SIL International Home

Kenneth L. Pike (1912–2000)

Talk, Thought, and Thing
The Emic Road Toward Conscious Knowledge

by Kenneth L. Pike


Previous | Next | Contents

Chapter 1

Personal interaction in a social-physical context is a useful entrance point into theory about cross-cultural knowledge.

We wish to know about ourselves. We wish to know what we know, and how we know. Are we just minds? Are we just bodies? How are our minds and our bodies connected with our understanding of the world around us?

Conviction 1.1. The knowledge of self, mind, body, and of the world around us, is best understood by starting with it all together, interacting.

The relation of myself to the outside world includes my relation not only to physical elements outside of me, but to minds and language of people outside of me. I suggest, therefore, that our entrance point into an understanding of our knowledge of the world as a whole may best be achieved by looking at the interaction between people within the context of the society around them (which they in part comprise) and within the physical world around them (and of which they also are a part).

Analogy: Language, through which much of the social interchange takes place, may be called a 'telephone exchange' of that society, linking people to each other so that they can all understand each other and, in addition, linking people to their view and knowledge of the physical world.

Source: My viewpoint has grown out of an attempt to understand people cross-culturally, by way of linguistic research across cultures. In order to understand humans, I needed to get beneath physical actions to learn what the purposes of their actions or their beliefs about the environment were. In order to do so, I had to use language. I had to learn to speak a local language, and to listen. But cross-cultural language problems forced me to look at different cross-cultural beliefs about the knowledge of things and thoughts.[1]

Conviction 1.2. In a shared physical-social environment, a person can learn to speak a language without an interpreter. This implies the presence of a shared capacity to learn cross-culturally and to transmit names, social structure, and worldview.

Source: There is an astonishment in watching communication begin under such circumstances. In 1936 I first developed a 'monolingual demonstration' to teach students what they could do if they were trying to learn a language in some area where there is no alphabet, no dictionary, no written grammar, and no interpreter available to them. I meet the person on a platform in front of the students (or others) without knowing what the language is, nor where the person comes from. Members of the faculty pick him or her for the occasion, without telling me where he or she comes from. With a few leaves, sticks, stones, or other items, I start pointing at one of those items and can usually expect the other person to reply (in his or her language unknown to me) with some such statement as "that is a stick." Usually, within a half hour, I have the names for a dozen objects or so, plus a few size differences ('big leaf' versus 'little leaf'), a few numbers ('two leaves'), or sentences such as 'He hit me with a stick' versus 'I hit him with a stick'. Occasionally, however, it takes much longer than that to get started. In one instance, in Australia, an aboriginal speaker waited about five minutes before he would utter a single syllable or give a single word. I learned later that the speaker did this because, in his village, it was not polite for an outsider to begin talking immediately. He first needed to be interviewed by an old man of the area to see who his ancestors or relatives were and to whom he could talk politely without social taboos. Nevertheless, the demonstration did get under way. In any one instance, it is always possible that one might fail in such a short period of time.

I developed this monolingual demonstration because I was (and for half a century since have been) involved in training students to work in the analysis of unwritten languages around the world. I could not have worked happily or successfully without some of these presuppositions either implicit or explicit.

Further Implications: Strong support for the relevance of naming, in a monolingual situation, comes from two philosophers. Quine (who, I have been told, is the leading living American philosopher) has discussed the implications of this kind of demonstration for over two decades. In Quine 1960:40–45, he called utterances obtained by pointing at something in this kind of a demonstration OBSERVATION SENTENCES.[2] Ullian joins with Quine to give extraordinarily strong support for the relevance of these utterances, stating that "observation sentences are at the bottom edge of language . . . It is ultimately through them that language gets its meaning, its bearing on reality. This is why it is they that convey the basic evidence for all belief, all scientific theory" (Quine and Ullian 1978:28).

One advantage to insisting on the importance of a monolingual demonstration is that it begins with intersubjectivity, with people working together; but in addition it ties people and things into a package as a starting point. It thus rejects the possibility of starting with abstract minds without reference to the physical world. And, similarly, it rejects the possibility of beginning philosophically with the minimum units of the physical world which may be inaccessible to us in terms of common sense experience. So our monolingual demonstration experience is important as being possible—and it delays the necessity for the discussion of ultimate starting points if they are to be stated in terms of presuppositions from mechanism, theism, pantheism, animism, or other postulated sources. It begins with the possibility and relevance of human behavior in physical context.

Analogy: The shared language capacity in human nature can be looked at as hardware: the learned specifics of a different language may be considered its software.

Conviction 1.3. For some purposes it is better to start from a complex situation and to work towards simplicity, rather than trying to start from simplicity and work to the complex.

Analogy: If one wishes to understand an automobile, it may be helpful to start by learning to drive one and by using it to go buy groceries, rather than to start by studying the structure of one bolt in one wheel. Similarly, if we wish to understand a 'homerun' in baseball, we need to see two teams in interaction trying to 'win' a game. To begin with an analysis of the leather on the baseball itself would not lead us to play the game quickly and easily. Similarly, for a native speaker of English to study English by itself is insufficient training for studying an unwritten language abroad. One needs to get farther away from 'home base'!

