June 11, 2004

The strange, new sight

In the wake of the Science article about Rico the border collie, I thought it might reduce Geoff Pullum's blood pressure to read three paragraphs from the autobiography of Helen Keller, featured in Walker Percy's essay The Delta Factor. The quotation from Keller is introduced by a few sentences of Percy.

Then I began thinking about what happened between Helen Keller and Miss Sullivan in Tuscumbia, Alabama, on another summer morning in 1887. You recall the story. The heart of it is in three short paragraphs. Earlier, Helen had learned to respond like any other good animal: When she wanted a piece of cake, she spelled the word in Miss Sullivan's hand and Miss Sullivan fetched the cake (like the chimp Washoe, who gives hand signals: tickle, banana, etc.). Then Miss Sullivan took her for a walk.

We walked down the path to the well-house, attracted by the fragrance of the honeysuckle with which it was covered. Someone was drawing water and my teacher placed my hand under the spout. As the cool stream gushed over one hand, she spelled into the other the word water, first slowly then rapidly. I stood still, my whole attention fixed upon the motion of her fingers. Suddenly I felt a misty consciousness as of something forgotten--a thrill of returning thought, and somehow the mystery of language was revealed to me. I knew then that "w-a-t-e-r" meant the wonderful cool something that was flowing over my hand. That living word awakened my soul, gave it light, hope, joy set it free! There were barriers still, it is true, but barriers that could in time be swept away.

I left the well-house eager to learn. Everything had a name, and each name gave birth to a new thought. As we returned to the house every object which I touched seemed to quiver with life. That was because I saw everything with the strange, new sight that had come to me. On entering the door I remembered the doll I had broken. [She had earlier destroyed the doll in a fit of temper.] I felt my way to the hearth and picked up the pieces. I tried vainly to put them together. Then my eyes filled with tears, for I realized what I had done, and for the first time I felt repentence and sorow.

I learned a great may new words that day. I do not remember what they all were, but I do know that mother, father, sister, teacher were among them--words that were to make the world blossom for me, "like Aaron's rod with flowers." It would have been difficult to find a happier child than I was as I lay in my crib at the close of that eventful day and lived over the joys it had brought me, and for the first time longed for a new day to come.

In another essay, Interpersonal Process, Percy wrote:

... one can use the word mean analogically and say that thunder means rain to the chicken and that the symbol water means water to Helen Keller. But the symbol does something the sign fails to do. It sets the object at a distance and in a public zone, where it is beheld intersubjectively by the community of symbol users. As Langer put it, say James to a dog, and, as a good sign-using animal he will go look for James. Say James to you, and if you know a James, you will ask, "What about him?"

"Langer" is Susanne Langer; Percy doesn't footnote the reference, but I believe it is to Philosophy in a New Key, Harvard University Press, 1957.

Paul Bloom raises related issues in his "Perspective" (Science, Vol 304, Issue 5677, 1605-1606 , 11 June 2004) on the article about Rico (Juliane Kaminski, Josep Call, Julia Fischer. "Word Learning in a Domestic Dog: Evidence for 'Fast Mapping'". Science, Vol 304, Issue 5677, 1682-1683 , 11 June 2004). Rico's reaction to "James" is not specified, but as I understand the Kaminski et al. article, Langer predicted it correctly. The exciting news -- and it is genuinely interesting, I think -- is that Rico can learn quickly, sometimes even in just one trial, what a vocal sign ike "James" refers to. I have some questions about how Rico classifies vocal noises phonetically -- in other words, what counts as an utterance of "James", versus (say) "chains" by the same speaker versus "James" by a different one -- but that can wait for another day.

[Update: Ray Girvan emails that:

However, some have criticised Langer's 'sudden dawning of meaning' interpretation of Keller's experience. John McCrone, particularly, has argued from the documented sources that the standard Keller story is highly romanticised and based on unreliable personal recollection.

"Helen may have remembered her awakening to language as a sudden revelation at the garden pump, but Annie Sullivan's diary tells that it took many weeks of fingerspelling on Helen's hands before connections started to be made in her mind". - http://www.btinternet.com/~neuronaut/webtwo_features_keller.htm

This seems very likely. Certainly Keller's narrative is literature, not science. But Percy's comment on Keller's story is that she had simply compressed into a few hours an experience that normally takes place over a few years, in the normal development of children. On this interpretation, the exaggertion and romanticization improve the narrative but don't change its basic form.]

Posted by Mark Liberman at June 11, 2004 02:55 AM