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In the most recent Out There, Miriam supports Noam Chomsky's ideas about language and communication:

From Wiktor Osiatynski, Contrasts: Soviet and American Thinkers Discuss the Future (1984):

QUESTION: As I understand, language has an innate biological basis. Its use, however, is social. What do you think of the social functions of language? Is it primarily an instrument of communication?

CHOMSKY: I think a very important aspect of language has to do with the establishment of social relations and interactions. Often, this is described as communication. But that is very misleading, I think. There is a narrow class of uses of language where you intend to communicate. Communication refers to an effort to get people to understand what one means. And that, certainly, is one use of language and a social use of it. But I don't think it is the only social use of language. Nor are social uses the only uses of language. For example, language can be used to express or clarify one's thoughts with little regard for the social context, if any.

I think the use of language is a very important means by which this species, because of its biological nature, creates a kind of social space, to place itself in interactions with other people. It doesn't have much to do with communication in a narrow sense; that is, it doesn't involve transmission of information. There is much information transmitted but it is not the content of what is said that is transmitted. There is undoubtedly much to learn about the social uses of language, for communication or for other purposes. But at present there is not much in the way of a theory of sociolinguistics, of social uses of languages, as far as I am aware.




  1. Jerry Friedman said,

    July 24, 2015 @ 9:06 am

    Is there more of a theory or more empirical knowledge now about how people use language in "the establishment of social relations and interactions"?

    S. A. Bent, in Familiar Short Sayings of Great Men (1887), traced Miriam's idea back a ways. "In a collection of moral maxims by Dionysius Cato, called 'Disticha de Moribus ad Filium,' which was much quoted in the Middle Ages, is found the remark, 'Sermo hominum mores et celat et indicat idem' (The same words conceal and declare the thoughts of men).—Bk. IV. 26."

  2. Charles Antaki said,

    July 24, 2015 @ 2:49 pm

    @Jerry Friedman – others will have their own nominations for what has advanced knowledge about what (real-time) language (use) does, but a strong contender would be Conversation Analysis. Started by sociologists, it's dug into the micro-organisation of talk to show how people do things well beyond the speech-act boundaries. Harvey Sacks' posthumous 'Lectures on Conversation' is the disciplinary bible.

  3. Ken Miner said,

    July 24, 2015 @ 4:54 pm

    "… well beyond the speech-act boundaries" indeed. I was appalled some years ago to find that if you try to see conversations as series of speech acts, you soon run out of speech acts. There's a strange clash there that I've never understood.

  4. John Coleman said,

    July 24, 2015 @ 6:03 pm

    Chomsky's closing "as far as I am aware" is very telling. I interpret it as a confession that he is not very aware about this subject, so deserves no respect on this particular question.

  5. Jerry Friedman said,

    July 24, 2015 @ 11:20 pm

    Thanks, Charles Antaki. I notice that goes back to the '60s and '70s, well before Chomsky's comment.

  6. Michael said,

    July 25, 2015 @ 5:21 am

    Chomsky tried to communicate (transmit information) but failed to do so:
    "it doesn't involve transmission of information. There is much information transmitted but it is not the content of what is said that is transmitted. "

    a) These two sentences contradict each other;
    b) See the mountains of material written by social psychologists (and others) on non-verbal communication…

  7. David Lukeš said,

    July 25, 2015 @ 5:30 am

    @John Coleman: Well said. Plus, Chomsky's denigration of the social role of language explains why he needs to postulate a language acquisition device which enables us to learn to speak so "uncannily" fast. If the intended use of language was "to express or clarify one's thoughts" (= spew generativist bollocks, I presume…?), one LAD wouldn't have been nearly enough to get me to start learning the damn thing when I was a baby. Oh, which reminds me of:

  8. Jayarava said,

    July 25, 2015 @ 1:06 pm

    For all the faults that other commenters have found in that short statement, they still cannot discuss language (or politics for that matter) without reference to his work. He's still the alpha monkey in this little text-mediated social interaction, and we are the betas, trying to get noticed.

    For my money Chomsky is spot on. Linguists place too much emphasis on words when interactions are as much about emotional states, attitudes, and dispositions communicated non-verbally. Eyebrows can say a great deal whatever the words happen to be! The idea is supported by Robin Dunbar's work on evolution – he sees language as a substitute for grooming in groups too large to allow for the usual primate methods of bonding.

  9. Jerry Friedman said,

    July 25, 2015 @ 3:52 pm

    Jayarava: That's not how I understand Chomsky's statement. I think he's talking about verbal communication and how it communicates things other than "the content of what is said". For instance, one's choice of dialect communicates information about the group one identifies with or wants to be seen as identifying with.

  10. L said,

    July 27, 2015 @ 12:14 pm

    "Logicians sometimes talk as if the only function of language were to convey ideas. But anthropologists know better and assure us that "language is primarily a pre-rational function." [Footnote: Sapir, Language (1921) 14.] Certain words and phrases are useful for the purpose of releasing pent-up emotions, or putting babies to sleep, or inducing certain emotions and attitudes in a political or judicial audience. The law is not a science but a practical activity, and myths may impress the imagination and memory where more exact discourse would leave minds cold."

    Felix Cohen, Transcendental Nonsense and the Functional Approach, 35 Colum. L. Rev. 809, 812 (1935).

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