It's language, stupid!

Animal Language: Separation of a kind or degree? (part 2)

Part 1 of this article is here.

Language, Communication and Thought

For the linguist, the opportunity to redefine the question of whether apes can be taught the rudiments of a language is perhaps a good chance for him to come to terms with the esoteric nature of language; for after all it is language than provides him with his domain. And of all the muddles that he seems to have put himself into in trying to defend his fort, none is more obvious than the presumption that language should be equated with communication.

A quick look at most books that deal with the matter of language and communication will quickly reveal how these two terms are freely interchanged, quite often within the same sentence. Many authors, however, whilst blindly interchanging the two, do (often at some obscure part of their book) acknowledge the dual function of language. Deacon for example:

 … because language is not merely  a mode of communication, it is also the outward expression of an unusual mode of thought – symbolic representation. (Deacon, 1997: 22)

Inner Speech

One way language manifests itself outside of communication can clearly be seen through the well documented notion of inner speech (Pope and Singer, 1978), (Klinger, 1971). Vygotsky (1965: 100), some time ago, noted its relation to speech and written language:

Written language demands conscious work because its relation to inner speech is different from that of oral speech…. Inner speech is condensed, abbreviated, speech. (Vygotsky, 1965: 100)

Baars (1988: 25) comments on its importance and frequency:

Inner speech is one of the most important modes of experience. Most of us go around the world talking to ourselves, though we may be reluctant to do so out loud. (Baars, 1988: 25)

Hurlburt (1990), by getting subjects to report on ‘inner-experiences’ during the course of a day, found that all normal subjects reported inner speech on some occasions with the average being 50% of the occasions sampled. And, as a small exercise some time ago during the course of a few days, the author managed to jot down some of his own ‘inner speech experiences’ [1], a few examples of which are given in Appendix A. These examples may seem anecdotal, but there is little doubt that inner speech does take place in all of us. In fact, it seems to be so common that we probably spend more time conversing with ourselves than with others. What is the function of this inner speech? Could it be tied up with our thoughts?

Under a Gricean analysis of the role of inner speech, we would have to assume we were talking (communicating) with a hypothetical audience. But it seems unreal to assume that every time an inner speech experience whizzes through our head, we first have to identify our audience. That audience, if anybody, is ourselves. It seems the mind is well suited to talk to itself.

Carruthers (1996: 1) in his recent book refutes the Gricean account and proposes that language has an intra-personal, private, function, acting as a vehicle for our thoughts, as well as an interpersonal, public, function to facilitate communication. He holds that conscious, propositional thoughts are carried out in natural language as opposed to Fodor’s mentalese. (Fodor, 1978)

In fact, I suggest the basic flaw in Grice’s approach to the semantics of natural language is that he takes the fundamental purpose and use of language to be communication, rather than thought. Certainly we do seem to use language for [propositional] thinking as well as for communicating. And even if it were true that our natural language faculty had, as a matter of fact, been selected for in evolution because of its survival value in facilitating communication, this would not mean that communication is, fundamentally what language is for. Provided that the language faculty is also used for thinking, and that it is true that it would have been selected for because of its usefulness in thinking, then thought can equally be what language is for.(Carruthers, 1996: 82)

When we look at language more closely in this new light, it does seem that a large part of what we say is redundant for the purposes of communication. Certainly some utterances do seem to be used purely for communicating intent. Utterances such as “Pass the salt, please.” and “Get out!” clearly signal one person’s intention to create some effect in the mind of another. But more often than not, if we intend to convey to our audience that “so-and-so did such-and-such a thing”, we don’t give the minimum information needed to communicate our intention. We dress up our speech and expand it into great lengths, delighting in revealing our inner thoughts to our audience. It seems as if adults have a hard time shaking of their egocentric nature that we are told is so apparent when we are children!

