What is language? The answer seems obvious until you think about it. Is language a set of rules that describe a particular tongue? If so, where are those rules? If the rules are in the heads of speakers, how did they get there? If speakers were taught the rules by their elders, how could language have begun? As Bertrand Russell said, we can hardly imagine some prehistoric parliament where people agreed on what words to use for what.
If, as we just saw, a line of reasoning about human behavior suggests the activity could never have had a beginning, there may be something wrong with the reasoning. I have been reading a book by Daniel Dor, The Instruction of Imagination, which offers a different approach to the nature of language.
We can follow Dor’s logic by considering what I call the speech triangle: a speaker and a listener paying joint attention to a topic. Dor does not use the term joint-attention; he prefers intersubjectivity. The terms are similar, but (as I get it) joint-attention refers to the state of two or more minds while intersubjectivity refers to what is going on between the minds.
Suppose Alphonse is telling Bertrand about his concerns about his daughter and a man she has been seeing. As Dor would put it, the two are in an intersubjective relation maintained by the words, speech rhythms and syntax used. These things exist out there in the real world, ready to be overheard by an eavesdropper or recorded by a microphone. In other words, the relation is maintained by set of discoverable objects that existed prior to the conversation.
That established existence makes their words and syntax part of an existing technology. (“Each of [language’s] components has to be built before it can be used” [p. 25].) We can quibble about that – e.g., Edgar Poe’s tintinnabulation of the bells – but the point is clear and is one frequently made by Chomsky: language uses existing words and rules to say new things.
What’s more, the technology was not and is not constructed by anybody. It is a social construction, created by the very act they are engaged in. Suppose Alphonse says that he is worried that his daughter’s suitor is a rapescallion, creating a new portmanteau word out of rape and rapscallion. Bertrand has never heard the term before but likes it and uses it a few days later. Suddenly, there is a dialect of English that includes a word not found elsewhere. This constant social construction has gone on for however many millennia language has existed.
This all may sound obvious but it is a direct challenge to the Chomskyan distinction between i- and e-languages. In that theory i-languages exist in the head of every human being and are innate. Chomsky is only interested in i-language while Dor denies that there is any such thing. Language is a socially constructed technology.
If it is a technology, it must have a use. We can say generally, just looking at the speech triangle, that it is used to communicate. Alphonse communicates his paternal concerns to Bertrand who offers his thoughts on the topic.
But communication is too vague a word. Dogs bark in a variety of emotional states, but they never bark about their concerns for their darling daughter. Why not?
Alphonse and Bertrand are separate individuals, made distinct by their difference experiences, tastes, thoughts, ambitions, etc. The difference Dor concentrates on is the difference between their experiences. In this case, Alphonse has had a host of experiences with his daughter which has led him to worries previously unknown to his listener. Between the two lies an experience gap that Alphonse wishes to cross.
We can imagine Alphonse trying to b the gap by trying to communicate his experiences to Bertrand, but language is not very good at reproducing experiences. Alphonse might describe what he saw, but that description does not transfer his experience to Bertrand. Alphonse might have been deeply disturbed by something he saw the cad do, but when it comes to reproducing the experience, he might be reduced to saying, “Words fail me. I don’t now how to describe what that moment did to me.”
What language can do is instruct the imagination of the listener. Imagination is the ability to recall different experiences and “re-combine them into new experiences that are not themselves directly given by experience.”  For example, Alphonse says, “I saw the cad being rude to Cynthia.” Bertrand has not had this experience, but has had the experience of people being rude and the experience of loving someone. By combining these two experiences, Bertrand can get some understanding of why Alphonse is troubled, even without experiencing the scene himself.
Creative imagination does the same thing, as when Ben Franklin linked a kite, a key and an electric storm into one event.
Alphonse’s remarks instruct Bertrand’s imagination on how to bridge the experience gap between the two and appreciate Alphonse’s remarks. Even in the complete absence of both daughter, suitor and their worrisome interactions, the speaker and listener can understand one another.
Here then is Dor’s interesting new definition of language: language is a socially constructed communication technology used to instruct imaginations.
I will have more to say about this, but first I want to lay out Dor’s theory in a few posts.