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Which Came First, the Language or its Grammar?

Philosophy and Literature 22 (1998): 261-69.

Denis Dutton


www.denisdutton.com

As Noam Chomsky tells the tale, lying beneath the astonishing linguistic abilities of homo sapiens is a universal grammar. For the Chomskyans, however, the mechanism by which grammar evolved remains a major problem, not to say mystery. Chomsky himself prefers agnosticism on the question: the deep generative structures of language are somehow just there. Followers such as Steven Pinker and Paul Bloom boldly and speculatively tackle the question, insisting on evolutionary scenarios — most importantly, competition between groups — that make possible the evolution of human language. Much of the argument and debate in contemporary linguistics revolves around this evolutionary process and potential mechanisms for it.

Stand back a bit and open your nostrils, and there’s a whiff of implausibility about it all. The mechanisms and scenarios that account for a blinking reflex or mother love are one thing. But an evolutionary mechanism for grammar? We can perhaps imagine the primal scene in which some hunter-gatherer band clobbers another and runs off with all their food or women because it can speak and therefore more effectively plan and cooperate. But it’s more vexing to entertain a situation for the adaptive advantage of the First Grammatical Person. Who’d recognize the primal grammatical sentence? You can be a thoroughgoing Darwinian with Chomskyan sympathies (as I am) and still be vexed by the question.

One man who has examined both the challenge and the evidence and come to a conclusion is Mark Turner. In the last chapter of The Literary Mind (Oxford University Press, $25.00), he mounts an argument that it is not grammar which inhabits the deepest region of the mind’s linguistic capacities, but parable and the ability to tell stories. It’s the climactic moment in a book which intends to transform our whole outlook not so much on literature, but on how we think. Turner’s thesis is radical: the capacity to tell stories, and to project them on new contexts as parables, is the fundamental and essential tool of human reason.

Turner challenges an idea presupposed by most of Western philosophy: that at the heart of language and communication lies an impulse to produce descriptions that are either true or false. The basic unit of speech — or so many philosophers seem to assume — is the simple declarative sentence which, true or false, refers to some state of affairs. For Turner this is but a partial truth. For simple declarative sentences — The moon shines on the lake, a mother feeds her baby, the wind rustles the trees, I pour milk into my coffee — are each a tiny story event. The will to construct narratives, to build larger and larger stories from smaller ones, is virtually continuous in conscious thinking: “Narrative imagining — story — is the fundamental instrument of thought. Rational capacities depend on it. It is our chief means of looking into the future, of predicting, of planning, and of explaining. It is a literary capacity indispensable to human cognition generally.”

He begins with an episode from The Thousand and One Nights. It is told as a cautionary tale to Shahrazad by her father after she has explained to him her plan to charm and ultimately to reform the murderous King Shahriyar. A clever but rather arrogant donkey lives in comfortable indolence on a farm. His friend the ox, who toils daily pulling the plough, complains of his life of heavy labor. The donkey advises the ox of a solution to his problem: “When you go out into the field and the ploughman places the yoke on your neck, pretend to be ill and drop down on your belly. Do not rise even if they beat you, and refuse food for days.” The ox plays the part as advised, but the farmer had overheard the conversation between the two animals. So he tells the ploughman, “Take the donkey and use him to pull the plough.”

The meaning of the father’s story-within-a-story, that Shahrazad’s clever plan may backfire, is clear to Shahrazad herself and to readers of The Thousand and One Nights. Anyone can project the story on her situation and see the parallels and analogies (or deny them; both she and the reader may take the parable as misapplied, showing her worried father’s underestimation of his daughter’s genius.) Story, projection, and parable: these are capacities Turner claims are constantly at work in everyday thinking. They are not “literary” extensions of ordinary human abilities, useful mainly for entertainment, for creating the elaborate fictions of literature and drama, from folk tale to epic to opera. Rather, “they make everyday life possible; they are the root of human thought.” Storytelling, the making of narratives, is not just a special performance but is “a constant mental activity, essential to human thought.”

Turner analyzes stories in terms of basic intellectual elements which then become the subject of his book. He shows how they involve prediction, evaluation, and planning. They are basic devices by which we explain the world to ourselves and each other. The essential elements of stories are actors, objects, and events. An agent doing something — in the pattern agent/action/object — is the most basic linguistic story of all. Daily experience is built up of myriad such tiny stories of agency and causality — stories within stories, stories about stories. Many of these are indirect or parabolic, and herein lies one of the most strikingly original aspects of Turner’s book: its insight into the way in which thinking involves our ability to transfer meaning parabolically from one situation to another.

