Language, Purpose, and Evolution

There's an interesting post over at Science Blog on what language is "for." Check out that short post and my comments, which I'll paste in below, if you're interested.

1. Original post:

A book I'm currently reading quotes the well-known linguist Charles Fillmore as writing

the language of face-to-face conversation is the basic and primary use of language, all others being best described in terms of their manner of deviation from that base... I assume that this position is neither particularly controversial nor in need of explanation.

If only it were so. Uber-linguist Noam Chomsky said in a talk I attended that language is not "for communication." I've never been quite sure what he meant by this, so I decided this was a good time to find out.

Googling turned up this interview, in which his statement is much more mild. He seems to simply state that to the extent language is used socially, it isn't always for the purpose of communication. I can get on board with that.

This other interview, however, makes a stronger claim. Here is a representative quote:

If human language has a function at all it's for expression of thought. So if you just think about your own use of language, a rather small part is used for communication. Much of human language is just used to establish social relations. Suppose you go to a bar in Kyoto and you spend an evening talking to your friends. You're not 'communicating'. You're rarely communicating. You're not presenting them with any information that changes their belief systems. You're simply engaged in a kind of social play.

Perhaps. I'm still with Fillmore that this seems to be derivative on communication, but I'm not even sure what kind of evidence could be found that would favor one position or the other.

2. My comments:

The following might be of help....

I think it all hinges on "for." Language is not "for" communication in two senses. First, the evolutionary sense. Not much can be concluded firmly in this sense, despite much spilt ink, but generally in evolution, current utility doesn't reflect historical origin. Take feathers: probably evolved for insulation; later co-opted for flight. The same is probably true of language. But we'll never know. What we do know is that language didn't evolve in all its ramified glory so Tolstoy could write War and Peace.

Second, even in the current-utility (or functional) sense, language is "for" many things besides communication. Chomsky seems to limit communication to the imparting or absorbing of factual information, as in, "Hey, there's a tiger over there. Perhaps we should leave the area as quietly and quickly as possible, no?" or "Two plus two is four." or "My name is Doug." To the Chomster, such use of language is real but doesn't encompass all uses of language. It doesn't cover when we think to ourselves, for instance. It doesn't cover purposely ambiguous poetry. Furthermore, we communicate emotional states with facial gestures, body language, music, non-verbal actions.

Interesting post! Some good articles (I'm a complete amateur here, so...):

Lewontin, R. C. (1998) The evolution of cognition: Questions we will never answer. In D. Scarborough and S. Sternberg, editors, An invitation to cognitive science, Volume 4: Methods, models, and conceptual issues. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. (

Pinker, Steven, and Paul Bloom, “Natural Language and Natural Selection,” Behavioral and Brains Sciences 13 (1990): 707-84. (

Marc D. Hauser, Noam Chomsky, and W. Tecumseh Fitch (2002). “The Faculty of Language: What Is It, Who Has It, and How Did It Evolve?” Science 298:1569-1579. (

And I just found Lewontin on a podcast on this very topic:

One further comment: on "purpose" in biology

"Purpose" is a very sticky term in biology, in my experience (said experience being some background in the history of evolutionary biology). It's a very understandable holdover from Aristotelian teleology, and seemingly "common-sense," but what evolution, culture, and society have deemed "common-sense" is not necessarily valid. A quick perusal of quantum mechanics or relativity will shatter any fundamental confidence in common-sense notions right quick, to say nothing of the still-"common-sense" notion that the sun goes around the earth. It sure looks that way!

Without getting too heavily philosophical, it's simply impossible to delineate any sense of purpose -- in the human-intentional sense -- in evolution. It's far more algorithmic: a mathematical series defined by 2x + 1 that starts at, say, 3, may be said to be "destined" to generate 7; it may even be said that its "purpose" is to generate 7, but 7 is simply the logical outcome, given the parameters.

Furthermore, evolution is a combination of the algorithmic and the contingent. Which distances it even further from "purpose" and "destiny". You can predict what 2x + 1 will generate (I know my math notation is wrong here; just roll with the idea behind what I'm saying!); you cannot predict evolution. You can, somewhat, at small time-scales and with extremely limited parameters, of course, but that predictability falls precipitously as parameters broaden and time-scales lengthen.

Conway Morris and a host of other evolutionists aside, modern evolutionary theory simply doesn't provide any "purpose" whatsoever. Even a softer version of "purpose" -- "progress" -- is a very sticky debate, mostly semantic. "Trends" are real, of course, but just as the trend of 2x + 1 doesn't reveal any purpose whatsoever, neither does any evolutionary trend.

To complicate things further, though, at some point, intentional beings (or beings that would like to think themselves intentional) noted their language-faculty, and billions of these beings have been tweaking it in large and small ways, collectively and individually, for thousands of years. Whether all of this intentionality adds up to "purpose" or not seems rather unlikely to me, unless you radically limit the parameters and players to, say, a bunch of linguists trying to invent an international language (Esperanto).

Our language reflects our belief in our own intentionality (a topic I won't even broach here). Unfortunately, we have to use such intention-drenched language to describe intention-free biological traits like language (or feathers), striving to use language to clearly communicate the non-common-sense notion that language is not "for" communication.


  1. "a bunch of linguists trying to invent an international language (Esperanto)."

    BTW. linguists were hardly involved in the "creation" of Esperanto.
    The largest part of Esperanto evolved "naturally" inside the community of speakers.
    The difference is that the language is used by litterates while English (and the so called natural languages) evolved thanks to illiterates.
    This explains why the evolution path of Esperanto is different.
    And yes it is used for social contacts and communication (see Vikipedio)

  2. Looks like Esperanto was developed by an ophthalmologist, not a linguist (at first), but I didn't see how it was the output of a natural community at first. Perhaps you mean after its introduction, during its early history?

    Anyway, thanks for the comment.


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