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Butter and Bread, an Interview with John Taylor*
Nick Ascroft: First oﬀ, perhaps a little grandly — What is a linguistic theory? What does it attempt to do, to say about language? And to follow: how does Cognitive Grammar diﬀer from other perhaps more well-known theories? Is it simply a matter of privileging structures of “meaning” over syntactical structures? Can there be a solid distinction between the two? John Taylor: It may seem odd to some people to talk about a “theory of language”. That, I suppose, is the point of your ﬁrst question. Is language the kind of thing that one has to have a theory about? Take another area of experience — visual perception. Do we need to have a theory of visual perception? You open your eyes, look at the world, and see it as it is. Where’s the problem? In fact, it has become clear that the brain has to do an awful lot of work in order to interpret the two-dimensional image that is projected onto the retina as a three-dimensional representation of things, distances, edges, textures, and so on. Likewise with language. For a monolingual speaker (and this category comprises, regrettably, the majority of Anglophone Kiwis), your native language is just something that you kinda know and use, without any eﬀort, so what’s the issue? Of course, there is an issue, and this is, that abilities (like visual perception, and knowing your native language) which are so natural and seemingly unproblematic, nevertheless turn out to be highly complex, once they are looked at from an enquiring, scientiﬁc perspective. Concerning a “theory of language”, we ﬁrst need to ask, what the subject matter of such a theory would be. How, in other words, do we understand “language” (or “languages”)? There are many ways of approaching this question, but a view which I think most linguists nowadays would subscribe to, is that language is a mental phenomenon. Knowledge of language is something that resides in the mind/brain, and speaking and listening (writing and reading) are activities in the mind/brain. It was Chomsky’s great achievement, back in the 1960s, to put the “cognitive” into the study of language. To study language is to study a mental phenomenon. Linguistics is a part of the wider ﬁeld of cognitive science.
Annual Review of Cognitive Linguistics 4 (2006), 269–284. issn 1572‒0268 / e-issn 1572–0276 © John Benjamins Publishing Company
that “cognitive” = “conceptual” = “semantic”. But ultimately it is not a question of whether a particular approach is convincing or not. and so on. metaphor. A leading ﬁgure in this movement was George Lakoﬀ. interesting questions. But your knowledge of what the word sounds like (in your and in other people’s accents) is no less of a cognitive entity than its meaning. The rules. but rather whether it oﬀers a framework within which to pursue. and syntax was seen as a computational device for combining meaningless symbols. the focus of Cognitive Linguistics (and Cognitive Grammar) has been on matters semantic. the whole apparatus had to be genetically inherited. Cognitive Linguistics. So Cognitive Linguistics is not just about meaning as such. The sounds of one’s language are just as much “cognitive” entities as the meanings which they symbolise. NA: Do you ﬁnd the ideas of Cognitive Grammar convincing? JT: Well. It was in many ways a return to basics — that language is essentially a symbolic system for relating sounds to meanings. to be sure. Cognitive Grammar is a particular theory within this broader trend. Of course. yes. Not surprisingly perhaps. no doubt personal and subjective and perhaps even ideological reasons. Chomsky saw the essence of language as residing in the syntax. Hence. the way Chomsky pursued his linguistics led to some rather strange speculations about the mind. But I would like to correct what seems to be one of your presuppositions. that language is based on general cognitive processes. that grammatical patterns are inherently meaningful. associated speciﬁcally with the work of Ronald Langacker. and to ﬁnd answers to. and the categories of symbols over which the rules operated. and so far removed from primary linguistic experience. to ask. You may ﬁnd the creation story in Genesis convincing. NA: Well-quoted in the world of literary criticism (though perhaps over-distilled. such as perception. emerged in the 1980s largely as a reaction to the abstraction of the Chomskyan programme. generalisation. and people who are into this kind of stuﬀ seem to ﬁnd it quite addictive. and that language is an instrument both for one’s own thought processes and for social interaction. misrepresented of its intentions) is an idea springing from the philosopher . The word cat has a meaning. but it doesn’t provide much basis for the further study of cosmology. turned out to be so abstract. namely. categorisation. that they could not plausibly be learned by a child acquiring his or her native language. Chomsky’s programme attracted an enormous number of adherents around the world. so called. But there were many sceptics.270 Nick Ascroft Now. Essentially. This is the notion of Universal Grammar. But “convincing” is perhaps not the appropriate term to use here. one is attracted to a particular approach for various.
