Language and Evolution: Homepage Robin Allott
Glossogenetic Isomorphism: Gestural Iconicity

The proposition, termed glossogenetic isomorphism, briefly is that the relation of language to the world is that language directly mirrors the world. It is because of this mirroring that language is an effective instrument enabling us to describe the world, reason about it, perceive the relationships of objects and processes. Language makes science possible and makes our thought and consciousness possible. The approach is similar in outline to that of the early Wittgenstein in the Notebooks and the Tractatus but, going beyond this, the mirroring relationship of language to the world must be given a substantive content, entailing examination and development in the light of our vastly increased knowledge of the way the brain functions not only for language but for the faculties which language exists to represent, vision, action, the control of movement, emotional organisation. The thesis is developed more specifically in terms of the relation between the motor system and language which manifests itself in gestural iconicity in two senses, both visible iconicity of the body and the less easily perceived iconicity of articulation and word-structure.

1. Isomorphism

"The picture is a model of reality" - Das Bild ist ein Modell der Wirklichkeit [Tractatus 2.12]

"Logic is a mirror-image of the world" - Die Logik ist ... ein Spiegelbild der Welt [Tractatus 6.13]

By the mid-1960s its [Philosophical Investigations] influence was already declining, and twenty years later it was evident that in many respects the spirit of the Tractatus ... had triumphed over the spirit of the Investigation (Hacker 1996: 1)

The simple names are representative of objects in reality which are their meanings. Hence, names link language with reality, pinning the network of language to the world. The elementary proposition is a concatenation of names [which] ... asserts the existence of a (possible) state of affairs that is isomorphic to it, given the rules of projection.... the logical syntax of language ... mirrors the logico-metaphysical structure of the world. (Hacker 1996: 29)

According to Wittgenstein, the ideal language pictured or mirrored the world, just as a map mirrors it. ... a map in a sense pictures the terrain. It pictures it because there is an identity of structure between the points on the map and the points on the ground. A perfect language is like a map. It pictures the structure of reality.

The central question of the Tractatus is: How is language possible? How can a man, by uttering a sequence of words, say something? (Malcolm 1979: 902)

Wittgenstein was positive in his unrelenting search for understanding, and not losing himself in a maze of words like so many other philosophers. From his life what was certain was that you have to go on trying to understand how we function. The lesson from Wittgenstein is perhaps that one should not be closely preoccupied with the wording of his texts (early or late) but with his aspiration.

Hacker, P.M.S. 1996. Wittgenstein's Place in Twentieth-Century Analytic Philosophy. Oxford: Blackwell.

Malcolm, N.A. 1979. "Ludwig Wittgenstein". Encyclopaedia Britannica 19: 901-904


[Notebooks 1914-1916. 1961. Oxford: Blackwell]

"Language is a part of our organism and no less complicated than it" (48) Die Sprache ist ein Teil unseres Organismus und nicht weniger kompliziert als dieser

The limits of my language stand for the limits of my world" (49) Die Grenzen meiner Sprache bedeuten die Grenzen meiner Welt

"Words are like the film on deep water" (52) Die Worte sind wie die Haut auf einem tiefen Wasser

"What is the source of the feeling 'I can correlate a name with all that I see... ? (53) Woher dies Gefühl: Allem, was ich sehe, ... kann ich einen Namen zuordnen?

"The name compresses its whole complex reference into one" (71) Der Name fasst seine ganze komplexe Bedeutung in Eins zusammen

[Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. 1922. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul]

"The picture is a model of reality" (2.12) Das Bild ist ein Modell der Wirklichkeit

[Zettel. 1967. Oxford: Blackwell]

"A poet's words can pierce us. Worte eines Dichters können uns durch und durch gehen. (28)

"Is it images that keep the places of words? " (3) Sind es die Vorstellungen , die die Plätze der Wörter halten?

2. Brain and language

I am less willing to go along with Chomsky's insistence that it is fruitless to speculate about the evolutionary origin of language.... As an evolutionary biologist, I would be willing to place one bet. The language organ did not arise de novo. New organs usually arise as modifications of pre-existing organs with different functions ... It will be interesting to learn what part of our brain now dedicated to language was doing in our simian ancestors. (Maynard Smith 1996: 295)

although listeners obviously cannot have kinesthetic feedback from someone else's articulation, they interpret what they hear by implicit motor- matching. ... actual movements of the organs of speech become unnecessary; the appropriate pattern of impulses within the central nervous system is enough. (Hockett : 39)

Posner and Petersen began to collaborate with a group led by Marcus E. Raichle, M.D., professor of radiology, of neurology and of anatomy and neurobiology. Using a technique that allowed them to obtain PET scans in rapid succession, they studied the parts of the brain involved in vision and language, a uniquely human talent. Before long, they had images of subjects seeing, hearing or speaking words.

The team quickly discovered that the parts of the brain that became active when people tried to form words about those things were not in the regions long believed to be central to language processing. Even more surprising, the areas were widely scattered. At the same time, it appeared that additional networks in the brain were activated to help locate and retrieve the different kinds of information that add up to the meaning, construction and pronunciation of a noun. The findings constitute physical evidence of what experts say is a remarkably complex neural system that underlies even the most common everyday speech. The researchers said the interactive networks "do not contain in explicit form the names for all persons, animals or tools," the group reported. "We suggest instead they hold the knowledge of how to reconstruct a certain pattern," such as the smallest phonetic units in a language capable of conveying a distinction in meaning, such as the "m" of "mat" and the "b" of "bat" in English.

