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Homo habilis and Language: Linguistic Theory as a Theory of Habit

The recent discovery of the oldest human jawbone in Africa has pushed the date of Homo habilis, our ancient ancestor, back another million years or so. This particular iteration is defined as ‘an extinct species of humans considered to be an ancestor of modern humans and the earliest hominid to make tools’ (American Heritage Dictionary). The most significant part of this definition is ‘the earliest hominid to make tools’. The Latin word habilis means ‘skillful’ and is derived from the verb habēre/habeō ‘have, possess’, the derivational source of Latin habitus (which is its past participle), alias our habit. The upshot of this definition amounts to the further understanding of a skill as a HABIT WITH MEANING.

The most important arena for the implementation of this idea of meaningful habit is, of course, human language. Moreover, a meaningful habit is necessarily a sign in the sense of Peirce’s theory of signs (or semeiotic). For the most part, linguists have looked on words, including their positional shapes and alternants, simply as artifacts of description which facilitate an economical, mutually consistent statement of distributional facts. But a semiotic analysis differs from this kind of accounting by resting on the fundamental assumption that all linguistic units have VALUES, which vary coherently and uniformly in alignment with contexts and their hierarchies.

The coherence of linguistic units among each other is by no means a static one, for we have incontrovertible empirical evidence that languages change over time. But the fact of change must be correctly understood as a dynamic based on teleology, where the telos is greater goodness of fit (iconicity, coherence) between underlying structure and its overt manifestation in speech. This teleology is always undergoing examination as a language changes and new speech habits come into being as patterned alterations of old ones.

Human language is a body of facts that every new speaker masters (in the absence of pathology) by becoming a member of society. The way in which linguistic units are used involves a mastery not only of the physical side (phonetics) but the notional one as well. Explanation of this mastery cannot be achieved by the prevailing self-confinement to goals that are fundamentally (if unwittingly) non-explanatory. The rule-formalism approach that has driven contemporary linguists into sterile byways (what used to be known as the transformational-generative theory of grammar) cannot ever produce explanations of language use because a theory of grammar is not a theory of knowledge but a theory of habit (in the sense of Peirce). Explanation must focus on why the data cohere as signs, and not on the mechanisms by which grammatical forms can be derived by the judicious choice and application of rules. This requirement removes predictability-via-rules from the agenda of theory. The entire recent history of linguistics shows with great clarity the feasibility of kneading data into a wide number of mutually-compatible formalized configurations (‘notational variants’). What is needed, however, is an attitude toward the object of study which matches the structure of that object. Language is a system, both in its diachronic and synchronic aspects, that is informed by a pattern of inferences, deductive and abductive. The role allotted to interpretation in language as a structure––to its very nature and function as a hermeneutic object––demands that the methods of inquiry into and the theory of language be homologous with the principles of its organization.

It is this very nature of language itself, the inherent organization of grammar as a patterned relationship between form and meaning––of meaningful habits–– that necessitates transposing the theoretical enterprise of linguistics to another dimension, one defined by the subsumption of all linguistic analysis under the rubric of meaning or hermeneutic. As Roman Jakobson put it:  ‘Any linguistic item, from speech sounds and their constituents to discourse, partakes—each in its own way––in the cardinal, viz. semantic, tasks of language and  must be interpreted with respect to its significative value.’


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