All ideas expressed in Thor's
articles and The Passionate Skeptic are entirely those of
the author, who has no aim to influence, proselytize or persuade
others to a point of view. He is pleased if his writing generates
reflection in readers, either for or against the sentiment of the
University of Melbourne
Working Papers in Linguistics 14 (1994): 31-46
AND PASTICHE TALK :
MEDIATING ORDER AND CHAOS IN LANGUAGE*
as language change may be unpredictable up to a point,
so the linguistic performance of any individual in a particular
circumstance will be partly, but not entirely unpredictable.
This study explores a few of the factors which can bear
upon such constrained indeterminacy in synchronic language
production, then proposes a model to account for the mixture
of order and ad hoc adaptation found in typical examples
Studies of linguistic
variation have tracked performance ranges in minute elements
of phonology and syntax (e.g. Labov 1975:65; Horvath 1985:67,
96); there have been discussions of pragmatic communicative
limits in the speech group (e.g. Milroy 1985:339). Generative
grammars have hypothesized inherent constraints on the form
(and hence production) of possible grammars (Chomsky 1965,
and hundreds of subsequent papers). Without discounting any
of the work just mentioned, I want to take a slightly different
First, I think it
will be useful to firmly locate the complex dynamic systems
of language within the class of other such systems found
in nature, and to ask what properties all these systems share
Second, I am going
to ask some questions about the relationship that the systems
of language have to other cognitive systems, and to the wider
environment. The implication is that this relationship will
have important consequences for what we can say about the
limits of indeterminacy in linguistic performance.
Third, I will be
searching for some analytic tools which may help in extracting
evidence about the linguistic/wider-world relationship. One
tool will be presupposition; another will be the use of formulaic
l. COMPLEX DYNAMIC
systems(l) often exist in a state of semi-equilibrium between
a static state and chaos. It has been called "the edge of
chaos", and is so finely balanced that the influence of a
minute variable can have huge effects within the defining
range of the system (Gleik 1987:16); (A geopolitical illustration
would be the assassination in Sarajevo in 1914 triggering
World War I). Since a large, complex system is influenced
by an almost infinite number of minute interacting variables,
it is impossible to predict outcomes precisely in any given
instance. That is, there is an inherent indeterminacy about
the system. This seems a prescription for chaos, but in practice
there emerges a wonderfully complex iteration of patterns
in which each apparent repetition clearly belongs to the
whole, yet is never quite the same as any which came before.
Apparently the myriad minor variations are rarely sufficient
to alter the essential defining pattern.
theory has demonstrated that large, dynamic systems have
self organizing properties (Lewin l993:27). In what is called
a random Boolean network of interacting items, "attractors" always
emerge (patterned nodes which resist re absorption or mutation),
and the number of attractors is always roughly the square
root of the number of items in the system. For example, the
100,000 genes in the human genome give rise to 254 cell types,
credibly close to the square root value of 370.
If the account of
near-repetition just given sounds familiar to students of
language, then that is no accident. What is particularly
interesting about the behaviour of these systems is that
gross deviations are not usually repeated: the indeterminacy
operates within definite degrees of freedom. The mathematical
equations of complexity theory generate some striking examples,
but one of the most elegant is the figure-of-eight track
which first caught the attention of Edward Lorenz ( 1963)
as he studied weather cycles.
of outcomes within limited degrees of freedom seems to operate
at many levels within the systems of language. Patterns of
diachronic language change and the synchronic language behaviour
of individuals have already been mentioned. A less obvious
example might be variations in the range of information encapsulated
at a single lexical address by word-labels (i.e. the kind
of variation addressed by so-called prototype theory: see
Rosch 1978,1981, Lakoff 1987). Another important class of
instances are near-formulaic expressions. We may notice repetition,
cliches, parallel constructions and so on, yet a close examination
of the data almost always shows variation from example to
example within close limits. Constrained indeterminacy again.
1.2 The limited
autonomy of systems
property of complex dynamic systems stems directly from the
constrained indeterminacy of their behaviour. This property
is a limited autonomy from all phenomena external to the
system, an autonomy defined and guaranteed by independent
variation. That is, although any number of external influences
may impinge upon the system, the effect of any stimulation
(or lack thereof) will be: ( 1) partly unpredictable; (2)
often unrelated to the magnitude of the impinging effect;
but (3) almost always within an expected range of variation
for that phenomena (Gleik 1987:292-93; Lewin 1993:61 ).
This is Lorenz's
butterfly effect (by now a cliché itself) where a beating
butterfly's wings in one part of the world can whimsically
result in a storm somewhere else, but not a storm which is
significantly different from other storms. For the linguist
who takes linguistic systems to be autonomous in some sense
from other systems of cognition, this has to mean that stimulation
by an idea, sensation etc. can lead to linguistic effects
which are not always predictable, even to the speaker.
Equally, the language
system itself might spontaneously emit structures through
an ongoing performance momentum without intermediate stimulation
at all. This notion is further explained and elaborated later.
It extends to casual performance something that is already
recognized in studies of language change. By way of analogy,
some kinds of diachronic language change may be a product
of the cognitive system's internal dynamic. An example is
what Aitchison ( 1981:147) has called "pattern neating".
Thus, English voiced and unvoiced fricatives have been tending
towards a fully matched set since the eighteenth century
: a process that has no communicative value at all. Pattern
neating could be seen as a formal property of language. A
claim in this paper is that not all utterance arises from
a communicative need either. A natural language, in other
words, is unlikely to be a purely representational vehicle
for other realities, but is always likely to operate within
of dynamic systems at the margin
thing is that while most complex dynamic systems appear to
exercise their hair-trigger sensitivity to variation within
limits, at the margin they become remarkably robust. Animal
populations swing wildly, but rarely extinguish themselves;
cyclones gather tremendous force but never beyond a certain
point; ideologies dominate whole periods of human histories,
but appear to be self-limiting. This behaviour seems to trace
from what fractal mathematicians call "attractors", central
defining influences which constrain the effects of linked
variables (Gleik 1987:138). I wish to suggest that the production
of language also has a certain self generating, unpredictable
internal dynamic, within limits, but that those limits are
secure enough to sustain a robust communication system.
