April 19, 2005

Habemus linguam?

The white smoke emerging from the chimney on the roof of the Sistine Chapel to announce the election of Pope Benedict XVI was unquestionably a communication, but not a linguistic one. It's a rather useful example for drawing the distinction, in fact.

Confusing language with communication is the overwhelmingly most frequent linguistic misconception among those who have not studied linguistics. If elephants make low-frequency noises, ordinary folks think, then elephants must have a language. If flowers can be used to say thank you, there is a language of flowers. And so on for the language of love, the universal language of music, etc. etc. When non-linguists are told that mathematical linguists and theoretical computer scientists often conceptualize a language as simply a set of algebraically defined objects such as bracketed symbol strings, they react with blank incomprehension (I vividly remember doing so myself: I simply could not take in the first sentence on page 13 of Chomsky's 1957 book Syntactic Structures). "But where does meaning come into that?", the naive non-specialist immediately wants to know.

When people learn that Chomsky denies that communication is the main function of human language (he thinks that its primary role is just to provide for structured internal representation of thought), they tend to be baffled and incredulous. Indeed, Chomsky's view on this is rather unusual; Ludwig Wittgenstein tried to make out a case that a private language for the internal representation of thought, one that no one else could know even in principle, was an impossibility, an incoherent idea, and that seems closer to the common idea that language always has a social status and a communicative function, and Chomskyan and Wittgensteinian thought are in sharp controversy on that matter. But my point is not about that. My point is that even if human languages were always and necessarily used for interpersonal communication, that isn't a license for going the other way, and saying that wherever there is communication there is language (so that whales must have language, too, and so must ants, etc. etc.).

The smoke signals from the Vatican were certainly this week's most newsworthy communicative acts. The black smoke rising from the first ballot conveyed a message of the utmost importance to the Catholics who wait and watch in St Peter's Square, and the white smoke signalling the announcement "Habemus papam" confirming Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger's election, when it finally came, even more so. All that linguists are pointing out is that while "Habemus papam" is a linguistic communication, the smoke of burning ballots mixed with damp straw is not. If all human communication were done in ways similar to the way the cardinals initially signal their votes (as opposed to the way the camerlengo ultimately makes the official announcement to the waiting crowd), then although there might be a discipline of semiotics (created by extra-terrestrial visitors, presumably, since such crude forms of communicative signalling would hardly put humans in a position to create academic disciplines), there would be no linguistics. It takes more than a few pre-assigned (or intuitively grasped) meanings for a specific signals to make a language, in anything remotely like the sense in which English or Latin are languages.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at April 19, 2005 01:19 PM