Introductory Discussion about Languages

Linguistic Chickadee

Actual photograph of a Chickadee
Reading: "The Adventures of Nim Chimpsky"


"Honourable Members of the Society for the Privatization of Language: Please be seated and come to order. The chair, represented by Dr. Thomas Otis Tality will now state the purpose of this meeting."

Dr. T.O. Tality:

"It has recently come to our notice, that despite our agreed and determined efforts to define language in general as being identical to human language, there are silly people who persist in different views! Incredible as this may be, I wish to reiterate our definition of language, as follows.

"Any language must satisfy all the technical rules, but we have modified the definition to include four new requirements. We do not want the public to think that we don't know what we are doing. We agreed to say for purposes of appearance, that our views change not to exclude other scientific observations. No! No! We say instead that our views are 'evolving' as we gain knowledge. Of course, however, we really know that our views change only so that we can exclude the views of others with whom we disagree. The four new exclusionary requirements are as follows:

"First: Language requires the creation of sound using the larynx to satisfy the requirements of Phonetics.

"Second: Language will require aural structures to receive sound.

"Third: All proper language must (at least potentially) embody the transmission of thought and intention, a psychological component of meaning."

"Fourth: For anything to truly qualify as real language, we add that there must be a high degree of complexity, as represented by recursion. Pardon me, a high degree of recursion.

"Before we continue in this meeting, do we all concur with these views?"

Mr. C. Shell:

"I fully agree, except for a small question. As I find linguistic beauty lies in silence (so much is often conveyed in silence), can we not drop or modify the first two requirements? Do we not perceive linguistic beauty exemplified in the patterns found in sea shells and plants? This viewpoint has been expressed by Dr. Lindenmeyer."

Dr. Bird:

"Voiced language? Did my ears hear properly? You say you seek a single view that language requires the human biological structure called the larynx? Absurd! The puny larynx produces but one sound, while birds use the syrinx. The syrinx is capable of the independent and simultaneous production of more than one sound. Invoking the fourth principle of increased complexity, it is clear that humans, using their puny larynx, do not use true languages! Clearly, only birds use true languages! Besides, is there not more beauty in simplicity, rather than complexity? Human meanings seem to have caused so much grief! I think we should strike this psychological component of meaning, thoughts, etc. from language in general! We birds do not need this defect of meaning at all! Only humans seem to want these confusions. Let humans use human languages, we birds want to be bound by language in general, not restricted to the requirements of human language."

Dr. T.O. Tality:

"Remove meaning as a necessary requirement of language in general? My, my! If Dr. Bird persists in these unscientific views, I shall have Dr. Bird ejected from this most democratic meeting!"

Dr. Bat:

"Hear! Hear! I fully agree with Dr. T.O. Tality. Indeed, if you listen to human politicians, could anything be more clear but that human language is often totally devoid of meaning. The language used by politicians is often just lies, is almost always just a lot of nonsense and is even incoherent - devoid of meaning. Rather, observe that marvel of nature, the bat! The bat can perceive sounds and use sound to identify and locate objects. This is an ability that leaves human language groveling and gasping in the dust. Hounorable members, it is the second principle that is significant, not the other principles! Mr. C. Shell is onto something when he talks about the shortcomings of the human larynx. It is not how sounds are produced, those silly phonetics people. It is how sound is perceived. It is all in the ear! Let us use the bat's organs of perceiving sounds as a model, and suitably modify our definition of language."

Dr. Dol Fin:

"Every time I come to these meetings, I notice fewer and fewer members. There is an obvious explanation! To be blunt, everyone has a preset agenda. Each member has an ax to grind: their pet prejudice. Well, I am tired of it! I am simply tired of it. As I said at our last meeting, It is not sound produced by larynx or syrinx or silence! Rather, it is obviously sound conveyed in water that is of major importance in language. The dolphin has an ability almost like sonar. Language can be transmitted in water! Forget your prejudices: your first and second principles are expected to require transmission through air. Ridiculous!"

Dr. D.N.A. Molecule:

"This is truly beyond belief! Good grief! You 'living beings' have completely missed the point! You are forever getting confused! In all this confusion you want to emphasize language in general as the tool to communicate thoughts and meanings? You know that DNA is the basis of living beings. Molecules need no ears! Molecules need no larynx, or syrinx, nor sonar-like communication! Language in DNA is simply communicated by molecular forces under steric constraints. My dear children (I do not patronize you: you are all evolved from me)! Time to smell the coffee, and clear your heads! Indeed, all four of these new principles appended to the definition of human language (now parading as language in general) are just so much nonsense."

Dr. T.O. Tality:

"Now see here! I will not tolerate disagreement in this democratic and scientific meeting! If such views are enunciated, I shall continue to ignore and censor such views, or misrepresent these viewpoints. Indeed! Indeed! I shall determine what language is. The prejudice is that only humans use language, thus I will persist in conflating human language with language in general! Indeed! I will not tolerate that these proceedings continue. I will immediately close this meeting and all views to the contrary will be ignored and stricken from the records! I will notify which, if any of you, will be invited to the next meeting! Only I shall decide what is or is not scientific!"


Language deals with patterns communicated or transmitted. What is communicated varies. For molecules, molecular forces are communicated. For animals such as birds, sexual selection or the presence and degree of danger of predators is communicated. For human beings, language is used to communicate thoughts and emotions (or to disguise such ideas). The medium of communication may be sound, it may be molecular forces, it may be electro-magnetic forces. Geological phenomena have patterns, thus volcanoes and earthquake forces if they form patterns can be communicated in a language. Water currents in oceans, in whirlpools, in under-sea rivers form patterns. Rain as it falls upon mountains forms tree-like rivulets that coalesce into streams then rivers: all with a tree-like structure. Wind forms patterns that may be described by a language: patterns such as tornadoes, waterspouts, all with a vortex structure. Glaciers flow like water, thus they too have their languages. Sediments collect in layers and these layers form sedimentary deposits and sedimentary rocks. These too have a pattern that may be described by languages. Sea shells, plants, etc. are associated with patterns that may be described by languages. However, these are more than human descriptions. When forces of nature underlie these patterns, then an actual language is being expressed. Common prejudice assigns language only to patterns of human thought expressed in speech and aurally perceived. However, it is too anthropocentric to restrict language only to human language and conflate this as the only form of language. Such a restricted view is now only acceptable to Dr. Pangloss. You see, language is a force like gravity; we conform to this law of nature, and by 'we' is meant humans as well as non humans. We do not use language; language uses us, as well as the rest of nature.


© Matthew Simon, 2005 - 2017