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Selected Books by Edmund Blair Bolles

  • Galileo's Commandment: 2500 Years of Great Science Writing
  • The Ice Finders: How a Poet, a Professor, and a Politician Discovered the Ice Age
  • Einstein Defiant: Genius vs Genius in the Quantum Revolution

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what's a word?
BLOGGER: A word is a tool for piloting attention.


“Thought seems to be older than language. After all, chimpanzees can act intelligently even without using either machine logic or syntactic strings”. So, the question of last week's post (which came first, words or syntax?) can be reformulated in the following way: Is there identity between perceptive compositionality and syntactic compositionality? This is a crucial question. Contra conceptual semantics or Fodor’s mentalese, my bet is that they are very different. Unlike in perceptive compositionality, in syntactic compositionality the elements are focused on separately (agent / action, or location / category, etc.)
BLOGGER: Reformulating the question in terms of compositionality is interesting, but may obscure what I’m talking about. Compositionality, as I understand it, says that the meaning of a statement is fixed by the statement’s structure and the meaning of its elements. It works very well when we are talking about a mathematical statement. For example, the meaning of an equation like F=ma seems to depend entirely on structure and symbols. It is more problematical in natural languages. A sentence like, “Oh, sure, I’d love to take a job with low pay and no benefits,” may mean the exact opposite of what its structure and elements indicate. The meaning of a statement like, “Wow” seems to depend entirely on things outside the statement itself. If we say, as this blog does, that words pilot attention, natural language almost never gets its full meaning without referencing things beyond the statement itself. As for “perceptive compositionality” I’ve never encountered the term before so I suppose I should think about this a bit. My first reaction, however, is to recall the primary doctrine of gestalt psychologists who preached that perceptions are different from the sum of their parts. If that idea is right, perception is not compositional.


*Sentences without words can be difficult to imagine if you've never seen it. For a description see Susan Schaller's A Man Without Words, where she recounts a group of languageless adults exchanging their personal histories. Still,

*the question is not at all clear. You can't really mean language is not compositional because prosodics are not elements of the message(?). You seem to say perceptual thought evolves a lexicon of words, aka tools to pilot attn. These tools would include mutual shared eyegaze, but definitely not nouns and verbs like doggie—if I just sign the word for doggie it rarely directs attention anywhere, even if an actual dog is handy. These tools would also presumably include other pointing gestures, affective facial expressions, and pantomimed actions. Then syntactic(?) rules would organize these elements, typically as object-agent if arranged linearly. Further social conventions would lead to stable form-meaning pairs used as symbols, which is what Chomsky means by word, or more accurately morpheme. So which are we asking came first—your lexicon of tools or his lexicon of morphemes?
BLOGGER: The remark, "You seem to say perceptual thought evolves a lexicon of words" has it backwards. The lexicon directs attention, not attention the lexicon. The commenter may think that a word like doggie directs attention nowhere, but brain studies indicate that when a word like doggie is used, the brain’s visual area responds, suggesting that even in the absence of a physical dog, the listener/reader’s attention is directed to the image of a dog. As for not meaning “language is not compositional because prosodics are not elements of the message,” uh, no I didn’t mean that and don’t believe I said it. The problem I see with compositionality is that it does not allow for non-linguistic information to be included in determining the meaning of a sentence. But language typically casts attention outside the dictionary and outside the syntax. This problem comes up repeatedly when trying to program a computer to use everyday language. Typical solutions are some kind of commonsense database that covers lots of situations not included in the dictionary.

if I just sign the word for doggie it rarely directs attention anywhere,
because few people know sign language. The majority of people will not realize that what I did is language, or even communication. If their attn is piloted anywhere at all, they look at my hand. Only the rare few who know the same sign language that the word is signed in, by having been taught the social convention that this production is meant to be linked to the image of a dog, will direct their attn as they have been taught. In speech as well, if I produce the Miluk word for doggie, since no one has learned the social convention of linking that sound to a dog image, since no one speaks Miluk, they will at best direct their attn to the source where the sound came from; my mouth, not a dog.

So in this sense words do not direct attention. In a possibly different sense, shared mutual eyegaze and pointing unarguably do direct attn, and possibly pantomime and facial expressions, establishing the speech triangle as the first step towards language. It would make sense to call these “words” or proto-words, and they organize into typical patterns that it would make sense to call “syntax”, or proto-syntax, or maybe perceptual syntax. All this is attested in communication prior to “linguistic information” with “words” as normally defined, so whether 'syntax' precedes 'words' requires a coherent definition of what is meant by these terms.


Hi, I found your site using Yauhoooo, does your site support Firefox?
BLOGGER: I use Firefox to view my blog all the time.


Hi, I found your site using Yauhoooo, does your site support Firefox?

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