[Date Prev][Date Next][Thread Prev][Thread Next][Date Index][Thread Index]
Re: [xmca] Re: Word Meaning and Action
David, Martin, and others,
I hadn't paid much attention to the links between Sapir and Vygotsky before b.c. I always thought of Sapir as someone who was much more concerned with Grammar/Syntax than Vygotsky, but I just happened across a passage of Sapir's from his wonderful book Language: An introduction to the study of speech, and was struck by the similarities to Vygotsky (see full passage below). It is a long passage (pages 15-18), so some brief comments on the paragraphs below and striking similarities to Vygotsky's Chapter Thought and Word.
Para 1: Sapir characterizes the position opposed to his as viewing language as "but a garment". Paragraph argues for the intimate relationship between language and thought.
Para 2: In the beginning was the Word. The relation between language and thought is a dialectic one: "The instrument makes possible the product, the product refines the instrument."
Para 3: "the motor aspect of speech is secondary to the auditory."
Para 4: language becomes abbreviated in thought!
I couldn't subject the listserve to any more length in this passage, but Sapir goes on to talk about deaf-mutes(p. 19), and about the relation of language to speech sounds and to thought:
"The ease with which speech symbolism can be transferred from one sense to another, from technique to technique, itself indicates that the mere sounds of speech are not the essential facts of language, which lies rather in the classification, in the formal patterning, and in the relating of concepts. Once more, language, as a structure, is on its inner face the mold of thought" (p. 22),"
you can find the Sapir text at:
Hope this is of some use.
And thanks for your provocative conversation.
From Sapir's Thought, pages 15-18:
"Most people, asked if they can think without speech, would probably answer, “Yes, but it is not easy for me to do so. Still I know it can be done.” Language is but a garment! But what if language is not so much a garment as a prepared road or groove? It is, indeed, in the highest degree likely that language is an instrument originally put to uses lower than the conceptual plane and that thought arises as a refined interpretation of its content. The product grows, in other words, with the instrument, and thought may be no more conceivable, in its genesis and daily practice, without speech than is mathematical reasoning practicable without the lever of an appropriate mathematical symbolism. No one believes that even the most difficult mathematical proposition is inherently dependent on an arbitrary set of symbols, but it is impossible to suppose that the human mind is capable of arriving at or holding such a proposition without the symbolism. The writer, for one, is strongly of the opinion that the feeling entertained by so many that they can think, or even reason, without language is an illusion. The illusion seems to be due to a number of factors. The simplest of these is the failure to distinguish between imagery and thought. As a matter of fact, no sooner do we try to put an image into conscious relation with another than we find ourselves slipping into a silent flow of words. Thought may be a natural domain apart from the artificial one of speech, but speech would seem to be the only road we know of that leads to it. A still more fruitful source of the illusive feeling that language may be dispensed with in thought is the common failure to realize that language is not identical with its auditory symbolism. The auditory symbolism may be replaced, point for point, by a motor or by a visual symbolism (many people can read, for instance, in a purely visual sense, that is, without the intermediating link of an inner flow of the auditory images that correspond to the printed or written words) or by still other, more subtle and elusive, types of transfer that are not so easy to define. Hence the contention that one thinks without language merely because he is not aware of a coexisting auditory imagery is very far indeed from being a valid one. One may go so far as to suspect that the symbolic expression of thought may in some cases run along outside the fringe of the conscious mind, so that the feeling of a free, nonlinguistic stream of thought is for minds of a certain type a relatively, but only a relatively, justified one. Psycho-physically, this would mean that the auditory or equivalent visual or motor centers in the brain, together with the appropriate paths of association, that are the cerebral equivalent of speech, are touched off so lightly during the process of thought as not to rise into consciousness at all. This would be a limiting case—thought riding lightly on the submerged crests of speech, instead of jogging along with it, hand in hand. The modern psychology has shown us how powerfully symbolism is at work in the unconscious mind. It is therefore easier to understand at the present time than it would have been twenty years ago that the most rarefied thought may be but the conscious counterpart of an unconscious linguistic symbolism.
One word more as to the relation between language and thought. The point of view that we have developed does not by any means preclude the possibility of the growth of speech being in a high degree dependent on the development of thought. We may assume that language arose pre-rationally—just how and on what precise level of mental activity we do not know—but we must not imagine that a highly developed system of speech symbols worked itself out before the genesis of distinct concepts and of thinking, the handling of concepts. We must rather imagine that thought processes set in, as a kind of psychic overflow, almost at the beginning of linguistic expression; further, that the concept, once defined, necessarily reacted on the life of its linguistic symbol, encouraging further linguistic growth. We see this complex process of the interaction of language and thought actually taking place under our eyes. The instrument makes possible the product, the product refines the instrument. The birth of a new concept is invariably foreshadowed by a more or less strained or extended use of old linguistic material; the concept does not attain to individual and independent life until it has found a distinctive linguistic embodiment. In most cases the new symbol is but a thing wrought from linguistic material already in existence in ways mapped out by crushingly despotic precedents. As soon as the word is at hand, we instinctively feel,with something of a sigh of relief, that the concept is ours for the handling. Not until we own the symbol do we feel that we hold a key to the immediate knowledge or understanding of the concept. Would we be so ready to die for “liberty,” to struggle for “ideals,” if the words themselves were not ringing within us? And the word, as we know, is not only a key; it may also be a fetter.