Many authors have commented on the multi-functional aspects of language throughout the years. Karl Bühler (1934) noted the expressive, conative and representational functions; the expressive being language that is orientated towards the self. Morris (1967) wrote about ‘talking for talk’s sake’ and ‘meaningless social chatter’. More recently, Halliday (1985) proposed the ideational, interpersonal and textual metafunctions of language where the ideational component is used to ‘organize, understand and express our perceptions of the world’ and the interpersonal to ‘enable us to participate in communicative acts with other people.’ (Bloor & Bloor, 1995: 9)

Yet many linguists fear to tread in the direction of ‘intra-personal’ language, perhaps for fear of being associated with the Whorfian hypothesis and linguistic empiricism. They prefer to stay on the ‘safe side’ of language where it most obviously manifests itself in the form of communication. But Carruthers, in forwarding his ‘cognitive conception of language’, is not aligning himself with linguistic empiricism. He makes it clear early on that there is a position in between in which the cognitive conception can be deployed along with a modularist and nativist view of language and the mind:

A large part of my task is to show that there is a position intermediate between the communicative conception of language on the one hand and Whorfian relativism (the Standard Social Science Model) on the other… one which is nativist as opposed to empiricist about language and much of the structure of the mind, but which nevertheless holds that language is constitutively employed in many of our conscious thoughts. (Carruthers, 1996: 3)

If this dual function of language were to be acknowledged by the linguistic community, then it would highlight the enormous chasm between the ‘language’ displayed through the symbolic communicative acts of apes and the language displayed through the propositional thoughts of humans.

 Re-emerging from our thoughts

If we seem to have lost ourselves briefly in the workings of the human mind then it was for a very good cause. For if the linguist is to assert that the symbolic, communicative deeds of a handful of apes do not interest him in his quest to understand language, then he very well needs to have a good idea of the domain of that language. And if he accepts the idea of a private domain in parallel with a public domain, then he can get on with his task unhindered. If not, then he’d better start reworking Hockett’s design features and get ready for the next onslaught.

For there will often be claims and counter-claims of ownership of language from outside his field. But the linguist with a clear view of the function of language and the appropriate ‘yardstick’ will have nothing to fear.


[1] Catching one’s own inner speech is not easy since its very easy to let it go by without realizing one is supposed to be catching it. When one does notice a stream of speech go by in one’s heads, it needs to be written down immediately or else it is quickly forgotten.

Appendix A:  Examples of author’s inner speech

Inner Speech Location and time
‘I’m listening to my father on the telephone’ in library, 10/11/97 11:30 AM
‘It would surprise me very much’ on way to lecture, 10/1197 11:45 AM
‘I cannot find an answer in him.’ at home, 10/11/97, 7:14 PM
‘I think this is the whole thing. The full monty. But I just cannot handle it. Johnny Searle.’ at home, Spoken aloud, 10/11/97,

8:10 PM

‘Deborah! What are you doing? You look so tall!’ on way to library after seeing policewoman, 11/11/97, 10:10 AM


Baars, B.J., (1988),  A cognitive theory of consciousness, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Bloor, T., & Bloor, M., (1995), The Functional Analysis of English: A Hallidayan Approach, Arnold, London.

Bühler, K, (1934), Sprachtheorie: die Dartstellungsfunktion der Sprache, Fischer, Jena.

Carruthers, P., (1996), Language, Thought and Consciousness, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Deacon, T., (1997), The Symbolic Species, 1997, Allen Lane, The Penguin Press.

Fodor, J., (1978) The Language of Thought, MIT

Halliday, M.A.K., (1985), Introduction to Functional Grammar, Edward Arnold, London.

Hockett, C.F., & Altmann, S.A.,  (1968), ‘A note on design features.’ in Sebeok, T.A. (ed), Animal Communication: techniques of study and results of research, Bloomington, Indiana, 61-72

Hurlburt, R., (1990) Sampling Normal and Schizophrenic Inner Experience, Plenum Press

Klinger, E., (1971), The Structure and Function of Fantasy, Wiley, New York.

Morris, D, (1967), The Naked Ape, Jonathan Cape, London.

Pierce, C.S., (1940), in Buchler, J. (ed), The Philosophy of Pierce: Selected Writings, Kegan Paul, London.

Pope, K.S., & Singer, J.L., (1978), The Stream of Consciousness: Scientific investigations into the flow of human experience, Plenum, New York.

Savage-Rumbaugh, E.S., (1994),  Kanzi: The ape at the brink of the human mind, Doubleday

Vygotsky, L.S., (1965) Thought and Language, Cambridge, Mass., M.I.T.


Header Image by Rodrigo Soldon 2, CC BY-ND 2.0,


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