1. An epistemological turn

Historically, culturally, and developmentally, language is prior to science. Moreover, science itself is a construct of language, because scientists impose their language on what they assume is there to be named by that language (Harris 2005). The role of language in the lives of humans is of paramount importance; yet, the millennia-long study of language has not produced any noticeable effects on human praxis as distinguished from poiesis and teoria (in the Aristotelian sense) – unlike, for example, in physics, chemistry, biology, or computer science. This is indicative of a deep methodological crisis in linguistics, whose epistemological foundation precludes our understanding of the very nature of language (Kravchenko 2015).

The ousting of the ideology of holism from scientific research, and the persisting infatuation with analytism have led to an extreme fragmentation of our knowledge of the world, and language as a specific mode of human existence in this world – even though it is a commonality to observe that the big is best seen from a distance. Overlooking the fact that humans are a biological species, and whatever unique features they possess must be explained from the point of view of biology as “the mother of all diversity” (Givón 2009), orthodox linguistics misconstrues its object of study.

The issue of the nature and function of language, and its relationship to mind, cannot be resolved within the Cartesian paradigm (Kravchenko 2008). The picture of language, drawn by orthodox linguistics, is permeated with dualism; the segregation, rather than integration, of language and the embodied mind impedes progress in the study of human linguistic behavior, which makes the species homo sapiens so unique (Harris 1998). Neither the nature of human linguistic capacity, nor the role of language in the evolution of the human species, has been clearly understood and coherently explained. We continue to be held captives by the myths linguistics lives by (Harris 2001; Linell 2005), and common-sense reasoning about language, done in the very same language, is often taken for scientific explanation. To break out of the methodological dead-end in the humanities in general, and in linguistics in particular, a new epistemology is required, based on an understanding that language as a phenomenon is grounded in the human biology, and that we as humans happen in language (Maturana 1970; 1978; Kravchenko 2011a; Jennings, Thompson 2012).

Charles Morris (1938) was among the first to suggest that, for languaging human beings, “the response to things through the intermediacy of signs is biologically a continuation of the same process in which the distance senses have taken precedence over the contact senses in the control of conduct in higher animal forms” (p. 32). Thus, he explicitly addressed the biological function of language as one of ‘control of conduct’ when the “process of taking account of a constantly more remote environment is simply continued in the complex processes of semiosis made possible by language, the object taken account of no longer needing to be perceptually present” (ibidem). According to Morris, language is the extension of human sensorium, and this defines its biological (adaptive) function. But this is not the whole story.

As humans, we become what we are through immersion in the flux of joint activity with others, that is, languaging (Maturana, Mpodozis, Letelier 1995; Ross 2007; Cowley 2014). As we collaborate, argues Cowley (2011), we orient to wordings as repeated and systematized aspects of vocalizations that, within our community, carry historically derived information. Hearing “words” is like seeing “things” in pictures: first, we learn to hear wordings, and later, to use “what we hear” as ways of constraining our actions. Thus, linguistic interactions between individual humans and all the processes that underlie or stem out of them (neurological, social, cultural, etc.) become an essential part of the environment with which human adaptive behavior must be congruent. In the case of humans as a biological species, the evolutionary function of language may be seen in providing an epigenetic mechanism responsible for the evolution of hominids into homo sapiens (Deacon 2009), while ontogenetically its evolutionary function consists in constraining the cognitive development of an organism in the organism-environment system (cf. Järvilehto 1998). Such system consists of individual human organisms organized as a unit of interactions in the relational domain of language.

Living systems are units of interactions which exist in an environment, they are characterized by circular organization, and this circular organization produces a homeostatic system whose function is to produce and sustain the circularity of organization (Maturana 1970). But the realization of this function depends on the components which determine it and the continuous production of which is sustained by the circular organization. All the particular features of various kinds of organisms overlay and support this fundamental circularity by sustaining its uninterrupted continuity in sequences of interactions with the constantly changing environment. Taking a biological stance toward language is to ask, and seek to answer in an informative way, the question: “What is the role of language in sustaining the uninterrupted continuity of a human organism in its sequences of interactions with the constantly changing environment?”

