I was at a workshop (I know, I’m sorry) recently in which an eminent speaker asserted, by the by, that the essence of language is to communicate propositions. This sort of silliness remains a widespread assumption in philosophy, linguistics, and related disciplines. There are understandable reasons for it. High up on the list is the temptation to think that language has an essence, because this would help us distinguish it from others things, such as patterns of noise. Instead of observing the various things which language is used for (showing affection, asking questions, issuing commands, signalling discomfort, communicating intentions, deceiving), we become fixated on one possible picture of it. This myopic picture, informed by cases which we deem central or paradigmatic, in turn guides us into adopting a theory of language capable of churning out seemingly important answers to empty questions that inexplicably continue to excite people, such as “do kangaroos have language?”, “is language innate?”, “can one communicate without language?”, and “are linguistic claims normative or descriptive?”.
When I asked the speaker why he (I know, I know) held this view, another conference participant interjected that language was by definition the communication of propositions. I thought I’d entered some weird sci-fi novel in which the very notion of language had been artificially constrained for the purposes of some dystopian plot development, but alas, dear reader, I was merely at an academic event. While the Greeks and Romans used the terms “lekta” and “dicta” to respectively refer to that which is said, as opposed to the words used to say it, the propositions are theoretical postulates dreamt up in the nineteenth century by Frege, Russell, and Moore who each defined them differently in their distinct attempts to capture the relation between thought, apprehension, reference, and sense. Even the concept of a distinctively human language is presumably older than this.
The Oxford English Dictionary lists five sets of definitions for the term “language”, each broken down further into several distinct senses. Not a single one of them mentions propositions. The different definitions on offer range from the “body of words and of methods of combination of words, used by a nation, people, or race” to transferred senses applying to “the inarticulate sounds used by the lower animals” and “numerous systems if precisely defined symbols and rules for using them that have been devised for writing programs or representing instructions with data”. And let us not forget body language, sign language, and so on. To ask whether these are really languages is as pointlessly vague as to ask whether mathematics, Morse code, or html are languages. Unless one specifies why one is asking, attempts to answer give rise to nonsense on stilts, exemplified in debates over whether, say, birds are better at language than computers.
The trouble with asserting that language is essentially propositional or even lexical is that it takes a central human paradigm as the standard by which all other attributions of language are to be measured. Such anthropocentrism is, up to an extent, justifiable. The human development of the concept of language is inseparable from human linguistic practices. But if all we mean by “language” is “human language” or “the whole body of words of a nation” or some such then questions such as “do animals have language?” are not legitimate questions to which we might point to empirical evidence in search of an answer.
Language itself deceives us into thinking that there is one single specific thing that we are interested in, and may have reasonable disagreements about, when we want to know whether a certain species of animal has a language. In truth we may have a number of distinct things in mind: do they communicate with one another with sounds? Do their sounds amount to even a primitive system of symbols? Can they be said to talk to one another even if they cannot speak? Do they understand one another and if so how? Do they use sounds, movements, or smells to communicate thoughts, fears, desires, or intentions? Is such communication ever propositional? Is it in any sense verbal? And so on and so forth.
Humans are not the measure of all things, they are the measure of all things human and nothing more. Measuring with a human yardstick either leads to absurdities such as the willingness to readily ascribe language to human brains while denying it of all non-human living creatures. By the same token, it leads those who find it obvious that many animals use language to assume that they too must speak in propositions which we could in principle translate. “If only Wittgenstein had gotten out of his armchair and spent some time with animals”, they say, “he wouldn’t have concluded that if a lion could speak we couldn’t understand it” for “animals do speak and we can understand them if we only make the effort”.
But scientists cannot empirically discover that non-human animals or computers do or do not use language any more than philosophers can answer these questions a priori, other than via pure stipulation. What we can find out, through observation and interaction, are answers to the sorts of questions listed in the previous paragraph. It’s high time we abandoned pointless anthropocentric theories based on linguistic stipulation and started to earnestly explore the different senses in which we may talk of something having a language. Conceptual pluralism and posthumanism are part and parcel of the same revolution.