Theoretical Discussion about Languages

The viewpoint taken in "Emergent Computation: Emphasizing Bioinformatics" is that Language (Linguistic patterns) apply not only to human beings, but to non-human beings as well as to non-living matter. Specifically, an anthropocentric viewpoint is rejected. Linguistic patterns may emerge whenever "forces" (such as molecular forces) exist that impose patterns that have a linguistic form. The forces are real, so are the linguistic patterns, thus in turn, non-human languages may be found. Thus the languages found are not merely "descriptions" used by human beings about non-human linguistic patterns (languages). The non-human languages found in these exemplifications are as real as human languages. The reader might wish to review the Introduction to "Emergent Computation: Emphasizing Bioinformatics" once again.

Attempts have been made to circumvent the viewpoint expressed above. These attempts assert an anthropocentric view. Examples would be to add requirements to definitions of language. Added requirements include Psychological states a (which I shall abbreviate as "H"), Speech or phonetic organ functions (which I shall abbreviate as "J"), and Aural organ functions (which I shall abbreviate as "A"). Such additions might then be viewed as R = (H, J, A). Note that "R" can be made as complex as desired, thus "C" might abbreviate a specific medium such as air or water through which "speech" sounds can travel, then R = (H, J, A, C), where C = {air} typically, but could also be C = {sea water at depth 50 meters and at 10°C}, etc. Yet another example of notation, J could specify a larynx symbolized by "Y", or J could specify a bird's syrinx specified by "X", thus R = (H, Y, A), or R = (Φ , X, {black capped chickadee aural function}). "A" could be the human aural organ, or the aural organ of a Bat, or other structures such as an eye capable of perceiving polarized light, (see: animal sensory organs), etc. Often the "R" component is assumed known and is not explicitly explained in detail. The "R" component can be explicitly explained in detail however, and may be treated separately from L or L(G) when a "generative grammar" is used. For example, a human language L could then be described as follows:

L = L(G,{R})   =  L(G,{(H, Y, A)})

or L is generated by grammar G b , facilitated by set "R" (Psychological states, Larynx Speech functions, and human Aural functions). Note: the "channel" or medium through which speech is transmitted or heard is not deemed significant and it is assumed implicitly to be air.

Note that L = L(G, Φ) = L(G)  , and when R is present and is not null, it may specify other non-anthropomorphic factors.

A language also has a semantic component. In simple terms, what does the language correspond to, its "meaning"? In the case of biochemistry or molecular genetics, the semantics refers to all molecular "forces", steric conformations, thermodynamic considerations, etc. that apply to molecules, and atoms. Imposing the semantics of human languages upon languages of DNA for example, is anti-scientific. Languages that apply to DNA, RNA, and proteins have their own semantics, just as a chickadee language has its own semantics. Some linguists insist that languages are limited to human beings. As evidence, they point out that the semantics of human language doesn't appear to apply to other "languages". Nonhuman languages have their own semantics. Three groups of research scientists (among others) discuss this explicitly.

  1. Languages and Genetics (an explicit discussion of semantics)
  2. The linguistic morphology found in nucleotide sequences (an explicit discussion of semantics)
  3. The linguistics of birdsong in courtship sexual selection (an explicit discussion of semantics)

One could hardly expect molecules to "communicate" psychological states using speech and aural perceptions, in lieu of expressing molecular forces! Here, L = L(G, {M}) where "M" might specify molecular forces (often a detailed description of molecular forces and steric considerations requires an extensive study, thus this knowledge is assumed implicitly). When L = L(G, {( H, Y, A)}) such an artificial redefinition of languages is restricted and limited to human languages, but also may exclude languages that such authors admit apply to non-human animals. To be specific, languages found in birds are further excluded as not being "sufficiently" complex from a mathematical viewpoint. In these cases, to count as languages, birds must use mathematical "recursion". Thus not only are languages to be viewed anthropocentrically, they must also be "recursion centric"! Even this may lead to a problem: bird languages were indeed found to be recursive. To get around this perhaps unexpected discovery, the level of recursion was deemed to be of insufficient complexity c. It is almost like saying that the Portuguese language doesn't count as a language as it isn't sufficiently like the English language! Perhaps bird languages are as complex as birds need (yet are still languages)? A polemic argument about anthropocentric or mathematics centric biases is a waste of time. Instead, spending some time on a broader view of languages is a more worthy goal.

There are additional comments and observations about the language facility that we should consider.

When dealing with organs of speech, humans use a "larynx", while birds use a "syrinx". The syrinx has greater capabilities of producing sounds than that produced by the larynx (such as the support of two independent melodies). Why limit speech functions to the more limited human speech function?

When dealing with aural organs, there are living beings that have aural capabilities that are far more sophisticated than human aural functions. For example, bats use aural organs as echo-locators to aid navigation and hunting at night. Why limit aural functions to the more limited human aural function?

