Author Topic: Man vs. Beast  (Read 14413 times)

Offline Daniel

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Re: Man vs. Beast
« Reply #15 on: May 25, 2014, 12:42:14 PM »
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If non-human communication systems don't allow for metapragmatics
Hmm... don't allow? Or aren't used for?
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Offline MalFet

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Re: Man vs. Beast
« Reply #16 on: May 25, 2014, 05:46:56 PM »
Whichever. If animals don't use metapragmatics, humans are better at metapragmatics.

Offline Daniel

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Re: Man vs. Beast
« Reply #17 on: May 25, 2014, 06:04:36 PM »
Right. But not necessarily due to any inherent properties of the system.
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Offline MalFet

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Re: Man vs. Beast
« Reply #18 on: May 25, 2014, 07:12:24 PM »
To my knowledge, no animal communication systems treat communication itself as an object to be communicated about. All human languages do, and doing so is precisely the thing that makes language function as a cultural fact.

That distinction is both categorical and consequential. Whether it is "inherent" or "whatever-the-opposite-of-inherent-is" seems like so many questions about angels dancing on the heads of pins. How would we even go about measuring inherentness?

Offline Daniel

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Re: Man vs. Beast
« Reply #19 on: May 25, 2014, 09:40:30 PM »
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All human languages do, and doing so is precisely the thing that makes language function as a cultural fact.
Proposing a universal, are you? Do all cultures discuss language? I'd imagine at least the Pirahã don't.
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Offline MalFet

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Re: Man vs. Beast
« Reply #20 on: May 25, 2014, 09:56:18 PM »
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All human languages do, and doing so is precisely the thing that makes language function as a cultural fact.
Proposing a universal, are you? Do all cultures discuss language? I'd imagine at least the Pirahã don't.

Of course they do. This is an explicit topic across the Pirahã literature, whatever the politics.

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Each evening for eight months my wife would try to teach Pirahã men and women to count to ten in Portuguese. They told us that they wanted to learn this because they knew that they did not understand nonbarter economic relations and wanted to be able to tell whether they were being cheated. After eight months of daily efforts, without ever needing to call them to come for class (all meetings were started by them with much enthusiasm), the people concluded that they could not learn this material, and classes were abandoned. (Everett 2005)

Offline Daniel

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Re: Man vs. Beast
« Reply #21 on: May 26, 2014, 10:04:15 AM »
That's a stretch. To me, it appears that they were interested in and discussed the behavior of others (as I would be in their behavior), not metapragmatics.
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They told us that they wanted to learn this because they knew that they did not understand nonbarter economic relations and wanted to be able to tell whether they were being cheated.
Purely behavior and discussing behavior.
It would be interesting if they have a word for "lie", and that would then go against many of Everett's claims, though.

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the people concluded that they could not learn this material, and classes were abandoned.
That's an interpretation. That doesn't mean they metapragmatically discussed the issue. Rather, they gave up on an activity. It's certainly possible they could have metapragmatic discussions on the matter, but the interpretation by Everett doesn't require such discussions.
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Offline MalFet

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Re: Man vs. Beast
« Reply #22 on: May 26, 2014, 07:59:46 PM »
That's a stretch. To me, it appears that they were interested in and discussed the behavior of others (as I would be in their behavior), not metapragmatics...Purely behavior and discussing behavior.

Yes, they discussed the verbal behavior of others, particularly with regards to the efficacy of that behavior. That is the textbook definition of metapragmatic discourse.

Offline Daniel

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Re: Man vs. Beast
« Reply #23 on: May 26, 2014, 10:04:51 PM »
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That is the textbook definition of metapragmatic discourse.
Does that necessarily include metalinguistic analysis? I guess I'm having a little trouble seeing something that could be seen as behavior (what is accomplished with language) as strictly linguistic, as opposed to discussions about language itself.