1.4. A role for
i) The limits
of variability in language
If natural language
is a complex dynamic system with some kind of autonomy and
with the kinds of properties universal to such systems, as
described in the preceding paragraphs, then the linguist's
role is also proscribed in certain ways.
One task is to establish
the limits of variability in all classes of linguistic phenomena.
In many ways traditional grammars have surveyed this ground,
although often without recognizing that statistical ranges
rather than absolute boundaries were required. A related
matter is to establish the dominant "attractors" in language
generation, the defining influences which work to contain
other variations within the acceptable bounds of a communicative
system. The final equation for attractors in language is
certain to be infinitely more subtle and complex than existing
illustrations of iteration from fractal mathematics. In our
current state of primitive understanding, we can take no
more than a notional stab at what is going on.
ü) The limits
of language as a system
Another task for
the linguist is to show where limits are set by other cognitive
systems, as opposed to the systems of language themselves.
This is always a difficult matter, but there is a certain
scope for hypothesis. For example, where the core rules of
the grammar appear to permit certain constructions, but memory,
social convention or other extrinsic factors preclude the
usage, then we are arguably dealing with the limits of a
system external to language. Of course, social (and especially)
cognitive limitations have also shaped grammatical rules
themselves over the whole evolutionary period. In other words,
language systems are a product of co-evolutionary influences,
although a dominant effect may be from environment to language
(or vice versa) at different times. Because language and
a multifarious collection of environmental factors are all
in a never-ending oscillation of change and mutual adjustment,
the historical process of grammaticalization for a total
language system is never completed (even if specific grammaticalizations
proceed to zero: Hopper & Traugott 1993).
Not all scholars
accept an argument which assumes the relative autonomy of
language from other cognitive processes. A more holistic
view has been especially popular with psychologists (e.g.
Piagetian followers such as Sinclair-de-Zwart 1969, and many
others since). The arguments are often confused with debates
about mind Vs. body, physiology Vs. "software", and so on.
In practice the disagreements are often over research focus
rather than substantive limits of cognitive operation. I
do find it useful to distinguish some systematic autonomy.
At the margin, particular examples of core grammar violation
may be more ambiguous than others. Also note that a degree
of autonomy in a system does not preclude that system from
employing mechanisms which are common to other systems. For
example, the Prototype Theory of Eleanor Rosch ( 1978), George
Lakoff ( 1987:39) and others seems applicable to many areas
of human cognition.
iii) The dynamics
of relationships between systems
A third broad task
for the linguist is to examine the dynamics of relationship
between the macro system of language and external systems,
and also between the sub-systems which exist within the macro
system of language. Whereas general internal constraints
on grammar, phonology etc. have been described persuasively
in many models, these inter-systemic relationships have often
been speculative. Physiological imperatives can have clear
enough consequences for phonology (Ladefoged 1971:5), but
the interdependence of phonology and morphology has always
been more troublesome (e.g. Martinet 1965:91). The relationship
between grammar and semantics or pragmatics is notoriously
slippery. Nevertheless, the issues are significant, since
relevant evidence will have consequences for understanding
the manner and extent to which language is socially functional.
Let us take the particular case of the language-to general-cognition
(a) If language
could be shown somehow solely to express instigating ideas
or other impinging sensations, then its traditionally assumed
role as a "mirror for nature" and symbolic vehicle for conveying
ideas would be confirmed.
(b) On the other
hand, if at least part of the time language emerged unmotivated
by other cognitive stimulation, unrepresentative of ideas
or topics, and purely as a function of its own internal dynamic,
then the conditions applying to its management and prediction
would be very different from (a).
(c) If language
generation were initiated by external prompting, but then
proceeded in ways and on a scale ungoverned by the original
prompt, then to describe it as a "representational system" would
be a severe distortion. I have already noted that complex
dynamic systems are prone to such disproportionate "butterfly
The kinds of relationship
in b) and c) pose a major research problem. Acceptable scientific
evidence in the conventional sense assumes a reasonably linear
path between cause and effect, connections which can be made
clear and predictable by constraining variables. However,
where there is inherent indeterminacy within degrees of freedom,
no single example can provide sure evidence. The researcher
must finally work with aggregate statistical effects.
2. READING BETWEEN
as a translation point between language & cognitive
systems. In discourse, knowledge which is assumed to
be uncontroversial and known to both parties is said to
be presupposed (Kempson 1977:70-72; Stalnaker 1978:321).
There are many conventions
and distinctions attaching to the notion of presupposition,
but we can note here that a
bound to a speaker's present state of knowledge. Consider
(1) I realized
that we didn't have a hope
(2) I realize
that we don't have a hope
(3) # I will
realize that we won't have a hope.
[Let # = infelicitous,
as opposed to ungrammatical)
(4) I will acceptl?
realize that we won't have a hope
if you can prove
that their MIG 29s are reallyoperational.
Sentence ( 1 ) is
only acceptable if the past realization is concordant with
the speaker's present belief; sentence (3) contains an implicit
admission that the speaker is deluded, which the folk psychology
accompanying all natural language use seems to exclude. Thus,
although grammatical, it is utterly infelicitous.
The preceding example
illustrates the fact that a language like English, following
the logic of its own structures, has a the potential in certain
configurations to misrepresent the boundaries of our experiential
world. Furthermore, the failure is systematic, not incidental.
