Re: [xmca] Magpie Writing Systems

From: David Preiss (
Date: Fri Jan 05 2007 - 15:17:14 PST

Your note was indeed very thought provoking, David.
I wish I had your knowledge of languages to comment on your email.
You have really gone beyond my ZPD, since I just live in a world of
latin characters (with small excursions to hebrew).
As for your PS, I really don't see contradictions between your point
and Tomasello's.
Thanks for the nice piece of thinking!

On Jan 5, 2007, at 5:00 PM, Mike Cole wrote:

> Thanks a lot for that careful exposition, David. I found it really
> thought
> provoking.
> I guess I am of the belief that for humans, phonemes are
> potentially there
> owing to a long phylogenetic heritage such that newborns show
> categorical
> perspection of sounds along
> phoneme borders, so far as I know, universally. They loose plastiticy,
> selectively, under constraints in their lingustic/ environment.
> I carry around with me this slogan attributed to Goethe that I once
> saw in
> the lab of valued
> local colleagues: "Everything has been thought of betore, the trick
> is to
> think of it again in the
> right circumstances."
> So, I am unsure how much LSV directly read Janet. I am certain that
> Leontiev
> did and I presume
> LSV would have read some. But that he would interpret it within his
> own
> version of Marxist
> Durkheimian and (many more prior and contemporary thinkers) to
> come up with
> his own
> ideas seems sufficient, especially if one of his formulations can
> help make
> subtler sense of
> others, for example, Tomasello.
> I am not sure how to say palimpset in Russian, but LSV uses the
> layered
> metaphor of the
> "levels of the psyche" as Joe noted in an earlier note, and that
> seems to
> me a three D time-
> inclusive way of thinking about palimpsets.
> mike
> On 1/5/07, David Kellogg <> wrote:
>> 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.
>> dk
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David Preiss, Ph.D.
Profesor Auxiliar / Assistant Professor

Pontificia Universidad Catolica de Chile
Escuela de Psicología
Av Vicuña Mackenna 4860
Macul, Santiago

Fono: 3544605
Fax: 3544844
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