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Humpty Dumpty, the egg who had a great fall in the nursery rhyme, claims “ When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean, neither more nor less”.
“The question is,” says Alice, a spirited visitor from the land the other side of the mirror “ whether you can make words mean so many different things” “The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master, that is all.” Though Lewis Carroll’s ‘Through The Looking Glass’ may be a nonsense story, Humpty Dumpty, or HD as I shall refer to him, is not talking nonsense.
Alice is too puzzled to reply, but HD has prepared the ground for his claim that his interpretation of meaning is to be ‘Master’. He proclaims ‘glory’ for the superiority of his interpretation of the birthday gift-giving ritual. 364 Un-Birthday presents would obviously be better than one Birthday present. HD’s logic here is impeccable.
His contempt towards Alice attitude in imposing his interpretation is quite imperious. He claims that Alice does not understand what he means “until I tell you.” Synonymous with his triumphant ‘glory’ , HD describes his superior interpretation as “ a nice knock-down argument”, with its undertones of agression and finality. HD glories in his superior argument, and rightly asserts that his interpretation is to be ‘master’. HD imposes his definition of a word on others, and Alice obediently accepts his mastery of such unruly objects as proud verbs and malleable adjectives. “Impenetrability!” says HD, maybe expressing his frustration at his inability to penetrate fully the issue and implications of “might makes right” and giving up with “ we’ve had enough of that subject.” Nevertheless he continues to battle with unruly words that are reluctant to do his bidding by “paying them extra” for carrying more than one meaning. Fanciful as that is, to have a mecantile answer to a linguistic problem, at least HD recognises the multiple meaning of words to be a problem. When Alice first sees Humpty Dumpty, she recognises him as a character from a nursery–rhyme, and is certain of his identity: “ I’m as certain of it as if his name were written all over his face” she says. She immediately associates his shape, an egg with a face, with his name. Later, HD complains that the name Alice signifies nothing to him: it is without associations, and above all, it is not descriptive, as girls’ names like Daisy or Mary might be.
“With a name like that, you might be any shape, almost.” he says. “Must a name mean something? asks Alice, and HD replies that it must. “My name means the shape I am…” says Humpty. “Must a name mean something?” Asks Alice “Of course it must!” He says, betraying an early prejudice of naming: HD shows a commonly mistaken conception of names, that they should be descriptive. Even though our own association with Humpty Dumpty allows us to see him as egg-shaped, without that specific cultural background we would not be able to do so. Alice as a name is not pictorial like Daisy or allusive like Mary, but nowadays has cultural associations which give it a certain significance, in this case from Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland books themselves. Names are philosophically important for the link they show between sign and concept, and as a part of the whole importance of language as a medium of truth-telling. “In ‘On Sense and Reference’ Frege appears to focus on the question relative to what value or aim the relation of proper names has to the objects they stand for - that is, their reference. “ It is significant relative to the scientific value of truth alone, and this is a value that only sentences can have.” # Names, nick names, patronyms, surnames, tribal names, all of these naming actions are attempts to define and so limit the person by claiming their identity with family, tribal or clan groupings. Above all, we see that naming of objects is an attempt to exercise control in some way, by sympathetic magic calling on an association of the word to the object which gives a power to manipulate reality through words. It is this mystical connection between names and objects that is at the root of the Idealist confusion over essences, that named mental objects have an existence simply by virtue of being given a name. In Plato, this named object is the Idea, which is supposed to precede experience, just like the post-Kantian formulation by Chomsky of a mental template which preceeds actual experience of language. These mental objects seem to have a stability and fixedness that is quite illusory. Instead we realize that ‘ goodness’, ‘love’, ‘nation’, ‘the people’, do not refer to fixed entities, but are categories that are reconstituted each time we refer to them. Wittgenstein objects to the descriptive view of names, specifically in Saint Augustine’s formulation that "individual words in language name objects," and that "sentences are combinations of such names" (PI 1). Instead he introduces the idea that how a word is used is its salient character. "For a large class of cases -- though not for all -- in which we employ the word ‘meaning’ it can be defined thus: the meaning of a word is its use in the language"(PI 1). And
