Grammatical complexities

Letter to the LRB

Leofranc Holford-Strevens spends more than half his review in last week’s LRB pointing out James Hurford’s blunders and absurdities, which “no undergraduate or even schoolchild should have been allowed to perpetrate” (Eating or Being Eaten on The Origins of Grammar in the Light of Evolution by James Hurford in LRB 8.10.15). I found it all quite hard to follow. Hulford’s book seems to be about drawing a line from simple animal-communication-language to humans’ ‘complex meanings’ and ‘grammar’. But is there a grammar we humans could possess with which we could comprehend or articulate other animals’ grammatical complexities?

There is one clear line between animals’ and humans’ languages: it is that other animals do communicate, with a 100% success rate, and overwhelmingly so; whereas humans’ ‘complex meanings’ mostly fail to communicate – they lie, slander, blunder, absurditize, ironifize, equivocate, seduce etc. In some respects humans’ communicative incompetence is, properly, directly proportionate to their level of academic distinction – irony aside – my hunch is that a study of the other animals’ lying etc. could hold the key to understanding the grammatical complexities of their languages. But first we need philosophy to develop better polygraphs etc.

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