279) Is this just amateur linguistics? Does Cognitive Grammar propose certain primary entities where the buck of meaning must stop its deferral? How can we ground meaning? Can the structuralism of Linguistics ever compete with the nay-sayers of post-structuralism? JT: First of all. and she has arrived at a bedrock of about 60 words/concepts which she claims cannot be further deﬁned. you explain the meaning of a sentence by paraphrasing it. “think”. and so on. so she claims. the totality has its centre elsewhere. and which enter. of what? And what is “classical thought”. paradoxically. “some”. What is “the totality” and what is “the centre”? The totality. “kind of ”. one which seems to encapsulate a kind of theory of meaning: speciﬁcally. you’re not likely to know what equilibrium is. for example. If you don’t know what balance is. You deﬁne a word by using other words. within the structure and outside it. indeﬁnitely. “one”. But the words you use also need to be deﬁned. of all words in all languages. which “could say” (note: “could say”. German “Heimat”. and so on in an inﬁnite inward spiral into the navel of meaning. I think there may be something in the notion of “deferral”. it strikes me as just so much gobbledy-gook. in deﬁning the concept of “balance” by reference to “equilibrium”. and so on. meaning’s endless deferral. not “did say”) that the “centre” is outside the “totality”. because it doesn’t belong to it? How does “structure” come into it? It’s just vacuous nonsense. often via intervening concepts of increasing complexity. has been systematically pursuing this programme of deﬁnitional reduction for over three decades. These “atoms” of human thought include such concepts as “I”. 1978. The centre is not the centre. To be honest. One of the more successful aspects of her research programme has been to oﬀer easily accessible deﬁnitions of highly culturespeciﬁc concepts. That is to say. p.Butter and Bread. Russian “duša” (as well as Australian “mate”). The point being that German “Heimat” doesn’t exactly correspond to English “homeland”. Derrida’s preamble to this notion is the following: Classical thought concerning structure could say that the centre is. (Derrida. The Polish-born Australian linguist. That’s my contribution to critical textual analysis. and centre. One way out of this inﬁnite regress would be to insist that a deﬁnition must be couched in words which are somehow “simpler” than the word being deﬁned. the meaning of any one thing relies on the meaning of some other. again. concerning that quote from Derrida. as you have explained it. and you can’t argue with nonsense. such as Japanese “amae”. The centre is at the centre of the totality. “you”. It becomes clear if you try to give deﬁnitions of words. Anna Wierzbicka. That done. There would be little point. an Interview with John Taylor 27 Derrida. “happen”. using words. nor does Russian “duša” exactly correspond to English . and yet. since the centre does not belong to the totality (is not part of the totality). into the deﬁnition.
It has to do with the “feel” of weights and forces distributed around a central axis. To put the matter somewhat fancifully — if we humans had evolved diﬀerently. Another way of breaking the circle of words is to recognise that quite a few concepts are grounded in bodily experience.272 Nick Ascroft “soul”. Having observed that deﬁning words is fraught with all kinds of diﬃculties. There’s another point I would like to make with respect to the Derridean notion of deferral. for example. This notion of embodiment has been pursued. most notably by George Lakoﬀ and Mark Johnson. To declare the endless deferral of meaning as a fact about language would eﬀectively put paid to any systematic enquiry into meaning. is based on the linguistics of Saussure. then. It’s but a short step. or a balanced diet. This links up to my response to your last question. I would rather try to tackle the diﬃcult issues on their own terms. gelatinous creatures ﬂoating around in the stratosphere (and supposing we also communicated in a language). Saussure insisted on the status of a language as a symbolic system. is “convincing” or not. it’s a matter of whether it oﬀers the basis for a coherent research programme. as when you try to stand on one leg in a strong side-wind. I am a great admirer of Saussure. And that may be what the readers of Derrida have done. to attributing to the impossibility of deﬁnition the status of a profound mystical truth. And these can be quite eﬀectively spelled out. and each time I discover new things in it. or whether we could ever understand the concept. One of the fascinating things about it is that it contains germs of ideas which people in many diﬀerent disciplines have been able to develop (possibly in ways which Saussure himself might not have sanctioned). The Course was one of the ﬁrst linguistics texts I had to read as an undergraduate. It’s not a matter of whether a particular approach. Once acquired. He also . within Cognitive Linguistics. many years ago. Balancing is something you experience with your body. or when you ﬁrst learn to ride a bicycle. I doubt whether the notion of balance could ever be fully explained in words (and this would be one of my reservations about Wierzbicka’s programme). and had been. it’s doubtful whether we would have a word for “balance”. I mentioned the case of “balance”. in a way accessible to a non-German or non-Russian speaker. also long-popular in the gardens of literary criticism. relating sounds and meanings. and I must have read it half a dozen times since then. As a linguist. these words have all sorts of cultural and emotional components which are diﬀerent from those of the English terms. as when you talk about the balance in a photograph. For example. as it has come to be known). NA: Semiotics. or theory. Do his ideas still hold water in linguistic circles? JT: Actually. it’s very easy to throw up one’s hands and to say that deﬁnition is impossible. using the Natural Semantic Metalanguage (or NSM. Personally. this “embodied” concept then becomes available for metaphorical applications to other domains of experience.
