On Categorization.

I confess myself somewhat thrown for a loop by Randy J. LaPolla’s short paper “On categorization: Stick to the facts of the languages” (to appear in Linguistic Typology); he says sensible things about labeling linguistic categories based on resemblances, then continues thus:

My own view (LaPolla 1997, 2003, 2015, 2016), developed from my experiences with languages and communication over many years, departs radically from the Structuralist paradigm: I argue that there is no coding-decoding in communication, and no shared code among speakers of the same language; communication is achieved simply by ostension and abductive inference, regardless of whether linguistic forms are involved or not. The communicator does something (the ostensive act) with the purpose of the addressee inferring the intention to communicate and the reason for the ostensive act. By doing this, the addressee creates a meaning in their mind, which the communicator hopes will be similar to the meaning the communicator intended the addressee to create. That is, there is no meaning in the ostensive act (be it linguistic or not); the addressee creates a meaning based on the communicator’s use of the particular ostensive act in the particular context by creating a context of interpretation, out of the overall context of assumptions available to him or her at that moment, in which the ostensive act “makes sense”. As it is based on abductive inference, though, the outcome is non-deterministic.

Language use is one type of ostensive act.

Obviously I’d have a better idea what he’s talking about if I read his other work, but just in bare outline, it sounds reductive and hard to apply in practice; at any rate, I’ll be glad to hear other people’s thoughts on it. I certainly have no quarrel when he says in his conclusion that “combing hundreds of grammars (of varying quality) and extracting forms that one thinks might fit one’s comparative categories (regardless of what the author of the grammar might have said) is very problematic. It is much better to concentrate on languages one has a good knowledge of and contribute to typology by expanding our understanding of what is found and how we might understand it, including its historical origins.” (Thanks to John Cowan for sending me the link.)

Comments

  1. What LaPolla says in that passage is in line with Luhmann’s discussion of communication in Social Systems (Chapter 3 on “Sense”). I can see why it’s hard to understand – LaPolla in the article argues in terms of linguistics, and does not explain or analyze his notions of meaning, sense and communication.

    In a clunky way, the following two sentences say it all: “The communicator does something (the ostensive act) with the purpose of the addressee inferring the intention to communicate and the reason for the ostensive act. By doing this, the addressee creates a meaning in their mind, which the communicator hopes will be similar to the meaning the communicator intended the addressee to create”.

    We can apply that to the article itself, with LaPolla as communicator and Hat readers as addressees. Steve thinks the article is “reductive”, and LaPolla should not be surprised – his hopes are merely dashed on this round.

  2. Ketutar Jensen says:

    Of course the speaker tries to express e-self in a way that the hearer understands what the speaker wants e to understand, but the hearer will understand whatever e understands, according to e’s understanding and experiences of the language and other things – which in a way is coding-decoding. To me it sounds they are talking about the same thing… So I suppose I don’t understand what they are talking about.

    I am reminded of the fact that my husband keeps talking about connotation and denotation.

  3. It makes perfect sense to me — but because it’s so reductive it may not be the most useful framework for reasoning about language. I think the point is that you cannot assume a priori that any richer framework exists, such as for instance a mostly shared grammar and lexicon, because in principle wild guessing at the other’s intent could be all there really is — the simple fact that people achieve such complex things with language should probably convince anybody but the most ornery that there’s more to it, but you need to adduce something.

    But take something like negotiating whether to pass on the left or the right when crossing paths with another pedestrian — in my experience there is no ‘grammar’, I just try to give less and less subtle hints and look for hints back, and sometimes communication simply doesn’t happen (because mobiles) and I stop and let the other person decide on their own if they want to collide. That is communication reduced to the level LaPolla talks about.

  4. David Marjanović says:

    Obviously I’d have a better idea what he’s talking about if I read his other work, but just in bare outline, it sounds reductive and hard to apply in practice; at any rate, I’ll be glad to hear other people’s thoughts on it.

    It makes immediate sense to me; language change outside of pure phonetics happens when the communicator’s hopes aren’t quite fulfilled.

    What I don’t understand is what you mean by “apply in practice”… to me LaPolla seems to be saying only that the theoretical underpinnings of certain types of studies are wrong (and therefore the studies may be wrong, too).

  5. @David: language change outside of pure phonetics happens when the communicator’s hopes aren’t quite fulfilled.

