23 January 2010

Universals of human communication

For many years, linguists (especially in the US) have discussed concepts such as Language Universals and Universal Grammar (UG), in an attempt to find features or patterns shared by all languages in the world. The idea seems interesting but... is there anything really 'universal' in language? In a recent article, Nicholas Evans and Stephen Levinson have reviewed the concept of language universals, offering a great deal of examples that contradict even the most basic of the universals proposed by Greenberg and other linguists. According to the authors of the article, the only thing that can be established is a series of statistical tendencies (following Greenberg's nomenclature) that may be inferred from typological analysis. As for Chomsky's UG, I personally think it is one of the most irrelevant concepts ever devised in linguistics.

So it seems that there might be nothing really 'universal' about human language, but what about human communication? In two recent posts (here and here), I put forward some ideas about the origin of language and grammar. In my opinion, the main difference between human and non-human 'language' is the fact that we can use the narrative/descriptive vs imperative contrast in our utterances; in fact, there's no way we can produce an utterance ouside these parameters. If I say a word or a sentence, I'm either narrating/describing something or telling someone to do something, or maybe a combination of both, whereas in non-human communication, it is not clear that this contrast is used meaningfully, or consciously. At first, I thought of it in terms of 'language' or 'grammar', but then I realized that it is present in both verbal and non-verbal types of human communication. Whenever we communicate, with words or with gestures, we are actually creating narrative, descriptive or imperative contexts, and our listeners have an ability to decode this variety of meanings. The grammatical components associated with this contrast, e.g. the various moods (imperative, optative, indicative, etc.) were probably preceded by a non-verbal 'grammar' that set the foundations for human oral language as we know it. Without this previous development, which may have originated at a very early stage in our development as a species, our verbal communication would be limited to a simple set of calls.

Now, what about universals? Is it possible to find them at the level of human communication? I can see at least two possible candidates:

1. All human groups use verbal language, unless their members are physically impaired to develop this ability, e.g. deaf and dumb people.

2. In all types of human communication, both verbal and non-verbal, a significant contrast is established between narrative/descriptive and imperative contents.

Sources of the pictures, (added on Jan31, 2010): 1st and 3rd, from Inimagine; 2nd picture, from this interesting article in PNAS.


JoseAngel said...

While the previous commentary is highly relevant, perhaps I may suggest a few other universals? The narrative or perhaps should I say the statement is surely significantly opposed to the imperative (although I cannot very well see what would be a pre-verbal narrative or statement). But there are other modes which are linked to interactional pre-verbal relationships, apart from the imperative: the interrogative (surely there are questions, I'm not saying interrogative syntactic structures, in all human languages?) —and the negative: the gestures and sounds used for rejecting someone's advances or request for food are a good foundaton for a pre-verbal universal. Requests, too, might be profitably distinguished from orders at a very basic level.

Jesús Sanchis said...

Thanks for your comment, JoseAngel. Please notice that when I use the term 'mood' I do it rather loosely, as a way of describing human communication rather than as a grammatical term. On the other hand, it is clear that so far I have just sketched a few ideas that could be developed in new directions and more detail, as you suggest. But I am in no way interested in trying to offer an organized set of concepts or categories, as has been the norm in the last few centuries of Western philosophy and philology. What I want is to offer a set of ideas that might be developed through dialogue. A theory in the making.

In my posts I have proposed the narrative/imperative contrast as the basis for human communication and therefore verbal language, as opposed to non-human communication. You mention other possible basic components, like negation and interrogative. Let's take them into consideration.

Negative sentences are generally considered less informative than affirmative sentences. They are useful, and probably 'universal', but they seem to be a secondary product in human communication. Negation is not at the same level as the narrative/imperative contrast. It can be used in both contexts, e.g. "He didn't hunt anything", "There is no water in the stream" or "Don't speak!". You suggest including negation as another universal of human communication, and I think you are right, but let's remember that the more 'universals' we define the more likely it is that someone will find counter-arguments or evidence for refutation. Anyway, I'll try to word it:

"3. In all human communication systems, there are mechanisms of negation."

As for the use of interrogative sentences, it would be necessary to analyse it in connection with narrative and imperative contexts.

As I suggested in one of the posts about the topic, maybe the narrative/imperative contrast is absent in non-human communication; on the contrary, it is present in all human communication systems, with no exception. We, as humans, use this contrast meaningfully. But it's not just an option that we have. In fact, there's no other way we can communicate; it is impossible for us to express something without it being narrative/descriptive, imperative or a combination of both, or at least without it belonging to any of the additional moods that could eventually be described. And it doesn't matter if it's verbal or non-verbal communication. Even without words, our systems of communication were already unique in their complexity and contrastive possibilities.

Liben said...

Seems like Art contains Language Universals. Please, check last paper on this page:

Jesús Sanchis said...

Thank you for the link, Liben. I'll try to read the article when I have some time.