NA: I notice you were just at an International conference featuring a who’s-who of Cognitive Linguistics. sentence. in that it conforms with the consonant-vowel-consonant structure that is sanctioned by countless other words in English.Butter and Bread. that is. For example. of what is known as structuralism. On the one hand — on the other hand. Even laypeople. an Interview with John Taylor 273 insisted that both sounds and meanings are mental entities. On the one hand. Any word. structuralism would lead inexorably to a position of radical relativism (poststructuralism?) — the idea that each system is unique to itself and incommensurate with any other system. I would say — perhaps over-interpreting Saussure (something we all do) — that everything in a language is motivated to some degree. As we all know. the linguistic sign is arbitrary. Saussure. be translated into any other language. these concern (and here I am going beyond the few hints in the Course) the embodiment of our concepts. as well as our general perceptual and concept-forming abilities. are the sections in the Course which Saussure devoted to phonetics. cautions that sounds and meanings do bear relations to external reality. a language is a self-contained system. One example is the growing interest in sign languages. In the case of meanings. also that the status of sounds and meanings as units within a given language was also arbitrary. The sound system of a language is also anchored in facts of human anatomy (what kinds of sounds we can produce) and auditory perception (what kinds of sounds the human ear can discriminate). however. The notion of a language as a vast calculus of relations is what is at the core. On the other hand. I suppose. it is grounded in external reality and our perception of it. But some trends are evident in the kinds of topics that people were addressing. The wordform would be unpronounceable in Mandarin. it would be an arbitrary fact about English that the concept “red” is lexicalised at all. not things out there in the world. it gets its status as part of the language through many kinds of links and relations to many other things in the language. Often overlooked by commentators. Did anything really catch your ear there? What are the hot new ideas as you see them? JT: It’s diﬃcult to pinpoint “hot new ideas”. by the way. in principle. and therefore could not be part of the Mandarin language system. Even the word-form [red] is motivated. on the other hand. If pursued. text in one language could not. I think. are aware that the sign languages of the deaf . But the notion of arbitrariness has to be tempered by the notion of motivation. the sign is motivated. So what we have in Saussure is a fascinating dialectic. On the one hand. and which are still worth a read. Another crucially important concept in Saussure concerns motivation. neither could we have any criteria for judging the adequacy of a translation. Saussure proclaimed that the sign (the association of a sound and a meaning) was arbitrary. These notions are axiomatic in the kind of cognitive linguistics that I pursue.
of the kind He did WHAT!? Not only does your voice go up on what. Or have you noticed that when you talk about the future. because of the constraints of the acoustic medium which humans have adopted as their principal channel of communication. developing the theory in response to the data. However. as Len Talmy pointed out in his plenary lecture. these two ﬁelds — psycholinguistics and corpus linguistics — have tended to be somewhat peripheral to mainstream academic linguistics. which try to tap into what people actually do when they process language. What makes sign languages especially interesting. grammatical in a given language. The whole Chomskyan ediﬁce was constructed on intuitions. you might even toss your head back a little. It could even be argued that many of the “universal” characteristics of (spoken) languages emerged as common solutions to this problem. So. Try discussing your future plans while gesturing backwards. experimental psycholinguistics (where people press buttons when they see a word and their response time is measured in milliseconds) and corpus linguistics (where all sorts of sophisticated statistics are brought to bear on an assembly of texts) are well-established ﬁelds of enquiry. This is also a fascinating topic. Sign languages are different. you might make a rising gesture with your eyebrows. since you can actually sign more than one thing at the same time. This might seem rather obvious to an outsider. Of course. But even spoken languages are not restricted to the acoustic medium. as well as by corpus data. you are forced to speak words one after the other. or is not. through your body. concerning what people actually say. and this is one reason why their structure is so diﬀerent. . using experimental and corpus data to support the theory. Try saying an echo question. and this fact severely limits the ways in which languages are structured. Parallel to the interest in sign languages is an interest in the gestures that accompany spoken languages. you tend to gesture backwards. and that when you discuss the past. languages are as they are. in a sense. Another interesting development — it’s not really a “hot new idea”. just a new perspective on what linguists should be doing — is the growing realisation that linguistic theories have got to be supported by experimental data. so to speak? The gestures have a clear metaphorical base. is that they can overcome the “channel constraints” of spoken languages. It also has to be said that the foundational texts of Cognitive Linguistics were also heavily reliant on intuitions and personal judgements. It doesn’t work. you tend to make hand gestures towards the space in front of you.274 Nick Ascroft are not just wild gesticulations which somehow “stand for” the words of English (or another language). Spoken languages are constrained by the simple fact that you can’t say two things at the same time. yet it is remarkable how much of linguistic theory has been built on the intuitions of individual linguists about what is. but are independent systems with their own organisational principles. One trend that I observed at the conference was the desire to more closely integrate theory and data.