    Not necessarily. The speaker may decide that the hearer is stupid, or too young to understand – or he may try, try again by modifying what he says each time (i.e. choice of words), based on the hearer’s response. The latter is often called “conversation”. Note that conversations take place when both sides feel they have understood, as well as when they feel they are misunderstanding each other.

    Also, the speaker may think that he has been understood, then in the course of the conversation decide differently.

    No language change takes place in any of these common scenarios.

  6. SFReader says:

    “Somebody knocks at my door. One, two, three. … And he shall enter now, and between us, the most ordinary and the most incomprehensible thing in the world will occur: we will start talking. The guest, uttering sounds of different pitch and tone, will express his thoughts, and I would listen to these sound vibrations in the air and I will guess what do they mean … and his thoughts shall become my thoughts … Oh, how mysterious, how strange, how incomprehensible for us the most basic phenomena of life! ” (c) Alexander Kuprin “The Evening Guest”

  7. I think the point is that you cannot assume a priori that any richer framework exists, such as for instance a mostly shared grammar and lexicon, because in principle wild guessing at the other’s intent could be all there really is

    Well, I guess, just as in principle I could be the only actual thinking entity in existence, and everything else could be a projection of my mind. Some people enjoy that sort of speculation, but it got old to me after a sufficient number of years reading science fiction.

    What I don’t understand is what you mean by “apply in practice”… to me LaPolla seems to be saying only that the theoretical underpinnings of certain types of studies are wrong (and therefore the studies may be wrong, too).

    If you can’t do anything constructive with your idea, I’m not sure how much use it is, and also I’m not sure what relevance it has to other studies. I mean, I’m an anarchist, so I believe government is wrong in theory. Well and good, but my ideas are irrelevant to anyone trying to understand elections.

    Stu: This seems right up your alley, and I’m enjoying your responses.

    SFReader: An excellent and appropriate quote!

  8. David Eddyshaw says:

    “you cannot assume a priori that any richer framework exists, such as for instance a mostly shared grammar and lexicon”

    Wouldn’t dream of it. It’s something we’ve repeatedly discovered a posteriori …

    The idea seems to involve a kind of radical antiChomskyism (hurrah!): we can’t assume *any* sort of mental equipment like our own in the person we’re trying to communicate with. But, firstly, it’s surely clear that shared culture both linguistic and otherwise, provides just such shared mental equipment, and secondly, you don’t need to be a Chomskyite to believe that having anatomically human brains and not Martian brains is likely to lead to at least *some* similarity of mental processes between us, just as having human vocal apparatus and not Martian *does* lead to far-reaching similarities between the sound systems of different languages even though the variety is enormous and what we perceive is by no means simply what we produce.

    Puts me in mind of Sidney Morgenbesser’s alleged response to Skinner: “Are you telling me it’s wrong to anthropomorphize *people*?”

  9. David Eddyshaw says:

    More: I’d say that without a belief that your interlocutor is doing the same sort of thing when s/he listens as you do when you speak (and vice versa), communication is actually impossible.

    Having duly ranted, it seems to me that the idea I’ve just attacked is so evidently fatuous that it must be a straw man. La Polla is hardly either daft or a solipsist, so I imagine he’s actually just inveighing against a priori assumptions of similarity of linguistic systems which bypass all that tedious business of actually finding out … Chomskyism!

  10. Yes, it seems to stem from anti-Chomskyism, so it’s ipso facto a Good Thing.

  11. David Eddyshaw says:

    By chance I was looking at this, yesterday:

    http://www.rose.uzh.ch/dam/jcr:ffffffff-c23e-37d9-0000-00007bcecf76/145.pdf

    It’s an account of how those clever Jesuits faced with extremely exotic languages in colonial South America managed to transcend the bonds of their Latin-centric grammatical tradition. Sometimes.

  12. Greg Pandatshang says:

    My reaction to the quotation from LaPolla is that it is understandable insofar as nothing he says is wrong as far as I’m aware. I have no idea what I’m supposed to do with this line of thought, where it leads. But at the same time, it doesn’t sound like the sort of thing that I’m interested in reading more about. I’m sure the rest of article quite likely provides more context for those that find this stuff interesting. If I sound slightly peevish, it’s because this sort of thing always makes me wonder if there actually is subject matter that I would find interesting, but it has somehow been occluded by an obscure prose style.

