Minding the Borderlands

Mark Koester (@markwkoester) on the art of travel and technology

Language as Imitative, Intersubjective Communication, Pt. 1: Nocturnal Cat Scratching and Mistaken Assumptions About Language

Nocturnal Cat Scratching: Defining Language as Shared and Intersubjective
I had a female cat named Skeeter when I was young, and we used to have our own way of communicating. In spite of our differing species, we had a very textured and lively way of talking together. She never slept in my bed. I didn’t want her to. I told her not to, in our way. And so she didn’t jump in my bed. But every night she would come give me a visit. I wanted her to. She wanted to come too, I think.
I didn’t like to sleep with my door open, and so initially I had a bell attached to my door handle, which Skeeter would “ring” or tap when she wanted to come in. Eventually I removed the bell, and Skeeter would simply open the door herself by sticking her paw under the door and pulling. I never taught her how to do this. She simply figured it out. Like other animals, she probably managed to do this by relating some habitual action of hers with that of opening the door. (This same example of a habitual action being applied to a novel situation was seen in birds in Great Britain who without any evolutionary modifications managed to open milk bottles by simply apply the habitual peeking action to another object.)
Like most people with pets, I would sometimes talk vocally to my cat. It’s doubtful that she understood these conversations. But we had other ways of talking.
On the nights Skeeter came to my room before I was asleep, I would hang my hand over the edge of the bed, and Skeeter would walk under my hand so that I could scratch and pet her. She would adjust her movement to where she wanted to be scratched. While there were no vocal words being shared, it was clear then and now that Skeeter and I were communicating—physically and emotionally. She understood my gesture, and I understood hers. My placing my hand over the edge of the bed was recognized by my cat and was reciprocated by her coming over to be scratched and caressed. There was a meaningful exchange of pleasure between two living beings. This was not communication through a symbolic, coded language but talking in an interspecies, intersubjective language of gestures.
It is difficult to put in words, especially human words, our conversations. I can quite easily translate this shared, nocturnal scratching in coded human words, but it seems like I’m misdescribing our communication. I’m talking the event or happening of our talking and placing it in another register. In fact, putting in human words removes our conversations from the kind of communication that really took place. While I surely had a plethora of human thoughts and feelings passing through my mind and my cat surely had a plethora of cat thoughts and feelings passing through her mind, our conversation took place somewhere else than our two individual, mental spaces; our conversation took place in neither of our spirits but instead stood out as happening on a complex, sharing of gestures—each feeling out and finding reciprocal understanding in the gestures of the other.
This mutual sharing of a reciprocal and recognizing happening between my cat and I does not exist anywhere else but between us. This communicative happening is communally shared in the sense that it does not exist outside of our sharing. Mental events for my cat and I may take place in the utter solitude of our minds. But this is simply the biological language of our bodies speaking to itself and between itself. Our nocturnal scratching was a conversation, a talking. It does not have a coded language in the same way human talking, say in English or in French, may have or is able to create through written words, but this exchange of gestures had clear, shared meaning. It was not just communication in a bare, empty sense; it was language in its most common sense, in its most common happening.
Mistaken Assumptions about Language
A recent post on France and the French language has stirred a lot of reactions as well as a lot of misunderstandings. In this article, I talked about how France, while being a country committed to a national identity of a single, unique French language, is in fact divided by at least two ways of speaking between the official or standard French (or as I would call it, the “bon français”) and the French spoken by French youth living in the banlieus or suburban ghettos. It is a fairly undisputable fact that two ways of speaking, writing and living exist in France and that much government effort has been put in place to try to “integrate” these groups with France as a whole. This is not, as one commentator wrote, simply a generational gap between older and younger French speakers but is a gap between social, economic, religious and eventually linguistic groups.
Even though some efforts are being made on an individual level, specifically by younger teachers in schools, to recognize and in turn “bridge” these differences, a societal gap of how these groups speak remains. In the end, I concluded that change and integration requires a “two-way street,” meaning both groups need to go part way to alleviate this gap. The youth of the suburbs need to learn to speak, read, and communicate in “standard French,” and official institutions need to recognize the wealth of these differing linguistic communities and, in turn, learn to speak and appreciate their ways of speaking. My ultimate claim is that French society need to distance itself from its current, nationalistic and absolutist concept of a unique national identity and a single, national French language. It should aim at a pluralistic conception of society.
Even though one of my French commentators and friends named Mathieu agrees that linguistic diversity is a wealth that should be promoted, he unfortunately disagreed with my pluralistic, plurilinguistic conception of French society and, ultimately, with my conception of language. His critique I think stems from a misunderstanding and even a misdescription of language as intersubjective speaking, as we saw in the example of my cat and I talking through a language of gestures and scratching.
In Mathieu’s opinion, every language (or langue in French) is divided into different ways of speaking (langages). For example, in France the difference between standard French and the French of suburban French youth or in the U.S.A. the difference between university American English and the American English spoken by poor blacks. We could list numerous other examples, like a medical or legal way of speaking, latino slang, etc.
This is a very common idea and assumption that there “exists” an official language and different slang and ways of speaking. In my opinion this is a common misconception due in a large part to education. When we go to primary school, we have classes where we are “taught” our native language—how to read, write, spell, etc. In some cases, particularly in France, students are “taught” the grammar of their French language as if these grammatical rules were the real underpinning of language.
Leaving aside Chomsky’s conception of a universal grammar, grammar as it is taught in school represents the scholarly extrapolation from practical usage and texts of “guiding” rules and principles. These grammatical rules are said to be the objective foundation of the language as such, comme tel. In classrooms, these rules form in turn the manner that proper and improper language is judged and justified. There was no grammar as such when I talked with my cat through gestures and scratching.
Grammar is not something that exists in the Platonic world of Forms through which we are able to talk and communicate. We are already talking and communicating with other human and non-human animals well before we ever were “taught” the grammar. Grammarians study language as an object of study, often focusing on static, literary texts. Hierarchical assumptions are already being made between the good and the bad, the correct and incorrect ways of speaking and of writing. These judgments are dressed up as being purely aesthetical but they reflect elitist preferences of social class, standing, education, and ultimately power. Grammar books are their artificial accounts of how the language is or should be as a disconnected thing existing somewhere outside of our collective speaking as a transcendental, universal something.
Foreign language learning equally adds confusion to the nature of language and communication, because much language education, as I have witnessed often in France, is presented through grammar. The assumption goes that without strict grammatical rules you cannot properly speak or communicate in a foreign language. As such, students are taught the grammar in order to speak and write. But as any courageous foreign-language beginner knows, all you really need are a few words and basic concepts and you can already start communicating in a foreign language. That doesn’t mean you are communicating as a native speaker would but it means that you can still exchange relatively complex ideas with others.
In fact, much debate exists in foreign language teaching over the benefits and disadvantages of teaching grammar. Many alternatives to teaching grammar exist in foreign-language teaching methodology. Some teachers have abandoned teaching grammar and rules completely and have started relying on teaching through practical engagement with what people say and write and simply mimicking or repeating. For example, by giving students examples of dialogues taking place in a grocery store and teaching food vocabulary and some basic expressions, students learn to act out practical situations without the need of a so-called grammatical basis to the language. In fact, it has been shown that these students learn much faster and in a much more useful manner a foreign language than students who spend their time learning and relearning grammatical rules.
While learning language can be done in a number of fashions with or without a grammatical understanding, this does not remove, according to Mathieu, the need and even the necessity for a single, official or standard language with rules in order for us to understand each other on a national scale. He writes:

