WHY WE ARE NOT TELETUBBIES.

I have recently (prompted by Anatoly) begun reading shkrobius’s Livejournal, which is about everything under the sun and constantly thought-provoking (and often deliberately provocative). In a recent post called “Why aren’t we Teletubbies? Part 2” (the title is explained in Part 1: “Teletubbies were the exact opposite of humans. Our visual cues are as primitive as their infantile babbling… Why are not we Teletubbies? Wouldn’t flashing images be a superior way of communication?”) he quotes, at considerable length, the even more provocative Marxist anthropologist Chris Knight (who, I am interested to see, got an MPhil in Russian literature the same year I got mine in historical linguistics) on the ever-contentious issue of how language developed; I have no idea how seriously to take any of it, but it makes me think, and that’s more valuable than making me nod my head in sleepy agreement. I’ll quote a couple of paragraphs of Knight (in itals) followed by a couple by shkrobius, and you can decide if it’s interesting enough to follow the link in search of more:

…Suppose that whenever I opened my mouth to begin speaking, I found myself instantly challenged, my audience demanding on-the-spot corroboration of the very first sounds, refusing to listen further until satisfied. Denied the chance to express one transparent fiction, modify it by another, modify that in turn and so on, I could hardly display any skills I might have for handling such sequences. Faced with refusal to suspend disbelief even momentarily, I could hardly venture to refer to phenomena beyond the current context of here-and-now perceptible reality. How could I express a fantasy, elaborate a narrative or specify with precision a complex thought, if listeners demanded literal corroboration of each signal as I emitted it, refusing to wait until the end before deciding on a response? Finally, it is difficult to see how my utterance could display duality of patterning if listeners demanded literal veracity on the syllable-by-syllable level, obscuring and resisting the possibilities of meaning or patterning on any higher level.
…My freedom to speak presupposes that you, the listener, are trusting enough to offer me, at least initially, the benefit of any doubt, demanding and expecting more information before checking out what I have signalled so far. I need you to be willing to internalize literal fictions, evaluating meanings not instantaneously, item by item, but only as I construct larger patterns on a higher, ‘combinatorial’ level. By primate standards, such collusion with my deceits would appear disastrously maladaptive.

People erroneously believe that their insistence on literal truth distinguishes them in intelligence. The exact opposite is true, in things small as much as in things large. No intelligence would have existed among those not willing to believe imaginations of the others, and the willingness to contemplate fabrications is the true hallmark of human reason. You can instantly recognize a fool in someone endlessly demanding definitions, proofs and corroborations of every word and/or idea uttered by any one but himself. There is no fundamental difference between such a person and a chimp, and this person restages the same pattern of behavior that kept us in the company of apes long after we had everything needed to depart. If you want truth and only truth, go and live in the zoo with other strivers for intellectual honesty. A human can see truth shining in even the most unlikely fabrication and recognize a lie in the middle of what appears to be rock solid truth. This is what makes us human.
Our language is not designed for speaking truth, it has no built-in features for trustworthiness and reliability, and it does not even aim at them. It aims at imagining and reimagining worlds.

Not particularly related to language, but definitely related to some of the issues raised by Knight: Oliver Sacks on memory (and how we have no way to tell true from false). Riveting reading, as Sacks so often is.

Comments

  1. That quote confirms my thoughts on the origin of language, to wit:
    They were bored in the cave.

  2. There’s a novel by China Miéville, Embassytown, where the aliens can speak (and understand) only ‘true’ things. Their contact with humans ends up changing all that. Published in 2011, so maybe it’s related to Knight’s ideas.

  3. marie-lucie says:

    The shkrobius site is interesting but (at least on my laptop) the lines are about three times longer than the width of the screen, and that makes reading very frustrating.
    Oliver Sacks, as usual, is great.

  4. Supposedly, in the language of Tirio in Suriname, it’s impossible to tell a lie.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tiriy%C3%B3_language
    Has anybody else heard this?

  5. turns out remembering the past is exactly the same as imagining the future..
    so memories are only stories, like everything else going on in the cave of the skull..
    as Oliver Sacks says, “our only truth is narrative truth, the stories we tell each other and ourselves.”

  6. marie-lucie says:

    stephen, any sentence, even just “yes” or “no”, could be a truth or a lie depending on the circumstances. Perhaps the Trio or Tiriyó speakers consider themselves honest and truthful and attribute the reason to their language. It is quite likely that they have had bad experiences with colonialists who spoke “with forked tongues”.