A "channel" through which energy is transmitted, such as air, has been excluded in "R" (above). However, dolphins might communicate sound at greater distances using the channel of water, rather than air. Why limit language functions only to air just because human language is communicated through the athmosphere?

Some organisms have sensory capabilities that human beings do not possess. For example electric eels might conceivably use electricity in some linguistic pattern. Locusts avoid bodies of water using polarized light reflected from bodies of water. It is possible that a language might exist using perception of polarized light in locusts (a language between physical forces and living beings). After all, there is some scientific evidence that bees have linguistic capabilities (and they utilize sun light in their "waggle dance" language too). Why limit linguistic functions to human sensory capabilities?

The main point being made is not that non-human languages have been found with bats, dolphins, etc, but that there is an error in the way languages are currently defined by many linguists: non-human languages that have indeed been found are artificially excluded from consideration as languages. The major error is to be anthropmorphically centered, thereby limiting the definition of languages to human languages. Examples of non-human languages that stand out and that shouldn't be excluded are those discussed in "Emergent Computation: Emphasizing Bioinformatics".

Language might be best described independently of the forces that support the language, as well as sensory inputs and outputs. Of course, these additional sensory organ functions and linguistic supports should not be ignored and should be studied. However, it is silly to require speech, aural or other organs in the definition of language. It is ridiculous to be anthropocentric and mathematics centric. It is presumptuous to limit languages only to the functions of human sensory organs and a psychological capability.

In the book, "Emergent Computation: Emphasizing Bioinformatics", the papers from a number of investigators have been cited. Specifically, whenever a Chomsky style grammar or a Lindenmeyer system has been constructed, insofar as phonetic, aural, and any psychological/intentional component is not present, it is clear that this cannot be a Chomsky grammar. Insofar as the Lindenmeyer system extends beyond a mere "description", this cannot be a Lindenmeyer system. The languages in "Emergent Computation: Emphasizing Bioinformatics" differ radically from Chomsky grammars and Lindenmeyer systems. Chomsky grammars and Lindenmeyer systems do not cover real, existing non-human languages.

Finally, human language expression typically takes place serially. If two people communicate by speech, they do not typically communicate simultaneously. The speech of each person that takes place simultaneously tends to interfere with perceptions, thereby reducing the probability of being properly expressed. In addition, the human brain might have difficulty thinking or interpreting communications of multiple simultaneous acts of speech. However, what of the molecular forces that exist between two strands of DNA? These forces (expressed as a language) take place simultaneously. Consider triple strands of DNA: here a language based upon inter-molecular forces takes place simultaneously between all three strands.

Ultimately, there will probably always be conflicting views about language and different answers to the question "Are there non-human Languages?" The viewpoint taken here is that languages evolved, they did not "suddenly" appear out of nowhere. In fact, they continue to evolve and are a part of natural evolution. There are hundreds of scientific findings about non-human languages. This is far from upsetting: human beings are just a part of the natural environment, not necessarily so unique as to be the private owners of a now non-evolving language capability. A challenge: if grammars are still evolving in basic ways affected by sensory organs, and needs other than psychological communication, then where are the examples? If there are unique structures in the brain that correspond to a "universal" grammar, what is this grammar and where are the examples of the evolutionary changes to this grammar?

The research information studied in "Emergent Computation: Emphasizing Bioinformatics", as well as in this web site is more generalized than what is normally studied in "language" theory or "linguistics". At its root, both "language" and "linguistics" assume a restriction to a human capability (the etymology of "language" and "linguistics" is "tongue" meaning speech - in fact, human speech). It is precisely here, that an anthropomorphic bias is assumed. The viewpoint expressed here is a more generalized view of language. Thus the study might best be entitled as "The Grammars of Natural Communication" or "The Languages of Natural Communication" (not to be limited to speech, necessarily, certainly not limited only to human speech)! In this context, one might consider the following another view of language.

a Exactly which theories of psychology are not specified, it being assumed that an adequate theory of psychology exists or will ever exist.

b It isn't clear that G must be a Chomsky grammar. There are alternative systems or "grammars" aside from those described by Chomsky, such as Lindenmeyer systems, Post systems, Tuple systems, Matrix systems, Production systems, Graph grammars, Tree grammars, Web grammars, Shape grammars, etc. as well as probabalistic or weighted forms of grammars. Furthermore, it is not clear that a single system or grammar can describe all languages found in nature.

c DNA, RNA, and proteins might require a Chomsky type 0 or type 1 grammar (see "Emergent Computation: Emphasizing Bioinformatics", for example pp. 200, 208, 215, 231). As the "grammar(s)" for human natural languages appear to be Chomsky type 2, if complexity is to be a decisive factor in determining if linguistic patterns shall count as a language, then human natural languages being less complex, do not measure up, and ought not to count as languages! If birds don't use languages, then perhaps humans don't either!


© Matthew Simon, 2005 - 2017