There are points where, as it were, the language machine
is bound to fail as a representational mechanism. Normally
we would expect this to be no problem. If language is entirely
the servant of other cognitive processes, sentences like
(3) will simply not be uttered since they cannot be derived
from any non-linguistic reality or any sane idea. Here we
have an instance then of non-linguistic systems imposing
a principled limit on the production of language.
Of course, if sentence
(3), or something like it, were to occur then several hypotheses
might arise about its source: (a) the speaker had suffered
some mental aberration; (b) there had been a
"slip of the tongue"-a
one-off error; (c) the systems of language were generating
strings independently of and unmotivated by any external
(non-linguistic) influence. In other words, the emergent
language, although grammatical, was not representational.
In order to discount
hypotheses (a) and (b), it would have to be shown that sentences
like (3) were uttered by a sane person with reasonable frequency.
In fact, I do not yet have evidence of a speaker behaving
consistently in this way with that particular violation.
However the kind of argument proposed, for identifying possible
non-representational language generation might be applied
to other contexts besides presupposition (an exploration
I will forego in this paper). Presupposition itself, as an
inter-systemic phenomena, also offers further scope for exploring
the autonomy of language.
versus counterfeit supposition?
The term "presupposition" claims
to identify a link between social reality and coded linguistic
forms. Linguistic studies have long distinguished between
formal presupposition and discourse presupposition (Brown & Yule
1983:29). Formal presupposition is often claimed to be textually
dependent and wholly defined by truth conditions (Keenan
1971:45). This interpretive certainty should actually make
it a very reliable marker of social reality. Some verbs,
for example, presuppose the truth of their sentential complement.
(4) I didn't
realize (that the show was over)S
that the show was over, whether or not I realized it. Other
constructions are more ambiguous about the truth conditions
holding between matrix phrases and their sentential complements.
They require the consideration of non-textual factors, as
Laurie Kartunnen once clearly showed in a discussion of "plugs,
holes and filters". Consider his sentence (Kartunnen 1973:174):
(5) Sheila accuses
Harry of beating his wife
clause seems to presuppose that Harry has a wife, but strictly
interpreted, the matrix clause does not. If Sheila were a
tabloid journalist, it could well be the case that the inference
from the subordinate clause was no more than a smear. In
other words, the intent of the matrix agent can influence
the truth of the complement. Such contexts often generate
a postsuppositional effect which is more significant than
the formal presuppositional claim. That is, the tabloid readers
of Shirley's story "create" Harry's complicity: life imitates
The process of drawing inferences
is an active one of deriving ideas by matching a form
of words with known facts about the world. In the classic
(6) All men are
mortal; Socrates is a man...
there is one clear
inference to draw ("Socrates is mortal") and it may therefore
remain unspoken. Such logically necessary relationships are
at one end of a range which is marked at its opposite extreme
by the linguistic assertion of relationship between a subject
and a predicate:
(7) I am poor. [FOR
ALL x, poor(x)], where x = speaker of utterance
A proposition like
(7), standing alone, carries no further logically necessary
inference. In between (6) and (7) is a vast population of
possible suppositions that the decoder may extract from the
form of words. Some of these suppositions may be almost coerced
from the decoder, as in sentence (5); others may be based
on no more than a personal prejudice about the world, such
(8) I am poor [therefore] I
Although the pool
of suppositions is indeed large however, it is not unbounded.
Some linguistic suppositions are clearly more prototypic
than others, to borrow Eleanor Rosch's concept (Rosch 1981
), and it is questions about the range prototypicality to
be analysed which underlies much disagreement over competing
Where does presupposition
fit into the range of suppositions just described? It seems
to me that a true presupposition is based on an unconsidered
assumption by the encoder. That assumption is that
the decoder will draw the same suppositions from the non-asserted
elements of a message as the encoder holds. Hence the notion
of a presupposition being uncontroversial.
What then do we
call the coercive structure employed by the dishonest journalist
in sentence (5)? This is a wolverine in sheep's clothing.
Of course the intent of an encoder, like her private assumptions,
is privileged information which the world cannot access directly.
However our general experience of life should allow us to
distinguish in principle between what is happening m sentence
(5) and what is happening in sentence (4).
I propose to use
the term counterfeit supposition to describe the kind of
supposition that is forced onto a decoder by virtue of a
form of words, but which is not shared innocently by the
encoder. It is worth studying because where it dominates
(for example, in propaganda) the communication cycle becomes
corroded by cynicism. Note that the phenomenon differs from
a regular proposition in which unshared information is openly
9. The Cycle
assertion & description
planned "supposition" (counterfeit
supposition (counterfeit supposition)
How is it that what
I have called counterfeit supposition is able to work as
an element of communication? It may forego many of the shared
conventions of language in a speech community, and covertly
manipulate the more universal processes of strict logical
inference. That is, the shonky journalist in sentence (5)
could disclaim legal responsibility for any suppositions
that readers draw about Harry's marital condition.
might argue that this journalist had an
obligation to follow
Grice's maxim , "Be Relevant" (Grice 1981). What both the
maxim and the journalist trade on in different ways is that:
(a) deviant phenomena
like counterfeit supposition can probably be slipped in while
they remain only an intermittent element m the communication
(b) an interpretation
will be imposed on any utterance (note the retrospective
nature of this process), and
(c) the range of
interpretation will be constrained by the expectations of
decoders, even where normal linguistic conventions are overstepped.
That is, decoders fit all messages, however deviant, to prototypic
We might think back
to Edward Lorenz's figure-of-eight equation and engage it
as a metaphor. Take the first loop cycle as encoding and
a subsequent loop cycle as decoding: the nature of the complex
system itself will guarantee that the range of indeterminacy
in either loop is robustly constrained within perceptual
and experiential norms that are not particularly linguistic.
