[xmca] Elements and Units

From: David Kellogg (vaughndogblack@yahoo.com)
Date: Thu Jan 25 2007 - 17:23:04 PST

Dear Cynthia:
  As far as I know, the only person on earth who ever actually remembered the moment when, as a child, language is discovered, was Helen Keller.
  That in itself is a little strange, isn't it? We all made this momentous discovery, that is, that people are constantly talking behind our backs right to our faces. But none of us remember it.
  Yet if we consider Volosinov's (and Ilyenkov's) idea that the mind never really experiences the world directly but can only dialogue with it as one form of semiotic material to another, it makes perfect sense. Before that moment, there is nothing to remember, and nothing to remember it with.
  But WAS there a moment? Was there a big bang when the idea that everything has a name suddenly occurred? Or does the emergence of verbal interaction out of nonverbal interaction happen gradually?
  This question probably doesn't seem related to your question about whether word meaning is an element of thought or of speech. We seem to have entirely unasked your question, or rather turned it around: thought and speech are elements of word meanings, rather than vice versa.
  But where were the elements of that unit before the unit appeared. Yet by answering this question it becomes a little easier to understand how "word meaning" (if that is the right name) can contain both thought and speech.
  We all know the story of how Helen discovered the big secret at seven, with one hand under the cold water of the pump and the other in the warm hand of her teacher. Helen is a little vague about it, actually; she suggests that she might have been remembering, either from the age of six months old, or perhaps even from a previous life. She also says that before this she was only imitating the acts of speech, and had no idea what a word was.
  Memory is a funny thing. Fortunately, her teacher, Anne Sullivan, wrote a letter the very night of that discovery. Her account is quite different from Helen's: she says that Helen knew already what words were, and that she had trouble with verbs, because she couldn't differentiate "milk", "mug", and "drink". They went outside for a cool drink, and it occurred to Ann that the water flowing from the pump, unconstrained by an object, might help disambiguate those three things: the liquid, the container of the liquid, and the action required to obtain it.
  Yet she agrees with Helen when she says that the momentous discovery was that "everything has a name". Those are the very word that Anne Sullivan uses. I said earlier that I thought this was a thundering banality, from the point of view child language acquisition, because children often apply the same verbal gesture to almost everything in their environment indiscriminately. Every thing has a name, and it is always "thing".
  But for Helen and Anne the key realization of that discovery was that even a dynamic, flowing substance like water, a noun so very like a verb, has a name. And from there the idea of verbs and even functors doth flow.
  The question is, what is the pump that makes all these varigated semiotic materials flow? Well, that part Anne and Helen (and Vygotsky and Volosinov) have always agreed on: it is human interaction.
  Dear Mike:
  About eight paragraphs from the end of Chapter One (of Thinking and Speech) Vygotsky says this:
  "The primary function of speech is communication, social intercourse. When language was studied through analysis into elements, this function, too, was dissociated from the intellectual function of speech. The two were treated as though they were separate, if parallel, functions, without attention to their structural and developmental interrelation. Yet word meaning is a unit of both these functions of speech."
  Notice that he says that social intercourse is primary. Intellectual functions will follow on. And in fact, Vygotsky is going to talk about concept formation in a minute. But before he does that, he says this:
  "That understanding between minds is impossible without some mediating expression is an axiom for scientific psychology. In the absence of a system of signs, linguistic or other, only the most primitive and limited type of communication is possible. Communication by means of expressive movements, observed mainly among animals, is not so much communication as a spread of affect. A frightened goose suddenly aware of danger and rousing the whole flock with its cries does not tell the others what it has seen but rather contaminates them with its fear."
  Now, it's tempting to read this as saying that non-verbal interaction is not communication at all. But that isn't what it says. First of all, it says "signs", not simply linguistic signs. Secondly, it says that even without signs, a primitive and limited type of communication is possible (fortunately for the one year old). Thirdly, it says that the communication by means of expressive movements is "not so much" communication as a spread of affect.
  In other words, for animals we have something like "affect/communication", and only with verbal interaction does it become possible to reverse this into "communication/affect".
  Next, Vygotsky says this:
  "Rational, intentional conveying of experience and thought to others requires a mediating system, the prototype of which is human speech born of the need of intercourse during work!"
  And then he goes on to talk about concept formation. Well, I admit. He never actually says that verbal and non-verbal interaction is an "explanatory principle" in so many words. But he comes pretty close!
  David Kellogg
  Seoul National University of Education

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