language and mind

June 6, 2011

Is it me, or am I a primitive – the atomic Leibnizian optimism

Filed under: language processing, language use — Tags: , , — teresapelka @ 5:05 pm

In this possibly best of Universes – ‘whoever’s got a better idea give’m a go’ – telling apples from pears has had a good career as an accomplished course in human thinking. Neither of the two being possibly more perfect than the other produce, one may feel like coming up with the third kind of fruit sometimes (please feel welcome to see my Chinese pear). Linguistics belonging definitely with this modern world, the Leibnizian versus Cartesian dispute remains part the stratagem.

Leibnizian monads happen to be compared to atoms – individual and indivisible, they would be however un-interacting entities in the dualist Leibnizian picture of the world as divided between the physical and the non-material. Descartes did not avoid the perils of dualism either; he assumed some interaction between the body and mind, however.

(Possibly a trivial remark to the firm philosopher, yet Leibniz wrote in three languages: Latin, French, and German. Descartes wrote in Latin and French. Latin in the times of both the authors was already a dead language present in their contemporary realities as an influence to the tongues they spoke. Leibniz as a writer in two languages contemporary to himself went into a non-interactive vision of the world. Descartes as a writer in one language contemporary to himself, assumed interaction of the non-physical with the material. :) )

Why look for the ‘third fruit’? The dualist and the non-interactive representations of the world would not provide for a viable picture of a live language. Let us think about the work of Ann Wierzbicki, a professed Leibnizian. She proposes a theory of elementary units of meaning she terms semantic primitives or primes. The primitives or primes could not be further divided and would not yield to change – the pronouns ‘I’ and ‘you’ being examples. Those elementary units would be moreover universal – the idea is to find a universal and natural semantic metalanguage about this contemporary Earth.

Obviously, everyone to have ever read Shakespeare would not agree with the idea of the unchangeable ‘you’. The semantic prime perception is however that there are meanings that might be innate. Inherited from the ancestors, they would only take on various sound shapes. A non-trivial remark here would be that writing is as natural to the contemporary human as speaking. You might say you go to school to learn your spelling. Yet, humans would not produce speech sounds without language learning, either. Everyone needs to learn from another human, whether it’s speech, writing, or reading – going to school is not going to another planet to sit with a mumchance extraterrestrial.

How would things be with the ‘Chinese pear’? Humans are believed to generate speech. This means that their neurons synchronously interact in a multilayered fashion to process meaning. Further, any written or spoken language is only a possible realization of the intended meaning. Humans can rephrase, revert, alter, etc. their locutions. With regard to interaction, the generativist approach is closer to the Cartesian stand. Psycholinguistics does not support Cartesian dualism, however.

The intentions obviously not being to split the atom, the reality of the human brain does not succor the primitive perspective. Let us now think about the proposed semantic primes, the pronouns ‘I’ and ‘you’. They have gained fine recognition with American poets. There are pro-drop and non-pro-drop languages in this contemporary world. The non-pro-drop tongues, like English, are going to use the personal pronoun in the so-called head position, like in ‘I don’t know’. A pro-drop language is going to drop the pronoun and put the information about the head in the ending. ‘Nie znaiu’ in Russian would be equivalent to ‘I don’t know’ in English, for example.

The consequence is that pronouns work different in syntactic structures of pro-drop and non-pro-drop languages, forming different information pools. If you use the pronoun in a pro-drop language, you could be giving more emphasis to what you say. ‘Ia nie znaiu’ would give information about the person twice. It’s equivalent in English could be ‘It’s not me to know’, ‘It’s not me you should ask’, or ‘I really don’t know’. On the other hand, it takes a dummy to talk about the weather in English ;)

Naturally, the facts do not make humans biologically divided into those with their brains to operate the pro-drop and those with non-pro-drop parameters. Human brains can use both the ‘catches’: many persons in this world (again) are fluent in a pro-drop and non-pro-drop language (the author included :)).

All tongues require a context to specify the pool for language information processing. This processing obviously takes different neural interactions to involve different neural feedback cycles – however mystical would be the reason to say ‘It’s me’, not ‘It’s I’. ;)

The primitives as listed and proposed for universals could not be translated into single lexical items in other languages. They would translate into various words in context. Not possibly having a cross-linguistic, one-for-one correspondence in their lexical meaning, they would be non-information as regards language. Well, a universal, semantic, and natural metalanguage will not be a convincing concept to me. I am also a translator.

‘Ya see that guy in the gym yesterday?’

‘Real bad.’

‘Some incredible hunky…’

(Imagine two attracted young women or two young heterosexual men speaking about a male – the senses of ‘bad’, ‘hunky’, and ‘incredible’ might turn out totally different: colloquial language use allows adjectives in noun positions and vice versa). :)

Please feel welcome to compare my observations on the use of the Greek particle meta- (‘Metaphysics as in this real world‘, my another post).

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