[xmca] Magpie Writing Systems

From: David Kellogg (vaughndogblack@yahoo.com)
Date: Fri Jan 05 2007 - 09:28:16 PST

Dear David P and Mike (C):

Yes, Viva Tomasello! It's a marvelous read, and in some ways, "Constructing Language" remedies some of the deficiencies David Preiss points up. Although it is even more focused on the subjective nature of the sign, it has a more thorough (and more genetic) understanding of the heterogeneity which is inherent in all language.

I just used “Constructing Language” to construct a coding system for creative improvisations in English by Korean primary school kids. Basically, I used the school syllabus to analyze the children's utterances into "fixed expressions", "item-based constructions" that were not generalizeable, and "abstract constructions" that showed emerging grammatical categories that were generalizeable.

Interestingly, the "abstract constructions" generally appear LATE in an exchange. This is true even though kids tend to use this to talk about new contextual elements and new contextual elements tend to occur early in the role play.

The reason is (I think) Janet's Law--that is, abstract constructions are the "short and fat" intra-mental grammatical fruit of "tall and thin" inter-mental discourse trees; they are the living proof that "each higher function was originally shared between two persons". The abstract constructions can only emerge when the topic or the actual text has already been well prepared by previous speakers.

A language is NEVER a single homogenous system; it's always a palimpsest of different systems. For Tomasello, it's fixed expressions, item-based "islands", and abstract constructions. In my data, it’s also Korean, iconic meaning (laughter), indexical meaning (gesture, deixis), and symbols (some of which are clearly second order symbols for Korean meanings). The idea of language as a fixed system is just a fantasy that linguists have.

This is even more true of the "palimpsest" of writing systems, because they tend to last. If we look back in the history of ANY letter (not just "a") we will eventually find some kind of pictograph. And if we look forward in the history of any system (e.g. Chinese) we find sound-based notations for abstract ideas, which are almost always borrowed from foreign languages.

For example, Ancient Egyptian writing systems were clearly evolving in the direction of a sound-based system. English has a ridiculous spelling system because (like Latin from Greek) we borrow our scientific concepts from foreign languages spoken by more advanced civilizations (that is, virtually everyone else on the planet, right now). That means borrowing THEIR sounds.

What Tomasello is really gloating over is the invention of a writing system that ties written marks to PHONEMES. Frankly, I’m not impressed. Like most Chinese speakers, I don't believe that phonemes exist. I think that syllables are probably the units that children work with. Phonemes are simply reifications which developed from the writing system and not the other way around; like the idea of a fixed, homogenous system, they are just a fantasy that linguists have..

But even if phonemes did exist, I don't think that writing systems tied to them were invented only once. When you look at Korean, you notice that it was borrowed, not from Western alphabets, but from Chinese characters.

But the marks that compose the square little characters are tied to phonemes. The consonants, interestingly enough, derive from pictographs that show the position of the tongue in pronouncing them, while the vowels show a rather elaborate cosmology of heaven, earth, and man and woman (because there are "bright, light vowels" associated with ying and "damp, dark vowels" associated with yang).

In other words, the system is once again not a homogenous system, but a palimpsest of square shapes borrowed from Chinese, iconic pictographs for the consonants and pure symbols for the vowels! And this is a language that was invented by a committee of linguists working for Sejong the Great in the fifteenth century.

So even invented writing systems like Hangeul are hand-me-downs and patch-me-ups. And that brings me to the other question I was trying to solve was this one: Is the principle that "every higher function was once a social relationship" also a hand-me-down when Vygotsky got to it?

I think the answer is no. Valsiner and van der Veer (and also Julia Gillen) have argued this principle and even the ZPD are not really original to Vygotsky. I haven't read through ALL of Janet, yet, but on the basis of what I've read, this seems wrong.

Yes, Janet did mean that cultural transmission is what allows an individual idea to become a system. Yes, Janet did think that the social factors were key to understanding personality.
“En résumé, les homes agissent incessament les uns sur les autres et les influence socials sont parmi les cause les plus puissantes de santé et de maladie, de depression e d’excitation.” (In sum, people act incessantly upon each other, and so social influences are among the most powerful causes of health and sickness, depression and stimulation.) Janet, P. (1919) Medications Psychologigues III Paris: Librairie Félix Alcan. p. 417:

But saying that social factors are important in the etiology of mental illness is one thing, and actually REVERSING the then accepted relations of causality between cognition and culture is something very different.

Similarly, I think that saying that a function like language is simply an idea that has been culturally transmitted from our ancestors is one thing, and actually REVERSING the then accepted relations of causality between development and learning is something very different.

In sum, then, or rather on the basis of what I've been able to find of Janet's work, it simply isn't true that Vygotsky stole the idea from Janet. If anything, the opposite is true: Vygotsky attributed a whole system to Janet when in fact all Janet had was a fairly small idea.

This kind of thing is pretty hard to imagine for career building academics in the West, but apparently the Russians did this a fair amount (Holquist claims that Bakhtin regularly donated whole books to his disciples). I have seen similar things done by Chinese academics anxious to gain Western prestige for their own ideas.

David Kellogg
Seoul National University of Education
  PS: Here’s another bit of Tomasello that bothers me. He says (in “Cultural Origins of Human Cognition”):
  “In all cases, then, the use of a particular linguistic symbol implies the choice of a particular level of granularity in categorization, a particular perspective or point of view on an entity or even, and in many cases a function in a context. And there are many or specific perspectives that arise in grammatical combinations of various sorts (He loaded the wagon with hay vs. he loaded hay onto the wagon or she smashed the vase versus the vase was smashed). Although more will be said about this process in Chapter 5, I take it as obvious that the only reason languages are constructed in this way is that people need to communicate about many different things in many different communicative circumstances form many different points of view—otherwise each entity or event or even each type of entity or type of event would have its own one true label—and that would be the end of it.”
  Well, it’s not at all obvious to me that this is why languages are constructed in this way. The fact that language is tri-stratal—that sounds refer to wordings referring to meanings (or, if you prefer, that sounds referring to wordings refer to meanings)—explains two things and not one.
  a) There are many different ways of referring to the same event.
  b) There are many different events which can be referred to in the same way.
  It seems to me that in both ontogenesis and phylogenesis, it’s going to be b) that is of the most immediate importance, because poor mankind finds himself in an infinitely rich universe with an extremely poor means of describing it at his disposal.

Do You Yahoo!?
Tired of spam? Yahoo! Mail has the best spam protection around
xmca mailing list

This archive was generated by hypermail 2b29 : Thu Feb 01 2007 - 10:11:31 PST