Quite a bit of what Everett has said has suggested limited metalinguistic knowledge. For example, there's the anecdote about how he was trying to teach them to write and showed them how to write the word "sky" then they laughed. He asked why, and they said it was funny because it seemed like he was saying something like their word for "sky".
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Offline MalFet

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Re: Man vs. Beast
« Reply #24 on: May 26, 2014, 11:43:23 PM »
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That is the textbook definition of metapragmatic discourse.
Does that necessarily include metalinguistic analysis? I guess I'm having a little trouble seeing something that could be seen as behavior (what is accomplished with language) as strictly linguistic, as opposed to discussions about language itself.

Quite a bit of what Everett has said has suggested limited metalinguistic knowledge. For example, there's the anecdote about how he was trying to teach them to write and showed them how to write the word "sky" then they laughed. He asked why, and they said it was funny because it seemed like he was saying something like their word for "sky".

I'm not really clear on what distinction you're making between "analysis" and "behavior", and I can't for the life of me figure out how it's relevant to metapragmatics. When people talk about the consequentiality of talk — be they graduate students analyzing syntax trees or isolated villagers laughing at the weird-o spoken behaviors of weird-o foreigners — that's metapragmatic discourse. I not sure where you're getting your sense of the term, but it seems to be leading you in inaccurate directions. At the very minimum, metapragmatics is not the same as metalinguistic knowledge...especially not in an academic sense.

So, metapragmatics: Seemingly all humans do it. Seemingly no animals do it. Given the tremendous role that metapragmatic functions play in situating language as a social phenomenon, that seems like a big deal.

Offline Daniel

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Re: Man vs. Beast
« Reply #25 on: May 27, 2014, 12:45:33 AM »
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metapragmatics is not the same as metalinguistic knowledge...especially not in an academic sense.
I'm not sure I see any difference (based on how you're using it; I thought I did, and was attempting to use them distinctively), except that, obviously, "metalinguistic" is associated with western/academic approaches to language, but I don't mean to imply that.

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Given the tremendous role that metapragmatic functions play in situating language as a social phenomenon
Can you expand a bit? Why does it matter, beyond simply a behavioral difference? Does this change language? Is this, for example, why we get arbitrary form-meaning pairs?
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Offline MalFet

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Re: Man vs. Beast
« Reply #26 on: May 27, 2014, 01:45:25 AM »
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metapragmatics is not the same as metalinguistic knowledge...especially not in an academic sense.
I'm not sure I see any difference (based on how you're using it; I thought I did, and was attempting to use them distinctively), except that, obviously, "metalinguistic" is associated with western/academic approaches to language, but I don't mean to imply that.

I'm having a very hard time following you here. Any talk about the consequentiality of language is metapragmatic discourse. If that's the same as whatever you mean by metalinguistic knowledge, so be it. If it's not, also so be it. I'm not trying to mince definitions with you. But, however you want to configure these terms, what the Pirahã are doing in both of our examples is quintessential, textbook, bread-and-butter, vanilla-with-no-toppings metapragmatic discourse. It's talk about the efficacy of talk. That's all it needs to be. Nothing more, and nothing less.

All that said, I'm only belaboring this Pirahã engagement with metapragmatics because I strongly suspect that your objections are based on a misunderstand of the term. More generally, I'm not really that interested in hunting for absolutely exceptionless universals. That seems to me an ambition built on faulty understandings of evolution. Even if we were to find some example of people who do not talk about talk (which does not include the Pirahã, at least not from the data both of us have presented), who cares? If 99.lots-of-nines% of humans organize their language in one way and 0% of animals do, why on earth would we call that anything less than a distinctly human property of language?

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Given the tremendous role that metapragmatic functions play in situating language as a social phenomenon
Can you expand a bit? Why does it matter, beyond simply a behavioral difference? Does this change language? Is this, for example, why we get arbitrary form-meaning pairs?

There have been hundreds of thousands of pages worth of ink spilled on why metapragmatic functions are fundamental to language, and the scope of that literature is vast. I'm not going to try to rehash any of it here, but at absolute barest minimum metapragmatics allows language to be its own agent of change. As a silly example, I can say things like "From now on, whenever I say 'chuchurocketbop' I actually mean 'slice of pizza'. Please pass me a chuchurocketbop." As a less silly example, metapragmatics is what allows humans to expand language (by, say, introducing jargon like "metapragmatic" or "transformational grammar" in an academic paper) at a rate faster than generational evolution. In other words, metapragmatics does to a communication system what Turing completeness does to a computation engine. If that's not a big deal, I don't know what would be!

