Field of Science

The Purpose of Language

A book I'm currently reading quotes the well-known linguist Charles Fillmore as writing
the language of face-to-face conversation is the basic and primary use of language, all others being best described in terms of their manner of deviation from that base... I assume that this position is neither particularly controversial nor in need of explanation.
If only it were so. Uber-linguist Noam Chomsky said in a talk I attended that language is not "for communication." I've never been quite sure what he meant by this, so I decided this was a good time to find out.

Googling turned up this interview, in which his statement is much more mild. He seems to simply state that to the extent language is used socially, it isn't always for the purpose of communication. I can get on board with that.

This other interview, however, makes a stronger claim. Here is a representative quote:

If human language has a function at all it's for expression of thought. So if you just think about your own use of language, a rather small part is used for communication. Much of human language is just used to establish social relations. Suppose you go to a bar in Kyoto and you spend an evening talking to your friends. You're not 'communicating'. You're rarely communicating. You're not presenting them with any information that changes their belief systems. You're simply engaged in a kind of social play.
Perhaps. I'm still with Fillmore that this seems to be derivative on communication, but I'm not even sure what kind of evidence could be found that would favor one position or the other.

1 comment:

Rick Thomas said...

It seems odd to assert *the* function of language. Clearly, people use language for many functions. If the question is "What was the original function of language?" the quandary is the same: language had many functions over hundreds of millennia.

One glaring assumption in Fillmore's position is "face-to-face". It seems likely that early language was focussed on objects of mutual interest, rather than on the other speaker. This is consistent with tool using and with the fact that language is auditory and not primarily visual.

As for Chomsky's position, language has always been social as well as pragmatic. He seems stuck on "communicating" when a better focus is "agreeing". Sometimes agreeing is just being agreeable. Other times it has real survival value.