Language in Mind and Language in Society: an informal introduction

A short, informal introduction to the main themes of Trevor Pateman's book, Language in Mind and Language in Society (Oxford University Press 1987).

Language spreads like the plague, carried by every instance of speech. It finds in human beings a receptive culture for its replication and mutation. Language and human beings are made for each other. But human beings as social subjects, and societies as organisations of power, devote considerable cognitive and material resources to its control - to its monitoring and institutionalisation. Language is rarely allowed to go its own way. Individuals modify their speech to fit what they think are the prevailing prestige norms (they often get it wrong, of course) . Governments order the standardisation of national languages. This labour of Sysyphus is assigned to schools and teachers who may have very little understanding of what language is about and who may see their task as involving primarily the repression of stigmatized forms. Complacent to think that they have taught their pupils to not split infinitives, teachers can remain blind to the epidemic of linguistic change raging in the playground.

Language is natural to humans; like seeing, they do it extremely well - and, in large measure, this is because they do not do it at all. It is something to which they areliable, rather than something of which they are capable. We become language users without knowing how, acquiring a competence which is one of the most complex of our lives.

My book does not have the zest of these statements; re-reading it, I see how it groans under the weight of the research I conducted in order to write it. It displays an at-times daunting punctiliousness in its engagement with the work of others. The vision is obscured by the footnotes.

The vision is a Manichean one, in which Nature andCulture are often opposed to each other, but are jointly responsible for the language worlds in which we live. The vision is also one which protests that it is not that difficult to see that language worlds might be more complex affairs than are dreamt of in simplifying philosophies. As so often is the case, philosophers go astray when they legislate universality and necessity for features of their local experience, simply unaware of how parochial that is. As I show at page 123 of my book, it's easy to name and shame distinguished Oxford philosophers queuing up to make deep claims about the way things have to be which turn out to be empirically falsifiable and false.

The vision is also a Manichean one with respect to the domains of Science (here represented by Linguistics) and Philosophy. Science and Philosophy are often at odds, often productively so, and they are jointly responsible for such understanding as we can achieve of the nature of things. Scientists who do not read their philosophy and philosophers who do not read their science are only half thinkers.

The boundary maintainers who want a clean demarcation line between science and philosophy are like the paranoid neighbour who objects because my tree blossoms on his side of the fence. My book is an invitation to linguists and philosophers to go round to the other side of the fence, and take a look from there. For each of them, the book has a lovely Bibliography.

There are a number of claims in the book which mark out key points in the vision I was trying to articulate; sometimes, the markers are thrown away in terse remarks, and are easily missed. With the benefit of hindsight, I will try to reassemble them here.

All things change, says Heraclitus - an optimist�s way of expressing the thought that all things must pass. Language is among those things, and change is its natural state. Nor can cultural dams stand out against the tides of change: we cannot build enough of them, fast enough; nor do we fully understand how and where to build them. Language change is irresistible, and any understanding of the place of language in human worlds must begin by reckoning with this.

At the same time, the powerful innate mechanisms of language growth, triggered in the individual by social interaction, do not scatter achieved languages evenly across the space of logically possible languages. They channel it, preferentially, towards certain structures. By way of simple example, consider that if sentences concatenate subjects(S) verbs (V) and objects(O), there are six logically possible sentence (word order) structures: SVO, SOV, V0S, VSO, OVS, OSV. A language could select for one of these uniquely, or allow for alternatives up to complete free variation among the six. Insofar as the world's languages do not show a random distribution of these logical possibilities, we have prima facie evidence for channeling. Nativists explain such channeling in terms of how the human mind works; functionalists are broadly speaking those who feel challenged to explain the channeling as the result of communicative pressures.

The more complicated an innate guiding mechanism, the more likely it is that some changes will be 'catastrophic' rather than gradual, so that there can be apparently radical discontinuities in linguistic development. I use 'catastrophic' as the generic term for discontinuous change, and catastrophe theories are theories which take it as their task to explain such discontinuities.

Think of the formation of ox bow lakes. (Schools in the United Kingdom have always loved them). A river meanders in its course, becoming increasingly serpentine. But then, in time of flood, the river finds a new course across the neck of the meander. Silting up eventually cuts off the meander as an ox bow lake and the river runs in a radically straighter course. Continuous change - the enlargement of the meander - has given way to discontinuous - catastrophic - change, the re-creation of a straight course.

Communication in language comes very easily for humans, and idiolects and dialects with significant differences can be mutually inter-intelligible. The correction in which we engage is not necessary to communication - indeed, it presupposes it, since otherwise we would not know what to correct. Correction is surplus to the needs of communication. It is an example of what in another context Herbert Marcuse called 'surplus repression'. It is a study in itself to understand the motivations of activities aiming at language maintenance. It is a study which would look at the building of identity, the drive to discriminate, the consolidation of cultural power (Gramsci's egemonia) and at obsession and paranoia.

Just because something goes on between people does not make it social. We catch viruses from other people, but viruses are not social objects - virology is not a social science, though its understanding of how viruses are transmitted may lead to advice about how not to relate to other people.

A child interacts with its caretakers, and as a result grows a language of its own. The resemblance between caretaker - language and child - language may lead us to think that the language has been learnt or, at least, caught. But this inference is not self-evident. It could just be an example of the fallacy: post hoc, ergo propter hoc(After that, therefore because of that). For a start, most of child language is not a copy of the language it hears, even if we can understand it. Heat-seeking missiles are much better at travelling in a straight line than are children acquiring their native language. Children growing a language often don't sound like they are targetting at all. That's why they are fascinating to listen to. Targetting is something they learn to do much later, and at least in part consciously. (A Piagetian might say: They have become less egocentric at this stage).

If a young child did have a conscious formulation of its predicament, it would be this: These people are trying to communicate with me - I'm trying to communicate with them. Only later does this change to: These people are speaking Italian to me - I'd better do the same. Of course, it does happen that the child eventually realises that speaking Italian provides a conventional solution to its communication problem. When in Rome, do as the Romans do. This is what Hume is on about (see page 147 of my book) when he says that a convention is only a general sense of common interest.

Wittgensteinians oppose this splitting of communicative intent (Gricean intent) from conventions of language , and they oppose it with the argument that A Private Language Is Impossible. It's an argument that seeks to bring the unruliness of the mewling infant under Draconian parental control. If you can only mewl, they say to the infant, We Cannot Understand You. You can only be understood, can only make meaning, if you follow our Rules, Rules which are the Bank and Capital of Ages. Then they cross their arms and wait for obedience. Wittgensteinians are good old fashioned Conservatives. I have some fun in my book (and on this website: see "Wittgensteinians and Chomskyans") showing that this particular version of the Law of the Father has neither evidence or coherence to commend it .

First published on this website 2007. Revised from an unpublished paper written about 1997.