100 million words is a lot of words. incidental learning (you think you are listening for content. I tried to address some of the implications of corpus data in my plenary lecture. and remembered them. such as the speaker’s accent and voice quality). But very carefully controlled experiments are needed in order to document these eﬀects. but you are also making note of incidental aspects. it turns out to be very diﬃcult to ﬁnd knock-me-down evidence. How could one test the Whorﬁan hypothesis? Well. perhaps only once. nor all that diﬀerent from what we have in English). It’s as if people are recording the usages that they hear. but there is quite a lot of evidence in the psychology literature concerning such topics as implicit learning (your present behaviour is inﬂuenced by past events. in fact occur very infrequently. the lexical elaboration of the “snow” concept in the Inuit languages is not particularly remarkable. even though you cannot explicitly recall those events). therefore. This suggests to me that the relation between a corpus and a person’s knowledge of their language might actually be rather direct. and the system of knowledge that makes it possible. From my perspective. . the “Whorﬁan hypothesis” — the idea that the language that you speak inﬂuences the way you perceive and conceptualise the world. that many of the things you know about English. on the whole. Whorﬁan eﬀects have been reported.Butter and Bread. during your entire lifetime. concerning memories of speciﬁc incidents). and the cultural embeddedness of language. You have nevertheless registered them. What’s interesting. you have encountered only a handful of times. an Interview with John Taylor 275 Take. do tend to have a rather narrow view of what the subject matter of their ﬁeld should be. But linguists. Nevertheless. for example. and so on. and exemplar learning (much of our knowledge about the world might actually be quite low-level. or not at all. I ﬁnd it regrettable that there was so little attention devoted to such topics as text and narrative. that they are tallying the frequency of words and word combinations. that they have a kind of taperecorder in the head. for example. the aesthetic aspects of language use. of course. This might sound implausible. This has acquired a kind of mythical status for many people (witness the cohort of words for “snow” which the Eskimos are supposed to have — total nonsense. idioms. in the ways people of diﬀerent language backgrounds conceptualise and remember (and gesture!) motion events. There’s another side to your question. even in a 100 million word corpus. is when these notions are applied to the study of language behaviour. of course — the topics that were not addressed. that English speakers know. It has been estimated that it would take you more than four years of uninterrupted listening before you had been exposed to 100 million words. that they are remembering the precise circumstances in which expressions were used. which registers the precise way in which diﬀerent speakers pronounce their words. One of the points I made was that many expressions. Now. It is likely.
To a certain extent. On the ﬁrst metaphor. been studied for thousands of years. those at the front of the queue. has been “moved forward” two days. Metaphor is. in some circles. by the way. and to the metaphors which are conventionalised in the Chinese language. There’s some fascinating research by Lera Boroditsky which supports this idea. scheduled for next Wednesday. those who had the bodily experience of moving forward. the study of conceptual metaphor has been overtaken by the notion of conceptual blending. on Monday. which we touched on earlier. were presented in a book with the unassuming title The Way We Think. Boroditsky wondered. It suggests that metaphor is not just a way of talking. On the one metaphor. in theme sessions devoted to metaphors of “the heart” in languages around the world. Metaphors We Live By (1980). On the other metaphor. of course. it also inﬂuences the way we live. but it was Lakoﬀ and Johnson’s slim volume. Metaphor has. hit the jackpot). how we solve problems. seems a fascinating take on cognition and metaphorical structure. which gave the impetus to more recent studies. When will the meeting take place? Some people answer. The idea is due to Gilles Fauconnier (who has a background in Linguistics and Logic) and Mark Turner (who is a literature scholar). you are moving forwards into the future. Conceptual blending covers much . even to the roots of its grammatical structure. as when you say that we are coming up to Christmas. And. Their ideas. for example. it is the meeting which moves forward. and this topic was well represented at the conference. for example. those at the back were just hanging around waiting. How does it diﬀer (or improve on) previous linguistic accounts of metaphor? And because metaphor pervades language (prices are down. you are stationary. whaddya know. that is. On the second metaphor. how essential is this notion of cognition to our understanding of language? And does it provide any insight into linguistic creativity? JT: You are correct that metaphor has become a major theme in Cognitive Linguistics. indeed.276 Nick Ascroft NA: Conceptual Blending as I have desultorily researched it. others answer. as when you say that Christmas is approaching. Suppose you learn that a meeting. forward is further into the future. Note the title of the volume. on Friday. So she asked the question of people waiting in a queue (it was a very long queue) at the university cafeteria. whether priming people to adopt one or the other of the metaphors (both are well represented in English) would have an eﬀect on how they answered the question about the day of the meeting. it takes place earlier. and future events come towards you. This is a nice illustration. answered “on Friday” more often than those standing towards the end of the queue. The diﬀerent answers reﬂect two diﬀerent metaphors of time. completely in the dark. which had been gestating for some time. Those at the front of the queue would have the awareness of moving forward to get their lunch. of the role of “embodied experience” in language understanding. everywhere.