  7. marie-lucie says:

    Another possible feature of Trio (not mentioned on Wiki) could be that the language must include “evidentials”, morphemes that indicate (for instance) if the speaker knows the information in the sentence is true from witnessing it or from learning it from another person, or is just a guess, etc. Such indications are common in Amerindian languages. Since European languages do not have to indicate such things in every utterance, it could be that people used to mentioning and hearing this information but not finding it in the languages of Europeans consider that their own language compels them to be truthful, while they never know if what they hear from speakers of Dutch, Portuguese, etc is true or not.

  8. (Without knowing the full context of Knight’s remarks quoted here) I find it an argument constructed from an wildly unlikely premise just for the pleasure of knocking it down.
    He says:
    “..My freedom to speak presupposes that you, the listener, are trusting enough to offer me, at least initially, the benefit of any doubt, demanding and expecting more information before checking out what I have signalled so far.”
    There may be occasions where that is not automatic, but I can’t imagine them, and to me that seems so unlikely as to make the entire argument not worth making.

  9. J.W. Brewer says:

    If there’s anyone with the scientific and analytical chops to definitively sort out the vexed question of the origin of language, it’s . . . probably not going to be a Marxist anthropologist with an M.Phil. in Russian lit. Just statistically speaking.

  10. Just reading that bit about ‘Suppose that whenever I opened my mouth to begin speaking, I found myself instantly challenged’, I hypothetically imagined the attitude of children being told tall stories or stories full of impossibilities.
    Storyteller: ‘So Babbleruth took off and flew into the sky
    Kids: ‘People can’t fly!
    Storyteller: ‘Oh, they could in those days because it was a magical time!
    Kids accept the premise and continue listening to the story.

  11. William Caraway at the Korean History Project
    The absolute truth of the past is irretrievable. As the second hand on the clock indifferently sweeps ordinary events into history, it shrouds them with a haze of doubt. The further events slip into the past, the thicker the haze becomes.
    Over time, those extraordinary, surprising, terrifying, or ecstatic moments we swear we will “never forget” become so meaningful that we construct our own personal myths to keep them alive. In a few weeks, or months, or years we no longer know what really happened. We know only how to tell the story.
    No amount of imagination can empower a historian to recapture, exactly describe and recreate some bygone event any more than a biologist can resurrect an extinct tiger specie. Still, great historic events cannot be understood without imagination.

  12. Tom Recht says:

    Tiriyó and other Cariban languages have the extremely cool feature of “mental state postpositions”: concepts like want, like, believe, fear, know, are expressed as postpositions in these languages. I love you comes out as something like You fond I am, where fond is a postposition governing you.

  13. marie-lucie says:

    Tom Recht: I love you comes out as something like You fond I am, where fond is a postposition governing you.
    cf. I am fond of you, except for the order.
    This is not quite what I was referring to, but more or less of the same order of things: the morphology obligatorily includes information about how involved the speaker is with the info contained in the sentence, whether emotionally as in Tiriyó or epistemologically as with some other languages.
    This is a very different perspective from that of Indo-European languages where the main thing that is obligatorily indicated is whether the information refers to past or present/future events (with finer distinctions depending on the language): past events have already happened and are therefore fixed and unchangeable, in contrast to present or future events which are still happening or may happen later but which are still potentially in a state of flux.

  14. Tom Recht says:

    marie-lucie, I don’t think there’s any obligatory marking of speaker attitude in Tiriyó, comparable to the obligatory marking of evidential categories in some languages. It’s just that mental states are lexicalized in a very unusual way (though English does have some partially similar constructions like fond of, afraid of, as you point out).

  15. marie-lucie says:

    Tom, not all languages with evidentials have them as obligatory as tense marking in IE languages, but they can still be indispensable to normal communication in the languages that have them. Speakers of these languages would feel very frustrated not to find common equivalents in languages that don’t have them.

  16. ‘course we’re not teletubbies, we are the Ovaltineys.
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qMyY1hTqTzc

  17. @marie-lucie. “Since European languages do not have to indicate such things in every utterance, it could be that people used to mentioning and hearing this information but not finding it in the languages of Europeans consider that their own language compels them to be truthful, while they never know if what they hear from speakers of Dutch, Portuguese, etc is true or not.”
    Are you aware of the narrative mood or narrative perspective in the Bulgarian/Macedonian language?

  18. marie-lucie says:

    Homer, I know next to nothing about the Bulgarian/Macedonian language, except that it is part of the Slavic family. I would be happy to be enlightened though.

  19. It doesn’t stop at language.
    “Our minds are survival engines, not truth-finding machines.” – Peter Watts, biologist and sci-fi writer.
    However, I do not believe that the fact that our mental faculties developed to fulfill certain requirements in a prehistoric environment constitutes an imperative to disdain their use for different stuff in the modern world. It’s called culture.

  20. marie-lucie says:

    Truth-finding can be very important for survival.

