Many People, Few Ideas 2

How language works

It’s worth exploring this dualism a little further. It’s perfectly possible to describe what we might call the process mechanics underpinning the production of language. In his discussion Music and Language Chris Dobrian offers a good example:

“Language is a set (vocabulary) of symbols (signifiers, to use the terminology of semiotics), each of which refers to (indicates, signifies) one or more concrete things or abstract concepts. These symbols are combined according to a more or less strict grammar of rules. The combination of the symbolic units in a specific grammatical structure produces new, further significance. This is the way in which verbal languages work, as well as such specialised written languages as those of mathematics and computer programming.”

The problem is that language is self-evidently much more than process mechanics; and significance can surely exist outside the current ability of language to create or describe it. Given that by quoting Dobrian I’ve introduced the idea of music let’s include his quote of Aaron Copland’s comments on the problem of meaning in music as a means of illustrating my point about meaning outside language (how’s that for an example of complexity beyond process?).

Copland says:

“My own belief is that all music has an expressive power, some more and some less, but that all music has a certain meaning behind the notes and that that meaning behind the notes constitutes, after all, what the piece is saying, what the piece is about. This whole problem can be stated quite simply by asking, “Is there a meaning to music?” My answer to that would be, “Yes.” And “Can you state in so many words what the meaning is?” My answer to that would be, “No.” Therein lies the difficulty.”

Of course, it might be the case that if Copland could answer his second question then there would be no compelling evolutionary need for or satisfaction in the development of music alongside the capacity for language. It seems clear to me that whereas music’s power and appeal is primarily affective (as per Deryck Cooke’s statement that music functions as a language of the emotions), language is primarily cognitive – which is not to say that music cannot be cognitive or language cannot appeal affectively, but that, however powerfully complementary, they are essentially different in their core nature.

Copland appears to fall into the assumption that because music and language share the same apparent root of growing out of vocalisation – of sound unfolding in time, as Henry Orlov puts it – and the same stimulus of changes in frequency and amplitude of air pressure registered by the cochlea, then common sense dictates that they must have some form of parallel relationship which ought to allow us to successfully describe one mode of expression by means of the other. Indeed, as A.D Patel demonstrated in 2003, there is good evidence to suggest that musical syntactic processing has been found to activate those parts of the brain we have already identified as major processors of language – Broca’s and Wernicke’s Areas. That said, shared stimulus or processing locale is not necessarily evidence of identical processing function – although both music and speech convey meaning through differences in pitch they do not convey the same meaning; and while a musical representation of thunder might well evoke in the listener the same mental representation of thunder as thunder itself, I would suggest that music would find it impossible to adequately convey another kind of mental representation – such as Stephen Hawking’s explanation that:

“Force-carrying particles can be grouped into four categories according to the strength of the force that they carry and the particles with which they interact. It should be emphasised that this division into four classes is man-made; it is convenient for the construction of partial theories, but it may not correspond to anything deeper.”

For everyday purposes it might be enough to regard music as a subset of language as affect in the same way that mathematics could be seen as a subset of language as cognition.

Nicholas Humphrey – who reminds us that the phenomenology of sensory experiences came first – might be able to help us here. Humphrey posits the idea of sunlight hitting the skin of an amoeba-like creature and explains that because the light has immediate implications for the animal’s own state of bodily health the body surface stimulus gets represented as a subjective sensation. But it also signifies an objective physical fact, the existence of the sun – though the creature might not especially register that much beyond an awareness of the fact that there is a world outside and beyond the body, because the context might not impact on survival. If, however, the light is interrupted by a shadow – and if the shadow is caused by the approach of a predator – then not only is this registered as a subjective sensation but also as a signifier of potential danger beyond the simple awareness of the fact that there is a world outside and beyond the body. In other words, the same stimulus-response mechanism produces different kinds and degrees of significance out of tiny changes in the stimulus itself, even for a creature as simple as an amoeba. Given the acknowledged greater complexity of the human being, we would expect to find a proportional greater complexity of response and mental representation in any given context.

