ARBITRARY and IRRELEVANCE Language as a Code Prepared for Professor Stainton's course MC 32 280.

Written by: Shawn Monaghan (critical on NOV 94

The first section of this paper is a definitive one. In order to investigate the claim that language is a code for communication, I must first define the terms, "communication," "code," and "language." In the second section of this paper I will deal with the code theory as defined by Sperber and Wilson. Section three will deal with Condillac's code theory as outlined by Talbot J. Taylor in Mutual Misunderstanding. In Relevance, Dan Sperber and Deirdre Wilson outline the code model, in which communication "is a process involving two information-processing devices" (Sperber and Wilson 1). They explain that one of the devices modifies the environment of the other. The result of this process is that the second device recreates in itself what the first device transmitted. In terms of human communication, this means the speaker, in the process of speaking, modifies the cognitive environment of the audience (please note I am using speaker in the sense of both verbal and written communication). The speaker thus creates in the audience the very same or similar thoughts as within his/her own mind.

In attempting to explain how communication works, the code theory reflects an understanding of what communication is. The speaker in the process of communicating modifies the cognitive environment of his/her audience (Sperber and Wilson 1). The overt modification of the audience's environment is an important and implicit aspect of communication. However, the code theory, as represented by Sperber and Wilson, does not really deal with questions of intention and the overt modification of environments. An alternative definition of communication is described by Sperber and Wilson in the section on inference. Communication, they write, is "a process of inferential recognition of the communicator's intentions" (Sperber and Wilson 9). This definition is much more comprehensive than the one I represented as the code theory on communication. It is much better than the first definition as it more accurately portrays normal communication more closely. For example, if someone were to say "I can't bear/bare it," the listener could not know, on hearing that verbal statement, whether the speaker meant "I can't stand it" or "I can't reveal (or disclose) it," unless that listener were to infer the statement's meaning from the context of the conversation. How can the code theory account for a case where the same phonetic symbol could have two different meanings -- "bear" and "bare." The only reasonable method would be

through use of context and various inferential devices. The problem here is that code theory ignores the necessity of cognitive devices like inference, thus falling short as a theory to explain adequate transference of meaning from speaker to audience. To explore these differences of definition I find it instructive to look at morse code and compare it to English. This comparison should take place after I have defined 'code'. So bear with me for another paragraph or so. The above description of communication is a very basic one couched in the terms of code theory, but there are other types and forms of communication. Body language is a form of communication which could be explained as natural gestures or postures that are communicated involuntarily by people who are not necessarily communicating overtly. Body language could also be used as a form of overt communication. For example instead of saying 'I do not understand' in conversation a person could raise their eyebrow in a puzzled way. Thus body language can communicate in a similar way as verbal or written communication. Perhaps it could be considered a shorthand form of verbal communication. The Code model can easily be modified to deal with the overt type of body language, but it does not seem ideally suited for explaining the involuntary aspect of body language. Body language is outside of the scope of code theory, perhaps because it is relatively unmodified by human hands. Body language is considered more natural

than 'natural' languages (ie. English). Perhaps this is the reason it seems to be neglected in language studies. In any theory that attempts to be a comprehensive explanation or exploration into communication body language should be considered. Because it is so subtle body language is often ignored by linguists and common communicators alike, but it does impact on communication. Consider if a person was in an interview for a job, consider also that this person keeps his/her eyes averted most of the time and very rarely smiles throughout the interview. Even though the interviewee might say s/he is very happy and well adapted to society his/her body is saying s/he is sad and unsure of him/herself. The interviewers would take note of this body language subconsciously and would likely not give this person the job even if s/he is fully qualified. This situation described above is a common occurrence in everyday communication. A persons ability to communicate what they want can be impaired by their body language, and in the world of communication impairment of communication can be pretty important. Now that communication has been defined I must turn to the term 'code' and define it also. A code is a representational system that is encrypted in some way. That is to say a code is a representational system that has been designed in an arbitrary way --at least to the degree that it is not obvious or necessarily intelligible without access to the cryptographic device. According to Sperber and