This leads to a startling conclusion:
(d) The interpretation
of language is able to exploit universal properties of complex
systems without explicit provision in the grammar.
is superordinate to language
The process of supposition
(including its specialized subset, formal inference) is one
which typically employs the symbols, operators and patterns
of language but which is itself superordinate to language.
We can make suppositions from other kinds of information,
such as visual cues. As the discussion about sentence (5)
demonstrated, a defective linguistic frame may provoke supplementary
interpretation from non-linguistic sources. However, the
fact that there can be encoding and decoding to reliably
extract suppositions from patterns of words is a kind of
evidence for some general autonomy of language systems. It
is conceivable that this autonomous system might sometimes
take charge of the communication cycle itself
language versus representational language
I want to turn now
to the interesting possibility of language which is not encoded,
innocently or otherwise, but which nevertheless becomes available
to be uttered. We are not dealing here with a relationship
between interlocutors, but the relationship between a host
cognitive system and its in-house linguistic systems.
For the sake of
the discussion I define emergent language as linguistic strings
which arise within a language system, but with no obvious
motivation in the form of ideas, arguments, or other non-linguistic
stimulation. Emergent language may or may not be actually
spoken; (surely most of us also have "conversations in our
How credible is
the idea of emergent language? What if it were the case sometimes
that the language machine pre-empted any functional demand
from other cognitive processes? What if phrases were
projected into utterance merely because they had some salience
in recent memory, rather than contributing to any social
topic of conversation or train of argument? Or what if language
came forth simply because the language machine was unable
to stop, rather than because the host had anything to say?
I do not find this proposal improbable. In fact, I will develop
the speculation that such a process permeates language generation,
and that the host gives retrospective meaning to utterance
as often as considered meaning is given representation in
As an introductory
experiment, readers are invited to apply a short test to
themselves. Try not to think any language for five minutes.
Trained meditators will know the problem. I can't do it unless
absorbed in some motor activity like drawing; (for a general
discussion of this kind of problem see Varela, Thompson & Rosch
(1991:24). What is the significance of this exercise? It
is not trivial. At first blush we might hypothesize that
the cacophony in our head shows that short of becoming Zen
Buddhist adepts, we cannot stop thought, thought which is
then represented by language. But what do we mean by thought
in this context? Is it necessarily the case that such language
is representing anything?
We have just noted
retrospective processes operating in all decoding which occurs
between interlocutors. There seems no principled reason that
an analogous relationship should not hold between a language
system and its host cognitive system. Arguably however, the
mind which decodes unmotivated language cannot be said to
be dealing with assertive propositions (since no volitional
intent is present), even if that is the grammatical shape
of analogous conscious language. Nor does it seem sensible
to talk of meaning "shared" between the macro-cognitive system
and its autonomic language-system partner, in the manner
of presupposition. Thus:
The process of decoding
meaning from emergent language by a host cognitive system
is perhaps best described as postsupposition by that cognitive
system. Postsupposition is distinguished from propositions,
presuppositions and counterfeit suppositions, which are sparked
by Input from another speaker.
as a mechanical procedure is no different in principle from
what we do in assigning meaning to the language of other
speakers, as it impinges upon our senses through sound or
writing. The mechanism is therefore perfectly credible as
a behavioral category.
It is important
to be aware of the differing ways in which the descriptive
labels I have noted are identified in the grammar:
(a) Terms like "proposition" and "question" are
inferred from certain lexico-grammatical configurations in
(b) The term "presupposition" is
often derived from a lexico-grammatical configuration also,
but so-called "discourse presuppositions" additionally rely
on contingent knowledge of the world, shared by interlocutors.
supposition" is a type-category which cannot be identified
with certainty in any particular instance, but can be recognized
as a class from our general knowledge of the world. Formally,
it is a special case of discourse presupposition in which
the convention of shared assumption is violated and manipulated
by the speaker.
(d) "Postsupposition" is
a type-category which cannot be identified with certainty
in any particular instance, but which may be recognized as
a class from our general experience of mental behaviour.
Postsuppositions can come in any lexico-grammatical configuration
whatsoever. Formally, postsupposition is the private, post
hoc process of assigning meaning to emergent (unmotivated)
linguistic strings. They may or may not be generated as surface
strings. The phenomenon can only be studied indirectly from
analysing irregularities in the aggregate organization and
meaning of texts, and the general psychology of language
3. THE AUTONOMOUS
3.1. The problem
of representation: historical views
An enterprise which
sets out to give substance and credibility to the concepts
of counterfeit supposition, emergent language and postsupposition
cannot evade the existing assumptions which linguists bring
to their study. In particular, notions of what language represents
seem to be crucial.
One extreme view
of the cognitive language machine is that it is a sort of
tape recorder. A mass of data comes in through people's ears,
is stored away, then selectively played back at an appropriate
time. There are some obvious problems with this idea, especially
when we think of creativity. Nevertheless, something like
such a notion has been put by Michael Hoey (1991:154): "...each
lexical item is stored more or less as received-in the context
of the sentence in which it was used, rather in the way that
it may be held in a computer store." There is no doubt that
what is stored on an actual computer disk or tape is a "representation" of
somebody's language: no speech, no recording. A tape recorder
model of language in the mind would therefore be implicitly
Another view of
language has been that a finite set of rules is applied to
a finite lexicon to generate a potentially infinite set of
sentences. This mechanical generation of sentences could
in principle be independent of any contingent reality, and
at least early models of Chomskyan generative grammars placed
emphasis upon the autonomy of syntax. Nevertheless, the systems
of generative grammar (and the Artificial Intelligence models
which were developed in close parallel), invariably claimed
to be symbolic systems (Chomsky 1965:3, 222; Minsky 1986).
