WORDS: Where coming from, and Where leading to?

For years linguists have explored the stages by which children learn Language, suspecting that in this investigation some of the keys to unopened doors into our minds may eventually be found. But there are problems involved from the start, since children respond to their cultural environments and expectations, and returns will be as wide as the spectrum of human societies on a synchronic level, or on the historical plane even wider.

Perhaps something can be gleaned from the infant's behavior, specifically in the eight months before he begins to deal with language. From almost the beginning of life, children are involved in use of their sound-making apparatus, this seems as basic a mode as breathing in infants, and may be initially a part of the breathing process. But seen the other way around, children who do not phonate regularly from the early months seem to develop variant personalities in the later years of childhood, some have experienced neural damage, others may be "un-verbal types" and find difficulty expressing thoughts without the normal flow of words.

But what stands out here is the early-ness of regular practice of phonating or "sounding", which we have always assumed to be a pre-linguistic state in which the vocal apparatus was being "prepared" by use for learning the linguistic code of language in the second year.

During this pre-language, sound-burbling period, there may be an entirely different process involved, which I am going to outline briefly. Let us assume, for the sake of the argument, that since all infants (I will use the word in a technical sense here, following Latin: in-fantem "not-speaking = non-linguistic) are continually looking at objects in the real world around them, and at the same time phonating, that they may be uttering sound-complexes in relation to what they are seeing. Since sight and hearing are the two major inputs into the human mind, it would not seem surprising to find that sight, the dominant human perceptor, works in conjunction with the sub-dominant hearing faculty, perhaps in the 85%/12% ratio which has been posited for adults generally.

If infants are coordinating sound-strings to any degree with sight-impressions, and storing these together as parts of the basic human experience or memory-bank, then we would be interested to see if there were any repeated sound-strings when they are re-viewing the visual objects. Since the visual inputs are received on the passive matrix of the retina, although filtered by eye and brain in transmission more than we often realize, they stand structurally in contrast with the sound-string production which is actively generated by the infant. It is a product which comes from the infant himself, perhaps the only thing he can actually do other than eat and defecate, so it has a degree of personal object-creativity per se, as well as transmitting acoustic energy which instantly re-enters the "self" through the auditory mechanisms. Unlike defecation, this is an unlimited process and can occupy much of the daytime hours.

This is proffered as a hypothesis, but it is based on some limited observation of my own. When my son was born, I was struck by what seemed to be a relationship between his viewing of an object, and his sound-utterances, which often were sufficiently repeated to become (as I saw it) a kind of pre-vocabulary. For example: One day he was watching a plane fly overhead at a distance, to my surprise he came out with the novel string "hippomaioni", which I was unable to connect to anything we had said, mentioned or stumbled over. He used this term for several months, always connecting it to airplanes. Later he chose other fabricated "words" of his own for other objects. I was not compiling a hypothesis at the time so I did not note down object/sound relationships, and I cannot now recall many examples actually occurred. But I am convinced that if I had been attentive I could have culled some one to two dozen samples by casual observation.

What does this imply? Briefly, it suggests that the language-facility is a pre-designed mode in the human mind (ROM). The infant from one to eight months age explores the world visually, notes objects which have been identified with "sound-tags", and actually constructs elements of a personal, idiosyncratic "language" of his own. Of course when we speak of language we mean a well-developed societal code system, and are likely to dismiss this incipient system as meaningless, as child's babbling as nothing more than exercising the vocal system.

But we do know that the early attention an infant devotes to watching the world around him represents the storing of complex, retinal images in memory, developing a visual "vocabulary" which is the entry-portal into our world. So there is really nothing essentially different about establishing, again totally within the self, a set of sound-strings which are associated with observed visual patterns. This should not seem odd to a world which was always highly audio-visual, throughout Classical antiquity as evidenced in ancient art and poetry. This started to change with the exfoliation of printing five centuries ago, when we learned to read "code" as printed in books and supply to the mind's eye and ear a process of re-creating the audio-visual components. Reading Oliver Twist can seem intensely real, by virtual of our re-creating the audio-visual mise-en-scene in mind, but in fact we are actually cursoring over representative signals on paper or a computer screen, supplying the rest out of our own imagination and experience.