Interestingly, although Humphrey is concerned with the development of the mind rather than with the development of language, he talks of the problem of how the amoeba-like creature might make this leap to different kinds of mental representation in terms we might apply to the discussion of language:

“But how to do it? How to interpret a stimulus as a ‘sign’ of something else? To move from a representation of the sign to a representation of the signified? …”

This is almost a comment on how language appears to work. As we have seen, neurology confirms that language process is – whatever else it might be – a response to external stimuli. But the way language responds is by finding ways to interpret a stimulus as a sign of something else and naming it as such – and given that language works as an interactive process between individuals, the next stages in the communicative loop between individuals move from interpretation of the sign to a representation of the sign to a representation of the signified. That is, language is a means of expressing between individuals subjective mental representations of the otherness of the world arising from the stimuli which that external world produces – and finding common ground. As Bertrand Russell commented, understanding language is a matter of habits acquired in oneself and rightly assumed in others.

Humphrey continues:

“In order that the same information could now be used to represent the outside world, a whole new style of processing had to evolve, with an emphasis less on the subjective present and more on object permanence, less on immediate responsiveness and more on future possibilities, less on what it is like for me and more on how what ‘it’ signifies fits into the larger picture of a stable external world.

To cut a long story short, there developed in consequence two kinds of mental representation, involving very different styles of information processing. While one path led to the qualia (my italics) of subjective feelings and first-person knowledge of the self, the other led to the intentional objects of cognition and objective knowledge of the external physical world.”

Just as philosophers disagree as to what actually constitutes an acceptable definition of qualia (the term used to refer to the introspectively accessible, phenomenal aspects of our mental lives; disagreement typically centres on which mental states have qualia, whether qualia are intrinsic qualities of their bearers, and how qualia relate to the physical world both inside and outside the head) so they quibble about this subjective-objective dichotomy. Gregory Bateson, for example, argues that there is no objective experience because

“Experience of the exterior is always mediated by particular sense organs and neural pathways. To that extent, objects are my creation, and my experience of them is subjective, not objective.”

Humphrey’s example surely suggests that by the time language grew out of the need to sophisticate and organise the complexity of the relationship between the spatially-bounded organism with itself and between itself and the world beyond its boundaries, and certainly over the tens of thousands of years of development after that initial point, the different kinds of mental representation and their different styles of information processing had been hard-wired very closely together. Indeed, even Bateson admits that

“very few persons, at least in occidental culture, doubt the objectivity of such sense data as pain or their visual images of the external world. Our civilisation is deeply based on this illusion.”

Humphrey suggests, then, that language was triggered as an evolutionary response to the development of ‘mind’, offering a means whereby human beings could articulate the growing awareness of both the essential mysterious separateness of self and the ways we needed to operate in and interact with the outside otherness of the world. Further, it helps explain that tendency in language towards ever finer discrimination, a principle of action which results in the vast range of specialised vocabularies by which we explain and categorise the perceived reality around us. I would argue that our understanding of that reality is, in fact, conditioned by our ability to find language with which to express it – the ‘for want of a better word’ which prefaced my description of the nature of language as ‘ontological’, or my remark that significance can surely exist ‘outside the current ability of language to create or describe it.’

And here I find that in this at least Copland and I agree, for a few pages after he asks his questions about meaning in music he writes:

“Music expresses, at different moments, serenity or exuberance, regret or triumph, fury or delight. It expresses each of these moods, and many others, in a numberless variety of subtle shadings and differences. It may even express a state of meaning for which there exists no adequate word in any language. In that case, musicians often like to say that it has only a purely musical meaning. They sometimes go farther and say that all music has only a purely musical meaning. What they really mean is that no appropriate word can be found to express the music’s meaning and that, even if it could, they do not feel the need of finding it.”

And as John Cage demonstrates in his (in)famous piece, 4’33”, this can be taken so far as to present a musical performance that consists of silence. For silence, of course, should not be confused with mere absence of noise or speech; it can act as a melodic, prosodic or lexical unit, and to great effect.

© 2019 Mike Liddell
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