Language and Communication

Language and communication are often defined as the human ability to refer abstractly and with intent to influence the thinking and actions of other individuals. Language is thought of as the uniquely human part of a broader system of communication that shares features with other ANIMAL COMMUNICATION systems. In the twentieth century, language research has focused largely on those aspects of vocal communication (or their homologs in SIGN LANGUAGES) that are organized as categorial oppositions (de Saussure (1916/1959); for example, categories of sound, grammar, and meaning. The domain of language research has been largely speech. In 1960, the linguist Charles Hockett advocated restricting the term "[human] language" to just those dimensions of communication that are vocal, syntactic, arbitrary in relation to their referents, abstractly referential (that is, meaning is determinable independently of the immediate context of utterance), and learned. The host of other patterned dimensions of communicative acts -- social, kinesic and affective-volitional: vocal and nonvocal -- has often been labeled "paralanguage" and regarded as outside the proper domain of linguistic inquiry.

The dominant paradigm in linguistics since the 1950s (Piatelli-Palmarini 1980) has as its foundation some notion of language as a disembodied symbol manipulation device. This Cartesian rationalist approach (Dreyfus 1992) has informed much research in experimental PSYCHOLINGUISTICS. The approach meshes with a general theory of mind in cognitive science whose influence has spread with the increasing use of computer technology. Based on the metaphor of the mind as a computer, higher human mental functions (language among them) are modeled on analogy with the operating principles of formal information processing (IP) systems, including, "decomposition of complexity into simpler units; routines and subroutines that automatically and recursively operate on atomic units" (Gigerenzer and Goldstein 1996). In modular IP models, subroutines are "unintelligent" and encapsulated; that is, each functions in relative isolation from other modules in the system. Gigerenzer and Goldstein cite Levelt's (1989) influential model of LANGUAGE PRODUCTION as representative of this general approach. As well, a great deal of basic research on SPEECH PERCEPTION, SENTENCE PROCESSING, and LANGUAGE ACQUISITION has been concerned with the nature of psycholinguistic functions when variables of meaning and context enter the experimental format only in a controlled manner, via symbol and syntax. One goal has been to understand how arbitrary symbol and syntax, thought of as the "purely linguistic" dimensions of human communicative acts, function as pointers to extralinguistic meaning and context. Olson (1994) implicates the technology of writing as another source for this way of thinking about language, saying, "we introspect our language in terms of the categories laid down by our script." In this view, spoken linguistic units are containers to carry abstract reference and these units have an existence independent from the context that gives rise to them. (That linguistic units can be made to function in this way in vitro is an issue crucially distinct from what their nature and functions may be in the organic whole of face-to-face communication.)

Research cued by formal linguistics links to the combined senses of what language is (speech and syntax) and what its "main function" is (abstract reference). Lieberman's (1991) research on the evolution of the human vocal tract, for instance, pinpoints when in evolutionary time humans became capable of producing the modern range of spoken phonetic categorial distinctions, identifying this with the onset of human language as a whole. Research on PRIMATE LANGUAGE often imports frameworks and units of analysis from linguistic analyses of human language. For example, reports of chimpanzee and gorilla attempts to use artificial and signed languages give totals of the words in the animals' vocabularies and comment on the extent to which the animals are able to negotiate task demands absent information from context on the basis of symbol manipulation alone. Cheney and Seyfarth's (1990) finding that vervet monkeys have distinct calls to alert conspecifics to the presence of different types of predators gives rise to discussions about the role of something like "words" in these animals' natural communication system.

The dominant paradigm puts a chasm between animal communication and human language, one that has been notably difficult for theories of the EVOLUTION OF LANGUAGE to bridge. Saltationist evolutionary accounts assume a significant structure-producing genetic mutation that makes human-language syntax possible. Some researchers hypothesize that humans are uniquely capable of developing a THEORY OF MIND necessary for intentional communication; some that a particular mimetic ability is the key. Other accounts emphasize the continuity between human cognitive, social, and communicative abilities and those of our primate relatives (see the collected papers in Hurford, Studdert-Kennedy, and Knight 1998). The crucial evolutionary join, however, remains underspecified.

