Language Instinct Essay

Pages: 6 (1647 words)  ·  Bibliography Sources: 1  ·  Level: College Senior  ·  Topic: Communication - Language

¶ … Language Instinct

How are the Esthetic Systems of Music and Dance Related to the Language Instinct?

Steven Pinker asserts that all languages have a grammar, or a set of rules for word placement that affects not only the esthetic quality, but also the meaning of the communication. Words, sounds and signs can be arranged in an infinite number of patterns, although not all of those patterns follow the innate grammar of the language, and can therefore lack meaning.

Music is also a language with a set of sounds as well as a written form. The sounds and symbols follow grammars which allow meaning to be conveyed. If there are 500 human languages, there are a similarly impressive number of music languages. Every culture and every music style within that culture is a language with its own rules for pleasing quality and meaning. An easy example of the varieties in grammar comes from contrasting rap music with opera. Each contain equally complex grammars, although rap is often perceived as a corruption of the music form, much in the way Pinker observes that regional and cultural dialects are considered to be corruptions of Standard American English.

Dance is a system of movements which can be arranged in an infinite number of patterns. Each style of dance has its own set of rules, or grammar, for creating these patterns.

These patterns for movement convey meaning, as well as an esthetic quality. Traditional ballet tells a story or expresses emotion with smooth, controlled movements.

Hip hop can be combative and confrontational. The movements contained in the Hip hop grammar are edgy, but no less controlled or refined than those found in the ballet grammar. As in music, it is the new language in dance that is often viewed as a corruption of the traditional form.

Pinker also asserts that language is instinctual in that children will have language without being overtly taught a language. Further, he supports his view that language is instinctual by stating that language was developed for an adaptive purpose. Humans, as social hunter-gathers with few of the instincts present in non-humans, had to develop language to survive.

While music and dance can be categorized as languages with specific grammars, it is difficult to make the argument that they are also instinctual. Most simply, not everyone participates in music and dance and it is more than possible to survive without participating. In fact, there are cultures, specifically religious cultures, in which one or both are restricted or forbidden. It could then be argued that some cultures, for example, monastic cultures, also restrict spoken or written language. However, Pinker demonstrates that in cultures where language is seemingly limited, by physical impairment for example, other forms of language develop spontaneously. It is not possible to not communicate. It is quite possible to exist without music or dance.

Additionally, there is no survival need for music or dance. Other non-human species use song-like sounds or dance to attract mates. Humans may do this as well. However, humans do not routinely loose mates to better dancers.

Since esthetic systems like music and dance can be classified as language with grammars, but cannot be supported as instinctual, it cannot be argued that music and dance evolved from communicative human language. In the same way that biological evolution is not linear but branched, so is the relationship between spoken or signed language, and the languages of music and dance.

Question 2: The Role of "Language Mavens" in Determining Standards for Written Language

Written language lacks the depth that spoken or even signed language is afforded by body language and tone. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the increasing amount of written communication taking place over the Internet. Great care must be taken in written language so that the real meaning of the communication is conveyed in the absence of these additional layers of transmission. For example, emoticons are added to emails and text messages to indicate that the writer is joking, or teasing, or being sarcastic. These emoticons help to clarify meaning, particularly in situations when words alone are ambiguous. Additionally, writing in all capital letters is interpreted in the Internet culture as shouting, and is always considered to be rude.

Written communication is not complicated by technology. It is just made more prevalent. Even in more primitive forms of communication, the handwritten note, for example, meanings can become confused by unfortunate choices in word order, or missing punctuation.

Usually we do not write like we speak. Evidence of this phenomenon can be seen with the growing commonality of written documents produced using speech recognition software. Documents produced in this manner are often incomprehensible, while the original spoken version was perfectly clear in its meaning.

Culturally, written language is thought to be more important that spoken language, more permanent, and a place for greater formality.

This importance is demonstrated by the number of courses taught in everything from business and technical writing, to creative and memoire writing. With these courses come rules for written communication. What are these rules, where do they come from, and what purpose do they serve?

Since Dr. Pinker's position is that the purpose of language is survival mechanism for social humans, he would argue that the only goal for written communication is that the communication takes place. He would argue against a need for formability of language, or any structure beyond that required to get the job done.

To this end, Pinker, who is not a fan of the "language maven," would likely declare that the role of the language maven is to foster communication without correcting or corrupting the language.

For example, Pinker might argue that the new convention of typing emails in a lower case letters is acceptable, since the message is often more than adequately conveyed. Further, he would likely have little problem with "text speak," the use of highly abbreviated written communication which has spread from mobile phone text messages to all forms of informal written communication. "cu l8tr" means, "See you later." Pinker would find this to be acceptable, but language mavens would be appalled.

However, this hypothetical argument ignores one more layer of the communication, and that is the inferences of the reader. "Text speak," for example, might convey the intended message, but it might also communicate the unintended message that the writer is unprofessional. Writing in all lower case letters conveys that the writer is sloppy and lax in his or her work habits.

The impression of the reader is a significant factor in written communication. Perhaps it is a misplaced significance. Yet, the prevalence of college and professional develop writing courses attest to its presence. The language mavens, whether they are academicians or corporate pundits, are maintaining the need for formality in written communication.

Question 3: Language and Animals

Some groups of humans seem to be obsessed with communicating with animals using human language. Much of this desire can be categorized under the heading, "wishful thinking."

Humans anthropomorphize nearly everything: pets, plants, inanimate objects, the mysteries of life. We are social creatures, and we attempt to have social contact with everything within our perception. How better than through our language, our survival mechanism? Humans constantly ask, "Why?" Often the question is rhetorical; yet, we still imagine that someone or something will provide us with an answer.

The fact that animals cannot communicate with us contributes much to our perception of our place in existence. One notion might be that if a creature is not capable of communicating with us, it is not as evolved as we are. Our language capabilities are unique, but do they make us elite?

Pinker argues that the elitist perception comes from a misunderstanding of evolution. In order to take this view, the assumption must be made… [END OF PREVIEW]

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