Building on Humberto Maturana’s (1970) biology of cognition as a living systems theory, third-generation cognitive science (Kravchenko 2007a) takes a novel approach to language, abandoning the orthodox code model. Instead, language is viewed as biologically grounded, socially determined, cognitively motivated orientational (semiotic) activity in a consensual domain. Linguistic interactions that define and sustain the cognitive niche of the human society as a living system are a crucial ecological factor, affecting human evolution. Such understanding of language ecology differs essentially from the notion of language ecology introduced by Einar Haugen (1972) and taken as a point of departure in defining the subject field of a separate linguistic discipline – ecolinguistics.

2. Haugen's language ecology and ecolinguistics

2.1. Ecology and ecolinguistics

Since Ernst Haeckel (1886) defined ecology as a scientific study of interactions of organisms with their environment, it has become a fundamental subdivision of biology that explores and analyzes the properties of life on the supra-organismic level of organization, while its main subject is the study of populations of living organisms which interact with one another and form a kind of unity with the environment – that is, a system. In the biology of cognition, such systems are viewed as living (cognitive) systems, whose organization is based in the unity of interactions of organisms in their cognitive niche. Therefore, when speaking about the ecology of something, we should not forget that this something must fall under the definition of an organism or a population of organisms as a living system; otherwise, the term ecology, thus used, becomes devoid of its original intended meaning. Strikingly, as observed by Cowley (2014: 63), “in ecolinguistics, there is little discussion of biology or even of biological terms”. Yet, even when researchers into language ecology admit that the expression itself is just a metaphor (cf. Creese, Martin, Hornberger 2008; Wendel 2005; Wiertlewska 2011, inter alia), they leave open the question of what it is that they actually study under the label “language ecology”: if it is human interactions with the environment constituted by the natural (including speech vocalizations) and the cultural (including the artifact of writing), then we should speak of the ecology of the human society as a living system which is sustained by, and evolves in, this environment. Language is a salient feature of the human species, but it does not exist as a thing ‘out there’, much less as an organism; however, true to 20th century traditions, “ecolinguists tend to separate nature from participating in language” (Cowley 2014: 63).

The tendency to speak of language ecology as the study of language interacting with the environment goes back to Einar Haugen who came up with the concept in his famous The Ecology of Language. Here is the often-cited definition of language ecology, as it was given by Haugen, which outlines the subject matter of ecolinguistics as a scientific discipline:

Language ecology may be defined as the study of interactions between any given language and its environment . . . The true environment of a language is the society that uses it as one of its codes. Language exists only in the minds of its users, and it only functions in relating these users to one another and to nature, i.e. their social and natural environment. Part of its ecology is therefore psychological: its interaction with other languages in the minds of bi- and multilingual speakers. Another part of its ecology is sociological: its interaction with the society in which it functions as a medium of communication. The ecology of a language is determined primarily by the people who learn it, use it, and transmit it to others (Haugen 1972: 325).

As may be seen from this definition, Haugen’s view of language includes contradictory or mutually excluding theoretical approaches, such as: (i) the biomorphic metaphor (cf. Pennycook 2004), which implies that language is, essentially, an organism interacting with the society as its ‘true environment’, (ii) the language myth – a belief that language is a code used as a means (a tool) for communication (‘it functions as a medium of communication’), (iii) cognitive internalism (‘language exists only in the minds of its users’), and (iv) cognitive externalism (‘people learn language, use it, and transmit it to others’).

2.2. Ecolinguistics and the biomorphic metaphor

The biomorphic metaphor (“language is a living organism”), popularized by August Schleicher in the mid-19th c., has long since become part and parcel of the metalanguage of orthodox linguistics. Without, seemingly, noticing the metaphors they live by, researchers speak of particular languages as interacting with other languages and with the society, of various stages in the ontogeny of language: emergence, development, maturation, aging, death, revitalizatioin (Crystal 2000; Mufwene 2004), of the survival of language and its adaptation to the changing environment (Schulze, Stauffer, Wichmann 2008), etc. Moreover, the biomorphic metaphor seems to be at the basis of the mainstream theory of linguistic evolution as a separate venue of research into the origins of language and the nature of linguistic change, which includes selection, hybridization, inbreeding, and mutation of inherited characteristics (cf. Akmajian et al. 2001; Mufwene 2001; Pinker 2003; Burridge 2004, inter alia). Language is hypostasized as an object possessing features characteristic of living organisms (cf. Whitney 2013), such as intentionality and adaptive plasticity; in short, it is viewed not unlike a biological species: “the same language may thrive in one ecology but do poorly in another; <…> like biological species, their [languages’] vitality depends on the ecology of their existence or usage” (Mufwene 2004: 203). In this context, the expression “language ecology” refers to a system formed by a language—for example, a particular variety of English—as an organism representative of a species (English as an abstract construct), and its environment (cultural, social, physical, etc.), interactions with which cause language change. Thus, the subject matter of ecolinguistics is, largely, various kinds of linguistic change as a result of languages interacting with their environments.