Wilson a code is a device or infrastructure that pairs a symbol with an object or concept (Sperber and Wilson 3). In their definition of code Sperber and Wilson do not go far enough, their definition suits the entire family of representation and is not specific enough to the sub-family of codes, a code by definition must entail some element of arbitrariness. In a representational system the symbol can be referred to as the signifier and that which it represents as signified. The code process of communication goes something like this: a person takes that which is to be communicated and encodes it, this encoded message is then sent to the audience who then decodes and voila, communication has occurred. Of course for the message to be intelligible both the speaker and the audience must have the same sort of device for encoding/decoding. By definition the message which is sent must be very similar or exactly the same as the message received. According to code theory language is the code which pairs sounds (or written symbols) with thoughts. While generative grammar is the encoding/decoding agent. That which is encoded/decoded into language is often not clearly referred (Sperber and Wilson 4) to, but in some other accounts that which is encoded is 'thought' (Sperber and Wilson 5). What appears to be lacking in this account is a precise or even vague definition of 'thought'. The assumption about thought and code as a language which is unstated must be that

thought is something we do when we think, this thought must then be encoded into language which can then be transmitted. What I think code theorists are doing is jumping to the assumption that language is a code we use to communicate, and since it is a code we must have to encode and decode it from some ill-defined metaphysical construction we call thought. The problem is that this theory could just as easily be replaced with the theory that language is thought and something else is a code that our brains use to transform electro-chemical processes into language. The proposed theory would go something like this. When I think I believe I think in language directly. There is no reason for me to believe that I first think in some sort of abstract 'thought', which is then transposed into language. Code theorists provide no evidence that thoughts are separate from language or even that thoughts can exist separate from a representational system. If our mind must use a representational system for communication from one person to another as code theorists claim, why is it that representation only occurs in the communication sphere and not in the thought sphere. Perhaps code theorists do believe representation occurs as a part of thought. If so how can they be justified in concentrating solely on the communication process between individuals when it seems clear that we must first 'communicate' to ourselves. Thought presumably can not take place entirely in the abstract for if it could how could we think or

know or talk about anything. Certainly our minds need some sort of representational system in order to think, we must first be able to have coherent thoughts before we can communicate them, this process of developing coherent thoughts can be referred to as communicating to yourself. Perhaps code theorists would prefer to deal with the somewhat more accessible communication process between people rather than within people and this is the source of their justification. But even so there is no justification for ignoring thought itself and merely assuming language is a tool solely for communication between people without considering communication with the self. Condillac does have an answer for me however: While all the component ideas of a thought are simultaneously present in the mind, they are given sequence in discourse: it is therefore [artificial] languages which provide us with the methods for analysing our thoughts. (Taylor quoting Condillac 56)

Condillac appears to consider language as a tool for analysing thought but his theory does still emphasize communication between people over communication with oneself. Language as referred to by the code model seems to be restricted to 'natural'

human languages such as English and Bantu. Other 'artificial' languages like morse code are considered simpler versions of 'natural' languages and are useful as examples for explaining how 'natural' languages work in terms of code theory. For example just as '...,---,...' represents 'S.O.S' or the thought 'help!', so does 'chair' represent an object you sit on. The fundamental difference between Morse code and English is that English is not normally considered to have been invented by anybody, whereas Morse code was designed and invented by a fellow named Morse. But other than who or what created the language or how long it took to create it what is the difference between Morse code and English as described by code theory. Code theory seems to make little distinction between Morse code and 'natural' languages such as English. Both have signifiers which are symbols which represent the object(signified) being referred to. Both are languages. Both are basically encoded and sent by the speaker, received and decoded by the hearer. Morse code is an encoded alphabet it was invented by Morse as he wanted a way of communicating over long distances via electricity. Letters and words themselves could not be sent, but pulses could. Morse designated '...' to signify 'S' and '---' to signify 'O'. English is exactly the same according to the code theory, the only difference being that words and sounds represent an abstract concept or process theorists call thought. 'Thought' however is not defined. What is assumed here is

that this abstract concept called thought is what we call thinking. Language (i.e. English) is the code for thought just as language (i.e. Morse code) is the code for the English alphabet. This would appear to be the only difference between English and Morse code one represents thought while the other represents letters of the alphabet. This is a tremendous barrier to code theory as an model for communication. For surely English is far more complex than Morse code, not only in sheer numbers of signifiers and objects referred to by the languages, but also the concreteness of representation entailed. For example '...' represents 'S' that is all there is to Morse code. Whereas in English concepts like Feminism and Canadian are represented by a signifier that is only slightly more complex than '...'. Concepts like Feminism and Canadian are amazingly amorphous. Feminism can mean 'man-hater' or it can mean 'woman-lover' or 'egalitarian' as well as a multiplicity of other things. Canadian can refer to mere citizenship status or various levels of immigrant status from the days of Columbus and before to a time period of 20 years.