If that meant anything at all. and its eﬀects are everywhere. it would have been a statement open to conﬁrmation or otherwise of the basis of the historical facts. you could not say J’ai couru hors de la maison. essentially. you package the motion event diﬀerently yet again. We then “run the blend” and draw certain inferences. This is a pretty banal sort of sentence. An example would be I ran out of the house. however. Understanding an expression involves a lot of “background cognition”. In French. and all the sordid details. What is happening here. however. that in France. running”: Je suis sorti de la maison en courant. the verb (sortir i. it would mean that I ran around at a place which was outside of the house. In French. You would have to say something like “I exited the house. for many languages. is that the expression invites us to set up two “mental spaces”. If the sentence had been In France. on so on. Bill Clinton wasn’t harmed …”. “exit”) only expresses the path. but the point should be clear. No doubt there are other ways of interpreting the sentence. We interpret the expression by blending the two spaces into a hypothetical space. Monika Lewinsky. NA: Earlier you mentioned the term “motion events” and how their conceptualisation in various languages amounted to a “Whorﬁan eﬀect”. according to Fauconnier and Turner. we have France and its institutions. there is the media and public opinion. you cannot translate the sentence word-for-word. In both spaces there is an elected President. “running”. It becomes interesting. Could you expand on this? And what by the way is a “motion event”? JT: By “motion event”. there is the voting public. you have to “package” the event in a diﬀerent way. The mechanism can be illustrated on one of Fauconnier’s examples. an Interview with John Taylor 277 more than metaphor and its eﬀects extend well beyond language. while the path of the motion is expressed by the prepositional phrase “out of the house”. Correspondences can be established between the two spaces. is a unique hallmark of human thought. In one mental space we have Bill Clinton. The use of wouldn’t.e. The diﬀerence is that in English the verb expresses the manner of motion (“running”). or that in France the media would never report on such matters.e. there are the sexual foibles of individuals. To express the idea of “running out of the house”. In the Bantu languages of Africa. . In the other mental space. the public doesn’t care too much about the sexual activities of their President. How do you understand the statement: In France.Butter and Bread. for example. Blending. by saying something like “I ran and left the house”. radically changes the interpretation. you might think. I mean quite simply an event in which an entity goes from one place to another. if you want to express the manner of motion you do so in an adjunct phrase: en courant i. once you realise that. Bill Clinton wouldn’t have been harmed by the Monika Lewinsky aﬀair? Note the occurrence of wouldn’t.
).278 Nick Ascroft These diﬀerences are quite general. Chinese expresses motion events rather like English and the Germanic languages. prance. For example. What he found was that the Spanish translators would quite often not bother to express the manner of motion. where from.) would somehow go against the spirit of the language. Dan Slobin. For example. The prediction would be that speakers of English-type languages would tend to group the two rolling events together. without the rotating movement. a day. To conﬁrm the Whorﬁan eﬀects. simultaneously lowering your forearm. The null hypothesis. then make a downward thrust with the forearm. But you could also imagine separating out the two components. saunter. would be that this is just a matter of language. You then show them two further clips. So here you have some indications of a kind of Whorﬁan eﬀect. mince. you could hold your forearm steady and make the rotating movement. or ask them . and the translators apparently thought that to persistently insert the manner adjuncts (shuﬄing. Now. shuﬄe. There are reports that the second way of gesturing the event occurs with speakers of some French-type languages. everybody the world over sees motion events in the same way. etc. and so on — there are dozens of them). manner of motion is expressed optionally. drift. what’s this got to do with the Whorﬁan hypothesis? Notice that in French. the expression of manner of motion is optional — the verb merely expresses the path (where to. so they quite often just left them out. thereby conﬂating path and manner. Or you might show people a silent ﬁlm and some time later (an hour. I swam across the river. amble. you would need to show that speakers of the diﬀerent kinds of languages process motion events diﬀerently. while speakers of French-type languages would group the two upward-moving events. did a fascinating study on this. such as I rolled out of bed. indicating rolling. involving the same object bouncing up the incline. Suppose you wished to make a gesture conveying that something rolled down a slope. following up earlier work by Len Talmy. it would seem that languages of the world generally express motion events on one of three patterns. I limped down the street. For example. strut. Moreover. in that they apply more or less across the board to the description of motion events. you might show people a cartoon clip of an object rolling up an incline. a week) ask them to retell some episodes. even on non-linguistic tasks. In Spanish. while Japanese and Turkish are like French and the Romance languages. lope. striding. It would seem that English writers tend to focus quite a lot on selecting their manner of motion verbs (stride. There are indications that these diﬀerences might also inﬂuence the ways in which people gesture motion events. You might perform a circular movement from your wrist. swagger. etc. by comparing motion events in English novels and in their Spanish translations. of course. etc. and ask which of the two clips are most similar.. and rolling down the incline. I shuﬄed across the room.