Conviction 1.4. Normal human nature requires the naming and discussion of things, events, ideas, and persons.

Analogy: A shepherd dog must be able to distinguish a sheep from a horse, to function normally. An adult person, however, needs words to discuss the difference in meaning between the phrases ancient and elegant, and modern and garish.

Further Implications: In the physical sciences, a categorization in the ordinary sense is also basic. We cannot start a scientific discussion without first having an experience of common sense discussion of things and events and people. The physicist Einstein (in Samuel 1952:158) said:

"The most elementary concept in everyday thought, belonging to the 'real,' is the concept of continually existing objects, like the table in my room. The table as such, however, is not given to me, but merely a complex of sensations is given to which I attribute the name and concept 'table'." Also note the philosopher Searle (1984:78): "For a large number of social and psychological phenomena the concept that names the phenomenon is itself a constituent of the phenomenon."

Conviction 1.5. Names and statements are used to link person to person in speech.

Source: An anthropologist talking to another anthropologist about an ancient civilization needs, also, to be able to refer to bones or stones. Both science and society need naming.

Analogy: We must be able to say whether the truck hit the bicycle or the bicycle hit the truck. And we must be able to say that Susan was the grandmother of Sally or was her granddaughter.

Conviction 1.6. This entrance point allows us to begin with a philosophical context which we can 'live in' as well as 'think by'.

Analogy: If I want to build a house I can live in for the next few years, I do not start by collecting separate molecules.

Source: As I have indicated above, I am starting from linguistic experience, working with preliterate language communities, and teaching others to build a 'literate house' for such a society. I start by feeling these components strongly, not by proving them philosophically. It is here that experience of a particular type has had strong influence on shaping my approach.

Conviction 1.7. Approximate translation is possible; it may be viewed as a variety of cross-cultural paraphrase.

In the monolingual demonstration referred to above, problems arise. I may point to something that I myself am thinking of as a 'stick' but get a reply that it is a 'twig'. This is an approximation toward the translation sought, but not total isomorphism because size was not taken into account. The speaker and hearer may agree, under appropriate circumstances, that two different statements are 'saying the same thing' relative to the purpose of the speaker, the expectations of the hearer, and the shared cultural horizon. But for either paraphrase or translation, identity of words is unnecessary, identity of particular grammatical focal mechanism is unnecessary, and the exact same degree of detail is unnecessary. Truth, in such a statement, is not dependent upon the exact degree of precision obtained, if the generalizations are acceptable to both speaker and hearer. Difficulties in understanding—and hence in paraphrasing or translating—may be especially prominent where substantial ambiguity (or range of meaning) is present in the initial statement. Under such circumstances, the hearer may request further detail or may specifically ask which of two alternatives is involved.

Analogy: On a trip to Pluto, someone might say, 'Are we landing?'—and one paraphrase could be, 'Are we going to land on Pluto?' But another person could say, 'Are we in the process of moving downward?' Knowing what is wanted may result in alternative paraphrases—or translations—to reach those objectives.

Source: Here, again, we rely on our linguistic experience as the source of our opinions. Multiple alternative translations are possible from one language to another, with different emphases—each translation varying with the translator's interpretation of the original author's focus and with each translation requiring different background information to be made explicit for the translation to be intelligible.

Further Implications: As I have stated elsewhere (Pike 1982:15), "Identity of a talk-concept referential unit is specified for a particular time and situation by paraphrase, that is, by the ability to say the same thing in other ways which the hearer and speaker can agree on as being the same concept for their joint temporary purposes." An instructor may ask a student to put 'in his own words' that which the instructor has been saying. The instructor may approve the student's attempt, even though no two words are repeated, if there is no clash with content or with coherence with background. Identity of words is not necessary; identity of a particular grammatical focus mechanism is not necessary; exactly the same degree of detail is not necessary. Truth, in such a summary statement, is not dependent upon the exact degree of precision obtained if the generalizations are acceptable (Pike 1961:3f); but coherence with background pattern expressed, implicit or intended, must not be lost. Expectancies of the hearer must be met by the speaker, with a degree of coherence with reality as perceived by the speaker, for such a paraphrase to be acceptable.

Exceptions to the possibility of specific translation are discussed by Catford (1965:98–103), in instances where linguistic ambiguity is involved and where this ambiguity is utilized by the speaker as part of his presentation. Puns, for example, cannot normally be translated directly by puns in the target language. They can be explained, but the explanation of a pun does not carry the same impact as the pun itself—an impact which in tagmemic theory is part of the meaning.[3]


Notes

[1] Compare, also, Reeder 1986:123, where "the phenomenology of language" begins "with analysis of the meaning-intention, that is, the intentional experience of meaningful language use.

[2] See also Quine 1974:37–41.

[3] Further problems in translation—for example seeking for dynamic translatability—can be found in Nida and Tabor 1969:22–24; see also Larson 1984.

Previous | Next | Contents