Principle Wanted: Introduction

Thomas Leverett, August 2008

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People's need to consider themselves better than other animals has led us to go to great lengths to justify what we do, and also to develop a conception of what makes us human, that may or may not be unique. For example, we are convinced that no other animals can communicate in the way that we do, and this is probably true, based on our observation, yet the various components of our communication, such as symbolic representation of thoughts and ideas, may not be unique to humans. We say or believe, and continue to believe, that we are somehow better than them, our communication more complex, more nuanced, and it may in fact be more complex. But our continuing quest to separate ourselves from the animal world, of which we are a part, has led us to various philosophical dilemmas.

The first is that our own scientists repeatedly find things that we thought only we could do, yet certain animals can also do them. It turns out that our processes are not so unique, not so high-level. In fact, even our grammars are not rocket science, as evidenced by the fact that the majority of each population can speak each language; languages are in fact by nature as simple as they could possibly be, and still express all the ideas that people need them to express. They seek simplicity by their nature, because the majority of people who use them need to keep using them, with people they have never met, and need to be able to understand them with as little energy as possible.

But this is not the direction that our understanding of language has taken us. Linguistics as a field has been dominated by people who insist on making the understanding of language a complex science, akin to rocket science, that only a chosen few can even discuss, let alone understand. This could be for several reasons, the first of which is stated above. Surely language is complex, otherwise more animals would be using it. Bunkum, I say: first, other animals might be using it, or using something just like it. Second, if it were too complex, we ourselves wouldn't be using it.

Another reason linguistics has been overtaken by jargon and complex theory is far more mundane: all academic fields do this, and linguistics, as a field, has a step-child, inferiority complex; thus linguists need to prove that they can be just as obscure and pedantic as, say, philosophers or anthropologists. But this is not necessary. Linguistics is a pure science; people do what they do for scientific reasons, and it is measurable, so it should not have to prove that it's a science to anyone. And, the laws that govern human behavior have yet to be truly explained satisfactorily, so an entire world of scientific discovery awaits anyone who chooses to enter the field. Young people should not be discouraged from discovering and understanding these laws, just because they cannot begin to understand the jargon people are using to talk about them. In fact, the reasons we say and write the things we do are not that complex; they are not even unique to linguistics, and in fact, they are probably not even unique to humans. But I have not measured animal communication; in fact, I know very little about it, so I'll limit my claim to the first: the reasons we say and do what we do are not unique to linguistics, but are very common motivations.

One entire school of thought in linguistics holds that languages have restrictions, and that some of these restrictions are universal, i.e. they hold in every language. Thus language is an innate ability; we are born with the ability to produce it, but also with the innate awareness that some things cannot be done. Bunkum, I say again. Nature does not need restrictions that would be pointless; why would that happen? For example, nature does not tell you that you cannot walk across a wet field, or drive through someone's yard. The police might tell you that, or you may choose not to do it for entirely your own reasons, like preferring not to get wet, or not wanting to risk getting your car stuck in mud. You calculate the price based on your own values; you apply your own calculations for what would work best, and you do what you do for entirely rational, measurable reasons. These reasons might be relative, i.e. another speaker of the same language might see things entirely differently- yet it is a science, in the sense that it is not random, it is measurable, and what you do influences everyone else in the system. Nature's restrictions, however, have nothing to do with it. The human mouth may have restriction- there are some sounds it cannot make. But this is not a language restriction. A language restriction would be more like this: You cannot separate a preposition from its object. But you can, and people do. And virtually every restriction that has been posited, has been proven to be not honored, in some language or another. In fact, virtually whatever can be done, is done, in some place or another, proving that if nature is in the business of restricting languages, it isn't doing very well at it.

I've become impatient with trying to prove that other explanations of language and language learning are false. They are not necessarily false; people have applied their best thinking to the process, and, in my opinion, it's just not enough. Fortunately, however, people are entering a new era, one in which people of different cultures are in far more contact with each other than they used to be. People are being forced to learn new languages at every turn, and the languages that are so familiar to us are being forced to change due to contact with other languages, so that a dazzling amount of flexibility is required to truly be successful in communicating with our fellow humans. And in this process, we should be able to pull together what we know, and revise our analysis of what human language is and what makes us unique, if anything. How can we describe the process of learning and knowing a language? Or a new language? Understanding the process will help us be better at it, and help us explain it to others, and at the same time promote the study of linguistics, which should be fruitful, interesting and accessible, for a change. It is, after all, a process that most of us have gone through at least once; it's a process we may need more than once; it's a process that may be different the second time around, than it was the first, and this may be something worth noting, and explaining. For all these reasons, understanding the forces at work will be an important step for everyone.