That is, the generative engine was motivated by an extrinsic
role, which was to represent a non-linguistic reality in
coded form. The strong form of such models took thought itself
to be a coded representation of external (public) reality,
a notion sometimes called "the cognitivist hypothesis" (Varela,
Thompson & Rosch 1991:8).
A third approach
to the problem of representation comes from functionalists. "Function" is
probably the most abused word in the social sciences. However,
the general thrust of functional linguistics in all its permutations
has been an underlying conviction that the patterns of language
are pragmatic adaptations to the requirements of representing
an external reality. Sometimes these functional adaptations
are seen in the sociolinguistic minutiae of Labov-style variation,
sometimes in sweeping categories of linguistic purpose such
as Halliday's ideational, interpersonal and textual semantic
functions (Labov 1975:65; Halliday 1985:53). In diachronic
linguistics the functional approaches sometimes endorse neo-Darwinian
evolutionary adaptation as a prime source of language change.
What functional models all have in common is a belief that
significant motivating sources of language structure and
linguistic behaviour are external to the systems of language
The models of language
just mentioned, the naïve recorder model, the generative
and the functional, have assumed language to be, more or
less, a passive instrument, reflecting the outer and mental
worlds like a mirror reflects light. In most of these models,
language itself (sometimes as opposed to imagination, memory
etc.) can no more initiate reality than a non magic
mirror can show other faces. At best it can constrain the
representation of reality by its design limitations.
I find these analyses
inadequate. Although language certainly is a superb tool
for encoding and schematizing other experience, it also generates
new experience in ways that are often unpredictable.
3.2. The likelihood
and consequences of emergent language
Most linguists would
probably accept that the internal dynamics of a language's
structure give rise to some diachronic language change. These
variations are expressed at every historical stage through
performance which in single utterances might seem to be entirely
driven by the representational purpose of the moment, but
are not. If the language machine makes such constant small
adjustments, what is to prevent it in discourse from inserting
a constant embroidery of grammatical but pragmatically unmotivated
phrases (which might be rationalized post hoc, like
much other behaviour)?
Utterance is the
natural systemic outcome of what I have called the "language
machine". A total global constraint on the linguistic system
itself initiating utterances seems intrinsically improbable,
and out of kilter with the general behaviour of dynamic natural
systems. Linguistic research is dominated by teleological
concepts: the final cause of our speaking is assumed to be
that "we" "want" some communicative "effect". A meteorologist
has less trouble accepting that the general cause of a storm
derives from the locally unpredictable internal dynamic of
weather systems themselves (though the religious insist on
final cause by a deity). The point here is that in important
respects, natural language systems and weather systems belong
to a similar class of phenomena. Although language is affected
by constant teleological interference, it also has the internal
dynamic common to weather systems, demographic systems, economic
systems and so on. This paper has already alluded to such
a general theory of complex dynamic behaviour, and a recent
branch of applied mathematics has been built upon it.
Consonant with the
preceding paragraph, and what is now known about chaos and
complexity theories, it seems doubtful that alone amongst
natural systems the responses of the linguistic system to
external stimuli should always be a precise, proportional
and reliable reflection of those stimuli, which is what an
extreme representational claim amounts to. Language often
subverts our best intentions, either by omission or by uncontrolled
acts of commission.
Although the notion of
complex dynamic system itself has been partly defined
in this paper by a principle of constrained indeterminacy, the
robust limits of those constraints mean in practice that interacting
natural systems are mutually correcting. In the cognitive
sphere, this suggests that if utterances were to arise
without any motivating ideas, the language generated would
quickly be sustained for meaning by a process of interaction
with memory, perception and so on. In other words, the
speaker would keep his sanity by assigning a meaning to
the utterance and following up by controlled discussion
to give it a context. Such a process would be instantaneous
and automatic. Here I am doing no more than extending to
organism-internal procedures the behaviour which automatically
occurs when a person receives a message from someone else.
3.3. Is "emergent
language" a credible description of certain mental experience?
I have seen a droll
computer program called Babble (Korenthal Associates
Inc. 1991 ) which generates something that looks like language.
Since it is the product of an algorithm rather than an intelligent
mind, I have some trouble attributing either presupposition
or intentional assertion to its output. Here is a brief sample:
(9) Good news
that comes your way might touch that comes your way might
be but, speak again, soft! Arise, who is my love?
Example (9) is literally
word-babble, yet perhaps not beyond an imposed meaning with
an invented context. It is mentioned because something akin
to the Babble program may well be at work in the brains of
sentient human beings.
Suppose we take
an infant, nurture it with love, give it every attention,
talk to it constantly, watch it acquire our language to the
point where by five or six years of age it has mastered a
communicative instrument with skill and grace. Does this
child now possess some independent self which entirely commands
the language instrument? That is, can the language instrument
be laid aside when there is nothing specific the child feels
that it must say? What if there is no social imperative to
speak? Will the language instrument be quiet when there is
no problem to solve or no memory to dwell on? If my childhood
was typical of most others, the answer to all of these questions
Who hasn't spoken
when every bone in their body screamed that it was smart
to stay silent? Most of us have been caught on the crest
of countless unexpected phrases and been forced to surf them
to unhappy outcomes. We have listened miserably to our bumbling
voice turning away potential friends, and wondered at the
inexorable logic of our utterance as it painted our saner
being into indefensible corners. Each of us feels somehow
that "it wasn't ME creating this havoc". We could claim that
it was the wretched language machine which, like Fantasia's Sorcerer's
Apprentice(2) (Walt Disney 1951), having learned to carry
buckets, wasn't going to stop for anyone.