It has to do with the point I made at the beginning of our discussion. But I would want to insist on the uniqueness of human languages vis-à-vis animal communication systems. that it is not claimed that every speaker of language X will perform diﬀerently from every speaker of language Y on some speciﬁc task. Again. an Interview with John Taylor 279 to evaluate some statements about the ﬁlm as true or false. If individuals within each group diﬀer widely in their performance on a test. namely. Is “communication” the bogey here? JT: There are obviously continuities between human and animal communication. We are not alone in communicating through the constrictions and resonances of expelled wind. Much used to be made of these diﬀerences. your individual score is barely inﬂuenced at all by the group you belong to. as anyone who has studied statistics will tell you. needs a lot of carefully controlled experimentation and what is left over may not be very dramatic. They are not at all the dramatic “people of diﬀerent languages see the world diﬀerently” of popular imagination. substantially. and particularly our place among the clamour of animal noises. just as there are continuities in many other areas between humans and animals. So to demonstrate eﬀects of language on conceptualisation you have to factor out these individual diﬀerences. it seems chimps for instance are capable of novel and speciﬁc communication. The results did lend some (albeit very slight) credence to the Whorﬁan hypothesis. Whorﬁan eﬀects. and remember events they witness. as I said. the cognitive skills of at least the higher animals. the symbolic nature of .Butter and Bread. for example. process. Africans. for example. Think. Asians vs. do seem to exist. and need carefully controlled experiments in order to emerge. Certainly. are we distinct? That our squeaks and yaups have fancy syntax? There is some element of a continuum obviously. but how. Speakers of English. NA: The issue of Landfall this interview ﬁnds itself in is preoccupied with animals. Europeans vs. then. in support of various political agendas. I suspect it could be much the same with Whorﬁan eﬀects. Likewise speakers of French and Turkish and Zulu. females. Notice. the prediction would be that speakers of English-type languages would have paid more attention to manner of motion. There were a couple of presentations at the conference on just these topics. of quite a diﬀerent ﬁeld of enquiry — intelligence testing. but they are rather subtle. That is to say. The IQ testers can point to small diﬀerences in average scores on the standardised tests by diﬀerent groups of people — males vs. the signiﬁcance of a diﬀerence in average scores declines as the within-group variance increases. in problem-solving. for example. However. and would therefore remember this aspect better. because that is what their language has trained them to do. This brings in the question of within-group vs. And that. I daresay. are not in doubt. a small diﬀerence between the average performance of the groups means virtually nothing at all. between-group variance. diﬀer enormously in how they perceive.
You wouldn’t get very far with one sign per thought. “thoughts”) from one brain to another. the bogey here may be the notion of communication. who insisted on many occasions that human language is not about communication. But if we restrict the notion of communication to the transfer of propositional content (i. you mention sign language being. But cultural evolution is a diﬀerent matter. because our thoughts are so complex.280 Nick Ascroft language. Some fanciful theorists posit that spoken language evolved out of sign language (our laughter. and his eminently readable monograph From Hand to Mouth. that child’s genetic makeup is not going to predispose her to speak Welsh. as you put it — are also indexical. so you slur your speech. and victory hoots being the only true descendents of the vocalisations of our chimpy ancestors). but honest”. Strict Darwinianism denies that acquired traits can be inherited by future generations. If you learn to speak Welsh. Well. Wasn’t it Bertrand Russell who quipped that your dog would never be able to convey to you that “my parents were poor. Of course. and perhaps even the nature of language itself. and only derivatively. there is a direct. in one sense. That is to say. to ourselves. and by happenstance. As you suggest. superior to spoken language. a hypothetical future. so you yelp. Michael Corballis. it is to enable us to represent our thoughts. The ﬁrst is the invention of writing. Syntax enters into the equation. causal relation between the sign and the meaning that it communicates. Animal communication is not symbolic. perhaps then has language de-evolved? How might it be better still? JT: I think you are referring to the Auckland psychologist. or a counterfactual present. weeping. concerning the role of acquired traits. And in the past couple of thousand years. some of our vocalisations — our squeaks and yaups. That much is certain. in the ﬁrst instance. conventionalised “arbitrary” signs — with the intention of referring to conceptualisations which need not be caused by your present environment. And a dog could never wag its tail in the past conditional. it is indexical. then I would be inclined to side with Chomsky. it is about the representation of thought. and then beget a child. to others. Talk of evolution. and the gradual . But the essence of human language is that you use signs — typically. You are drunk.e. brings up the old controversy between Darwin and Lamarck. you hear a yelp. there have been two cultural innovations which have profoundly aﬀected our conception of language. and you know someone is in pain. of course. Corballis speculates that the evolutionary precursors to spoken languages were gestural in nature. You are in pain. If language is “for” anything. and your slurred speech would be interpreted as a sign that you are drunk. NA: As a corollary. who knows? That’s what makes language evolution such a fascinating topic. The concept is so vague that it can be applied loosely to just about every aspect of human or animal behaviour. You can talk about the past.