"if we had to name anything which is the life of the sign, we should have to say that it was its use" (BB 4). Alice hits on a relevant observation when HD claims “It’s my turn to choose a subject”, and Alice reflects that “ He talks about it just as if it were a game!” In fact this is HD’s game of interpretation, as he quibbles pedantically over the difference between “ How old did you say you were” and “ How old are you?”, triumphantly pronouncing Alice’s interpretation “Wrong!” Unlike HD, who was reduced to bribery in his effort to control unruly words, Wittgenstein embraces the countless uses of words, their un- fixedness, and their flexibility in a game called language: " The term ‘language-game’ is meant to bring into prominence the fact that the speaking of language is part of an activity, or of a form of life" (PI 23) This view is very like that of Vygotsky, in that language is seen as a social construct, and intrinsically opposed to the Chomskian view that language is something built-in to humans. Chomsky holds that language is something built-in to the brain, without which language learning could not take place. This is a Kantian view of the remarkable progress young children make in the learning of their mother-tongue. Where Kant has categories of understanding built into the brain to process time, space and causation, Chomsky suggests that linguistic capability is also built-in, and accounts for our almost instinctive grasp of the inner transformations of language. Thus knowledge of a language must depend on an inner template of language structure which is activated by actual examples of language being heard by a child. However, seeing that mental activity preceeds linguistic activity in the child by at least a year or more, what rather might be innate is the system of discrimination and organisation that can carry the verbal information provided by speech, and this is actually a genetic inheritance from the first language-using tribe that came out of Africa. The ‘deep grammar’ that Chomsky and others see in the relations between widely-dispersed languages are directly attributable to this fact, that we descend from this original language-gifted tribe. A system of perception, comparison, categorisation, association and synthesis is active from the beginning in newly-born children, and even in pre-natal infants. Given that information is being processed by the brain from the very first perceptions of the mother’s heart beat, fluctuations in warmth and the sounds of language penetrating the walls of the womb, it seems unnecessary to posit a separate language-structuring device in the brain. Rather, the structure, inherited from forebears, that forms and orders all perception is Ratiocination. Some would like to call it Reason but that would imply a large number of relationships which must have developed from some few primitive groupings of perception, such as present/absent, one/plural, which would be the beginning of numbering, and, deriving from the instinct for survival and reproduction, interesting or not interesting. This sense of some things being more ‘interesting’ is notable in babies, and can be experimentally verified.
Whether it is actually necessary to assume an innate Language Acquisition Device to account for eventual outcomes in language performance seems to me a matter that could be experimentally tested. If we can account for L1 learners’ linguistic behavior entirely in terms of input of thousands of vocalisations by parents and siblings over a number of years, the LAD is redundant. On the other hand, investigation of gender differences in language learning, since it seems that females have an advantage in this matter, may provide ammunition for the other side. If structures in the brain could be isolated which aid language learning, then a nativist argument would be supported. All the same, these structures are more likely physical than metaphysical. The popularity of the innate theory is hard to overcome, as it fits easily with other widespread beliefs in non-physical aspects of the human being such as souls, spirits and minds.
The nativist view of language learning may be comfortable and reassuring, but the evolutionary view is humanist and confers value on human learning. Above all, the LAD seems to me to downgrade the value of a specifically human construct, that is the codification of information in a symbolic communication system called language.
Mark Heyne. June 2006 FOOTNOTES *HD is a well-known children’s nursery-rhyme character who is in fact an egg. He suffers an unfortunate Fall which can never be remedied. As the nursery rhyme has it, “All the King’s horses and all the King’s men couldn’t put Humpty together again” In Carroll’s version, all the King’s horses and all the King’s men “ couldn’t put HD in his place again”, a variant reading which may well reflect the political allegory behind the nursery rhyme…. “Humpty Dumpty was in fact an unusually large canon which was mounted on the protective wall of "St. Mary's Wall Church" in Colchester, England. It was intended to protect the Parliamentarian stronghold of Colchester which was in the temporarily in control of the Royalists during the period of English history, described as the English Civil War ( 1642 - 1649). A shot from a Parliamentary canon succeeded in damaging the wall underneath Humpty Dumpty causing the canon to fall to the ground. The Royalists 'all the King's men' attempted to raise Humpty Dumpty on to another part of the wall but even with the help of ' all the King's horses' failed in their task and Colchester fell to the Parliamentarians after a siege lasting eleven weeks.” www.famousquotes.me.uk
REFERENCES: Carroll, Lewis. Through the Looking Glass. 1872 Wittgenstein, Ludwig. Philosophical Investigations (PI), 1953,
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