Dialogue, language, learning LO25893

From: Leo Minnigh (l.d.minnigh@library.tudelft.nl)
Date: 01/15/01

Replying to LO25859 --

Dear LO' ers, linguanists and linguahoods,

(Is your tongue in your heart or in your head?;-)

Sometimes I really don't know how I could compose my mails and to which
former mail this contribution could be linked with. So many threads, so
many webs of threads. Well, let this contribution be captured like a poor
mosquito in a spider's web, in the richhood of this list.

Why this intro? Because it is one of my main answers to the question of
our host Rick: whit drives the emergence of this list as a cyber learning
org. My spontaneous answer is this: WHOLENESS - the broad environment that
encompasses a LO could be and is under permanent exploration by its
population; the learning whealth is thus enormous. But maybe my answer
needs more words, however I can't speek two words at the same time (here
you have my answer to your question, Andrew;-).

In the same week of At's contribution of the -hood (brain) and -ness
(heart) side of some aspects of different languages, I saw a very
interesting article in my newspaper. It delt with a theory of the American
neurobiologist Terrence Deacon. I will first bring this theory in picture,
and then turn to the soul of language and At's contribution.

Deacon has concentrated himself to the origin of language: when was that,
why and how. In his book (which I have not read) - "The symbolic species:
the co-evolution of language and the brain (1997)" language and brain have
stimulated each other in their evolution. And that started some 2 million
years ago. At that time the brain volume of homonidiae starte to increase
considerably. Language was more the cause than the result of this
increase. The consequence of this co-evolution was that the human
brain-volume (mainly the frontal cortex) increased, throughwhich our
encestors became different from chimpansee-like creatures.
But language was not developed as 'an instrument' to describe reality, the
environment. No, it was the start of 'symbolic' thinking that was the
threshold. The complexity of language is not the problem, getting started
was the problem. And grammar is secondary (grammar concerns symbols), so
one should first have the symbols. And these symbols were composed in a
web of words, all linked with each other. In this 'architecture' it is
much easier to incorporate new words that fit in the system. It will be
much more complicated and energy consuming to learn and add new words
which stand alone.
But why did the australopythecus started with symbols, 2 million years
ago? What was the purpose of a simple evolving language? According to
Deacon certainly not to understand what an other human being wants to do.
Even now, with all our advanced languages one could often better look to
others face or body to see if that person is friendly or if this person
wants to attack you.
The only thing which language can do is referring to the FUTURE and to
things that are not factual or concrete. Language offers abstraction. That
is impossible with some loose sounds, even if it are 1000 different
sounds. One needs a system of symbols.
So, according to Deacon it is our symbolic thinking that created

If we embrace this evolutionary picture, we can trace this evolution
further. The youngest sprouts of the growing language tree are the
chemical, mathematical and pictogrammical (e.g. road signs) languages.
Also these form their own web of relations. And to realise the impact of
the emergenes of these sprouts, think how complicated it is and how
inconvenient it is, if we could only use our classic mother tongue for
these matters.

And now we are very close to what At has written about the 'feelings' and
soul of words. Maybe also the meanings of words, although that is of
another level. No, the 'deeper' side of language and particularly the web
of relationships with other words, that was my main perception of At's
message. In fact this web looks like a dynamic organisation in dynamic
equilibrium: remove one word, replace one word, change the meaning of one
word, and an avalanche of changes in the web will happen (think of the
sandgrain on the slope of a dune).
And after all these thoughts, I realise once more that one language forms
such a unity in dynamic equilibrium, but each dune is part is part of a
greater desert with lots of other language dunes, all connected and
linked. And all have their influences to all others. Some dunes are more
mobile than others. Some languages are more flexible than others. So there
will be always movement.
[Because of this movement, languages produce their own entropy, and thus

The picture is however more complex. It is the interrelationshipof
language(s) and brain. A brain is the 'tiny' world in one's head, thus
personal. The flexibility of a language thus depends also on the
flexibility of the brain of a person. We all know language artists in our
own mother tongue. But it is also vice versa: a flexible brain depends on
a flexible language. Possibly the San people in Namaqualand are still much
more symbolic and not so materialistic as we and our languages became. It
is interesting to find out if symbolic thinking is closely related to the
language and to the 'level' of creative thinking.

Some final words on the - indeed strange - difference in popularity of
-hood words and -ness words in different languages. I think in this group
of word-endings belongs also:
(ENG) -ship/-scape; (AFR) -skap; (DUTCH) schap; (GER) -schaft.
Long ago it was At (again!;-)) who has pointed our attention to this
ending too. What I remember from then, was that etymologically this
wordstem has relationSHIPS with *scheppen and creation.
Landscape/landschap/Landschaft; or eldership/ouderschap/ Elterschaft. But
how strange: brotherhood/broederschap/Bruderschaft. In my retrograde Dutch
dictionary (alphabetised from the ending of words; handy for crossword
puzzles and sometimes for poetry), it appeared to me that the -schap
endings in Dutch are very often related to persons. Maybe the nicest one
is "gezelschap" (in German Gesellschaft). In English it is something like
company/society/club. However, no good english translation is available.
Maybe it is because the 'gezel', the apprentice/fellow of the medieval
guilds are not known in the Anglo/saxon world. The word 'gezel' is very
typical. Not only because the perfect tanslation (I mean the translation
with the perfect 'feeling') of Learning Organization is "Lerend
gezelschap". Gezelschap has a very, very deep meaning not in the least
because of the creative/-ing ending. End another famous word with 'gezel'
as root is: 'gezellig' , litterary meaning gezel-like. But now (end maybe
centuries ago too) it means an atmosphere and ambiance that is sociable,
causy, convivial. But again, no translation will serve, because in most
countries people even don't know and could feel this kind of ambiance.

My web of words becomes too large. I am very sorry for this. Language is
too complex and therefore too intriguing.

dr. Leo D. Minnigh
Library Technical University Delft
PO BOX 98, 2600 MG Delft, The Netherlands
Tel.: 31 15 2782226
        Let your thoughts meander towards a sea of ideas.


Leo Minnigh <l.d.minnigh@library.tudelft.nl>

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