But beyond diversity, as social beings, we have to communicate on the basis of a referential “langue”. The “bon français”, as you call it, is better than the “langage de banlieue” to communicate because it is underheld by precise rules, orthographical and grammatical rules, grandma’s rules as you call them. […] It means trying to find a common medium which is really necessary to understand each others, throughout the microcosmic differences. Otherwise we could live as separate tribes, each defending his own “langue” and identity, which would possibly, in fact, lead to actual fascism and xenophobia. […] As I said before, the best referential is the “bon français” because it is underheld by rules. Nowadays, the main problem is the danger of illiteracy. Many young people do not know how to write correctly, and how to express themselves correctly, having as a consequence a risk that they might not be able to articulate their ideas properly (this is a basic linguistic theory, cf. E. Benveniste: “On pense dans les mots” - our thoughts are structured as a language). In addition to that intellectual issue, the pragmatic problem will be a lack of understanding and integration. If you don’t know how to write and express correctly, you will not have an access to blossoming jobs, and no one will listen to your revendications. So obviously the “bon français” should still be taught at school, and should still be considered as a reference, for communicational reasons. […] I must tell that I don’t agree with you when you say that the “bon français” is destroying the “langages” and that its rigidity doesn’t allow creativity. Its grammatical and orthographical rigidity permits its intelligibility and communicability, and it’s vocabulary flexibility permits creativity. There are number of things to think about in this conception of language. On the practical level, it is clear, as I said in my article, that speaking a certain way allows one to be permitted or excluded from certain milieus of society. If someone doesn’t speak “le bon français,” as Mathieu admits, then he or she will be unable to find a job and, in turn, be integrated in French society.
Interestingly, Mathieu makes references to a linguistic theorist named E. Benveniste who claimed that our thoughts are structured as a worded language. This claim is true to the extent that humans possess a symbolic language for their thoughts. That doesn’t mean that is our only way of thinking or expressing our thoughts. We can think in pictures or in music. I could draw you a picture to show my memory of a past place. I could sing or chant to show you my emotions and feelings. I could smile to show you my satisfaction or laugh to show my joy. But these are not words or at least not exactly words in the symbolic sense. Does that mean these are not equally my thoughts?
Clearly, the answer is negative, because our thoughts are expressed in a myriad of ways. The scratch-y conversations I had with my cat didn’t require any symbolic. They simply required a collective happening through a language. What mattered wasn’t an underlying code but an intersubjective offering up and sharing through reciprocal together-gestures. Language, as we will see in greater detail below, is intersubjective and does not require a code or grammar to exist or happen.
In any case, the most important assumption holding together Mathieu’s conception of language, his critique of linguistic plurality and the necessity of promoting the standard French language is that in order to be understood “we have to communicate on the basis of a referential language.” The assumption goes that if you don’t know the correct, referential code or codes, you can’t communicate correctly or properly with others. You can’t communicate at all in fact. In this way, what makes communication possible is a shared code of vocabulary and rules, much in the same way that a computer must have a symbolic code in order to function.
To continue reading, go to part 2.