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  • Print publication year: 2004
  • Online publication date: October 2009

1 - The mirror of the mind


One reason for studying language – and for me personally the most compelling reason – is that it is tempting to regard language, in the traditional phrase, as “a mirror of mind.”

(Chomsky, 1975a: 4)

Frogs are not like us. They are better at catching flies but not, it seems, at explaining how they do it. The frog mind is narrowly specialized to control tasks such as locating small black specks, escaping predators, and finding mates, but not for reflecting on the ethics of eating insects or the issue of equal rights for toads.

This view of the limited intellectual capabilities of amphibians is unlikely to be controversial. If I extended it to apes the reaction might be different, and it would clearly be false of humans. How do we know? Because humans can tell us so and the others cannot. Although having a language is not a prerequisite for having a mind, language is overwhelmingly our best evidence for the nature of mind. Language is definitional of what it is to be human, and the study of language is a way in to the study of the human, but not the frog, mind.

Despite the complexity and variety of animal communication systems, no other creature has language like ours. Although chimpanzees and bonobos can be taught to manipulate an impressive array of signs and use them to communicate with us or with each other, human language, in particular the syntax of human language, is sui generis. As far as we know, even the singing of whales and the color communication of cuttle-fish have nothing like syntax.

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  • Online ISBN: 9780511606779
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