Turner’s theory of parable breathes new life into the postmodern cliché that all language is metaphorical. The cliché is on the face of it unsustainable: the concept of metaphor depends on a contrast with the literal. But by concentrating on the parabolic character of so many linguistic constructions, Turner demonstrates the centrality for thinking of taking narratives from one space (or context) and projecting them into another. When I wrote that Shahrazad’s plan might backfire, I was projecting from the domain of the behavior of internal combustion engines to unexpected and undesirable outcomes of human plans. But even the notion of an engine backfire derives from the historically earlier experience of an unwanted reverse explosion of a firearms cartridge. Our thinking is a continual projection from one context into another, along with the mental noting and exploitation of analogies and parallels. The progress of thought is thus outward and parabolic.

When we move parabolically from one space to another we create a conceptual blend that, while neither true nor real, may tell us something we need to know. Traditional philosophy and psychology have been too often blind to blended spaces because of their obsession with truth and inferential thinking. But we are able with ease to blend and adapt meanings to create fictional situations and spaces which we know perfectly well are not “real” and yet are true about some aspect of the real: a story about talking animals and a farmer who understands them throws light on another story, which incidentally can be explained again in terms of flintlocks or mufflers. This is not a specialized skill, learned after more basic inferential skills and after clear distinctions between truth and falsity are established, but is a process that small children, let alone adults, have no trouble mastering.

Turner’s evolutionary naturalism is evident on every page. He is a constructionist to the extent that we construct narratives which make sense of the world. We are not thereby constructing the world. Today it’s fashionable to see intellectual, and even scientific, disputes as merely stories competing against one another, narrative vs. narrative. Turner would like the story part of this story. But nothing he says suggests relativism. If a child dies, there may be competing narratives that make sense of it: a virus did it, say, or it was a spell cast by that old witch who lives down the lane. We may invent stories about reality, but our stories will answer to reality, not to our whims or will.

In one of the most intriguing sections of The Literary Mind, Turner discusses “the concept of a concept.” Bringing together elements of his argument, he says that parable involves “dynamic construction” which links and blends the spaces in which stories occur, with the resulting projections and analogies creating meaning, often quite new meaning. In this kind of process, meaning and inference “are not bounded by a single conceptual locus. Meaning is a complex operation of projecting, blending, and integrating over multiple spaces. Meaning never settles down into a single residence. Meaning is parabolic and literary.” To many of us this seems counterintuitive. We like to think of meanings as discrete packets with circumscribed boundaries, abstractions which refer to appropriate entities, while we regard parabolic extension and blending of meaning, with all its potential for both warping and enriching sense, as something “poetic” and exceptional.

But we do not “have” concepts in this way, he says. In the spirit of Turner’s book, let’s parabolically imagine concepts as countries. These countries are often distinguished from each other by borders that appear as clear, natural divisions, like rivers or mountain ranges. Sometimes they are divided by unmapped wastelands, or by swampy and disputed marshes. Some are islands, with the sea such an obvious natural boundary that no one even thinks to question it. Over on the continent of mathematics, borders are laid out in straight, stipulated grids, which at least makes foreign relations tidy. Concept-countries have centers of life, major cities and capitals. The country of Art, which interests me especially, has many, some inhabited by the likes of Homer, Lady Murasaki, and Shakespeare, while in others are to be found Praxiteles, Bernini, and Rodin. There are less powerful towns as well, and on the frontier you can find dusty settlements of refugees from the nearby country of Craft. Some cynics claim these illegals are nothing more than economic refugees who ought to be sent home. At a border post, Marcel Duchamp argues with the guards. They are confused whether to let him in, while he laughs, telling them their post is not at the border at all, but a hundred miles inside it.

What should strike us about my blending of concept and country, with the country of Art’s indefinite disputed borders and so forth, is both its absurd impossibility (like talking animals) and its clear, natural intelligibility, its unremarkable normality. Turner hypothesizes survival value and a biological foundation for this capacity to invent stories and project them on new contexts. In this, he disputes a remark by Clifford Geertz introducing his biography but also denying the validity of grand narratives of the human condition. Geertz writes,

It is necessary, then, to be satisfied with swirls, confluxions, and inconstant connections; clouds collecting, clouds dispersing. There is no general story to be told, no synoptic picture to be had. Or if there is, no one, certainly no one wandering into the middle of them like Fabrice at Waterloo, is in a position to construct them, neither at the time nor later. What we can construct, if we keep notes and survive, are hindsight accounts of the connectedness of things that seem to have happened: pieced-together patternings, after the fact.

But there is a general picture, Turner insists, the one that allows Geertz to invent small stories about swirling clouds, or suggest a man wandering through a battlefield, and use parable to “project these small spatial stories we know and must know since we are human onto the story of human culture and knowledge.” Geertz’s “compelling use of story, projection, and parable demonstrates the general story of the human condition — a story whose existence it denies.”

Bringing together so much from literature, folklore, linguistics, philosophy, and even neuroscience, The Literary Mind offers a boldly unified view of thinking. Because it posits the experience of telling and listening to stories rather than the hidden substructure of grammar as the basis for homo linguisticus, it will be controversial. Nevertheless, Turner argues his case with brilliance and tenacity. I for one am convinced.


Copyright © 1998 Johns Hopkins University Press. All rights reserved.