For Haugen, language interacts with the society as its environment; thus, it is reified as a living agent. At the same time, he sees it as code, used as a tool by the society. This begs the question, “How can an intentional agent (a living organism) be used as a tool, unless one speaks of a kind of domesticated animal, such as a horse or a dog?” Language can hardly be likened to a horse used to carry (transfer) the load of thoughts from one speaker to another and back; yet this is precisely what is implied by subscribing to Haugen’s notion of ecolinguistics—otherwise, the use of the term “ecology of language” becomes unjustified. As stressed by Garner (2014), ecology (of language) cannot operate as a heuristic metaphor because of a conceptual problem:

On the one hand there is a metaphorical entity: ‘language-as-organism’, and on the other, a literal entity: environment <…> as the community of speakers of a language <…>. The ontological status of the third element—interaction—is therefore inexplicable: what kind of interaction can there be between a metaphorical and a literal entity? (p. 112)

Garner sees a way to resolve this contradiction by adopting ecology, not as a metaphor, but as an epistemology, also known as ‘ecological philosophy’ (Hayward 1995), that approaches its object of study in terms of four features: holism, dynamism, mutual interaction, and situatedness. From this perspective,

[a]n ecological approach sees language as an integral part of the complex of human behaviour, which comprises patterns that are learned through interaction within a community of users. <…> Language ecology <…> takes all meaningful behaviours, whether ‘linguistic’ or ‘non-linguistic’, as manifestations of the same processes, which can be best studied within a broad and multi-disciplinary approach to human sociality. It is only when we see language as in its very essence an ecological phenomenon that the full implications of Haugen’s proposal can be realized” (Garner 2014: 112).

While the idea of viewing language ecology as a kind of epistemology may be appealing, it is still not quite clear what is the object of its study; neither ‘meaningful behaviors’ as manifestations of the processes that characterize human sociality, nor human sociality itself, can count as proper objects of ecology as a study of living systems (unities of organisms and their environments). What we call “behavior” is our convenient way of referring to the relational domain of interactions of the observed organism with its niche, while such interactions are the outcome of a history of structural coupling of that organism, as a structure determined system, with the environment. Much of what an organism does and experiences is centered, not on the organism, but on events in this relational/experiential domain, one over the boundary of skin and skull (Kravchenko 2009). In other words, “language is merely the organic result of human living conditions which are themselves dependent on nature” (Bang, Trampe 2014: 84). The claim that language in its very essence is an ecological phenomenon may hold only if language is understood as a specific (non-physical) environmental domain with which individual human organisms are in reciprocal causal relations: interacting with one another in a consensual domain, humans change their relational environment, while the latter causes changes in the linguistic behavior of the individuals, affecting their cognitive structure. However, this is not the case, and researchers continue with their attempts “to understand what language is and how it functions in the contemporary world” (Garner 2014: 112), overlooking the fact that, just by using the phrase ‘language functions’, they reify it, implicitly recognizing that it is either an organism or a tool. While it is appropriate to ask, for example, “What is the function of blood circulation (locomotion, etc.)?”, it is hard to imagine a biologist speaking of how blood circulation/locomotion/etc. functions. Likewise, the question “What is the function of language?” is quite legitimate, while talk about how language functions brings us back to the biomorphic metaphor, at best.

Accepting Haugen’s concept of language ecology, ecolinguists bypass the question of the nature of the system to which the concept of ecology is applied. For example, according to Wendel’s (2005) definition, accepted, among many others, by the authors of the article on language ecology in the authoritative Handbook of Pragmatics (Skutnabb-Kangas, Phillipson 2007), “the ecological approach to language takes into consideration the complex network of relations occurring between environment, languages and people speaking these languages” (Wendel 2005: 51). While the relationship between people as populations of organisms and their environments falls under the notion of ecology, it is hard to fit into the ecological system languages as separate entities: in Wendel’s definition, they are neither environment, nor organisms. Then, what are they? The implicit assumption in this definition seems to be that languages are tools (aka ‘codes’) used by people in their interactions with the environment, and if this is the case, the concept of language ecology is simply inapplicable.

