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2.1: Reference and Proper Nouns

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    A World Before Language

    Imagine a tribe of people much like us. You can think of them as our hominid ancestors, or if you prefer, as a race of aliens on another planet; for our purposes, it doesn't really matter since we will only be using them to help us understand what language does. Like us, they live in a world full of regularity. There are objects around them with characteristic properties: rocks that tend to be hard but to break when they are hit hard enough; plants that tend to be soft and have parts that can be pulled off and sometimes eaten; animals that move and can be dangerous. (We'll let our people be vegetarians.) The world is also regular in terms of what happens: the regular appearance of celestial bodies and seasons; the inevitability of rain following certain kinds of clouds; the way certain animals run away and others attack when they are confronted; the way other members of the tribe respond to friendliness, flirtation, rejection, and aggression.

    To survive in their world, these people, like us, have evolved nervous systems that allow them to find these regularities in their world. They can sense the basic features of the world: colors, textures, edges, movements, sounds, tastes, smells, consistencies, hardnesses. Like us, they are also expert learners. This allows them, together with their basic sensory abilities, to discover the regularity in their world. Learning is important for our people because it allows them to survive in very different environments; no matter where they happen to end up — the desert, the mountains, the forest, the plains, the coast — they can figure out what their world is like. Finding the regularity is important in turn because it allows them to learn what kind of behavior is appropriate. If you can identify the edible plants and the animals you need to run away from, you can survive. Even if you can't identify the edible plants and the threatening animals, you may still be able to survive by getting help from others in your tribe. But to get help from others, you have to have figured out what kinds of behaviors lead them to cooperate with you and what kinds lead them to reject or even attack you. If you can't recognize aggression in the face and body of a much stronger member of your tribe, you won't survive.

    These people are like us in a number of ways. But they differ from us in one very important way. They do not have language, at least language as we know it. Throughout this book, we will be giving them language, a little at a time, at each step asking what advantages and complexities the new features bring. For now we will refer to them as "Prelings", to emphasize that they are pre-linguistic; they don't have language yet.

    While our tribe of Prelings is purely speculative, you are already familiar with a real group of pre-linguistic humans. All people at birth are pre-linguistic in that they do not yet know a language. We can also learn a lot about language by taking the perspective of these real pre-linguistic beings, and we will do this in the book sometimes too.

    Objects and Individuals

    Exercise \(\PageIndex{1}\)

    Consider the things in the world that we refer to using the following words:

    1. box, bird, road, hand
    2. milk, dirt, air

    How is the first group different from the second?

    One of the things that both our imaginary Prelings and our real pre-linguistic infant notice right away about their world is that it contains objects, entities with clear boundaries around them that have a number of stable properties. For example, consider an apple, one of the things that both our Prelings and our infant happen to encounter. While some things about an apple can change quickly, its position, for example, others are relatively stable: its color, shape, size, smell, and consistency, for example. The same could be said of a cave, a cat, a bush, or a person (or another Preling). (Note that we are using the word object in a way that differs from the usual, non-technical use of the word in that it can refer to living things, including people, as well as inanimate things such as rocks and plants. This will happen often in the book: the use of a word that you are already familiar with in an unfamiliar, somewhat different sense.)

    Actually it's an over-simplification to say that infants recognize objects. The ability to recognize objects actually develops during the first months of life. For some pointers to research on this area, see the work of psychologist Scott Johnson.

    Lines Between Categories may not be Easy to Define.

    But not everything in the environment is an object. The water in some portion of a river is not an object because it has no obvious boundaries. And the situation in which a lizard is resting on top of a rock is even less like an object because it is not stable; the lizard may run away at any minute. What about a river or a mountain? We can view a river as an object if we allow a boundary to be the border separating two different kinds of material, soil and water in this case. And we can view a mountain as an object if we allow a boundary to be clear on some sides (where the top and sides of the mountain are separated from the air) but not so clear on others (where the mountain is separated from the plain around it). These examples are important because they illustrate a common theme: whenever we attempt to divide up the things in the world in a particular way, for example, into objects vs. non-objects, we will find good examples — an apple is a good example of an object; some water is a good example of a non-object — and others, such as lakes, that need to be stretched to fit into one group or the other.

    Prelings and babies are not only good at finding objects; they are good at distinguishing particular objects from one another. A baby learns early on to distinguish its parents from other people. Prelings need to be able to distinguish members of their tribe from one another — their mate, their children, the tribe chief — in order to know how to behave. And they need to be able to distinguish particular bushes and particular hills and bends in the river from each other so that they can know where they are when they are out searching for food. We will refer to particular objects as individuals. Later we'll use this word for particular instances of things other than objects.

