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Models, Signs, and Universal Rules

by William C. Stokoe

from Sign Language Studies 1:1

In Signs: An Introduction to Semiotics, Thomas A. Sebeok concludes that language with its grammar, possessed by only one species, is a secondary modeling device and that human culture is a tertiary modeling device. For Sebeok the primary modeling device is something we share with other species: All animals use their sensory systems and brains (if they have any) to interpret the world. The young of every species become adults and survive because of both instinct and experience, or learning. Therefore, what they “know” constitutes their world model. A frog survives with nothing we would call a brain, but we can infer from its behavior that to it the world is divided into wet and dry, small things that fly by and are edible, and large things such as herons that it had better avoid.

Sebeok argues that Homo habilis, the first member of genus Homo, “must have had a mute verbal modeling system lodged in its brain, but it could not encode it in articulate, linear speech.” He proposes (his italics) that “language evolved as an adaptation, whereas speech developed out of language as a derivative ‘exaption’ ” (1994, 124). My proposal is that by whatever name we call it, this system gets lodged in the brain because the brain is human, and modeling, representing, and communicating create connections in the brain.

Language As a Modeling Device

Sebeok’s view of natural history reminds us that communication is not the only purpose and function of language. Modeling is something that every creature must do if only to distinguish food from poison and friend and kin from foe. Many species also use signs to represent features of their world model. For instance, dogs and other canids produce and interpret signs rich in scent. Thus far I find myself in agreement with Sebeok, but I do not think human primary, secondary, and tertiary systems are as discrete as his classification implies. On the contrary, physical evolution entails a seamless continuity.

If we look at human infants and are not prejudiced by competing and conflicting psychological and linguistic theories, that continuity becomes clear. One of the first steps in a human infant’s modeling of its world is understanding that it and its mother are united but separate beings. Soon after this comes the realization that things within sight and reach can be touched, grasped, smelled, and tasted.


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