Alternative research strategies in linguistics, sociolinguistics, anthropology, and psychology have assembled evidence of much interpenetration and interdependence of the many dimensions of human communicative acts that have been theorized to be functionally independent. Sociolinguistics (for example, Labov 1980) has shown that individuals' attempts to position themselves relative to different groups or social strata can have effects even to the level of language phonology. The psycholinguist Locke (1994) has noted that, "linguists have neglected the role of language as a medium for social interaction and emotional expression." He distinguishes "talk" (loosely: social speech) in human communication from a more restricted sense of speech and claims that the language acquisition process targets talk first, assembling an essential social-interactional framework within which speech is then acquired. The anthropologist Kendon (1994) assigns equal status to gesture and speech as communicative resources. Cognitive and functional linguistic theory (Lakoff 1987) attempts to ground language in embodied experience and rejects the analytic separation of grammar from meaning. In later years, Hockett himself (1987), in writing about "how language means," acknowledged the difficulty of drawing a sharp boundary in situated language use between language and "paralanguage"; between the arbitrary and the iconic. He exhorted linguists to learn about language by studying the communicative package as a whole, "in vivo," and to avoid focusing too exclusively on, thereby making too much of, the abstract referring and symbol manipulation properties of language.

The linguist Dwight Bolinger (Bolinger and Sears 1975) pursued linguistic research with a very different focus, stating, "language is speech embedded in gesture." This statement puts paralanguage ("gesture," both vocal and kinesic) before abstract, syntactic speech in studies of human language. The "gesture" with which Bolinger was primarily concerned is prosody, the patterns of stress and intonation in speech. He also reported, however, observations of the facial and bodily gestures that occur together with speech and noted their relation to prosody. He was interested, for example, in how a prosodic contour determines the meaning of an utterance as much as do the combined meanings of the words in the sentence; also in how gesture expresses affect or can reveal a speaker's perspective on her own utterance at the moment of speaking.

McNeill and Duncan (1999) largely reject the language/paralanguage distinction. These authors theorize that gesture, broadly construed to include prosodic and rhythmic phenomena (cf. Tuite 1993), iconic gestures, nonrepresentational movements of the hands and body, semiotic valuation of gesture space, as well as analog (as opposed to discrete) patterning on other communicative dimensions, is intrinsic to language. On this view, language is an organized form of on-line, interactive, embodied, and contextualized human cognition. By hypothesis, the initial organizing impulse of a communicative production is a unit of thinking patterned simultaneously according to two distinct representational systems: one categorial, compositional, and analytic; the other imagistic, synthetic, and holistic. Patterning in either system may emerge in speech or gesture production, though it has often been convenient to think of speech as the embodiment of the categorial, and gesture as the embodiment of the noncategorial. According to McNeill and Duncan, reductionist accounts that isolate categorial speech from image, prosody, and gesture in separate processing modules (Levelt 1989; Krauss, Chen, and Gottesman 1999) will fail to account for the way language production and comprehension evolve on-line in real-time communication. Speech and gesture together provide an enhanced window on cognition during communication. Much is externalized, a fact that minimizes the burden on interlocutors' theories of mind.

Gigerenzer and Goldstein (1996) identify the information encapsulation feature of modularist IP models such as Levelt's as the Achilles' heel of these models. Pushed by crossdisciplinary study of language in vivo, there is growing consensus that models must deal with the massive interpenetration of what have traditionally been analyzed as functionally distinct levels of linguistic analysis. Such consensus points to a paradigm shift underway, one that encompasses Saussure's paradigm-shifting formulation but moves beyond it. It locates human language in the human body and postulates as its theoretic atom the conversational dyad, rather than a monad with a message to transmit or receive (Goodwin 1986; Schegloff 1984). The shift was foreshadowed by Lev Semenovich VYGOTSKY (1934/1986), who analyzed communicative events as developing simultaneously on an "inter-" as well as an "intra-psychic plane." At the vangard are socio- and psycholinguistic gesture research, research on sign languages liberated from earlier constraints to minimize iconic dimensions of patterning (Armstrong, Stokoe, and Wilcox 1995), cognitive and functional linguistic research, as well as philosophical (Heidegger: see Dreyfus 1991) and anthropological (Levinson, forthcoming) re-search that highlights the situated, culturally embedded character of language use.

See also

-- Susan Duncan


Armstrong, D. F., W. C. Stokoe, and S. E. Wilcox. (1995). Gesture and the Nature of Language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Bolinger, D. L., and D. A. Sears. (1975). Aspects of Language. 2nd ed. New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich.

Cheney, D. L., and S. M. Seyfarth. (1990). How Monkeys See the World. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Dreyfus, H. L. (1991). Being-in-the-World: A Commentary on Heidegger's Being and Time, Division I. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Dreyfus, H. L. (1992). What Computers Still Can't Do: A Critique of Artificial Reason. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Gigerenzer, G., and D. Goldstein. (1996). Mind as computer: The birth of a metaphor. Creativity Research Journal 9:131-144.