Language is primarily an auditory system of symbols. In so far as it is articulated it is also a motor system, but the motor aspect of speech is clearly secondary to the auditory. In normal individuals the impulse to speech first takes effect in the sphere of auditory imagery and is then transmitted to the motor nerves that control the organs of speech. The motor processes and the accompanying motor feelings are not, however, the end, the final resting point. They are merely a means and a control leading to auditory perception in both speaker and hearer. Communication, which is the very object of speech, is successfully effected only when the hearer’s auditory perceptions are translated into the appropriate and intended flow of imagery or thought or both combined. Hence the cycle of speech, in so far as we may look upon it as a purely external instrument, begins and ends in the realm of sounds. The concordance between the initial auditory imagery and the final auditory perceptions is the social seal or warrant of the successful issue of the process. As we have already seen, the typical course of this process may undergo endless modifications or transfers into equivalent systems without thereby losing its essential formal characteristics.
The most important of these modifications is the abbreviation of the speech process involved in thinking. This has doubtless many forms, according to the structural or functional peculiarities of the individual mind. The least modified form is that known as “talking to one’s self” or “thinking aloud.” Here the speaker and the hearer are identified in a single person, who may be said to communicate with himself. More significant is the still further abbreviated form in which the sounds of speech are not articulated at all. To this belong all the varieties of silent speech and of normal thinking. The auditory centers alone may be excited; or the impulse to linguistic expression may be communicated as well to the motor nerves that communicate with the organs of speech but be inhibited either in the muscles of these organs or at some point in the motor nerves themselves; or, possibly, the auditory centers may be only slightly, if at all, affected, the speech process manifesting itself directly in the motor sphere. There must be still other types of abbreviation. How common is the excitation of the motor nerves in silent speech, in which no audible or visible articulations result, is shown by the frequent experience of fatigue in the speech organs, particularly in the larynx, after unusually stimulating reading or intensive thinking."
Date: Mon, 20 Jun 2011 17:20:03 -0700 (PDT)
From: David Kellogg <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Subject: Re: [xmca] Re: Word Meaning and Action
To: Culture ActivityeXtended Mind <email@example.com>
Content-Type: text/plain; charset=utf-8
This morning I was reading Packer and Goicoechea and I discovered in it the perfect riposte to your idea that only understanding changes when word meaning develops, just as money itself doesn't develop. On p. 232 you point out that money does develop: from barter to currency to credit.
Besides, the child's relationship to handouts is different from the child's relationship to a regular allowance, and both differ from wages, which in turn differ from pensions, and that difference is quite independent of whether it is understood or not (my wife understands these things and I do not).
I've got "Sound Patterns" in my Sapir Selected Works collection. Remember that this is EARLY stuff. It's LONG before distinctive features analysis (which came out in the sixties). It's even before the distinction between "phonemics" (that is, "emic" phonological discrimination, based on interpretation) and "phonetics" (that is, "etic" phonetic discrimination, based on the physical properties of sounds).
It's even before Bloomfieldian linguistics, but it's the direct prelude to it. If we want to find someone who thought in a very wrong but very ORIGINAL way about language, Leonard Bloomfield is a far better candidate then poor old Chomsky.
Bloomfield famously thought that Marx's approach to the commodity was identical to a linguistic approach to word value. Paradoxically, he was also an EXTREME behaviorist, who argued that meaning was just a response to stimuli and therefore, like money, aliquot and fungible (there were no qualitative differences in meaning type).
Here, Bloomfield and Sapir part company. As a good anthropologist, Sapir doesn't accept that certain forms of meaning are "better" or even "larger" than others (it's not called the "Sapir-Whorf" hypothesis for nothing!). But (also as a good anthropologist) this is really because he doesn't see them as being commeasurable.
One of the big problems in linguistics, then and now, is a very petty kind of penis envy with respect to the natural sciences. For reasons I don't fully understand, Saussure was convinced that linguistics was ALONE in all the sciences in not having an object of study that was "given", because you have to recognize a sound as language before you can really have a science of linguistics (unlike, say, medicine or physics where to a certain extent the object of study can be said to be "given" whether we study it or not).
I don't find this problematic in the slightest, both because as I said I think it takes too narrow a definition of what constitutes language (excluding intonation and stress, or considering them "add-ons" to the real core of language, which is pure structure) and because I think that medicine and physics do not really have objects of study that are "given" in the sense that Saussure thought they were.
But you can see that Sapir is struggling with physiologist or physicist or phallocratic envy a little himself in his paper on Sound Patterns. I think he does a WAY better job on it than Saussure (who basically just ended up saying that you can study different things in different ways), but I still think it's much ado about nothing.
On p. 232 (of Packer and Goichoechea) you say this:
"Consider Marx's central example: the commodity is a kind of entity--a way for something to be--that becomes possible only in a particular kind of society, at a particular period in history. The same can be said of other 'objects' we find around us--tools, signs, money, food, music, art, clothing--each is a cultural artifact. To say that each is, at bottom, material is, first, false (because some are immaterial) and second, unhelpful (because material is itself no natural category)."
Wait a minute, Martin. Why is it false to say that pitch, frequency, and formants are material? It's not false at all; it is completely true when we compare them with their ideal correlates, viz. stress, intonation, and vowel quality, not to mention with lexis, vocabulary and pronunciation. Why is it unhelpful?
To say that it is unhelpful because "material" is itself not a natural category is not very helpful, because, first, it renders Vygotsky's first genetic law (natural functions before cultural ones) completely empty and meaningless, and second, it makes "nature" an undifferentiated, absolutist category where no meaningful distinctions are possible, or at least "helpful".
Seoul National University of Education
xmca mailing list