Those who grew up
on Walt Disney will know his epic cartoon film Fantasia,
where animated creatures, working to an inexorable progression
in the music, show the dreadful logic of unthinking efficiency
If we accept, for
the sake of argument that language is not an entirely dependent
mechanism, that it is a dynamic instrument which has co-evolved
with other dynamic systems of the organism, and has the capacity
to initiate cognitive activity, then some quite difficult
questions arise about the representational status of silent
soliloquy, not to mention public utterance.
3.4. The rationality
of emergent language
Why should emergent
language amount to any more than the proverbial ninety-nine
blind monkeys trying to write Hamlet on a typewriter?
Why should it be cogent at all? There are several complementary
answers to this.
most automatic output from the systems of language will conform
to the general rules of those systems. In a sense, it should
be more difficult for such a system to generate an ungrammatical
string than a grammatical string, just as it is more difficult
for us to utter a non-English phoneme than an English one.
emergent language should be more likely to accept a conventional
meaning than a meaning of the "colourless ideas sleep furiously" variety.
That is, the collocations which self select are almost bound
to be conventional ones.
for reasons yet to be discussed, emergent language should
predominantly consist of only short stretches of language
(even down to single words) and these will usually be seamlessly
integrated post hoc into the normal representational
discourse. We can predict, however, that when the post
hoc integration breaks down (from a failure of concentration,
or whatever), then the fragments of emergent language will
have local grammaticality (the first point, preceding), but
may exhibit a global incoherence.
Finally, all of
the preceding arguments are local instances of the global
principle which has given rise to this paper: the principle
of indeterminacy within limits in complex dynamic systems.
Emergent language will have a form which deviates from controlled
representational language unpredictably, but only within
certain degrees of freedom. Think again of Lorenz's figure-of-eight
If the language
machine does behave in this way some of the time, then some
of the constraints which define it will have evolved precisely
to handle the self initiating, emergent aspect. This is a
prospect which, in the form I have discussed it here, has
escaped the attention of linguistics. Its closest cousin
in existing research would be studies concerning the effect
of structure on diachronic language change.
In practice we stumble
in and out of emergent language, sometimes in control of
a genuinely premeditated message, sometimes hostage to the
unplanned form and structure of what has fallen from our
lips. It is this scrambled rush of the calculated and the
accidental that I call pastiche talk. A rough diagram of
the process might be thus:
Discontinuous Syntactic Frames
acts to symbolize...
partly modified by
opportunistically mix with
Does it really matter,
from the point of view of linguistic modeling, whether our
language is a purely representational system (as has been
assumed up to now), or whether it is normally a hybrid system
along the lines of pastiche talk? In fact, there are likely
to be consequences for both synchronic and diachronic models.
In synchronic analysis
a pastiche talk model will predict a principled discourse
divergence between what the generative grammarians used to
call competence and performance. Generative models were based
on the supposed behaviour of an "ideal speaker-hearer". It
was acknowledged that actual language behaviour differed
from this idealized source, but the differences were held
to be accidental, unsystematic and of no serious consequence
to the knowledge of the language that real interlocutors
had. The principles of symbolic representation would not
be affected by temporary glitches in output. This model retains
some credibility at clausal level if my hypothesis about
the conventional nature of emergent language is true. In
an extended pastiche talk context however, the existing competence
model becomes a nonsense.
If utterance, far
from being a unidirectional representation of some cognitive
reality, is in fact the outcome of constant negotiation for
primacy between a language machine on the one hand, and impinging
cognitive pressures of memory, topic, idea synthesis etc.
on the other, then at any given moment the outcome will be
a compromise of almost quantum unpredictability. The tidy
categorial restrictions of generative models become no more
than intermittent states. The wider pattern will inevitably
translate as statistical tendencies in a pastiche model.
In this sense Labov-type patterns of linguistic variation
acquire an extra credibility. The twist is that such variation
is no longer held to be almost entirely sociological, with
a small quota of slips. Rather, a pastiche model will predict
that even in a wholly homogeneous social environment (if
such a thing were conceivable), significant linguistic variation
3.6. Some diachronic
consequences of pastiche talk
If some synchronic
variation in language generation is inevitable, regardless
of social conditions, then we have one more principled reason
for diachronic language change. The push-pull alternation
of primacy between language and cognition would mean that
the whole communication system had, as a design feature,
a limited openness which could always admit some change.
This would differentiate natural languages fundamentally
from the linear representational behaviour of computing languages.
have had some success in correlating changes in social conditions
with language change. Is it possible that changes also occur
in populations, in the balance of emergent language to representational
language? To speculate for a moment, the move to literacy
might effect such a balance. So might the visual dependencies
of television junkies. If so, this would predicate another
kind of language change.
3.7. A sample
of pastiche talk (?)
The following is
an extract from the spontaneous utterance of a 55 year old
Australian woman. Her conversation has drifted onto the topic
of immigration, but I invite the reader to consider whether
this speaker is thinking before she speaks, or speaking within
the general penumbra of that topic before she thinks.
Extract 1 [Connie
Key:  signals
an intonation unit boundary. Each boundary is numbered. ### Underline
signals a probable formulaic structure, or highly preferred
collocation. C: = Connie Hume.
Some related lexemes
have been bolded.
