Philosophy of Language Roundtable Discussion

1.0 Definition and Interests

1.1 Language is the structured means of communication. Communication is the activity where expressions (ideas, feelings, etc) are expressed symbolically (through speech, writing, gestures) through a medium between two or more participants. In order for communication to be successful it is necessary for the language utilised to be meaningful and mutually understood.

1.2 Attending the meeting were some 23 people; the following interests were indicated:
Geoff - diversity in meeting meaning; Don - a teacher of phonics; Jan - a researcher of Egyptian hieroglyhps; Jim - an interest in 'weasel words'; Rick - a teacher to brain damaged students; Peter - interest in meaning and subjective variance; Debra - literature differences in languages; Lyn - international differences; Nigel - linguistics and evolution, corporate language; Les - philosophy at La Trobe university; Pierre - specialist in semiotics, analysis of signs and symbols; David - Native Spanish speaker; Phillipa - practical communication; Rohan - originally interested in mysticism and association with language; Elke - translation of emotional states to cognitive expressions; Lev - language pragmatics and emancipatory aspects; Darryl - construction of meaning; Brian - use of language to deceive; Leon - universality of meaning, relationship between mind and language; Allen - language as a foundation for cooperation; Paul - how language functions between faith and freethought views; Marietta - a poet and writer; interest in second-language acquisition

2.0 Requirements and Origins for Human Language

2.1 The requirements for language are primarily the cognitive capaciy to learn and use symbolic meaning and the social environment for the generation of shared understanding of those symbols. Wernicke's area and Broca's area are particularly important from spoken and written language; destruction of those areas are associated with aphasia.

2.2 Human language is considered to have a degree of uniqueness by its ability to combine signifiers with signification. Other animals have an instinctual relationship between signs and meaning (e.g., communication systems in bees or ants). Some apes (chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas, organutans) have shown the ability to demonstrate understanding of human language (receive and apply) and engage in sign language, although perhaps not to raise questions. There is evidence of gesture use by wild chimpanzees.

2.3 Evolutionary debate over the origins of language consist of those who believe in a gradual acquisition of ability and those who consider the capacity to have arisen suddenly. Alongside this is an argument for required social transformation for a linguistically-mediated environment. In the homo genus there is some evidence that proto-language capacity could have originated as early as homo habilis.

2.4 Whilst examples are thankfully rare there is some evidence (e.g., 'Genie', feral children) of a critical age hypothesis in first language acquisition due to issues in neuoplasticity. If first language acquisition does not occur by puberty, any future language acquisitoin will be significantly limited.

2.5 The Sapir-Whorf hypotheses argues that language determines thought and therefore behaviour (strong version) or influences thought and other non-linguistic behaviours (weak version). The debate over colour terminology (Berlin and Kay e.g., Celtic word 'glas') is considered one of the most important examples of the debate between universalistic and relativistic approaches. In broadest terms, the weak version of Sapir-Worf seems generally accepted, whilst the strong is not.

3.0 Rules and Requirements of Language

3.1 Syntax provides the general rules that govern the structure of sentence in a language. The development of historical-comparative linguistics illustrated that there was no universal means of expressing meaning. Generative grammar argues that language is a universal structure of the mind (c.f., Noam Chomsky, Syntactic Structures, 1957). Categorial grammer, which assigns construction to syntactic categories, and dependency grammar, which looks at dependency relations in syntactic units, are alternative interpretations.

3.2 Disciplines of descriptive linguistics analyse various objective aspects of a language; e.g., the organisation of sounds (phonology and phonetics), the structure of grammatical units (morphology), the word-stock (lexology), the basic components of writing systems (graphemics and graphetics) and their rules (orthography).

3.3 Pragmatics is the studies how meaning is formed in context and ambiguities and differences of interpretation are resolved. It questions the existence of private languages (c.f., Wittgenstein), and utilises speech-acts (Austin, Searle) as a means of evaluation of validity claims (Habermas).

4.0 Signs and Symbols

4.1 According to the classic analysis by de Saussure symbolic expressions, or signs, consist of two components; (a) the signifier (sound of an utterance, shape of a sign) and the signified (what it means). The relationship between the two is increasingly arbitrary in abstract languages (e.g., not onomatopoeics, interjections, pictographs).

4.2 The meaning of signifiers is based on intersubjective agreement of the signified, reflected in the term itself (meaning, from mean, average). Meanings can be expressed in subcultural forms and from subjective expressions. The quality of dictionary is its ability to collate the variety of meanings to signifiers as they are used in the time of the edition.

4.3 Etymology engages in the history of words (origins, change in form, change of meaning). Quantitative linguistics applies statistical methods to study rates in language learning, language change, and structure.

From the Melbourne Philosophy Forum, July 6, 2014