Having just said that English, for example, was not invented by anybody. I must now clarify this to say no single person invented English as clearly some code theorists as a matter of course do become involved in speculative history about

'natural' languages. Condillac theorized that language was invented through humankind's interaction with natural analogical processes. He further theorized that if the signifiers of language were arrived at arbitrarily: "If this had been the case, how could they have understood one another?" (Taylor quoting Condillac 61). The question that immediately comes to mind given Condillac's opposition to arbitrary pairing of signifier with signified is that if Condillac is right what would be the need of a code at all. That is to say if this 'natural' process of selecting pairs of symbols and the things they refer to, originated from nature why did a code evolve at all. Surely if the analogical process was available to all of humankind at this time they should have been able to communicate without the need to develop a code. Furthermore if language was derived from analogical processes that humankind accessed from the environment how does Condillac explain the immense diversity of languages across the world. If language as a code was not derived in at least some sense arbitrarily, whence comes the difficulty of communication that was supposedly solved by the language. To clarify, if humankind somehow managed through interaction with the environment to develop a non-arbitrary thought process of pairing symbols with objects , Condillac's natural analogical process, would not their thoughts be intelligible to one another without the need of a code. Supposedly the existence of the code allows two

individuals to arrive at the same thought through the process of encoding transmission and then decoding of an idea. Yet according to Condillac in order to arrive at this code it has to be accessible to all humans through a similar thought process. That is to say the choice of signifier for signified must be objective in some sense. How is it that they can not already communicate intelligibly to one another without the need of an encoding/decoding agent. If they already have a representational process they can all logically know and understand derived from nature how can they have a need for a code system. Condillac would appear to be going in the correct direction as to how our minds could have evolved from simple sensational representations to analogical processes through the development of language. But this only shows how a representational system evolved as a function of thought and can not be inferred as a process required for communication unless our thoughts can be shown not to have any connection. The very connection Condillac stated that was required for humans to understand one another appears to be what he is trying to demonstrate through the code theory (Taylor 61). It is a mistake to think that in the first creation of languages men could choose indifferently and arbitrarily which words were to be the signs of which ideas. If this had been the case, how could they have understood one another? (Taylor

quoting Condillac 61)

Why do we understand one another? Understanding one another was the initial code theory problem. And the code theory was an exploration of the fact that humans can communicate. The code itself is supposed to be the agent that enables us to communicate. Condillac seems to be saying we understood each other even while we were inventing this code which enables us to understand each other. So why then did we invent the code? That is if we all have access to the same analogical processes that gave birth to our language why would we have the need for an encoding/decoding agent. It is precisely because the choice of symbol that represents a given object seems arbitrary that makes a code is necessary for communication. If the choice of symbol were not in the least bit arbitrary as Condillac claims then perhaps his theory would be more suitably entitled Representational theory --that is, a language is a representational system for thought development moving from sensational representations to complex analytical thought (Taylor paraphrasing Condillac 52). This paper has not provided a very damning argument against code theory in general, in fact I think code theory has a great deal of potential. Especially promising would be a combination of code theory with an inferential model to fill in

the gaps of speakers intention and symbols with synonyms. Condillac's particular version of code theory however appears flawed. His views on the institutional nature and perfectibility of language are somewhat abhorrent to me (Taylor 58). In fact concepts like the perfectibility of almost anything, but most especially culturally significant things like language scare me to no end. In a future envisioned by Condillac we could have 'thought control' in the Orwellian sense. Where words are designed to limit the thoughts of the citizens of the Big Brother state, by being static and limited in scope.


Taylor, Talbot,J. Mutual Misunderstanding. Durham: Duke university press, 1992.

Sperber, D and Wilson, D. Relevance. Oxford: Basil Blackwell Ltd., 1986.