In a recent programmatic article Bang and Trampe (2014) argue for an integrative theory of language ecology that would bring together two schools of ecolinguistic thought, Dialectical Linguistics (Bang, Døør 2007) and the language-world-system model (Trampe 2008) by using Kuhn’s (1970) disciplinary matrix of (i) model concepts, (ii) symbolic generalizations, (iii) shared values and (iv) exemplars for problem-solving. Identifying three stages in the evolution of ecological approaches to language – language as an organism (Schleicher), language as a part of a form of life (Wittgentstein), and the transfer of the metaphor of ecology to language (Haugen), they leave aside Schleicher’s and Haugen’s metaphorical models and focus on a trans-disciplinary approach they trace to Wittgenstein’s ideas about language as a form of life:

For an ecological theory of language, a trans-disciplinary understanding of ecology is fundamental. An ecological theory of language manifests itself as a linguistic ecological theory, i.e. a linguistic and trans-disciplinary approach that generates empirical hypotheses which describe and explain the manifestation and organization of linguistic processes in organism–environment relations (Bang, Trampe 2014: 89).

On first sight, reference to ‘organism-environment relations’ seems to place their approach within a genuine ecological framework, with a focus on the organism-environment system; however, if the goal of an ecological theory of language is to “describe and explain the manifestation and organization of linguistic processes”, the question that immediately pops up is, “What is the nature of linguistic processes ‘manifested and organized in organism-environment relations’”? Bang and Trampe lean on Wittgenstein’s understanding of language as a ‘form of life’, but if Wittgenstein described and explained “the relationships of linguistic forms to their linguistic and non-linguistic environment” (p. 85), these forms as material entities (‘manifestations of linguistic processes’) become an unspecified third element in the organism-environment system, just like in Wendel’s definition above. The nature of this element becomes clear when Bang and Trampe apply Kuhn’s disciplinary matrix to the proposed integrative theory of language ecology, especially the symbolic generalization part:

Symbolic generalisation is of specific importance for the development of ecolinguistics, because it has been used by representatives of this perspective to designate themselves as ‘ecolinguists’. <…> Examples of such symbolic generalizations are typical notions from ecological theories of language: ‘linguistic eco-system’, ‘language habitat’, ‘environment of language’, ‘languaging the environment’, ‘ecological discourse analysis’, and ‘language pollution’, to name a few. (Bang, Trampe 2014: 89)

If such notions as ‘language habitat’ and ‘environment of language’ (the reference of the expression ‘languaging the environment’ remained unclear to me) are not used metaphorically – and Bang and Trampe indicate clearly that they are against the metaphoric use of the notion of language ecology – then the reader has no choice but to relate these notions to the “language-as-an-organism” model, returning to stage one in the development of ecological thinking about language. The notion of ‘language pollution’ does not make much sense if language is not viewed as a kind of environment; however, for Bang and Trampe (see above) the manifestation and organization of linguistic processes are part of the organism-environment relations, which begs the question of how a relation can be ‘polluted’ at all – unless it’s just another metaphor. On balance, although a commendable effort in itself, Bang and Trampe’s integrative theory of language ecology is not free of conceptual and terminological inconsistencies found in Haugen’s ecological approach to language. A logically more consistent and well-argued approach, conceptually grounded in the biology of language (even though it isn’t mentioned by the authors) can be found in Steffensen and Fill’s (2014) well-organized attempt to redefine ecolinguistics by taking a naturalized view of language. I will return to it shortly.

2.3. Ecolinguistics and the language myth

That language is “one of the codes used by the society” is a widely spread fallacy constitutive of the language myth – the erroneous belief that the function of language is to express (encode) thoughts and transfer them from one head to another. The language myth is the product of two interconnected fallacies: the telementation fallacy and the determinacy fallacy, which are at the basis of construing language as a fixed code. In its turn, the fixed-code fallacy, institutionalized in an education system, accounts for the publicly shared illusion that language is a tool for the transfer of thought. In this case, both language and thought become ontologically independent. Yet this seeming ontological independence is nothing more than the result of an ‘epistemic cut’ between what is observed (languaging as a kind of human recursive behavior) and the observer (a languaging human describing language).

