This is not a cat.

Discussion in 'Linguistics' started by Magical Realist, Mar 23, 2011.

  1. Magical Realist Valued Senior Member

    Lilalena posted:

    I had just resolved to never scroll down (to Free thoughts, Life, and Members) again. Yet here I am.

    Uhhh YEAH..if reading threads like these upsets you and your buddy DweedleDee so much then maybe you ought to avoid them in the future. Perhaps entering "Anything having to with philosophy." in your ignore list will work for you.

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  3. Captain Kremmen All aboard, me Hearties! Valued Senior Member

    Just a thought.
    I wonder if anything that gives information can be said to have a language..
    Has a clock got a language?
    The position of its hands symbolise time.
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  5. Magical Realist Valued Senior Member

    I definitely agree with that. The more words to describe the more specific the description. "The old black cat that is lying underneath the pine tree" for instance can refer to a specific cat without even having to point out the cat with words like "this cat" or "that cat". So in this case a whole phrase is taken as representing or referring to a specific cat. It may not even be a phrase that you've ever spoken or will speak again. But still we know what exactly what cat it is designating. That amazes me, how words, and combinations of words, can do that. Am I perhaps too easily astounded?

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  7. Lilalena Registered Senior Member

    So what are you proposing, that God created the word cat?

    General consensus doesn't have to be reached in a literal way. Did someone call a meeting and ask everyone for their votes? No.

    There are many ways consensus on a language can be reached. One example: dictionaries. The English language's evolution is said to have slowed down considerably when Samuel Johnson’s dictionary arrived. Of course a dictionary must keep up with a language's evolution, but it’s still a powerful tool for creating consensus.

    Language is arbitrary, it’s basic linguistics. I haven’t made an original statement. I’m not trying to convince you of any personal theory. This is textbook stuff.

    Our problem here is that 'arbitrary' as used in everyday life seems fully equivalent to the word 'random'. As used in philosophy, its meaning takes on a bit more subtlety. It retains the sense of ‘random’ BUT does not preclude consensus / is not contradicted by the idea of a consensus having been reached.

    So people who are not that into philosophy will use the word ‘arbitrary’ referring to its everyday life meaning.

    Those with some background in philosophy will use the other slightly different meaning.

    Result: zero communication unless we agree on which sense of arbitrary to use on this thread. You have mentioned familiarity with Saussure & Derrida and have this life burden thing to do with linguistics so I really did not expect to encounter any disagreement from you on the point of language’s arbitrariness.

    What’s more, you posted the Rene Magritte painting. What do you think Magritte is trying to say in it?

    Wikipedia: “In a language, the array of arbitrary signs connected to specific meanings is called the lexicon” (Wikipedia, under ‘Semantics’

    Saussure: "the bond between the signifier and the signified is arbitrary.", although less reliable, still does not disagree: “Languages are said to be arbitrary because there is no necessary or natural relationship between the words of a given language and the concepts that they represent.”

    “A language is a system of arbitrary vocal symbols by means of which a social group cooperates.” (Bernard Bloch, a follower of Saussure, just like Chomsky)

    Listen Magical Realist, I never said you shouldn't ask these questions. The cause of my annoyance was realising that you posed the question in order to teach the answer. It's not a problem to me that you hadn't read the primary sources, the problem was that you were positioning yourself as a teacher - without having taken the trouble of learning what you were trying to teach.

    However, you are right, I shouldn't have snapped at you before. I have asked many questions here myself that people have found / continue to find silly but in general they have been patient with me so I owe it at least to them to be patient too. So you should know that this is not personal. It is not as if I think you're a bad person or anything. It wouldn't be such a surprise to me if you were actually a nice person in real life. I just happen to find you very irritating, here on this forum, that's all.
  8. Fraggle Rocker Staff Member

    Sure. Somewhere between fifteen and four hundred thousand years ago, when they got tired of pointing and pantomiming, and of looking around and realizing the thing they wanted to point to wasn't nearby or the action they wanted to pantomime was too cumbersome.

    At that time, most of the things in their realm of observation and experience were natural. Today it's just the opposite. Most of us can easily spend an entire day without encountering something that wasn't built by humans. So something that we've carried forward for thousands of years seems pretty "natural" by our standards.

    Besides, what's the big deal if we invented language? Language is a tool and we invented all of our tools. It's what we do: Homo sapiens, "Man the wise."
    Apparently you enjoy activities centered around the use of language so much that you can lose yourself in them. You'll fit in very well on SciForums.
    Actually you are nowhere near any of those subforums. Linguistics is grouped with the hard sciences, to my amazement. AFAIC it's almost as "soft" a "science" as economics.
    We all scrupulously avoid prejudicial actions towards threads that we ourselves don't happen to enjoy. Besides, except for the two of us everyone else here seems to be having a fabulous time.
    Those old car horns went "a-OO-gah! a-OO-gah!" In my day there were still a few of them around. Today it's restricted to the (now electronic) sound on a submarine warning that the hatches are closing and the vessel is about to dive. The sound is similar to the old auto horns, but much louder. For reasons unknown to me the Marines have adopted OO-rah, an approximation of it by the human vocal apparatus, as their shout of encouragement and camaraderie. The Marine Corps is a subsidiary of the Navy--one that doesn't spend much time in the water in modern warfare--but that's the only connection I can find.

