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[xmca] Queepness and Deeptitude

Carol will know this one. In Whorf's great book, "Language, Thought, and Reality" he points out that it's possible to divide our responses to decontextualized, isolated sounds in more or less the way that Chomsky and Halle bifurcated distinctive features (e.g. the "aspiration" that divides /p/ from /b/). 
So for example it is possible to get fairly reliable answers, in almost any language, about whether a sound like /i/ is sharp or dull, fast or slow, narrow or wide, light or dark. Most people, no matter what language they speak, will agree that the sound /i/ that we find at the end of Vygotsky's name is sharp and not dull, fast and not slow, narrow and not wide. 
(This does not, actually, tell us as much as we think. Shweder points out that most people in the world will agree that God is active, strong, and good, but they will say exactly the same thing about ice cream, without really being able to form a meaningful superordinate concept that includes both.)
Accordingly, most people, including English speakers, find that the made up word "queep" is sharp, fast, and narrow. Now, most people will have the same response to the sound of the word "deep", that is /dip/. 
But not English speakers. For English speakers, the sound /dip/ is dull and not sharp, slow and not fast, and wide rather than narrow. Is the difference really, as Chomsky and Hall would tell us, in a single bundle of distinctive phonetic features? Of course not. 
Chomsky and Halle (and any analysis which uses the word "phoneme") is an almost perfect example of what Vygotsky disparagingly referred to as "analysis into elements" as opposed to units. "Distinctive features" (e.g. aspiration, fronting, voicing, etc) are simply not the source of meaning any more than oxygen is the source of water's ability to extinguish fire. 
It seems to me that Carol's position and Joseph's, although apparently irreconcilable, are really complementary. Language is indeed based on biomechanically produced sounds (and these are what are represented in the writing system rather than phonemes). Phonology, on the other hand, is indeed based on a structuralist analysis of words into minimal distinctions (and this is why Chomksy and Halle style phonetics has had negligible success in explaining the actual facts of human pronunciation in use). 
Ergo, language is not based on phonemes. Phonology may be, but this only shows us that it has not achieved the kind of abstraction that would help us understand meaning in language. It has instead only managed to produce the kind of "rising to generality" that Vygotsky criticizes in Chapter One of Thinking and Speech, with respect to the useless and banal discovery that all forms of water contain oxygen. At this level of generalization (because we must not confuse it with a genuine abstraction with which we might rise to the concrete), it really makes no difference whether we call call it oxygen or phlogiston.
And here is where I think Joseph's observation on the emotional substratum becomes genuinely useful. At the end of the section of  Thinking and Speech I was discussing last time, Vygotsky discusses the work of Blanche Learned, who was Yerkes' protege. She had produced a dictionary of chimpanzee sounds, and discovered that there were, indeed, some 32 naturally produced "words" used quite consistently, in a variety of situations such as waiting for food, eating, fighting, etc. ALL of these words were distinguished by their EMOTIONAL rather than their IDEATIONAL content.
If we want to explain how language can be always and everywhere linked to human culture, and yet human culture is NOT always and everywhere linked to humans, and has the potential of including other species, we could do worse than to look at this emotional substratum of meaning. 
I think that was Joseph's point, and when we remove the somewhat mystical set of responses to "a" and "z", which I think are really at the level of God and ice cream, we find that Joseph's poit is a valid one. "Queepness" and "Deeptitude", a fusion of the biomechanical and the sociocultural, really are at the basis of the trans-species shareability of human language. 
David Kellogg
Seoul National University of Education

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