My basic premise is that very little of it is genetic. I say this because in our times scientists have been unraveling the human genetic code, but have found very little that would merit the belief that there is a "device" or a genetic language component to our language learning. Actually, rather than argue about this, it might be better to just say that, similar to walking, it matters less what we bring to the process, than what happens when we actually try to use what we bring, in a given environment, with a given set of physical conditions. In other words, some of the skills may be genetic. But the vast majority of our learning, and processing, and refining of our activity, is based directly on our experience. And, whatever programming we are given, most of that is also directed at responding correctly to what we observe and hear. We do not bring restrictions to the process; we bring a sharply honed sense that though anything is possible, we must behave in certain ways to have the most success, and by our observation successful communication will have its own desirable rewards. Each language learner, whether it is a one-year-old learning his/her first language, or an airplane pilot, stranded in the jungle and trying to talk his way into getting help, starts with tools, with motivation, and with certain understandings that are common to the communication process. Some of these I will list below, but I don't think I have them all, or necessarily even have the ones I've got, right. Nor may I be the first to make any of these claims, though I can definitely say that I have not gotten them anywhere, that I know of.

First, actual language, the speaking and writing that we know as language, is only a minor part of the overall process of human communication, which includes gestures, eye movements, forceful actions, and other components. Language can communicate a wide variety of things, and a "mature" language (as opposed to, for example, a pidgin) can communicate an extremely wide variety, but it doesn't have to. Humans can, and do, communicate in other ways. Sometimes language is limited, as pidgins are, because they are temporary, or because their speakers have very little in common. Sometimes one's language is limited because one chooses not to learn it in its entirety, or is unable to, and this is not necessarily a problem, either, as long as one can still communicate in other ways, or one doesn't mind the inconvenience of being unable to communicate certain things.

Second, one chooses one's words and grammar for reasons; sometimes these reasons are conscious, but other times they are unconscious; both of these can and should be explained, and are not beyond the realm of human understanding. In other words, we should look for the reasons for what we do, and we will find these reasons not in the realm of genetic restriction, i.e. what we can't do for genetic or other reasons, but rather, in the realm of motivations that are quite common and observable in the other things we do. For example, one principle would be this: we base most of our actions on what we see others doing. We assume that if it works for them, it will work for us, and we proceed along those lines; we try it, then, if it works, we try it again.

One crucial concept that I borrow from sociology is the Looking Glass Self (Cooley)- we base our actions on what we perceive as their influence on what other people think of us. In other words, we construct, in our minds, the image that we want others to have of us. And we base our words, and our actions, on the image that we would like others to have upon observing us. We can say, then, that we have more than one motive to every utterance. The first is to convey the meaning that we originally intended, with the utterance, to the receiver. The second, however, is more complex, in the sense that we are aware that our listener is hearing more than one thing in our message, and making judgments of us based upon what he/she hears. And we want to control those judgments to the best of our ability. We would like our listener to have only the impression of us that we would like to convey, and nothing more. If we have no particular image that we would like to convey, then we would like our listener to have no image at all, outside of the image given by the meaning of the words themselves.

We can speak of a system, a set of operating principles, which is a general set of rules that one uses to speak and write, but which one may not follow on any one given occasion, for whatever reason. This is not unique to this writing; other linguists and acquisitionists have pointed this out. For example, it is possible for one to "know" a certain grammatical structure, yet still use a different one, for a variety of reasons. One is in a hurry; one trips over one's tongue; one makes a mental lapse and inserts one structure instead of another. Fluent speakers make mistakes; non-fluent speakers make even more mistakes. But, beyond that, people do not always perform to the best of their ability. That is a given in language interpretation, I think; it's uncontroversial.

Thus we come to the last principle which I consider important, and that one is from linguistics itself, though perhaps an older era. That is the principle of the unmarked case- the case in which no added judgment pertains. In linguistics the marked/unmarked distinction has come up many times, and has been used in many situations; this is partly because one can speak of marked/unmarked in phonetics as well as in grammar. It is necessary then to define unmarked carefully. I will use it to mean: that form that carries no extra meaning. And I will try to lay that out, and explain what that is. I believe that we operate under many working principles or hypotheses, and, whether we prove them or not, understand them or not, we use them to function and choose what to say and use. One of these principles would be: every distinct sound, every distinct grammatical formation, is there for a reason. I must find the reason. I must use the right one for the right reason. And if I don't have the reason, I must use the one that is used when there isn't a reason. I must use the unmarked form unless I have a reason not to.

These principles, while certainly not earth-shattering, innovative, or brilliant, are at least a starting point in explaining the process by which people choose their words and sounds when they construct language. This process is not governed by restrictions or genetic inheritance. Rather, we observe things; we measure our own ability to produce them; we calculate the price, should things not work out as we had hoped; we try new things when we are ready; and we carry on changing our language at the pace at which we are most comfortable.


bibliography (unfinished)

Leverett, T. (2008, Feb.) Communicative theory rocks the late 20th century. Google Docs. Available:

Leverett, T. (2003). Review of Explorations in Language Acquisition and Use: The Taipei Lectures, by Stephen Krashen,

TESL-EJ, vol. 7, no. 2, Sept.