    All words can change meaning in ways that seem arbitrary to those who weren't involved in the change.
    Except the very first one(s), of course.
    Why of course they do. If they didn't agree then how would the word acquire its meaning? The agreement is unconscious for most people, but not all. Journalists, politicians, popular entertainers, and leaders of any community from a church to a labor union to a street gang have tremendous power to guide the definition, acceptance and rejection of words.
    As an editor I often play a role in that process. Just yesterday I chastised a friend for calling NBC an acronym when it's nothing but an abbreviation. Some dictionaries already record that misuse of the word, but we need to reserve it for an abbreviation that can be pronounced as a word. Let's not have another "buffalo" that's actually a species of bison, or a "polecat" that's a species of skunk.
    Balderdash. It only takes a few leaders to help mold a language into a powerful tool instead of a collection of haphazard concatenations of sounds with haphazard referents.
    It doesn't fit any definition of the word "language" that I have seen. A language is comprised of discrete symbols. The display on an analog clock is dynamic. Of course a digital clock could be said to display language, except for the deal-breaker that numerals don't fit the definition of writing symbols. Everyone reads them as the corresponding words in his own language. Numerals are ideograms like the universal signs for "ladies' room" or "do not enter," not logograms.
    Of course it wasn't long before its evolution resumed at breakneck speed. Today there are one million English words. If someone knew them all she would be a 12 on my fluency scale.
    Omigod, an embedded example of the importance of consensus in establishing language as a useful tool!
  9. Magical Realist Valued Senior Member


    A couple of points then I'm done with you. You don't impress me as a very nice person. You can't even apologize decently without taking one last stab at who you have concluded I am. I have to think that if someone as new and as harmless as myself can be so quickly attacked by you for no reason at all then I'd hate to imagine how you treat the people you actually DO know in your life. Don't worry though..I won't put you with Dweedledee on my "ignore list", but suffice it to say I'm not much inclined to conversate with ANYone with such a huge chip on their shoulder. I MAY still read your posts since you DO seem intelligent (or at least "well read") but don't wait on me to respond. ok?

    Anyway, so I guess the point I was trying to make about language being formed by non-arbitrary factors such as history and usage and culture was that yes--as we get our language from our parents when we are about 3--using these words ARE consented to. But mere passive consenting is NOT enough to create or evolve language itself. There have to be active forces and even accidental factors as well. Slang useage and contractions for example create new words in direct defiance of the standard rules of speech (non-consent?) Dialects form when geographically-common groups of people pronounce words differently from their mainstream pronunciation. Other words are formed from the mispronunciation of words in a language different from their original language. And the list goes on and on. Consent then is definitely PART of using language, but consent assumes something already created and formed to be consented to. In itself it creates nothing new and changes nothing.

    RE: differing from one of the mainstream philosophical schools of thought, yeah..I do that alot. Just like you probably don't buy Saussure's linguistic "absolutism", I don't happen to buy the myth of some socially-simultaneous and arbitrary naming process being the basis of word creation. Everyone should be able to pick and choose what they believe and don't believe in based on their own reasoning. And that's part of what being a philosopher is all about--thinking for yourself instead of checking to see if Wikipedia entries or a bunch of dead white guys agree with it first. Have you ever tried thinking for yourself? Try it sometime..It really won't hurt THAT much.

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  10. Magical Realist Valued Senior Member

    FraggleRocker posted:

    "In my day there were still a few of them around."

    Good Lord! Just HOW old are you?

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    BTW, every time I read your posts I learn something new that I didn't know before. Thanks for sharing your voluminous knowledge. Are you a polymath?
  11. Dywyddyr Penguinaciously duckalicious. Valued Senior Member

    Kettle! Pot's calling for you.

    Last edited: Mar 25, 2011
  12. Magical Realist Valued Senior Member

    I would say "yes it does" because as far as I can tell all information has to be encoded. And the information of the analog clock is encoded in a system of hand positions, numbers, and increments.

    So would a code be a language? Maybe not in a strict sense. Afterall, it seems to presuppose a language to be translated into. So maybe it is a sub-language. Ofcourse codes do not have to be written symbols or pictures. Take the Morse code for example. But then language doesn't require visible symbols or pictures either. That's why we have speech. Is jazz a language? Birdcalls? hmmmm..MUST..REST..NOW..

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  13. Dywyddyr Penguinaciously duckalicious. Valued Senior Member

    Has to be?

    Er, no. The information is the position of the hands themselves.