    Proper Nouns

    Exercise \(\PageIndex{2}\)

    One function of words is to "point" at things. But what advantages do words have over pointing with our fingers?

    Our pre-linguistic Prelings are social creatures. They survive by sharing the food they find, by helping each other take care of their young, and by protecting each other from predators. But they are limited in how much they can cooperate because the few signals they have communicate only vague meanings such 'danger!' and 'I am angry' and 'I want to mate.' They can also point to individual objects in order to draw the attention of other members of the tribe to them. But when an individual object is out of sight, pointing won't work.

    Consider what the advantages would be of being able to "point" to something out of sight. If one member of the tribe was in danger, another member could let the others know about this by "pointing" to the one in danger. Of course the pointing alone wouldn't convey the danger; the others would have to infer this from the urgency of the pointer's actions. Or the Preling could "point" to a familiar, but out-of-sight, landmark in the tribe's environment, alerting the others that something important had turned up there, such as a previously unknown source of food.

    Pointing with Words

    Language offers several ways of "pointing" with words. One simple way is with words which have only this pointing function, words like thisand that. We'll learn more about these kinds of words later. For now, note that they have the disadvantage that they say little about what object is being pointed to and in fact have to be used together with other language to make any sense: pick that up, this is my sister.

    A more precise alternative is provided by names. They allow us to point to individuals even when they are not there. Nearly all human languages have a category of words we'll call proper nouns that function as names. English examples include Mommy, George, Fluffy, Indiana. In many languages the category of proper nouns is distinguished formally from other expressions in certain ways. In English, for example, we don't normally precede proper nouns with the word the, unless more than one individual has the name and we are trying to make it clear which one we are talking about. That is, we do not say please give this to the Clark (whereas we can say please give this to the coach). This will be a familiar theme in the book: a particular notion or function of language (for example, naming) may be represented by a type of word or linguistic pattern which is distinguished formally from other words or patterns (for example, proper nouns). This is just another example of our Main Theme, that language is about the relation between meaning/function and form. (Note that proper nouns are not the only possible names in English; we also have expressions like the White House and the Grand Canyon. We'll look at these kinds of names later.)


    The pointing function that names perform is called reference. Most of the time I'll be using this word (somewhat loosely) both for what Speakers do with words and what the words themselves "do". The individual that is referred to is called the referent. I will have a lot more to say about reference, especially in the chapter on Composition. For now, we can think of reference in the following way.

    1. The Speaker has an individual in mind and wants the Hearer to have that same individual in mind.
    2. The Speaker produces the name.
    3. The Hearer recognizes the name, and it activates the representation of the individual in the Hearer's short-term or long-term memory.

    Reference by itself can never make the Speaker's complete intention clear, that is, why the Speaker would want to call the Hearer's attention to the referent in the first place. Reference is only one aspect of human language, and Speakers have access to more than just names. But even with the help of a full-blown modern human language, Speakers can never directly transfer what's in their mind to the minds of Hearers. There's always some guesswork involved in interpreting language; this is a topic we'll return to when we discuss how combinations of words are interpreted. In other words, what our Prelings would have to do in understanding their primitive "language", consisting only of proper nouns, is only really different in degree from what we have to do all the time.

    Note that a subclass of proper nouns, names of people, have another function in modern languages. We can use them to call the people that they name. In English, we do this by simply saying the name of the person, often loudly. Since this function differs in some ways from what we're calling reference, it should not surprise is that it differs in form in some languages. The special form that a name takes when it is used for calling in these languages is called the vocative. Note that the calling function is in some ways even simpler than the reference function since it applies only to other people (or animals that we treat like people) and it only appropriate when the person being called is present. So we can imagine the Prelings coming up with this use of language even earlier than they come up with reference.

    Knowing and Using Names

    If there are only a small number of interesting things to be named, it might be efficient to have the list of names built into the Prelings so they wouldn't have to figure them out in every new generation. For this solution to work for real animals, however, evolution would somehow have to settle on it; that is, the knowledge (or whatever) that is required would have to be genetic in the end. And for this to happen, members of the species that are genetically predisposed to produce particular sounds (or gestures) and respond appropriately to them would have to have an advantage over those that aren't. The problem with this possibility is that the knowledge required to produce and understand names is quite complex, and it is very difficult to imagine how anybody could have ended up with a genetic predisposition to have this knowledge.

    Let's consider what it would take for a Preling to know a particular name. First, it has to be able to both recognize and produce the formfor the name, a sound like "Clark" or some unique gesture that refers to Clark. This alone is not at all trivial, but we'll wait until the next chapter to worry about why. For now, let's just assume that there is some sort of representation for the form of the word in the Preling's brain.

