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Language and Human Nature

Language and Human Nature: Toward a Grammar of Interaction and Discourse

Harvey B. Sarles
William C. Stokoe
Copyright Date: 1977
Edition: NED - New edition
Pages: 296
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  • Book Info
    Language and Human Nature
    Book Description:

    Language and Human Nature was first published in 1977 as After Metaphysics: Toward a Grammar of Interaction and Discourse and was reissued under the present title in 1985. Language, in Western thought, is the major metaphor for all that we consider truly and uniquely human. It is what separates us from other species and makes human society possible. Language has been taken to be an aspect of the mind -- the seat of logic, rationality, and objectivity; study of language has focused on its formal aspects -- structure and grammar. In recent years, language has come to seem an independent object, unconnected to either our bodies or the world around us. In Language and Human Nature, Harvey Sarles challenges those views of language; his aim is to explore the foundation of the concept of language and to suggest alternative ways of thinking about both language and what is human in human nature. The subjects of these fourteen essays range from the unexamined assumptions embedded in the academic discipline of language study, to the dynamics of facial expression, to the question of whether an extraterrestrial being could discover human language; but two themes emerge: First, the Western notion of language historically has been used to justify or defend particular political, religious, and metaphysical theories. Its use as the definition of “humanness” has profound implications for our relations with those excluded -- other species, and humans with impaired language ability. Second, the focus on the mind has led to a narrow definition of language that ignores the enormous communicative power of the body. Recognition of the body’s role allows language to be defined more broadly as communication and interaction. The reification of language in the traditional approach, Sarles argues, has severely limited research and has led to static formulations of linguistic and social problems. Language and Human Nature was first published in 1977 (as After Metaphysics: Toward a Grammar of Interaction and Discourse); since then the deficiencies of formal language study have become apparent, and important new research has expanded our knowledge of complex animal communication patterns. The door is now open to different approaches that require the reexamination and reworking of old assumptions. These provocative essays, with a foreword by William C. Stokoe and a new preface by the author, offer one route to a new and more fruitful science of communication.

    eISBN: 978-0-8166-5566-3
    Subjects: Sociology

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. 1-4)

    The fourteen essays inLanguage and Human Naturewere written by Sarles in the late 1960s and the early 1970s. They take on a remarkable timeliness eight years after their republication in 1977. Thus, Resnick (1983) inSciencereported a shift from the teaching of science as the transmission of facts to student minds toward teaching as the interaction of a consistent and verified schema with each student’s own naive but stubbornly held schema to explain to him or her how things work; and Scherer and Ekman (1983) began their handbook on the study of nonverbal behavior with a clear...

  4. PREFACE(1985)
    (pp. 5-8)
  5. PREFACE(1977)
    (pp. 9-12)
    (pp. 13-21)

    What is particularly human about human beings? Language is often thought to be the major feature of our uniqueness. Its possession is not merely what separates us from (other)¹ animals, but it has occasionally been elevated to a position of centrality in probing our innermost nature. Language is also a transcendent notion, a metaphor carrying concepts which range from ‘mind’ and ‘soul’ to ‘consciousness’ and ‘rationality.’ Language is virtually coterminous with being human.

    With the recent development of a biology of behavior, questions of cross-species communication have arisen. These questions have, in turn, led to quandaries about the language and...

  7. I

      (pp. 22-39)

      The New York Academy of Sciences has decided to sponsor (in September of 1975) an extensive discussion on the origin of language. One wonders whether this issue, which arises seriously about once every century, will provide any ‘news’ this time through. Will it be an exercise, a convention of the high priests demarcating the arena of the ‘problem’? Will it be a disputation; or is there a singular point of view which has been subdivided into corporations, all with different titles, all selling the same product, and colluding to limit competition? This is a serious wonderment, not because the language...

  8. II

    • (2) COULD A NON-H?
      (pp. 40-57)

      On reading studies of verbal behavior of man and of other animals, one is struck by a number of similarities in methodology and of differences in approach, ideas, and theories. Perhaps this is natural and reflects the ambivalence that most of us feel in trying to compare processes which seem to be only more-or-less analogous. Most striking to me is the fact that human linguists tend to consider semantics as their most problematic area, while nonhuman callists proceed directly from meaning. Perhaps neither has a choice, given the nature of his subject matter.

      Despite these outstanding differences, however, one is...

      (pp. 58-87)

      Among the recently emerging approaches to the study of man is one which can be titled Communication, and subtitled Human Ethology. It consists of an embryonic body of fact and calls for the observation of social behavior in the belief that the best theoretical statements will be closely related to the organized data. This area of study concerns the changing concepts of man’s nature, particularly in relation to similarities and differences between social man and social animals. This paper will attempt (1) to present the field in its historical context and to point out some present trends, including assumptions, arguments,...

      (pp. 88-107)

      The study of aggression is a most important facet of modern behavioral interests. Its understanding and control is necessary to ensure our very continuity. It is a part of our existence which has nonetheless eluded deep understanding in spite of its having attracted concern and attention in the political, psychological, and philosophical traditions to which we are heir.

      In the context of the ethological and comparative studies which have surfaced in the recent past, it has gained a wider, perhaps newer, sense because it appears to be an attribute of social animals in addition to man. We hope that we...