    Except that Morse Code does have to written down to train others in its use.
    Last edited: Mar 25, 2011
  14. Captain Kremmen All aboard, me Hearties! Valued Senior Member

    Information has to be symbolised to be communicated.
    In the case of the clock, the information is the time.
    The language, if we can call it that, is the position of the hands, which symbolise the time.
  15. Dywyddyr Penguinaciously duckalicious. Valued Senior Member

    Hmm, not entirely sure, since (with a little arithmetic) you can tell the "time"* even if the clock is consistently slow or fast.
    It's where the hands ARE that gives the information. If you see what I mean?

    * Given that "the time is a human concept" the universe doesn't care if we call 3 o'clock 5 o'clock.
  16. Fraggle Rocker Staff Member

    67. When I was a kid there were a lot of collectors who had cars from the 1920s and 30s, and a few older models that had the "a-OO-gah" horns. I had never heard them called klaxons, much less heard of the Klaxon company who is said to have built them.
    I appreciate hearing that. I've always been a teacher, at times even a paid professional.
    I don't think so. I'm positive that a true polymath would know what the word means and every time I come across it I have to look it up. "A person of great learning in several fields?" I will cop to having some learning in several fields, perhaps even more learning than average in a few of them. But "great learning"? I don't think so.

    Here I am, the Linguistics Moderator, and not only do I not understand half of this discussion, but I don't even care!
    There are many different types of communication and they all have names. A code is a system for converting information from one form into another, for a specific purpose such as brevity, clarity, secrecy, ease of transmission or constraints of storage media. The information must already be expressed in one form for a code to be used. Expressing thoughts in words is not code, it is language.

    It could be argued that converting spoken information into symbols on paper, stone or a CRT is coding, and from a purely pedantic standpoint that would be true. However, we have already established the term "writing" for that particular type of code, the world's oldest and most widely used.
    The hand signals used by deaf people--which are not all the same, even among the anglophone countries--are certainly another kind of language. And contrary to our assumptions, none of them are simply mechanical transcriptions of the local spoken language. For example they omit nearly-meaningless noise-words like articles.
    And writing. I know a deaf man who never learned ASL or lip reading. He communicates only in writing.
    When you've tracked down somebody who can translate it for us, let's talk.

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    Frank Zappa said that music is the only true religion because it actually delivers on its promise to make you feel good, but he never called it language.
    Linguists require a language to have more to it than vocabulary. It has to have syntax, rules for combining words in organized groups which, then, express more meaning than the sum of the individual words. Many species of non-human animals obviously communicate, but they don't put sentences together, or even clauses, so they're not communicating with language.

    Some dogs can learn the meaning of several dozen words, but you can't string them together in groups larger than two. So the primitive "sentence" doesn't really convey any more information than the sum of the meanings of the two words.
    Aha, an emoticon, a member of a new set of ideograms. "Emoticon" is a newly invented word, and its etymology is both obvious and clever. does not identify the first appearance of this word nor the person who first wrote it. Either it sprang up in multiple places, or it spread so rapidly that the originator was never identified.
  17. Magical Realist Valued Senior Member

    An interesting though rather long article pertinent to the discussion at hand. Peruse at your leisure:

  18. Fraggle Rocker Staff Member

    Aha, serendipity. I found the origin of the "Smiley" emoticon in today's newspaper!
  19. Captain Kremmen All aboard, me Hearties! Valued Senior Member


    The words are arbitrary and the order in which they are used are arbitrary.
    In a particular language, they are stable but not static.

    I would guess that in most languages subject comes before object.

    But the basic elements of human language: Subject, Object, Verb and Adjective.
    They are not arbitrary are they?
    In order to ask or give information, you need all four, plus others probably.

    Could you leave any out and still have a language as we know it?
    Last edited: Mar 26, 2011
  20. Dywyddyr Penguinaciously duckalicious. Valued Senior Member

  21. Magical Realist Valued Senior Member

    Darn it. I couldn't access your link because of Java (not the drink). Anyway, I heard yesterday they added "OMG" and "LOL" to the dictionary. I wonder if THESE new words were arbitrary labels? Are acronyms really arbitrary?

    A few other words perhaps not so arbitrary:

    "Mama"? "Bluebird"? Cuss words (alot of them have unvoiced fricative consonants and stop-plosive consonants that make them sound bad).
  22. Magical Realist Valued Senior Member

    That's an interesting paradox. While semantically words are claimed to be arbitrary, grammar seems to be largely innate. A 3 year old can form sentences in no time based on complicated rules that even the most cunning of linguists still has difficulty in defining. To say words are arbitrary while grammar isn't would be like trying to play chess with a bunch of randomly chosen objects. Wouldn't work.
  23. Captain Kremmen All aboard, me Hearties! Valued Senior Member

    Nice links.

    Isn't it rather, that they are using the same words for nouns, verbs and adjectives, and that the word's position in the sentence and its possession or lack of intonation, indicate what type of word it is?
    They still need the basic parts of speech, even if they are only inferred rather than being part of a grammatical system.
    But yes, it shows that grammar is no more innate than words.
    It is arbitrary too.
    Good point.

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