior.

It is commonplace to say that speech and thought evolved hand in hand, but the relation between the two in this view typically becomes in effect a matter of parallelism and ultimately a mystery. Speech is viewed as a bodily activity that is correlative to, but essentially independent of, the processes of mind. In modern terms, it constitutes the act of encoding a previously existing message. Therefore speech is relegated to a position of secondary importance to distinctively human social phenomena, which is construed as the formation of ideas. "The part that speech has played in social evolution is merely a by-product of its development in the individual." "So long as feelings and thoughts are conceived as "inner" processes taking place in the individual and constituting his "mind," the only consistent mode of conceiving speech is as the expression of these inner processes in the form of bodily movements."

"What is primarily needed for the successful study of the psychology of speech is a deliberate setting aside, if not an abandonment, of the metaphysical dualism which can conceive speech only as an external physical manifestation of inner psychical processes. What is needed is a fresh conception of speech as an essential activity of human life, fulfilling an indispensable function inthe economy of life (p. 19)."

If we recognize a basic commonality between the social coordinating function of animal cries and human vocal conduct, then we must analyze animal cries with a view to discovering the basic functions of human speech. The functions of human speech, once we reject the idea that its basic function is the expression of thought, are not different from the function served by animal cries. This has been the source of much misguided research in human speech - the identification of functions that are unique to human speech itself by virtue of the assumption that utterances serve in the expression of ideas.


Analysis of vocal conduct:

While there has been much work over the years on sociolinguist characteristics of speech (conversation analysis), most of this is not of concern here. This is not without importance. The functions that speech events have been considered to have have been related to the basic function of communicating ideas, or of providing a basis for the communication of ideas. That they do communicate aspects of relationships such as status, turns at talk, etc. is assumed, but the nature of speech and the role it plays in the coordination of human behavior cannot be understood from the implied metaphysical stance. The presence of features has been analysed in terms of their immediate serviceableness to the act of communicating ideas.




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