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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

« The Idea of Language | Main | Interfering with Metaphorical Thinking »



This is a very informative post and goes to the heart of why people are talking past one another rather than engaging in real discussion. Stick to your approach!


John Milton's definition of language: “the instrument conveying to us things useful to be known.” is not very useful. My eyes, tongue, limbs, ears, breath, pain nerves, hands, in fact, nearly any part of my anatomy. are also “the instrument[s] conveying to us things useful to be known.” Samuel Johnson's definition is much too narrow. In discussing Bickerton's ideas you are confusing evolution (i.e., change over time) with one of its mechanisms, natural selection. What does the selecting is the environment in which the organism finds itself. Some changes lead to death, other changes lead to survival and the passing of one's genes on to the next generation, but only if those genes lead to a phenotype compatible with the environment in which it is in. What survival power does imagination have? In what sense can imagination cope with the environment and its contingencies? To survive an organism must adjust to those contingencies. How does imagination serve that purpose? Before you can have imagination don't you first have to have experience?

You're on the right track when you talk of language as behavior and not some kind of abstract structural system. But what kind of ontogeny leads to this behavior? What kind of interactions between the individual organism and its environment lead to language behavior? From observing these interactions and experimental analysis of these interactions can we uncover the operating principles of initiating, maintaining, and varying this behavior? Finally, what differentiates this behavior from all other ways of behaving? Once we understand these things, then maybe we can come up with a satisfactory definition of language.
BLOGGER: In defense of Milton, the man would have been very surprised to have the senses or anatomy brought into it. He assumed that the body was a gift from God, while language was Adam's invention.


Studying linguistics myself, I'm not sure if I agree with your description. The structuralist and formalist approaches to language may have been very influential and at times dominant in the 20th century, but there always were competing and equally important strands of linguistics. Karl Bühler for example, who created the "Organon"(Instrument)-Model of language(which he partly derived from Plato, who coined the idea of language as an "instrument")has been very influential in linguistics. He also saw the direction and creation of attention as one of the most cruial aspects of language. Other psychologists and scholars who were very much concerned with the functions of language also influenced linguistics over the years, as can be read in Chris Sinha's thorough historical analysis:,71770,en.pdf

Cognitive Linguistics is also commited to integrating language into a more general and functional account of cognition, and it is not a coincidence that a major school that competes with formalism is called functionalism. It is called so precisely because it is concerned with the functions performed by language. Roman Jakobson and the 1930s Prague School of linguistics were also heavily influenced by semiotics and de Saussure but still did important work on and were to a large degree concerned with the communicative functions of language.
Bickerton comes from the Chomskyan/Formalist school of linguistics, and many of his shortcomings or his perspective in general can be explained by this. But these views are in no way representative for the whole of linguistics and you and linguists in general do not run in different directions - quite to the contrary.

Jesús Sanchis

Defining language is obviously no easy task. Sometimes, I feel that some of the definitions are not about 'language' as we know it, but about the pre-requisites for language. Let's see an excerpt from the post:

"On this blog language is defined as a means of perceiving by other means. It pilots joint attention to produce a shared perception".

Does it make sense to define language without mentioning a community of speakers? The only condition for human language is that there is a human group behind it. Language is born, articulated, constructed as a collective thing. Defining language outside this sphere is a poor attempt at understanding it. Descriptive grammarians, structuralists and Chomsky share the same mistake: they confuse 'language' with a 'metaphor of language', namely that language is basically a set of rules. Not to mention other definitions with partial views of language. On the whole, I think that what is being discussed in this post is not "definitions of language" but "definitions of some aspects connected with language".
BLOGGER: I was hoping that "shared" implied the community of speakers.


Excelent jesus, sanchis, I completelly agree with the ending.


Thanks for the ongoing commentary on Bickerton. I found his book very suggestive, but so are your comments and objections as well. As you say, language is a phenomenon with many sides to it, and all the more complex when these different sides seem to have complex effects on the others as they develop, in a feedback process which led to the language explosion. A slo-mo explosion, to be sure, but fast enough compared with the manners of ants. As an instance of this feedback, just think of combining Bickerton's emphasis on de-localization with your own take on joint attention. A process of joint attention to something which is not here surely requires a more developed instrument, and also a more elaborate social capability for joint attention, than interaction about present objects. I find that both your approaches, while they may place an emphasis on different aspects of the whole, are complementary rather than antagonistic.


"Saussure gave linguists a view of language that ensured that linguists and only linguists would study it, and now they are trapped with a definition that elbows out the contributions of biologists, palaeontologists or anybody else."

I agree very much with this statement! There has been a call for a while now that evolutionary linguistics needs more participation from people who know about linguistics, but I think it's equally important that linguists are aware of research in the origins of that which they study! Thank you for the great post.

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