Goodwin, C. (1986). Gesture as a resource for the organization of mutual orientation. Semiotica 62(1-2): 29 - 49.

Hockett, C. F. (1987). Refurbishing our Foundations. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Hockett, C. F. (1960). Logical considerations in the study of animal communication. In W. E. Lanyon and W. N. Tavolga, Eds., Animal Sounds and Communication. Washington: American Institute of Biological Science, pp. 392-430.

Hurford, J. R., M. Studdert-Kennedy, and C. Knight, Eds. (1998). Approaches to the Evolution of Language: Social and Cognitive Bases. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Kendon, A. (1994). Do gestures communicate? Research on Language and Social Interaction 27(3):3-28.

Krauss, R. M., Y. Chen, and R. F. Gottesman. (1999). Lexical gestures and lexical access: A process model. In D. McNeill, Ed., Language and Gesture: Window into Thought and Action. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Labov, W. (1980). The social origins of sound change. In W. Labov, Ed., Locating Language in Time and Space. New York: Academic Press, pp. 251-266.

Lakoff, G. (1987). Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things: What Categories Reveal about the Mind. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Levelt, W. J. M. (1989). Speaking: From Intention to Articulation. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Levinson S. C. (Forthcoming). The body in space: Cultural differences in the use of body-schema for spatial thinking and gesture. In G. Lewis and F. Sigaud, Eds., Culture and Uses of the Body. Cambridge: Oxford University Press.

Lieberman, P. (1991). Uniquely Human: The Evolution of Speech, Thought, and Selfless Behavior. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Locke, J. (1994). Phases in a child's development of language. American Scientist 82:436-445.

McNeill, D., and S. Duncan. (1999). Growth points in thinking for speaking. In D. McNeill, Ed., Language and Gesture: Window into Thought and Action. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Olson, D. R. (1994). The World on Paper: Conceptual and Cognitive Implications of Writing and Reading. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Piatelli-Palmarini, M., Ed. (1980). Language and Learning: The Debate Between Jean Piaget and Noam Chomsky. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Saussure, F. de. [1916] (1959). Course in General Linguistics. Translated by W. Baskin. Reprint. New York: Philosophical Library.

Schegloff, E. A. (1984). On some gestures' relation to talk. In J. M. Atkinson and J. Heritage, Eds., Structures of Social Action. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 266-295.

Tuite, K. (1993). The production of gesture. Semiotica 93(1-2): 83 - 105.

Vygotsky, L. S. [1934] (1986). Thought and Language, A. Kozulin, ed. and trans. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Further Readings

Armstrong, D. (1983). Iconicity, arbitrariness, and duality of pattering in signed and spoken language: Perspectives on language evolution. Sign Language Studies 38(Spring): 51-69.

Bavelas, J. B. (1994). Gestures as part of speech: Methodological implications. Research on Language and Social Interaction 27(3):201-221.

Bernieri, F. J., and R. Rosenthal. (1991). Interpersonal coordination: Behavior matching and interactional synchrony. In R. Feldman and B. Rime, Eds., Fundmentals of Nonverbal Behavior. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 401-432.

Bickerton, D. (1990). Language and Species. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Bolinger, D. L. (1946). Thoughts on "yep" and "nope." American Speech 21:90-95.

Crystal, D. (1976). Paralinguistic behavior as continuity between animal and human communication. In W. C. McCormack and S. A. Wurm, Eds., Language and Man: Anthropological Issues. The Hague: Mouton, pp. 13-27.

Givon, T. (1985). Iconicity, isomorphism, and non-arbitrary coding in syntax. In J. Haiman, Ed., Iconicity in Syntax. Amsterdam: John Benjamins, pp. 187-219.

Hockett, C. F. (1978). In search of Jove's brow. American Speech 53:243-313.

Kendon, A. (1980). Gesticulation and speech: Two aspects of the process of utterance. In M. R. Key, Ed., The Relationship Between Verbal and Nonverbal Communication. The Hague: Mouton, pp. 207-228.

Kendon, A. (1972). Some relationships between body motion and speech: An analysis of an example. In A. Siegman and B. Pope, Eds., Studies in Dyadic Communication. New York: Pergamon Press, pp. 177-210.

McNeill, D. (1985). So you think gestures are nonverbal? Psychological Review 92(3):350-371.

McNeill, D. (1992). Hand and Mind: What Gestures Reveal About Thought. Chicago: Chicago University Press.

Streeck, J. (1994). Gesture as communication II: the audience as co-author. Research on Language and Social Interaction 27(3):239-267 .