  21. @spherical: brilliant quote. The idea that concepts are tools, not mirrors of reality, is one of the key themes of the Frankfurt School, but I’d never come across such a succinct formulation.
    @marie-lucie: true, but truth-finding is not a goal in itself in survival terms, just a potentially useful strategy. Sometimes self-deception can be a better one, and our cognitive repertoire may have evolved taking this into account. It’s a misrepresentation of our cognitive processes to think they are always and spontaneously directed to finding the truth.

  22. Right, but there’s a school of thought that seems (to my skeptical and doubtless oversimplifying eye) to hold that if we weren’t evolved to do something, we shouldn’t bother doing it, and thus if our cognitive processes weren’t evolved for finding the truth, it’s a fool’s errand to try to find the truth. See also “We’re evolved to be violent and dominate each other, so don’t try to stop us!”

  23. David Eddyshaw says:

    Moreover the “evidence” that we have evolved to be in some way always seems to be distressingly circular: humans are violent, so this must have come about because violent behaviour is advantageous in evolutionary terms; humans are unusually cooperative, so this must have come about because …
    Unfortunately I can’t recall the source, but I believe some wise cynic once said that evolutionary psychologists seemed to be forever coming up with putative scenarios for the social organisation of our savanna-dwelling forebears which seemed uncannily reminiscent of 1950’s America. (Man the hunter, woman the gatherer …. you know the sort of thing.)

  24. marie-lucie says:

    I am a descriptive and historical linguist. I think I should stay away from discussions of “cognitive processes”.
    What happened to Grumbly Stu? I think he would know something about the Frankfurt school.

  25. J.W. Brewer says:

    The fossil record suggests that being a Frankfurt School Marxist may have been a useful survival strategy on the prehistoric savannah of university faculties in the 1960’s. But then the glaciers melted and it subsequently proved maladaptive under changed circumstances.

  26. If we weren’t evolved to do something, we’d be unable to do it at all, in one sense; however, that doesn’t mean that our evolved capacity was directly selected for. A gene whose broken version causes you to be born without eyes prevents you from reading (other than in Braille), but it is not therefore a “gene for reading”.

  27. Unfortunately I can’t recall the source, but I believe some wise cynic once said that evolutionary psychologists seemed to be forever coming up with putative scenarios for the social organisation of our savanna-dwelling forebears which seemed uncannily reminiscent of 1950’s America. (Man the hunter, woman the gatherer …. you know the sort of thing.)
    On the other hand, this, too, is surely an evolved trait. When you think about it, thinking up systems under which people like oneself could live la dolce vita (supported by the labor of people slightly less like oneself) on the prehistoric savannah must have been a highly adaptive strategy on the prehistoric savannah.

  28. Truth-finding can be very important for survival.
    In post-industrial societies, speculation and the marketing of it are also important. That may be selective pressure accounting for the emergence of evolutionary psychologists and their arguments. People want advice and guidance more than truth.
    Truth has become rather expensive to find – just consider what a particle accelerator costs. Apart from that, it’s bulky. Where are you going to store the truth that has accumulated over the centuries ? In the internet ?

  29. Not to forget the truth about the truth, which requires even more shelf space and hard drives.

  30. spherical says:

    I’m not worried. If I live to see the day we run out of silicon, you won’t hear me complaining. 😉

  31. marie-lucie says:

    truth-finding
    I think that some of you are talking about “The Truth” in the context of “eternal truths” or the like. I was thinking in more down-to-earth terms, such as “don’t believe the first thing you are told” without checking for yourself.

  32. I am a descriptive and historical linguist. I think I should stay away from discussions of “cognitive processes”.
    Why is that, m-l? I would say that cognitive processes in the broad sense are central to many theories of language change, and not just semantic change but even sound change.

  33. Bathrobe – “Kids accept the premise and continue listening to the story.”–You’ve never had a snotty kid refuse to believe anything you say, after catching you in one falsehood? (also, anyone want a little sister? 5’1″, brown hair, brown eyes, free to a good home…)

  34. Which is to say that the premise laid out (“Suppose that whenever I opened my mouth to begin speaking, I found myself instantly challenged,…”) is only unusual in *adult* conversation. Children do it while they’re figuring out what can be trusted, and teenagers (like my sister), to try and prove something (god knows what). Also because it’s really really annoying.

  35. marie-lucie says:

    TR: cognitive processes in the broad sense are central to many theories of language change
    It is not that I am uninterested in theories of language change, but they are not my primary focus. I am a working comparative/historical linguist dealing with actual forms, correspondences and possible reconstructions (not just following other people’s descriptions and reconstructions). Appeal to ill-defined “cognitive processes”, whatever they are, does not help me in my work.

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