We do this remarkably well indeed! But it is decidedly not the same as seeing a real scene with (static or moving) objects and people reflecting light to our retina, while our middle ear transmits to the neural sensors energy fronts carried by energized gas molecules. Remarkable developments in TV audio-visual displays, and even further the holograms which conjure up 3-D imagery, go far in fooling our senses. We accept the situation as reality-mimetic by a subscribing unconsciously to a convention, a very persuasive convention indeed. But this is not reality at all, and it is not what the infant's first introduction to the real world is like.

Now we should consider the hypothesis more closely and try to determine if it is based on orderable fact, or merely an intriguing possibility. By documenting over long periods an infant's behavior in video-camera with high quality audio recording, we should be able to see if the sound-strings show repeats, when eyesight is directed repeatedly toward the same objects. I would not expect an infant to always say "xyz" when looking at object "abc", but I believe we may observe some repeats of the situation, if we observe continually and carefully. If there are absolutely no repeats, then the infant's phonating is a random process, as many of us have assumed. If there are a few scattering repeats, they can be calculated on the basis of statistic occurrences. But if there is any show of sound-repeating, clearly associated with eye-contact, then this hypothesis may contain the germ of some truth regarding human acquisition of language.

If an infant can construct elements of an "idiosyncratic vocabulary", associating a sound-strings of some sort with a seen object of some sort, and this on a repeating basis, then this is not so much "voice preparation for language" as development of the elements of what is in reality a First Language. After constructing a bridge between sight and sound, it should be quite natural to substitute for the personal sound-packet the Second Language sound-packet which parents supply, and replace "hippomaioni" with "airplane". Doing this brings smiles and praise automatically as doting adults hear the little one begin to talk, and the new words are found to be much more useful than the old, inner language of the mind. Learning words is not only easy, since this is nothing new for the infant, but there are added benefits, first praise from parents and then introduction to something which the child will use as a part of his basic human equipment: Communication.

At this stage Language qua language is picked up with amazing speed, at the age of two a child is no longer a non-speaking "infant", but possessor of most of the salient features of his language's operating system. There are still new structures to learn, and a vocabulary of some 5000 to 50,000 words which is a few decades away. But the contact between seen-thing and spoken-sound has been established while not yet out of the cradle, as it were. So if I call this 1-8 month time span by the name early Kindersprache, as linguistics have done for some time now, that would not be perfectly correct. I refer to it as Kinder-UR-Sprache, the proto-stage of sound/object relationship with that vocalization which is the natural bent of human infants, and furthermore a stage which explains the startlingly fast access to language after the tenth month.

There may have been an earlier stage too, we should not ignore the inter-uterine existence of the human being. Sound is certainly generated by and through the tissue of the mother's body, sight is not yet possible but the whole body receives impressions of pressure, motion, maternal heartbeat and pulse, inversion in space and perhaps even temperature variance responding to blood-flow. No sound can be made in utero, but that passive state is loaded with neuro-impressions sent to the growing brain. Growth from the pre-birth stage of being a sensory recipient will naturally escalate a big notch when the child exits the mother's envelope, and as his first "live" action, takes a big breath and makes a big sound. I suggest that this first sound is the response to a great many previous sensations which proceeded in utero. Now on emerging, the infant is dealing at last with air, both as needed for survival, and as carrier for the energy dispersal which we call Sound. And now the way is open for Sight, and then to tag seen objects with sound-strings, and finally we come to the world of Words, becoming social animals. We live a double existence thereafter. We all in some part, exist in the life of words as tags for things, in that word-reality lie our art, our history, our science. But this can eventually dominate us, to the extent that we feel finally unwelcome and unaware of the real, physical world around us, creating a new kind of personal isolation in this crowded world of the twentieth century.