  13. David Eddyshaw says:

    Bloomfield himself subscribed to an idea (physicalism) not a million miles removed from this, come to think of it.

    http://dingo.sbs.arizona.edu/~langendoen/Bloomfield.pdf

  14. John Roth says:

    For some reason, the idea brings to mind a game of charades.

  15. David Eddyshaw says:

    Good thought … also suggests the killer question:

    Why is talking *not* like a game of charades?

    (Assuming that LaPolla would not seriously try to maintain that it is.)

  16. I have no idea what I’m supposed to do with this line of thought, where it leads.

    Yes, exactly.

  17. As the resident Peircean person, I must point out that abductive inference is by no means merely guessing, wildly or otherwise. We abduce a conclusion from evidence when if the conclusion were true, the evidence would follow. If the streets are wet, I abduce that it rained, for example. This is not sound reasoning (it may be that a fire hydrant was opened somewhere, or a lot of people have been at work with hoses), but it is the most parsimonious hypothesis I have, requiring the least amount of special pleading, and so I adopt it. In particular, abduction is a powerful tool when one must work against real time with limited information (as opposed to the standard situations of logic, where one has infinite time and perfect information).

    In particular, because abduction involves the sufficient but not necessary, it is related to producer-product relations, which involve what is necessary but not sufficient.

  18. Thanks for the clarification John.

    “But take something like negotiating whether to pass on the left or the right when crossing paths with another pedestrian — in my experience there is no ‘grammar’, I just try to give less and less subtle hints and look for hints back, and sometimes communication simply doesn’t happen (because mobiles) and I stop and let the other person decide on their own if they want to collide. That is communication reduced to the level LaPolla talks about.”

    By the way that communication needn’t happen at all in Germany. Unless, that is, for some reason you don’t stay on the right side of the footpath, in which case you’ll get pretty unsubtle hints that you should have done.

  19. Trond Engen says:

    There’s an untaught and unwritten keep-right convention on Norwegian combined foot and cycle paths. Swarms of cycling schoolkids of course have no idea, and I too was in my late teens before I got it. Some never do — there are adults who must have been close to colliding with every meeting cyclist for decades and still haven’t figured out why.

  20. Yes, single paths are negotiated differently, I’m talking about people criss-crossing on squares or in ticket halls with many entrances and exits.

    Though I do get occasional conflicts with Swedes who think that right-hand traffic is a rule for pedestrians as well. The traffic authorities are on record as saying that there is no rule on foot/cycle paths, they trust that people can get along(!) But bikes always go on the right anyway, and I prefer to walk on the left so I’ll see the mad racing cyclist who kills me and can curse them from the afterlife!

    @Trond, I never get close to colliding with cyclists if I can see them, I’ve got an excellent ‘I’m bigger than you so it’ll hurt a lot if you don’t go around’ signal that I use 🙂

  21. Lars: I’ve got an excellent ‘I’m bigger than you so it’ll hurt a lot if you don’t go around’ signal that I use

    I believe that’s sometimes called the Chomskian gambit.

  22. Proof by intimidation?

  23. I was explicitly taught to walk on the left side of country roads where there is no sidewalk or footpath, so as to be able to see oncoming traffic, and have taught my descendants and friends’ children in turn. Of course, walking outside certain big cities is a dying art in the U.S., or so I’m given to understand.

  24. That’s in the traffic code here as well and should be taught in kindergarten, but seems to be edited out of people’s minds by the time they reach adulthood. But a foot/cyclepath isn’t a road, by official definition, so none can gainsay the reign of chaos.

  25. Proof by intimidation?

    Yes. “My claims are bigger than yours !”

  26. David Eddyshaw says:

    Surely not. I’m given to understand that currently Chomsky’s claims are actually Minimal.

  27. I was referring to his political screeds. He’s still in the business of big claims, it’s just that they are now about conspiratorial rather than mathematical structures.

  28. Rodney Lapolla is correct about the mechanics involved in communication, but his terminology leads to some confusion. He identifies the speaker as “communicator” because of ” intention to communicate” but maintains that the listener, i.e. addressee, is the partner who actually accomplishes any degree of communication which occurs in the form of “making sense.” This presents the apparent paradox that the listener/ addressee is actually the “communicator”, the one who accomplishes the duality of communication, i.e. the creation of ” a meaning in their mind”. The “paradox”, however. is only “apparent”; valid communication requires that the listener grasp the speaker’s intension rather than merely some “meaning that makes sense” in some ” context of interpretation”, although this latter status may well lead to conversation and eventual full communication.