(1) C: Yeah
(2) No well
this is it
(3) the cou
(4) I know
(5) as I said
to Alma when I first come over here you know different .....things that
(6) to my way of
thinking then too
(7) as I say
I've been in many a couple of them by the
(8) you know
(9) and they've
thrown out illegal
(11) and all
this sort of thing
(12) and they're come
in by the dray load
(13) we can't
feed and house our own
(14) and jobs
(15) and this
sort of thing
(16) and with
(17) I thought
all going to get the dole
(19) or end it
(20) you know
it's all going to cost them in hospitals and things
(21) adding to
was my way of thinking then too
(24) and then you
see big televisions
(25) you know
(26) coming off
the planes with fur coats and God knows what
(27) I'm thinking
a look at it
(31) you know
(32) and this
is just how I think
(34) T: Actually
(35) C: so
(36) I can't
blame anyone else for thinking
(37) and it's
(39) you sort
of stop to think
(40) and you
get into a thing like this that
(41) you know
(42) you start
(43) you know_
(44) things then
(45) that the
If pastiche talk
is a viable concept at all, this Connie Hume extract must
surely illustrate one of its less controlled extremes. This
language is the polar opposite of the premeditation found
in counterfeit supposition. The listener must decode language
which the speaker has generated without any apparent global
plan. The listener can scarcely deconstruct what has not
been constructed. Instead, he is forced to deconstruct the
known cultural parameters of the speaker, and then suppose
an interpretation within those bounds.
3.8. Global incoherence;
There are a number
of features about the Connie Hume extract which are quite
striking. The first is its overall incoherence. This is exceptional
for the speaker, Connie Hume, whose pastiche talk is normally
leavened by a more obvious control of topic. Even a listener
who is tuned into the nominal topic in this extract has to
work quite hard to guess what Connie is getting at. One's
best hope seems to be to interpret the general atmospherics
of local phrases and hypothesize a larger message. However
this doesn't work well since the tone of earlier phrases
we can't feed and house our own") is apparently contradicted
by the more conciliatory ending ("you start to realize...").
Most of the ties, logical operators, sequencing markers and
so on which might give the whole a thematic unity are missing.
of Connie Hume's speech is utterly different from the incoherence
encountered in Second-Language learners of English. For them
the problem is inaccurate lexical selection, inappropriate
collocation, and an insecure command of syntactic assignment.
Connie Hume, on the other hand, has a highly fluent local
command of the idiom. The main problem occurs above phrase
level, where the ramshackle assembly has all the appearance
of distracted workmanship. My guess is that the phrase-level
utterance is indeed emergent language, and that Connie has
been unable to take proper command of the potential postsuppositions
with which she has been confronted. She is being driven by
a language machine that is for the moment out of effective
preferred-collocations and formulas
A second property
of the extract is that almost all the intonation units taken
in isolation convey a sense of deja vu, as if we have
heard them before somewhere. This kind of highly preferred
collocation, shading into formulaism, is actually very difficult
to establish statistically since the collocations are typically
subject to minor shifts m form when repeated; (you could
compare it geometrically to the affine transformation which
occurs when you view a television screen from a slightly
different angle, distorting it slightly). Nevertheless, these
preferred collocations which are often opaque to searches
on linear computer programs, are immediately evident to our
own cognitive mechanism. We recognize not only the form of
words, but the cultural patina and social interpretation
which typically goes with each collocation.
It could be argued
that preferred collocations and formulaic phrases of the
kind found in the extract are "semi-encapsulated" in linguistic
memory. The idea of encapsulation is that the internal constituents
of such a unit are more or less pre-processed cognitively
and don't have to be regarded analytically in normal usage.
Thus the morphemes in a word are not normally subject to
analysis (and hence a processing load) before we use the
word. Formulaic phrases obviously vary across a continuum
m the extent to which they are encapsulated Nor will all
encapsulated phrases in an idiolect will be general to the
speech community. There is no doubt however that all such
constructions entail tightly bound collocations which are
easily evoked as a unit.
found some support amongst other researchers. Bybee (1985:7)
suggests that "it is simply not necessary for human language
users to segment every sequence into its minimal parts, because
it is possible to acquire, store and access complex chunks
of material without segmentation". She goes on to explore
studies of errors in child language acquisition in various
languages which support the storage and recall of phrasal
chunks. (Bybee 1985:114).
formulas are not internally constructed according to the
contingent needs of representing some other reality, their
constituent lexemes may have little or no obvious referents
in the context of situation. Extreme examples are frozen
forms like "kick the bucket" where even the original metaphor
is no longer transparent to lexical meaning.
The pre-formed nature
of preferred collocations and phrasal formulas should make
them prime fodder for a language machine running on automatic
pilot. They carry a small packet of conventional meaning
which is more substantial than individual words, and thus
conveys some impression of local coherence. A heap of such
formulas shovelled into the general context of a topic like
immigration, as in the extract, can give a superficial impression
of utterance driven by rather woolly ideas. It seems here
in fact that there are some woolly ideas here driven by talk.
The pressure to talk is primary.
counterfeit suppositions or vagueness?
If language like
the kind just discussed is indeed mostly emergent rather
than representational, then it doesn't make much more sense
to talk about it embedding presuppositions than it does to
attribute presuppositions to the Babble computer program
output referred to earlier. At least, the non-presuppositional
content of emergent language holds when presuppositions are
treated as qualities of thought rather than artefacts of
linguistic form (such as where the sentential complement of
realize is said, ipso facto, to embed a presupposition).
To the extent that a listener can make sense of Connie's
monologue above, it is by a process of hypothesizing a best
fit for its fragments of meaning against existing knowledge
of the world. The listener, in other words, can have no confidence
in speaker-intent, as one does in interpreting true presupposition,
and counterfeit supposition. The resulting vagueness requires
action that is closer to an external version of the internal
postsupposition practiced by a user of pastiche talk.
3.11. Some cognitive
correlates of emergent language
Evidence for the
frequency and nature of emergent language may have to be
sought indirectly. This is a matter for empirical analysis,
probably with a statistical emphasis. In more general terms
however, we can identify the cognitive and environmental
conditions which are likely to give rise to a significant
amount of emergent language. I have already mentioned the
mnemonic dependencies of pre-literate societies as one possible
a) Weak monitoring;
the aphasic extreme
users of emergent language (most of us) the surface text
itself may be marked by erratic topic changes, poor semantic
integration or obsessive repetition. Such signs of weak supporting
ideas are sometimes accompanied by linguistic fluency, a
rapid output of great quantity but low quality. Individuals
vary greatly in the discipline of their social speech habits,
and there is every reason to believe that this variation
extends to mental life as well.
