[xmca] Non-Mediated Language

From: Kellogg (kellogg@snue.ac.kr)
Date: Wed Nov 15 2006 - 16:22:16 PST

Dear Lois:

I remember being very struck by the term "tool-and-result" when I first got to know and love "Revolutionary Scientist" some years ago. For some reason, it suggested the transitive/intransitive uses of the verb "play" to my miserable linguistic mind.

English is a rather sad language. In all the other languages I know, the same verbal construction is used for adults who play and children. But while adult English speakers can say "I played golf" or "I played piano", or even "I played with my grandchildren", it is raises eyebrows and smiles if you tell your colleagues "I played with my husband".

In English, the verb "play" goes from being a childlike intransitive (that is, a "tool-and-result") to an adult transitive (that is, the process of using a tool like a golf club or a piano to obtain an entertaining result) sometime around puberty.

I guess I think that English-speaking children learn small languages (where single word and two word constructions tend to predominate), and these must be reconstrued, through cultural practices including literacy, into larger ones (where more complex transitivity relationships are expressed).

For me, the unmediated substrate of language (which I think of as being acoustic rather than deictic or symbolic) is the pre-history of this small one or two-word language. It's unmediated in the sense that it's involuntary, not subject to volition, not selected either socially or psychologically.

We share with animals the tendency to hiss when we inhale and howl when we exhale. That is, when we breath in, the air pressure in the lungs increases and the pitch tends to rise, and when we breath out, the air pressure in the lungs decreases and the frequency of vocal chord vibration must thereby also decrease.

This means that in all languages, falling intonation is a kind of default category; it is falling intonation which moves discourse forward, while rising intonation (more indexical and less iconic) indicates preparation for speech rather than speech itself, getting ready rather than actually going.

In Korean and Japanese, when you are unsure what to say (particularly if you are male) you inhale through your teeth and look quizzical. This sound is not so popular in English, but it is nevertheless understandable without any gloss or translation when you see and hear it in context.

In British English, the word "uh" is written "er", but it is recognizeably the same sound, and the very same sound occurs in the middle of filler words in Chinese and Korean ("zhe" and "keulse").

The game "Scissors, Paper, Rock" is played "jun-ken-po" in Japanese and "gawi, bawi, bo" in Korean. While the languages are different, the accompanying indexical acts are very similar. And what is absolutely identical is the iconic (acoustic) fact of having three distinct sounds separated by two equal silences, and descending pitch with a distinct stress on the last sound.

In all of these examples, there is some cultural selection, to be sure, since the mastery of symbolic language does not simply build on the iconic foundations but also restructures them in important ways. But the iconic substrate remains, although it does not remain untouched.

For all my admiration of "Revolutionary Scientist" and the concept of "tool-and-result", I don't really agree that activity is not mediated (but I was highly amused when Peter Langford, the most anti-Vygotsky biographer of Vygotsky I have ever read, described your book as having nothing to do with Vygotsky's ideas--it is hard to imagine a stronger recommendation!).

Steven Thorne and James Lantolf point out, in their book "Sociocultural Theory and the Genesis of Second Language Development" that mediation really is connected to volition--it's through mediation that human beings exercise volition over their own brains! But there are areas of the language that are not subject to volition, and lie beyond either social or psychological control; they are simply the inputs of phylogenesis.

I don't think impro or performance are beyond control, though; they seem completely subject to the child's volition, although as you point out they are "tool-and-result" rather than "tool-then-result" in their activity structure (and even in their linguistic structure).

On the other hand, I DO think it is important for linguists stop treating language as sui generis. Only then can we understand how language develops out of non-language, and how a second language does not simply develop out of a first, but in some sense returns us to origins as well.

Vygotsky undoubtedly had a big head start on us from his familiarity with the work of Volosinov (they often quote exactly the same examples from Dostoevsky and Mandelstam).

Volosinov really denies that meaning begins with human consciousness; he shows that even before the husband and wife longing for spring notice it, a snowfall in May "means" that spring is not around the corner. In the same way, as Roy Harris points out, the hum of a male mosquito "means" redundancy to the impregnated female mosquito. Peirce insisted that iconic meaning is meaning.

Meaning is, therefore, not always mediated by human will or even human consciousness; human will and consciousness builds on something that is already there.

I had a performance artist friend who was a Korean adoptee raised in America. Returning to Korea, she had a hard time with the language, and she made up cards explaining why she couldn't speak her own mother tongue in Korean to give out when people complained about her using English in public. At an art exhibit we did together, she performed the neat trick of transcribing this Korean language card in English letters, and then transcribing the English translation into Korean hanggeul characters.

It was by far the most popular painting in the exhibition; long after people had figured out the trick, they would stand there quite entranced with their newfound ability to read Korean in English letters and English in Korean characters. There was something wonderfully universalist in all this: the idea that any human writing system can record, more or less, the sounds of any human vocal tract. Somehow it pointed us in the direction of the shared phylogenetic substrate, the non-mediated origins, of all language.

David Kellogg
Seoul National University of Education

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