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On Thu, 29 Jan 1998, Robin Gaskell wrote:
 
> At 12:17 PM 1/24/98 +0100, Jens S. Larsen wrote:
> > On Fri, 23 Jan 1998, Robin Gaskell wrote:
 
> > > The language universals are ~human qualities~
> > > not *features of a language.*
 
> > I probably agree with that...
 
> * Good news, we agree on the site of the "Universals", but I
> seem to have the problem of thinking that people operate these
> Universals, rather than are subject to them.
 
> > ...but this you got wrong.  The language universals
> > are structures in our brain that we use to pick up the
> > language(s) of our surroundings.  [ .... ] they are
> > the minimum of rules that all languages adhere to, by
> > virtue of being human languages.
 
> * Probably where I come unstuck: rules of language vs
> qualities of mind?!
 
There are rules for all languages (=inborn qualities of mind), and
there are rules only applied within some languages (=acquired states
of mind).
 
[...]
> > No, no, no.  If you're human, then you're genetically
> > conditioned to develop language.  Our species getting
> > some kind of language was not an invention.  Getting a
> > specific language is a creative invention we all make
> > at least once in our life, in our early childhood.
 
> * Two timescales are at work: in the life of each one of us,
> language is re-invented, as we discover the inherent ability
> to speak;
 
No, that's the "internal" language; we don't discover it as such, it's
the part we're genetically provided with, but is too abstract to be
spoken by itself.  What we discover/reinvent is the "external"
language, the way one's communities use the tools provided by the
internal language; this makes us able to communicate in speech, but
sets each linguistic community apart from the others.
 
> but, taking the longer view, sometime in the pre-history of
> the developing life on this planet, intelligent life-forms
> started talking to one another - using a proto-language.
 
The language ability must have developed on the basis of something
existing in the pre-human species, that much seems clear.  But it's
not clear at all what that was; probably some brain-structures, but we
(or I at least) don't even know if those structures in the pre-human
brain was something they used for communication.  Body-language,
warning cries, scent etc. may be utterly unrelated, in evolutionary
terms, to articulated language, even if they all are forms of
communication.
 
[...]
>         But the example of an absence of sophistication in
> language, that I can attest to, is the absence of
> differentiated male and female pronouns in Persian and in
> Chinese.  I have discussed the lack of a he/she difference
> with people from both of these language groups.  Both the
> Assyrian and Chinese civilisations are older than the one
> which produced the English language, but this lack of gender
> differentiation seems, to me, to be more "primitive", or "less
> evolved", than the situation in English where we can tell
> whether it is he or she.
 
That's pure fashion, there's no progress involved.  Languages can
develop class markers (doesn't have to be male/female/neuter, there
are many other classification systems around); with time they get rid
of them, and with even more time they can develop new classifications
(within the limits set by the universals, of course).  Persian is an
Indo-European language, btw., so the language must have had a
three-gender system at an earlier stage.
 
[...]
> > >         On the other hand, you and I are both
> > > in danger of condemnation by the "political
> > > correctivists" if we state the blatently
> > > obvious, and say that one language medium
> > > permits people to use the Universals better
> > > than another.
 
> > Well, I'm a political correctivist, then.  It's not
> > the medium itself that makes it easy or difficult to
> > say something; it's how much there has been
> > spoken/written about the subject beforehand in the
> > language in question, and how much one has heard/read
> > of it (and replied).
 
> * So, you would plunk for context and experience to explain
> the difference in expressive power between populations,
 
Absolutely.
 
> whereas I prefer to see the Language Ability, and its
> associated "Universals", as being the result of some sort of
> 'organic' evolution process.
>         Maybe the "Universals" whatever they are, wherever
> they reside, appeared in the undifferentiated proto-man
> millenia before any of the languages of archaeology came
> about, and this propensity for language has remained at full
> strength, throughout the whole human gene-pool, ever since.
>         I feel, on the other hand, that the Language Ability,
> like the giraffe's neck, has grown according to need.
 
Rather an urge to get beyond need, I'd think.
 
--
Jens S. Larsen  *  <"http://dorit.ihi.ku.dk/~steng/index">