The excessive intrusion
of emergent language would seem, intuitively, to be more
likely in an undisciplined environment, either by reason
of lifestyle or from the relaxation of the moment. An extreme
de coupling of language and thought occurs in certain kinds
of aphasia, where an individual talks with speed and fluency,
but in an entirely vacuous manner; (we will all recall acquaintances
who seem to dwell towards the vacuous end of this aphasic
view about both verbally rambling individuals and aphasics
is that vacuous talk reflects vacuous or disassociated thought.
No doubt there is some of that. It is not intended to claim
that even a babbling charismatic in a trance is not drawing
upon some train of memory and association. The suggestion
is merely that the oscillation of pastiche talk may be less
constrained under these kinds of conditions. Note that dissociative
breaks could equally occur between perceptual reality and
cognition, or between cognition and the language machine.
Where the structures are disciplined but the content is vacuous
then emergent language seems a fair hypothesis.
b) The dynamic
momentum of pastiche oscillation
On the other hand,
it is at least worth considering as a hypothesis that the
generation of language which is exclusively dependent on
prior thought, utterly representational, may be unsustainable
in normal discourse. Of course, scripted lines can be learned
or read for particular occasions but this is no model for
ongoing natural language generation. If it were machines
could replace humans in many tasks immediately.
It may be that a
certain amount of looseness, an oscillation in the prioritizing
of thought over language and its opposite is necessary for
the system to maintain its dynamic and to evolve. Engineers
should recognize this paradigm of controlled degrees of freedom:
most complex moving machines depend upon it; (it is the buffer
clearance between a piston and its cylinder that permits
it to reciprocate).
Another kind of
engineering analogy may also be relevant to the action and
reaction between the language engine and the larger cognitive
engine. It is the momentum of a flywheel which keeps an internal
combustion engine rotating smoothly between cylinder explosions.
It could be the
momentum of the language engine, freely generating structure,
which takes up the slack in the flow of ideas, permitting
a fluency that strict thought-to-symbolic-representation
alone could not sustain. Yet the system is governed, prevented
from spinning out of control by an oscillation between boundaries
in cognition and language which is absolutely typical of
the "edge of chaos" dynamic in complex natural systems.
of symbolization, where thought rationalizes (i.e. represents
) language, as it were, may be a major and necessary contribution
to the development of extended argumentation. In fact, this
is more than hypothesis, for any researcher knows that the
same process, externalized and slowed down, is at the heart
of writing. This paper could not be written without the constant
stimulation of nascent ideas by existing language structures
on the computer screen - and I say "language structures" on
the computer screen rather than ideas" on the screen advisedly,
for it is I who must construct ideas from the visible symbols.
The genesis of ideas
expressed here is found in an explanatory and analytic problem
I faced. That problem was a mismatch between theories of
linguistic competence and the kinds of divergence from competence
illustrated by Extract 1 in the text above. Clause-level
units conform overwhelmingly with the structures we should
expect in well formed language. However two currents of evidence
seemed to call into question classical generative models.
Firstly, a high percentage of the clausal strings were recognizable
as frequent collocations in the language community, or in
the speaker's idiolect. This suggested that some form of
heuristic encapsulation played an important part in the process
of language generation. Secondly, speakers showed an intermittent
tendency to lose control of text generation above the clausal
level. Various explanations could be proposed for such failures
of coherence and cohesion. Could it be that the encapsulation
actually subverted the generation of communicatively appropriate
I chose to explore
the possibility that semi-encapsulated structures in language
could emerge spontaneously and irrespective of the non-linguistic
context of situation. Language thus became a co-creative
system which did not always merge with the communicative
intent of a speaker. This proposal raised very substantive
philosophical questions. It seemed necessary to contextualize
the issue within general patterns of natural phenomena.
of this paper thus began at a point to which the linguistic
problem had driven me: a search for general phenomena m nature
resembling the patterns of natural language generation. In
fact, language turned out to behave in ways analogous to
countless other complex dynamic systems. Everywhere, from
the genetic code to weather cycles, there was a conformity
of micro-generative rules marred by a macro unpredictability
within strict limits. Was such indeterminacy a problem, or
was it the property which gave such systems their very dynamic?
The latter seemed more likely.
If language were
a quasi-independent entity, then the very margins of its
interpretation could be the best place to look for evidence
of breakaway from the strict role of representation. Studies
of presupposition have always been controversial in this
regard. It was shown that well-formed grammatical structures
could systematically violate folk conceptions of reality.
The notion of counterfeit supposition was then introduced
to identify the deliberate perversion of presuppositional
conventions. Finally dialogue negotiation between interlocutors
was shifted analogously to a negotiation between a sentient
mind and its available "language machine". Who was representing
what to whom in this inner arena? Where the language machine
generated spontaneous, unmotivated strings, it was inappropriate
to talk either of propositions or presuppositions. The term "postsupposition" was
proposed to explain post hoc rationalization by the
sentient mind of such emergent language.
Pastiche talk was
the outcome proposed for a dynamic oscillation between the
linguistic representation of ideas and a postsuppositional
logic imposed by the mind on emergent language. Pastiche
talk was a perpetual compromise that sustained a fluent though
imperfect flow of discourse which was never quite predictable
or ordered, yet kept just within bounds on the stable side
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Postsupposition & Pastiche
Talk (c) Thor May 1994; all rights reserved