Both inventions. though. But I would hesitate to speak of evolution. People do not speak in sentences. arguably the genre’s crux. though. I was interested in the factors which inﬂuence the order of conjoined words in expressions such as bread and butter. texting. One product of decontextualisation is the dictionary. and by individuals who were not within earshot of the speaker. and will presumably continue to do so. their speakers — have adapted to technological change. up and down. a good storyteller. a good debater. for that matter. and it starts very early. The second. in the sense of getting better. So I decided to investigate this. NA: You mention aesthetics. I used . it may be that electronic media — internet chat-rooms. in all societies. have devoted relatively little attention to the aesthetic aspects of language. and the belief that each word in the language can be paired oﬀ with one or more deﬁnitive meanings. Linguists. Evolution is simply a matter of adaptation to the environment. such as the invention of writing. rather. in other words. In order to eliminate semantic factors. make it possible to decontextualise language. For adults. is also based on the possibility of studying permanent language samples. an Interview with John Taylor 28 spread of literacy within language communities. Another product is the notion of the sentence. We like the sound of our own voices. and such like.Butter and Bread. What struck me. is the invention of sound-recording devices. was that if you reversed the order. the second in its acoustic form. This issue of Landfall consisting mostly of poetry. Currently. admires a good public speaker. Languages — or. in general. I did do a study which might be relevant to the topic. what insights into the joy of language. Semantic factors are clearly at work — male before female. Both inventions make it possible to “ﬁx” an utterance. sons and daughters. Current work on gesture would have been inconceivable before the advent of video recordings. as a discipline. but for the evident pleasure it gives them to repeat strings of meaningless syllables. this love for language will of course develop into the practice of literature and poetry. as you quickly discover when you try to transcribe an audio recording of unscripted spontaneous speech — the sentence is a product of literacy. Several years ago. the resulting expressions somehow didn’t sound so good. which is very recent. not to “communicate” anything. and so on — are impacting on the nature of language and our views of it. might the world of linguistics oﬀer? Or. more salient before less salient. I guess I am no exception. And everyone. Young infants love to babble to themselves. Likewise — to take up a previous topic — advances in corpus linguistics would have been impossible without the availability of electronic data processing. Linguistics. and make it available for study and contemplation outside the context in which it was produced. what other perspectives might the ﬁeld bring to the appreciation of poetry? JT: One of the reasons that people use language is because it’s fun. the ﬁrst in its written form.
inherent pitch. expressions for which a semantic explanation would seem to be at hand. It must be quite a fun area to work in. in order that they can take their place in a binomial expression! So. that you select your words. though. or bread and butter. such as sons and daughters. This is weird. namely. First. formed by inserting all the English vowels in a [p__p] frame. Symbolic thought can be manifested in other activities apart from language. But it is also likely. one might suppose that writers select their words according to the meanings which they wish to convey. and these seemed to be determined by three factors. So. creatures . here was a demonstration that the factors which contribute to a subjective impression of euphony can be systematically studied. it appeared that what people were doing on the preference test was slotting the nonsense syllables into a kind of prosodic template. it was a very small-scale investigation. The pattern was “higher before lower”. The third factor was the second formant — the resonance frequency which roughly correlates with the front-back dimension of the vowels. all other things being held constant. and which gives an “ee” vowel a more ringing timbre than an “oo” vowel. But it does raise some interesting questions.282 Nick Ascroft nonsense syllables. Now. and it hardly tackled the big issues of language and poetry. such as art and religious ritual. and the best-sounding phrases were those where the inherent qualities of the vowels best matched the requirements of the template. not solely because of their meaning. The pattern was “higher second formant before lower second formant”. I then asked people which order they preferred. Some very clear patterns emerged. something like a human language? One such ability I’ve already mentioned. are likely to be spoken on a slightly higher pitch than others. It’s almost as if both the sound and the meaning of the words had evolved in tandem. the evolution of language in prehistoric times is a fascinating topic. more often than not also obey the phonetic constraints. and to develop. Second. and order them in a certain way. here is the intriguing bit. the ability for symbolic thought. what are the minimum cognitive prerequisites for language? What cognitive abilities does a creature have to have. Putting it all together. To be sure. For example. the relative duration of the vowels: the preferred pattern was “short before long”. and open to all kinds of speculations and theorisings. indeed. in order for it to acquire. one way to approach the issue is to ask. but also because of their sound. very probable. NA: Is the science of psychology continuing to kickstart ideas in linguistics? For instance has Evolutionary Psychology made any headway into theories of linguistic phenomena? JT: As I mentioned in connection with Corballis’s book. precisely because it’s impossible to be proved wrong! On a more serious note. By this is meant that certain vowels. This is that conventionalised pairings. if you think about it. The nonsense words were paired in all possible ways and conjoined by and.