Offline Guijarro

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Re: Man vs. Beast
« Reply #27 on: May 27, 2014, 09:59:04 AM »
We are universally aware, aren't we, that:

(1) Many other living species engage in inter-specific communication.

(2) A lot of other living species have their own languages (whales, dolphins, bees, and whatnot)

What we don't seem to share universally is that:

(3) Most animal languages are the other side of their communicative "coin" (faculty, event, or whatever!)

(4) Human language is, definitely not (3); instead, it is the other side of the cognitive coin.

(5) Human cognition is the ability to use formalised representations in lieu of real objects, events, etc out there, to do all sort of things with them.

I am not aware that other species have such an evolved cognitive system. They may point to things out there, like we do, but hardly to things inside their minds (supposing we may describe their brains in that way, which is not at all clear to me).

(6) Humans may, then, communicate complex cognitive states with hardly or no external reference. They may use (or not) their language to help them in that task.

(7) What is different from other species, then, is not really that linguistic tool; but the faculty to communicate their representations. Other species may communicate their feelings, of course. But the representations of their feelings? ... I would be surprised if they could.

(eight) True enough, however, our human linguistic tool has evolved in a very sophisticated way. Does that make it superior to other animal languages? Och, I do not ken! We will have to describe superiority as "more complex", if we wish to have that superiority feeling.

(9) It is true that humans have a greater power over the environment than other species, because we are able to amplify our mental representations by communicative processes and use them to engage in dealings with the world.

(10) This power will probably bugger up the world we now live in.

Is that a really evolutive advantage?


« Last Edit: May 28, 2014, 12:42:46 AM by Guijarro »

Offline Daniel

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Re: Man vs. Beast
« Reply #28 on: May 27, 2014, 11:57:09 AM »
Quote from: MalFet
But, however you want to configure these terms, what the Pirahã are doing in both of our examples is quintessential, textbook, bread-and-butter, vanilla-with-no-toppings metapragmatic discourse. It's talk about the efficacy of talk. That's all it needs to be. Nothing more, and nothing less.
And no animals ever notice or communicate about the fact that other species are communicating or sound funny? No cat has ever meowed because of a loud barking dog? When the definition is so broad, I'm not sure it's uniquely human.

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As a less silly example, metapragmatics is what allows humans to expand language (by, say, introducing jargon like "metapragmatic" or "transformational grammar" in an academic paper) at a rate faster than generational evolution. In other words, metapragmatics does to a communication system what Turing completeness does to a computation engine. If that's not a big deal, I don't know what would be!
Another way to change language faster than generational evolution is simply creative language use. All that is required is some small flexibility in the system, and language can evolve within an individual. For example, I might coin a phrase like "pizzaslice" if for whatever reason I wanted a single concept to refer to "pizza slice"-- doing so is not necessarily metapragmatic, though. That may be a completely natural use of language (where performance influences competence!). In fact, this might be what we do every time we utter a new linguistic form based on our knowledge of our language.


Guijarro, I'm with you for most of your post. A few details:
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(5) Human cognition is the ability to use formalised representations in lieu of real objects, events, etc out there, to do all sort of things with them.
Why don't other animals do this? Bees are a great example.

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They may point to things out there, like we do, but hardly to things inside their minds (supposing we may describe their brains in that way, which is not at all clear to me).
Indeed-- I'm not sure we do that either. I think we merely articulate our perceptions of the world, and that animals do the same. Arguably a dog barking "cat" is expressing a mental state much beyond merely pointing out that there is a cat-- there's excitement as well.

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(6) Humans may, then, communicate complex cognitive states with hardly or no external reference. They may use (or not) their language to help them in that task.
No reference? Doesn't your approach to language assume a truth-conditional semantics? If so, then that's all based on reference to truth and falsity.
I don't know what it would mean for humans to talk without any reference to the world.
I think what you mean is the general tendency for humans to talk beyond the "here and now" (with the exception of Pirahã, which is why I keep bringing it up). I see this as gradient rather than a strict dichotomy.