    What nettles me is that his discussion is about communication and terminology, about how to accurately describe what language does and how to describe it rather than what language is and how it achieves the concept of “making sense”. I want to establish just what is the universal element which makes it possible to make sense of what is being communicated. Chomsky’s hypothesis of a universal grammar considers language itself as the universal and suggests the existence of some innate faculty in speakers as human beings but treats it more or less as LaPolla’s “ostension and abductive inference” which matures as the infant learner acquires competence in a native language format. I believe that the “making sense” aspect of language has to flow not from language itself but rather from a naturally occurring human commonality, a universal aspect which provides both explanation and justification.

    I have worked out just such an approach which explains and justifies the universal factor common to all language and language users and which thus makes communication possible. Very briefly, the approach says that language is only and always created at a single point-location common to all human language users, i.e. the speaker, existing and located at the center of his own perceptual world, i.e. in his society, history, life, and experience relative to his surroundings. Each infant language-learner is socialized into the perceptual values and physical structures of his surroundings such that he adapts to the mechanics of his surroundings and to the linguistic structures by which his immediate social format characterizes its day-by-day evolution in occurring “reality”. Each speaker learns how to make sense within the terms of that particular linguistic and social projection.

    The best metaphor for the language process seems to be that of cartography. Language per se operates as a mapping system featuring four basic components:
    1) The social projective format in which members of a community opt to interpret evolving reality. It includes arbitrary modes of perception as well as phonetics and semantics, and bodily processes.
    2) The language process by the speaker includes perceptual process relative to speaker center, organization relative to the duality of brain and body structure, as well as organization based on concentric relationships and sequential delivery.
    3) The language product, the format of independent existence in which information is made available as written, spoken, or gestural representation embodying the rules of grammar, syntax, tone, rhythm, or representational format.
    4) The communicative aspect in which the listener interprets meaning imbedded in the format of the language product but within the frameworks of social projection and language process. Actual communication often revolves around reciprocal role-shifting between that of speaker and that of listener.

    Using the projective format of his language, the speaker perceives some particular bit of information in his surroundings, processes it into a sentence as a mapping statement relative to self in those surroundings and delivers it as a product map which may or may not be directed to a specific listener but which carries abstract information organized in a particular projective format. Any listener familiar with that format should be able to interpret the intended bit of information by the process of mentally placing listener-self into the projective perceptual surroundings from which the speaker-self organized the particular bit of product. If the result of the listener’s mental processing produces the same bit of information intended by the speaker, communication can be said to have taken place. It is in that fashion that the listener actually accomplishes the validity of the communication.

    In the cartographic metaphor, the speaker is the map-maker employing a specific projective format to create a sentence as an abstract mapping statement. The listener, familar with the projective format, becomes the map reader who uses it to get to the destination mapped by the speaker and thus to create communication. Or more simply, the speaker is the map-maker, the speech act is the mapped situation and the listener is the map reader. Whether actual communication takes place is, in fact, the activity of the listener. Communication is the goal of the mapping process, but is totally independent of any of the myriad of human mapping projective formats, roughly 7000 different varieties as currently reckoned.

    Within the context of some 7000+ known projective formats, the goal of linguistics as a science should be the search for some underlying DNA-like framework which serves to explain and justify the creation of all the variants. LaPolla’s article on categorization serves as a cautionary tale against the dangers of labelling particular examples as overall elements within the framework and thereby increasing confusion. HIs advice is to stick to the examples which the researcher knows well instead of making hasty generalizations. My opinion is that the article constitutes good advice!

    I present this evaluation of LaPolla’s article as a pretext for offering my own suggestion regarding a possible “DNA-like framework” for the function of a universal projective format. I have prepared a fourteen-page draft paper entitled ” WHAT LANGUAGE IS AND HOW IT WORKS” which, on the basis of a comparison between geographical and language cartography, suggests the use of a mechanism common to both but operating from reciprocally opposed points of departure. If you would like to read it, I would be willing to forward a PDF copy. Just send a request to .

  29. The comment will not print my e-mail address but use my last name plus “1” located at windstream in net.

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