      (pp. 108-114)

      In a review article Charles Hockett (1967) accused Eric Lenneberg of using a nonempirical linguist as his only linguistic consultant. Noam Chomsky, he said, is a neomedieval non-Bloomfieldian rationalist philosopher. This paper agrees with Hockett but will point out that Hockett’s incomplete empiricism also rests in great measure on rationalist arguments and Platonic substance. The antidote in both cases is a critical naturalism — a tough-minded, hard-nosed look at the stream of speech in the context of the stream of behavior to attempt to see completely what’s going on in the real world.

      It is necessary to read both Hockett (Hockett...

  9. III

      (pp. 115-125)

      Many people, ‘looking out’, visualize a world in which they usually see a mix of what is and what ought to be. What is unusual is not only different in their comparative visions but often peculiar. The range of views, close and far, in the nooks and crannies of ‘world-fill’ is dominated by the dualist comparator. How it actually works out, where it goes, differs depending on a number of ancillary thought habits, interests, foci; who one is not!

      This essay explores some of the paths of thought which an habitual dualist might take. Let’s start at the beginning. Most...

  10. IV

      (pp. 126-135)

      Although language is usually studied and described as a static kind of structure, the dynamic language of everyday interaction is also of interest to linguists. Interactional language is a rapidly changing, transient series of phenomena, and is extremely complex. Yet it is understood; it is intelligible to any normal speaker of the language! And to the extent that it is intelligible, it ought to be structured and studiable, just as are any other shared human phenomena!54

      The problem is how to conduct such a study. The general approach has been to employ a model derived from other structural considerations and...

      (pp. 136-151)

      Social animals, including man, seem to operate in a number of sensory modalities simultaneously. We do not operate as hearers, then as see-ers, feelers, tasters, or smellers; we do what we do, use what we’ve ‘got’, what we ‘are’ as physical beings, as bodies. Traditions of sensory study have tended, however, to be analytic; to take our body and divide it up into component chunks to be treated as if they were independent. The traditional study of the senses and the traditions of the study of language are mirror images.

      These traditions are based on a number of assumptions — some...

  11. V

      (pp. 152-172)

      The weight of tradition in linguistics has opted for the definition and study of a central, more systematic part of verbal behavior — Saussure’sla langue(1959). In its current phase, linguistic study considers its central concerns with the grammar, made up of all (grammatical) sentences. Complete analysis of the grammar will presumably yield insight into linguistic rules and possibly into extralinguistic considerations as well, and deserves priority over ‘behavior’ approaches (Chomsky, 1959: 57).

      While this approach is apparently quite attractive to linguists and psychologists, there are other possible methods of analysis which are inherently more interesting to behavioral scientists. One...

      (pp. 173-186)

      One can analyze any event, event-string, or process into its ‘component’ parts, their relationships, and ways in which they might be combined to generate or synthesize the original event. This can be done for any such event that we recognize as occurring or existing in any moment, or over time. A person as event complex, for example, can be seen as composed of cell, organ system, or levels of consciousness. Each conception is in many senses adequate and ‘correct’, and we must ask more about the context in which the question occurred than about the descriptionper se,in order...

      (pp. 187-199)

      The study of meaning is a central concern of all behavioral scientists: the meaning of life, nature, being, language, communication ... the meaning of meaning. In fact, one good way to appreciate the history of the sciences of behavior is, as approaches to meaning. But they are all overlain or interwoven with a virtual latticework of paradoxes, illustrated by the nature of dictionaries: dictionaries are fine for people (or beings) who already know a great deal of language; definitions depend on other definitions for their substance — they are circular. But where do we gather and become that knowledge by which...

  12. VI

      (pp. 200-211)

      Facial expression and body movement are communicative, just as language. Given this similarity of function, they may be compared as static or dynamic processes. Although language can be seen as being ‘related’ to expression, this essay opts for a view of language, gesture, and movements as different actualizations of essentially the same processes. This view as it is developing within the context of Human Ethology seems to require a reconceptualization of language structure as well as language function.

      Facial expression and body movement are inseparable from linguistic activity in the communication process. Being wed to a tradition which accepts as...

      (pp. 212-225)

      The human face is as distinctly human as any aspect of our being — yet it remains virtually unstudied. It is a most active center of interaction: A completely facile, mobile area, its relationship to the underlying tissues is one which is enhanced rather than restricted by loosely-fitting outer surfaces. It is a set of highly contrastive surfaces, these contrasts heightened by interlaced muscle fibers whose movement abilities are quite marvelous. It is the area of one’s body which other persons relate to as the center of one’s being.

      The human face is as stable and continuous as it is dynamic...

      (pp. 226-250)

      Having spent an appreciable apprenticeship in traditional linguistics, paralinguistics, and kinesics,88it has seemed to me that deeper understandings of human interaction and human beingness were not available within these conceptual frameworks. No matter how carefully done, much more of the same approaches seemed incapable of producing the sorts of ideas and insights which many of us have felt to be lacking in the behavioral sciences. They seemed to yield excellent descriptions, but lacked explanatory power.

      The aim of transcending one’s (apparent) human experience was not obtainable in these traditions. We needed new vision to become finely-tuned critics of our...

  13. NOTES
    (pp. 251-266)
    (pp. 267-276)
  15. INDEX
    (pp. 277-286)
  16. Back Matter
    (pp. 287-287)