The Expression of Negation

I recently reviewed a book review by Pierre Larrivee of Aston University from LinguistList.com, and I couldn’t believe his opening statement. I mean, for a ‘scientist,’ Larrivee should know better than to make claims that cannot be substantiated, in the true sense of the word. Another person made a similar claim years ago, and many still believe it to be true. Noam Chomsky made the claim that humans are born with a ‘genetic endowment’ that ‘automatically’ learns language, without the person even knowing about it. It’s called the language acquisition device, but no one has actually found it and put it under a microscope so we can all see what it looks like and what it is made of.

Larrivee was reviewing a new book published by De Gruyter Mouton, 2010, author Laurence R. Horn, series The Expression of Cognitive Categories [ECC] 4. Apart from the actual series and content, my concern is with Larrivee’s opening statement to his Summary of the book, which is the following: “A universal feature of natural human language that sets them apart from animal communication systems is negation.”

My question is what evidence does Larrivee have or agree with that substantiates the claim that ‘animal communication systems’ DO NOT use negation? The silence has it. There is no hard evidence that animal communication systems do not use negation. The only hard evidence we have is that human communication systems use negation. We hardly know much about animal communication systems to say anything concrete about them and say it with any confidence. The only hard evidence we have about the two communication systems is that they are different. How and why they are different still eludes science.

If Larrivee is thinking that some other evidence will substitute for actual evidence that animals do not use negation then he should make that evidence clear. The thing that is clear about human communication systems in relation to animals is that animals do not readily learn human communication systems, and likewise for humans, that humans do not readily learn animal communication systems. The fact that the latter hasn’t been explored, except in a passing comment about a boy who was brought up boy wolves. The former has been explored.

Research has explored whether animals can learn human communication systems, and guess what the research found? Animals have great difficulty learning human communication systems. Why? Don’t know. Why does Larrivee make the implied claim that animal communication systems do not use negation? Don’t know. But I’m sure I don’t have to look far to find some animals that use negation, the Whales for instance that are being harpooned by nasty Japanese whalers, the Whales are objecting alright but it sure as hell won’t sound like Japanese, or English for that matter.

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Author: Robert M. Easterbrook

I'm one of those tall thin guys who looks around a lot and keeps to himself. I've recently completed a PhD, thinking it might be useful for something. I'm also a dreamer, because dreaming is far more interesting than the mundane.

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