Cognition is a biological phenomenon, and to understand it as such an observer and his role in cognition must be taken into account and explained. As noted by Maturana (1978: 29), science is a closed cognitive domain in which all statements are, of necessity, subject dependent, valid only in the domain of interactions in which the standard observer exists and operates. As observers we generally take the observer for granted and, by accepting his universality by implication, ascribe many of the invariant features of our descriptions that depend on the standard observer to a reality that is ontologically objective and independent of us.

This is exactly what happens in orthodox linguistics which views language as a sign system (a code) used as a means of communication; as such, communication, allegedly, consists in exchanging mental content through linguistic signs as a conduit for such transfer (cf. Kravchenko 2007b). However, if we look at the notion of code and its origins, the inadequacy of such view becomes obvious. The origin of the modern concept of code as a conversion rule used in the theory of communication may be traced to two sources. One is the practice in ancient Rome of tying petty criminals to a wooden stump as a form of punishment (Lat. caudex ‘the stem of a tree, esp. a stem without a branch’). The other is a book (Lat. codex) made of thin wooden strips coated with wax upon which one wrote, thus “tying” written marks to wood. In either case the relationship between the wood and what is tied to it is quite unequivocal and doesn’t allow alternative interpretations; it’s a kind of “what-you-see-is-what-you-get” principle. Hence, a communication code is, essentially, an artificial system of sign vehicles, which, by following a strict rule, can be translated into another such system of sign vehicles, while the reference of the matched sign vehicles in the two sign systems remains unaffected. Note, that a code is constituted by a one-to-one mapping between two conventionally determined systems of sign vehicles, but these systems of themselves do not constitute two different languages. Natural human language is species-specific adaptive recursive behavior (languaging) in a consensual domain of interlocked conducts involving patterned vocalizations, heterogeneous artifacts and practices. A change of certain artifacts – such as a particular kind of graphic images used by a community to represent their vocalizations – does not transform their language as a relational domain, in which they exist as unities of interactions, into another relational domain. That is why the Morse code is not a language, just as, for example, Tajik Persian written in the Cyrillic alphabet is not a language different from Tajik written in the Persian alphabet.

Despite their apparent incompatibility, both the biomorphic and the instrumental approaches to language are based in philosophy of external realism – a belief that there exists a real world that is totally independent of human beings and of what they think or say about it (cf. Searle 1998). To the orthodox linguist, language viewed either as a tool (a material thing) or a living organism is part of this real world, and it is in this quality that it is reified to the level of the absurd. While views of language as a tool or a living organism are at the core of cognitive externalism, for generativists language resides in the brain (an internalist view) as a special ‘language organ’ (cf. Anderson, Lightfoot 2002), which grows and develops along with the growth and development of a human organism. The early 1970s – the time Haugen published his book on language ecology – witnessed a triumphal spread of Chomskian generativism across the world; the enthusiasm of generativist neophytes seems to have affected Haugen’s definition of the ecology of language as partly psychological (‘interaction [of language] with other languages in the minds of bi- and multilingual speakers’). This idea was taken by some language evolutionists still further, when it is claimed that the emergence of modern language is the consequence of the emergence of the modern mind (Mufwene 2014).

Reification of mind and language as something with a locus in the brain is the erroneous premise of mainstream cognitive science (cf. Deacon 2012). Such notions as mind, consciousness, thinking and intentionality “correspond to distinctions that we make of different aspects of our relational dynamics in our operation as human beings, and as such they do not take place in our bodies, nor are they functions localizable in our brains” (Maturana, Mpodozis, Letellier 1995: 24). Yet those who share the language myth beliefs, including ecolinguists taking Haugen’s approach to language ecology, continue to insist on the instrumental function of language. They focus on the state of language as a sign system conditioned by the social and other so-called extralinguistic factors that affect language, either positively or negatively. As a consequence, the subject matter of linguistics becomes inappropriate, while ecolinguistic research remains within the bounds of the language myth. To overcome the ill-advised tendency to reify language and, as an extreme version of reification, ascribe to it features characteristic of living organisms, linguistics must break out of the epistemic trap of language and look at it from the point of view of the theory of living systems, of which the human society is a particular kind.



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