Generating a use for a visual word in comparison with reading aloud first activates frontal attention areas (170 ms), followed by a left lateral frontal area (250 ms) and then left temporo-parietal (Wernicke's) area (650 ms). A brief period of practice reduces these activations. If asked to give a novel use to a word from the same practiced list, the original activations reappear and are joined by a mirror image of Wernicke's area in both time and space. These findings demonstrate the time course of neuroanatomical areas in word processing and indicate a role for the right hemisphere when semantic processing is more difficult such as in generating a less frequent association in the presence of a highly practiced one.(Abdullaev and Posner) Neuronal activity involved with language may be widely distributed extending beyond essential areas, into both cerebral hemispheres. (Schwarz, Ojemann et al. 1996: 263)

At least in the case of vision, it may be argued that the construction of an integrated image wholly depends on covariation 'samples' probably captured by even small movements of eyes and head. (Richardson and Webster 1996: 572)

Nowhere in this scheme do we propose the 'storage' of any features, objects or other composite representations as the basis of concept functions. Rather the pattern of nested covariations serves as a 'grammar' for the creation of conceptual images 'on- line' from current ... sensory and perceptual input. In this way (we believe) whole objects and complex events can be reconstructed ... When we use the word 'representation' ... we mean just such internal attunements to the covariation structures in nature, rather than figural copies. (Richardson and Webster 1996: 574)

Such results would appear to challenge the standard model of concepts, and, indeed, of cognition in general, based on computations across 'given' symbols, features or attributes. Richardson and Webster 1996: 588)

The distribution of CAs [cell assemblies] involved in language-related representations is still 'motivated' by the perceptuomotor components involved in the acquisition of these representations. (Müller 1996: 658)

The overall physical characteristics of the entity being named, which determine the sensorimotor mapping generated during interactions between an organism and the entity ... are a key to the neural mapping of the corresponding conceptual knowledge. (Müller 1996: 657)

Schwarz, Theodore H., George A. Ojemann, Michael M. Haglund and Ettore Lettich. 1996. Cerebral lateralisation of neuronal activity during naming, reading and line-matching. Cog. Brain Res. (1996) (4) 263-273.

Richardson, Ken and David S. Webster. 1996. Object recognition from point-light stimuli: Evidence of covariation structures in conceptual representation. British Journal of Psychology 87: 567- 591.

Müller, Ralph-Axel. 1996. Innateness, autonomy, universality? Neurobiological approaches to language. behavioral and Brian Sciences 19: 611-675.

3. Philosophical coda

Scattered remarks:

- Philosophy as the prolegomena to the elucidation of brain function

- How, starting from our body and our brain, do we arrive at reliable knowledge about what is outside us, how do we become able to predict the development of a process, the development of the process of existence?

- The key to human functioning is in the mode of integration of language, perception and action

- The neural substructure of language - Words as literally operations on the brain; thoughts are literally operations on the body (words are literally also operations on the body

- Language as a transformed derivative of the real; words as the quintessence of experience

Rorty, perhaps rightly described as a postmodernist philosopher, says that we need a "post-philosophical culture" which would involve a Wittgensteinian curing of the "disease" of philosophy; philosophy as it has been traditionally conceived of has, he says, run its course. He rejects the idea that, in one form or another, language or the mind acts as a true "mirror of nature".

Must we accept this? There has been prolonged and difficult discussion between philosophers over many centuries of the origin and nature of language, the relation of language to reality, to perception as based on sense-experience and providing the main basis for veridical knowledge, and to voluntary human action (the notions of free will and determinism, of reasons and causes of action). Language originated and was designed, by evolution, for the accurate representation of the ordering of the concrete world of perception and action, and for this purpose it functions well, to the extent that it mirrors reliably the external world in which the human being has to act.

Language is validated by perception and action, not the other way round. Language is not an abstract rational structure but one built on the most mundane of foundations, in human neurophysiological structure; it is subsidiary rather than primary in human behaviour and thought. Accordingly, because language is a secondary coding of experience, one should not expect much certainty or philosophical illumination from the analysis of language in isolation.

Difficulties with language, as an instrument, have arisen rather from those who have attempted to make use of it for purposes for which it was not designed, primarily philosophers themselves. Amongst philosophers, verbal confusions and debates have proceeded from the use or invention of terms with no precise meaning and no clear relation to the central reliable core of the lexicon (founded in the original relation between words, perception and action). If philosophers choose to disregard the essentially social and natural foundations of words and organisation of words into sentences, to formulate their own idiosyncratic terms and syntactic procedures, then agreement and a shared clear view of what is true or at least probable becomes impossible or highly unlikely.

A central issue in philosophy has been 'meaning'. Philosophy which can only offer explanations in terms of the meanings of words and sentences is in no better position to explain one of its primitive concepts, 'meaning', than it is to explain, in philosophical terms, the nature of the colour 'red'. 'Meaning' was a property of perception and action long before it became a property of words or sentences; a theory of meaning is much more probably to be found through methods used to understand the functioning of perception and action than through the verbal manipulations of philosophy itself.

The meaning of a word (for a percept forming part of the primitive visual repertoire of a child) is constituted by a direct neurological and physiological link between the sound-structure of the word and the shape or identifying physical characteristics of the perceived object to which the word refers; in parallel to the neural patterning constituting the schema of a visual percept is the neural patterning constituting the sound- structure of the word. The coincidence of patterning between word and percept is the essence of the property 'meaning'.

A meaning is what makes a difference to the neurophysiological organisation of the individual acquiring the meaning or expressing the meaning. At the same time, as a neural pattern, a 'meaning' forms part of the total complex of meanings (the total set of neural patterns) which go to form our conceptual system.