one popularised by the later Wittgenstein. Unless the child could mind-read the mother. That’s one side of the argument.Butter and Bread. and how it diﬀered from yours. if you think about it. The child “knows” that the mother is naming the picture. I want to get away from the idea that a language can be represented as a list of words (the dictionary) and a list of rules for combining words (the syntax. Once it had emerged. which triggered the ability for symbolic thought. A number of distinctively human characteristics follow. or grammar book). we use language to convey our thoughts to other people. or who buried their dead in speciﬁc ways or in special places. which is very much the same as mine. To be sure. and the ability to empathise and to mind-read. For example. where does this leave us on the language evolution question? A reasonable guess would be. A mother points to a picture in a book and says cow. This is because I ﬁrmly believe that you have a mind. it seems to me. It’s a well-known conundrum in linguistic semantics. it would confer an enormous survival advantage to its users. other people may not have a mental life at all. This actually gives a new perspective on the “language-as-communication” issue. It is sometimes said that one person can never know what goes on inside another person’s head. what are your own current preoccupations in the worlds of linguistics other than those canvassed? JT: My medium-term project is to work on the idea of the mental corpus as a metaphor for language knowledge. for saying what you do say. we can second-guess their intentions and actions. this ability rests on the prior ability to read other people’s minds. But. we can wonder what we would do in their situation. Michael Tomasello has argued — are absolutely crucial to linguistic development. not to mute your own trumpet. NA: And ﬁnally. not all that long ago — a genetic mutation took place. that at some time in the past — perhaps. These abilities — as the child-language researcher and evolutionary anthropologist. The other side says that I know perfectly well what concept you associate with I have toothache. paradoxically. I know what I mean when I say that I have toothache. So. we can intuit what other people are thinking and feeling. we can imagine how diﬀerent people would view a given state of aﬀairs. would pass this ﬁrst test of a predisposition to language. And. she would never learn the word cow. at least. The stage would be set for language to emerge. It follows that it would be illegitimate to speak of the meaning of I have toothache as a concept in the head. an Interview with John Taylor 283 who made cave drawings. A second prerequisite. there would be no rationale for your saying anything at all. or. I’m exploring the idea that . is what the philosophers refer to as a “theory of mind”. we can empathise with other people. this has to be true. Instead. but how can I know that you mean something similar when you say that you have toothache? As far as I know. and a mental and emotional life. Unless you had a pretty good idea of other people’s state of knowledge.
284 Nick Ascroft knowledge of a language consists in accumulated memory traces of previous encounters with the language. Semantics. Shopen (Ed. & Turner. New Zealand. and Cognition. M. Fauconnier. In M. L. Bass. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.). References Boroditsky. Culture. (1992). A. The roles of body and mind in abstract thought. & Johnson. Stanford: Stanford University Press. together. Psychological Science. (1999). I’m sifting through the psychological and cognitive science literature in an attempt to give the whole thing a sound theoretical base. G. Shibatani & S. (2000). November 2005). (2003). Trans by A. Langacker. It would also have a hypertext format. but this kind of model does actually account for many aspects of linguistic performance that are diﬃcult to square with the dictionary-plus-grammar book model. Linguistic Categorization. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Nick Ascroft. G.. J. A.). Corballis. It sounds rather outlandish. It was conducted by the magazine’s editor. Phonetic factors in word order. comprising not just acoustic but also visual and all sorts of contextual information. (1987). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. The Cultural Origins of Human Cognition. M. Talmy. Harvard University Press. Oxford: Oxford University Press. New York: Basic Books. & Frank. (1984). Oxford: Oxford University Press. not the least of which is the ubiquity of the idiomatic in language and our sensitivity to the relative frequency of words and word combinations in the language. (2002). Slobin. (2002). Two ways to travel: Verbs of motion in English and Spanish. 36–149). Phonetica. Vol. M. Currently. D. These. Grammatical constructions: Their form and meaning (pp. 3: Grammatical categories and the lexicon (pp. Language typology and syntactic description. Landfall (Issue 210. Princeton: Princeton University Press. Writing and Diﬀerence. constitute the said “mental corpus”. I would see the mental corpus as being multimedia in nature. 195–219). Derrida. R. Taylor. Foundations of Cognitive Grammar. M. 3rd edition. 226–237. Lakoﬀ. in that accessing any single entry in the corpus would provide links to many other kinds of entry. (1978). Chicago: Chicago University Press. J. 13. (1985). In T. Ramscar. (1980). 185–188. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 41. The Way We Think. a Linguistics graduate of Otago University. (2003). From Hand to Mouth: The origins of language. L. M. Lexicalization patterns: Semantic structure in lexical forms. Note * This is a slightly shortened version of an interview which ﬁrst appeared in the New Zealand literary magazine. Taylor. . Taylor. Thompson (Eds. J. M. Throwing in a few more components. (First edition: 1989) Tomasello. Wierzbicka. Metaphors We Live By. (1996). Cognitive Grammar. J.
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