Pythagoras said several millennia ago, that First of all is Number, and Second is those putting words onto things. We now know from advances in genetics and the subatomic world, that number really underlies everything, a notion we have not fully absorbed but must now accept on faith. We know that putting words on things, exact words and scientific words and mysterious words too, we construct a specific characteristic which marks us as a distinct species, encapsulated in a social world in which we cocoon ourselves. We have somehow chanced upon a mutation affecting certain functions of the brain, which affords us Language. Having language we have communication and hence society and civilization.

Not that this is all with danger! Many of us use our eyes only go through a doorway, not walk into a post, or to scan a page. We use hearing to get and give orders, we access through our hearing the conventional tags which denote objects, functions and processes. As a teacher who in a sense "talked" as basic function of an academic position, I and many other have found that after retiring, when there was much less need to talk, there was much better and clearer thinking. Someone said that the writer's worst foe was words.. And perhaps the thinker's worst foe is the accumulated mass of myriads of written pages which scholars must peruse before venturing a view. A retired scholar said that over the years he had written a dozen books, had perhaps four or five ideas! Graphemics has run fast and far and somehow for many people it has taken over Language.

In our world, as another millennium wraps around, we find many people's use and interest in language diminishing, often fading quite away. Some have felt this is due to the nefarious influence of ubiquitous TV, which has become realer-than-life to many people. But I think it is largely because of the sprouting of new mental facilities which do not use the sound/object relationship as part of their operation. Computer people have developed amazingly fast and secure ways of dealing with processes which cannot be expressed succinctly or accurately in language. A person at a computer terminal usually cannot explain what he or she is doing at the moment, words are far too slow and very imprecise. We are moving, it seems, in the direction of Pythagoras first premise. We may not yet be sure that Number is first, but we are finding that assigning word to things is not the only pathway to knowledge.

My biological being is DNA coded in numbers which define chemical links. Writing this paper on a computer, I am using multiple series of "1" and "0" which are in their way tags representing words, which in turn are tags with information other than the physical letters, and in their turn these tags represent sound-strings of acoustic words like those with which the infant comes burbling into this very confusing and complicated world. Language does persist, the world of "TV For Everyman" has taken us out of the truly two dimensional world of books, into the false two-dimensional world of the CRT screen. When a poem is read, someone will always ask for the printed page, when hearing Mozart there will be those who ask for the record flap or the score. At a museum show of paintings, many spend more time looking at the card indicating "Artist, Style and Date", than the painting on the gallery wall. For many a skilled pianist the printed notes on the score stand in view as the musical Reality, while the complex acoustic harmonics of each vibrating string are hardly noticed, as the fingers faithfully obey written commands. Some of us only learn how to really see and hear when we stop and realize what we have been missing, often this is done in practiced meditation or in the quiet of the later years.

We are having a hard time! Behind all these interleaved processes we are still not exactly sure what is meant by Mind as a function of the brain. In the animal world other species have Mind too, often better than ours for purposes which we cannot exactly define or even imagine. The world flowing in on us is too big to grasp, we devise systems for dealing with it summarily in its many parts. We rely first on words and the code of language, then we devise other ways through the Arts to represent reality and un-reality. All the time we are confident of what we have accomplished, tagging and inventorying the world with Words, talking endlessly with each other about something, or often nothing, busy with the world of notions which we have constructed around There is further to go in grasping this world, much more to understand and more to guess, beyond the thinking which we do with the code of language, beyond the codes of computers, beyond our imagination. Language can search-and-find anything which we have coded as words, and it does this search remarkably well and efficiently. But there is thought beyond what we have tagged and coded, a world of Mind without tags. This is something which we often forget, confident in our world of vast vocabulary and the possibility of developing it to cover everything which was and is and could be, expanding it logarithmicly, infinitely.......

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William Harris
Prof. Em. Middlebury College