Re: [xmca] The Myth of Arbitrariness

From: Mike Cole (
Date: Fri Feb 16 2007 - 16:49:11 PST

Very interesting, David. Better to re-think, re-mediate, and re-search than
the be re-liable?

On 2/15/07, David Kellogg <> wrote:
> Dear Martin, Elias, Cindy, et al:
> I think there are (at least) two reasons why people are unwilling to
> accept word-meaning (or utterance-sense) as a unit of consciousness.
> First of all, people still think of consciousness as primary,
> irreducible, and given rather than derivative (which is how Freud and Janet
> both see it, since they think that unconsciousness comes from consciousness
> rather thant the other way round). To westerners, the idea that we construct
> our selves from the words of others is just plain creepy.
> Secondly, people think of word meaning as basically arbitrary--because
> different languages have different words for the same thing. So the idea
> that something as apparently as fixed and immoveable as consciousness might
> have a basis that is as arbitrary and relative as word-meaning (let alone
> "utterance-sense"), is also kind of...gooey.
> But this arbitrariness is a myth. The higher up the tree of language you
> go, the more you realize that its structure is in no way arbitrary.
> A digression. When my stepfather died, he left my mother and I a big box
> of papers that was to be his single-volume history of India (later published
> as "A History of India", Burton Stein, Blackwell). In the introduction, he
> stated his intention of writing this history BACKWARDS--that is, accounting
> for the present by accounting for the recent past, and then accounting for
> the recent past by delving into the more distant past, etc.
> Why not? After all, history is not narrative. The main job of a
> historian is to organize, and the recent data has both quantitative and
> qualitative priority. Histories tend to put effects before causes, at least
> in terms of their prioritizing. Just like most spoken sentences using the
> word "because" (e.g. "I had lunch because I was hungry").
> Unfortunately, as the editor informed us, you can't do that for a book
> many tens of thousands of sentences long. It's not really possible to write
> history the way my stepfather wanted to; the language, which is built to
> integrate human activities (rather than, as Halliday claims, justify a
> particular theory of experience) simply does not work that way.
> The treatment of time in language is not arbitrary. There is a good
> reason why verbs take tense and nouns don't. And there is a good reason why,
> in any sustained narrative or meta-narrative, cause has to come before
> effect. Our minds tend to store things that way; to think backwards from
> effect to cause, the way we reflect on phenomeona, simply requires far more
> effort than to think forwards, from cause to effect, the way we experience
> them.
> But what about the lower branches of the tree? Here too, the
> arbitrariness of language is not what it seems.
> On a recent trip to America I managed to pick up a copy of Cole and
> Cole's venerable volume The Development of Children. Roundabout page 300,
> there's a lovely watercolor of a father at a window holding a child. Outside
> the window there is a cat on a wall, a helicopter on a building, a tree in a
> garden. The caption is:
> Smotri, sinochek. Tam sidit ptitsa!
> Cole and Cole remark that this utterance is one hell of a puzzle to lay
> before a pre-linguistic child. Even assuming that the child understood ALL
> the other words in the sentence, how is the child to know that "ptitsa"
> refers to a BIRD in the TREE (which I didn't even mention in my
> description)? How does the child know the father is not talking about the
> cat or the helicopter, or even the tree in the garden?
> Frankly, I didn't know that ptitsa referred to a bird either. But what
> REALLY amazed me was that I DID know what all the other words in the
> sentence meant. I KNEW, before I read any further than Smotri, sinochek. Tam
> sidit... that the father was saying:
> Look, my child. There is a ....
> Now, as I've said, I have NO Russian--none at all. Yet I DID know what
> all the other words meant. How is this possible?
> It is possible because language is NOT a fixed and arbitrary code. It's
> much more like a set of fluid, fluent, flexible gestures that arise in the
> process of fitting human activities (above all activities by different
> people) together. So a father standing at a window with a child in almost
> any country on earth is going to say more or less those things in more or
> less that order. There's absolutely nothing arbitrary about it...until we
> get to the very last word.
> And even here COMPLETE arbitrariness is a myth, or rather, a linguistic
> illusion. The bird is an object. An object can be viewed from many angles,
> and even in motion, and the eye and brain will know that it is still the
> same object.
> The word ptitsa is also an object. It is designed to be heard in many
> contexts (but more distinctly and clearly and separately when it appears at
> the end of the sentence) and still the ear and brain will know that it is
> the same object. That's why it doesn't take tense (though of course it does
> take number, and even more incongrously--though not arbitrarily--it can take
> gender).
> Brains did not evolve to do this with words--they evolved to do it with
> objects in the visual field. But just as mouths have been exapted--taken
> from the evolved use of breating and eating and adapted to the uses of
> communication--this particularly brain function comes in very handy with
> determining where a noun lies in a set of sentences. The nouny bit is the
> stuff that doesn't change, or when it does change you can see things like
> number and gender change too. There is nothing arbitrary about these facts
> either.
> Surely the PHONOLOGY is arbitrary then! Strangely, there is something
> about the word "ptitsa" that suggests a bird to my brain (I think it is
> because the word is used in "A clockwork orange" to describe a girl
> singing). But even if the sound did not suggest lithe chirpiness to me,
> there is something about it that suggests childish talk.
> The "set up wizards" of language, that is, the registers of language
> that we have evolved to make language learnable are rich in certain sounds,
> and not in others. Baby talk, nursery rhymes, counting out rhymes in games,
> etc. have non-arbitrary rules. For example, it seems to be the case that
> CLOSED vowels like "i" appear before more open ones like "a", which is why
> we always say "fiddle faddle" and "hip hop" and even "hickory dickory dock"
> and never "faddle fiddle" or "hop hip" or "dockery dickery hick". Even
> phonemes, then, are not completely arbitrary.
> Besides, I'm not sure phonemes are really language; I think they may
> part of the arbitrariness myth that is a state religion among linguists. If
> they are language, they are surely the hair and the toenails and not the
> body or the voice.
> I's quite possible, nay, easy to learn the language completely without
> them. Syllables, which are the actual voice of language, are not arbitrary
> at all in their construction; they always have a vowel in the middle. There
> simply isn't any other way to make one.
> So it appears, at least to me, that the "arbitrariness" of language is
> really a myth; there is are always very good reasons why things do what they
> do in languages. The problem is that those good reasons have to do with the
> human uses of the real world, not with the way things "are". But human uses
> of the real world are, after all, is what we are talking about when we say
> the word "consciousness".
> David Kellogg
> Seoul National University of Education
> PS: Mike--as you can see, I am thinking about what you said about
> etymology and rethinking what I said about it.
> On the one hand, I can't accept that ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny,
> or that comprehension is fast-forward etymology. But on the other hand, if
> ontogeny REVERSES phylogeny (which in some respects it undoubtedly does) and
> microgenesis REVERSES ontogeny (which in some respects it ALSO does), then
> in some respects, comprehension CAN recapitulate etymology.
> I DID say that I thought etymology is not IRRELEVANT. And of course I
> agree with you that it is an important way of unfreezing meaning, and
> imposing strangeness on familiar words--a very important bonne a penser.
> I (re)think!
> dk
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