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(7) What is different from other species, then, is not really that linguistic tool; but the faculty to communicate their representations. Other species may communicate their feelings, of course. But the representations of their feelings? ... I would be surprised if they could.
When a cat hisses, I think I know what it's feeling. It's not as articulate as a person, but I do believe that the cat is attempting to convey a message to the "listener" and expects the Cooperative Principle to be in effect.

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(eight) True enough, however, our human linguistic tool has evolved in a very sophisticated way. Does that make it superior to other animal languages? Och, I do not ken! We will have to describe superiority as "more complex", if we wish to have that superiority feeling.
Indeed. And the problem then is that we assume we are superior then look for the reason why. Unscientific, obviously. So... why all of the conclusions about language being a complex system and such? (It may very well to turn out to be the case, but at the moment it seems axiomatic rather than empirical.)

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(9) It is true that humans have a greater power over the environment that other species, because we are able to amplify our mental representations by communicative processes and use them to engage in dealings with the world.

(10) This power will probably bugger up the world we now live in.

Is that a really evolutive advantage?
Indeed. But egocentrically it's "better", in the same sense that western technology may be viewed as "better" than the resources in other cultures. And therefore, we reach the (unfounded) conclusion that man is better / more complex than beast, and that man has a more complex and unique communication system. I remain skeptical.

The problem with complexity is that measuring it is complex. Without a specific way to operationalize the criteria, we don't have a single number. I know that 5<6, but without a way to measure two systems in a one-dimensional metric for complexity, we can't compare them in such a way. Certainly human communication is complex, but that doesn't necessarily lead to any more conclusions than just that simple observation. We don't know, for example, that humans have one more neural circuit (called Merge?) than animals. We don't know much at all.
« Last Edit: May 27, 2014, 11:59:17 AM by djr33 »
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Offline MalFet

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Re: Man vs. Beast
« Reply #29 on: May 27, 2014, 09:02:31 PM »
Quote from: MalFet
But, however you want to configure these terms, what the Pirahã are doing in both of our examples is quintessential, textbook, bread-and-butter, vanilla-with-no-toppings metapragmatic discourse. It's talk about the efficacy of talk. That's all it needs to be. Nothing more, and nothing less.
And no animals ever notice or communicate about the fact that other species are communicating or sound funny? No cat has ever meowed because of a loud barking dog? When the definition is so broad, I'm not sure it's uniquely human.

Huh? Why would a cat meowing at a barking dog be metapragmatic? Again, that's just not what the term means.

You seem to be conflating structured talk about verbal efficacy (metapragmatics) with mere verbal response to a signal (not metapragmatics). If the cat said something like, "You know dog, you'd be a lot more likely to get your owner's attention with whining than barking" or "Your barking sounds ridiculous because it's very similar to my word for asparagus", that would be metapragmatic. Meowing at barks, however, isn't on its face metapragmatic in the slightest.

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As a less silly example, metapragmatics is what allows humans to expand language (by, say, introducing jargon like "metapragmatic" or "transformational grammar" in an academic paper) at a rate faster than generational evolution. In other words, metapragmatics does to a communication system what Turing completeness does to a computation engine. If that's not a big deal, I don't know what would be!
Another way to change language faster than generational evolution is simply creative language use. All that is required is some small flexibility in the system, and language can evolve within an individual. For example, I might coin a phrase like "pizzaslice" if for whatever reason I wanted a single concept to refer to "pizza slice"-- doing so is not necessarily metapragmatic, though. That may be a completely natural use of language (where performance influences competence!). In fact, this might be what we do every time we utter a new linguistic form based on our knowledge of our language.

Actually, coining a new term in that way would be almost certainly be metapragmatic.

I don't know why we're at this impasse, but your objections are based wholly on misappropriations of the term "metapragmatic". I don't usually have this much difficulty explaining the concept, but for some reason I am failing to do so effectively here. For now, however, I'm just repeating myself again. If you're interested in a good explanation of metapragmatics, including why it is important to language function and why it appears to be distinctly human, consider checking out Silverstein's "Limits of Awareness".