    "Knowing" the Meaning of a Name

    The Preling would also have to be able to recognize the referent of the name, the person, village, or mountain that is referred to. In a sense, then, it has to "know" the referent. But what is "know" exactly? Let's consider two possibilities. First, there is a single "place" in the Preling's long-term memory for the referent, a place that somehow gets activated when the Preling sees, thinks about, or (if it knows the word) hears about the referent. This place brings together all of the various features of the referent, each with its own place in memory, as well as other places in memory that are associated with particular responses the Preling makes when it encounters the referent. This is what I'll call a localized representation. Another possibility is a distributed representation of the referent. Instead of appearing in one place in memory, there are only the separate places for all of the different features and responses that are associated with the referent. These are connected with one another in a large network of relationships in such a way that when enough of them are activated, the whole set of places that are associated with the referent become active. In the distributed view, there is no single place in memory that gets activated when the Preling has the referent in mind. Does it make a difference which of these ways of representing the referent we go with? We'll see later that it does have some implications. For now, for the sake of simplicity, we'll assume the localist position, which is the one that is assumed (though usually not explicitly) by most linguists and by many other language scientists.

    The picture so far, then, looks like that in the figure below. The large rectangles are meant to stand for some person's representation of two individuals (clark and lois) and the forms of the words that refer to them ("Clark" and "Lois"). The arrows connecting the pairs of rectangles represent the form-meaning relationship. The small squares above the boxes are supposed to suggest all the different features associated with Clark and Lois (their height, their personality, etc.) and the different responses that this person might have to Clark and Lois. Some of these are also connected to one another because they tend to be activated together. Note that these are supposed to be features that are shared across different individuals, so one of them (maybe for hair color) is associated with the rectangles for both people.


    To use knowledge like this, Hearers would have to have a way to cause the form box to be activated when somebody says the word in their presence. This would then cause the meaning box to be activated and the boxes for the different features to be activated. Speakers would have to have a way of activating the different features associated with the person when thinking about or seeing that person. This would then cause the box for the meaning of the word to be activated, which would cause the box for the form of the word to be activated. There would then have to be be way for this to cause the Speaker to actually produce the word form. Note that I have left almost all of the details unspecified in these processes, and in fact much of what actually goes on when a person produces or understands a word like Lois remains controversial. Even the general structure of the knowledge shown in the figure would not be accepted by everybody.

    Why Words are Not Inherited

    One thing should be clear; however all of this works, it is very complex. So it would be hard to imagine how the relevant knowledge for a whole set of proper nouns could evolve in the Prelings. The alternative is that this knowledge is learned, that each member of the tribe must pick up the set of words from the other living members of the tribe. There is another good argument in favor of learning. The individuals that need to be referred to will change from generation to generation, so unless the chief of the tribe and other important members always look the same, there could be no words for these people. Of course simply saying that the knowledge is learned still leaves many questions unanswered. In particular it doesn't tell us where the names, or the idea of naming, came from in the first place. But we'll have to leave these sorts of questions unanswered so that we can move on.

    Learning Names

    How might the learning of names take place? I've been arguing that names are a relatively simple, basic part of human language, so it shouldn't surprise us that proper nouns are among the first words that babies seem to learn. However, we have to be careful in assigning adult linguistic behavior to infants. When a baby utters "Mama" in the presence of its mother, does this mean that it is referring to its mother in the sense defined above? That is, does the baby want the Hearer to have its mother in mind? Almost certainly not. While it is probably true that Speakers reason about what is in or what could be in the minds of others, everyone who studies babies agrees that babies do not yet have this ability. In any case, for the moment, we won't bother with what it might mean to have a "theory of mind", as this is called. We'll just be concerned with the simpler problem of what it would mean for a baby to figure out how certain sounds or gestures are associated with particular individuals in the world.

    Given the picture in the figure above, there would seem to be three parts to this process: learning the form, for example, learning what "Lois" sounds like and how to pronounce it; learning the meaning, for example, learning to identify what lois looks like and how she behaves; and connecting these two aspects of the word. In fact, if we start with the idea that language is about the relationship between forms and meanings, we could say the same thing for the learning of all linguistic patterns. Thinking of things this way — in terms of three separate learning processes — will often be useful, but is obviously an oversimplification because the processes can interact with each other in various ways. In particular there is the interesting possibility that people only learn the concept behind the meaning of a word (or other linguistic pattern) as they learn the word; that is, the existence of a single form for a range of different situations is what clues them into the existence of the concept in the first place. But to make sense out of this suggestion, we'll have to go far beyond names and proper nouns and look at the meanings of other types of words. In the next section we'll look at the general category of nouns.

    This page titled 2.1: Reference and Proper Nouns is shared under a GNU General Public License 3.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Michael Gasser via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform; a detailed edit history is available upon request.