Last week’s post drew an unusually large number
of comments for this blog. One, by JanetK, ended with, “I can see how
syntactic structure can be independent of the meaning of words, but I
have difficulty imagining a sentence without any words at all.” This
objection is standard when contemplating Chomsky’s theory that language
began as a medium of thought and only later became a medium of
communication. There is, however, a rebuttal. Thought seems to be older
than language. After all, chimpanzees can act intelligently even
without using either machine logic or syntactic strings.
Vertebrate thought is perceptual. Instead of using logical symbols or sentences,its basic elements are sensations. One sensation by itself is meaningless but they can produce associations so that a smell sensation can evoke a visual one. For example, stepping into a house where cooking is going on can evoke an image of that food. Humans tend to verbalize their associations, smelling something and saying, "Spaghetti." But animals can have the sensory associations even without the words. The meaning of a sensation is its associations. I often wonder if Pavlov's dogs, upon hearing a bell, visualized the food that made them salivate.
For a highly verbal thinker like me, imagining thought without language can be difficult, but even I can watch a sporting event and react to the perception without having to translate it into words. In a tense duel between batter and pitcher, I relax the moment I see the third strike. I react with a jolt the instant I see a home run ball hit. When I see an especially important player come to bat, I become more alert. These physical changes are all the result of perception, not of translating the perception into words. Animals, it seems, can live this life constantly, living in the moment, alert to what is going on, reacting to what may happen or has just happened.
Language without perception, however, is problematical. The point was
made in another recent comment, this time about one of the oldest posts
on this blog. Adrian Morgan recently quoted Terry Pratchett:it's very hard to talk quantum using a language originally designed to tell the other monkeys where the ripe fruit is.
But the challenge from quantum mechanics is more profound than that
because quantum physics contradicts the world experienced through perception. The
amazing thing is that we can "talk quantum" using the peculiar logical
symbols we have invented for the purpose. We can make amazingly
accurate predictions about quantum experiments, but we cannot
understand, or at least we cannot visualize
the events they refer to, not even metaphorically, because the world
they predict is nothing like the one we perceive.
Particularly odd is
the way space appears to work very differently at the quantum level. We
cannot describe an electron's motion using the normal prepositions. We
cannot say that an electron went through something, or around it,
or that it did both at the same time, or that it did neither. As the
philosopher of science David Z. Albert puts it in his book Quantum Mechanics and Experience
To put it in Pratchett terms: it's very hard for us to think about a
quantum world when we evolved in a world where fruit is
either here or there or in between.
The evolution of perception and perceptual thought is an absolute requirement for organizing words into sentences. That point might seem obvious, but it is absent from the algebra of Chomsky's syntax and from efforts to equate machine logic with vertebrate intelligence. It is possible that humans have some powers of perception that are lacking in chimpanzees, but if we do, those talents have yet to be discovered. On the whole, apes seem to live more in the moment than we do, which is to say they are more engaged with their perceptions than we are with ours. We live in a metaphorical, mythical world and although those metaphors and myths are based on perception, they distract us from the here and now.
Returning to the question of last week's post—which came first, words or syntax?—the answer seems to be the ever-popular, ever-frustrating: it depends.
Syntax came before words IF you understand syntax perceptually. One-year-old children speak in single words, but they can respond appropriately to more complicated speech. You can tell a toddler, for example, to turn off a television and off goes the TV even though the toddler cannot speak any of the words he recognized. Similarly, I can read and understand Shakespeare, but I cannot use language so brilliantly.
Syntax came after words, however, IF you understand syntax as a set of rules for organizing strings. Strings of what? Quoting the master: Words, words, words.