Umwelt and language

I would like to recommend an interesting chapter written by Morten Tønnessen, entitled Umwelt and language, in Biosemiotic Perspectives on Language and Linguistics.

He speaks of language as a perception system developed in interaction with non-human entities (for him mostly animal, but why not include plants, the wind, etc.). He cites biologist Maturana for his idea of language as a verb: languaging as a dynamic modelling of the environment (Maturana, H. (1970). Biology of cognition (Biological Computer Laboratory [BCL] research report 9.0). Urbana: University of Illinois).

He distinguishes three types of Umwelt:

The core Umwelt: Automated acts of perception, Automated mental acts.

The mediated Umwelt: Wilful acts of perception, Wilful mental acts.

The conceptual Umwelt: Habitual acts of perception, Habitual mental acts.

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He quotes David Abram‘s Spell of the sensuous:

“If language is not a purely mental phenomenon”, writes Abram, “but a sensuous, bodily activity born of carnal reciprocity and participation, then our discourse has surely been influenced by many gestures, sounds, and rhythms besides those of our single species” – including birds. What is remarkable with regard to the evolution of language is that of the genes that have been identified as relevant for language abilities, “virtually all […] are present also in animals. All known genes of language, in other words, are genes of the primary modelling system that we have inherited from our animal ancestors”. This is consistent with the view, shared by Chomsky and Sebeok, that language evolved as an exaptation, i.e. that the function of language has changed from one (e.g., cognitive modelling) to another (e.g., communication).

I feel what is pertinent in the article, among other ideas, is the categorisation of the ‘conceptual unwelt’ as habitual. This might seem counter-intuitive to those who believe that the faculty to will is cognitively superior — or evolutionarily posterior — to the capacity to form and re-create habits, but I think what Tønnessen is doing here is alluding to the concept of social habitus developped among others by Bourdieu.

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