Personal  Languages and Meaning as Pointing


Gordon M. Fisher


          Abstract.  I propose and defend the use of what I call personal languages, a kind of idiolects, as a basis for a kind of language study.  In particular, I deal with English personal languages.  Personal languages are time-dependent; they change during the lifetimes of people who use them.  The English language communion is composed not of languages, but of individuals who use English personal languages for communication with some estimated degree of fluency for some period(s) during their lifetimes.  This communion is therefore also time-dependent.  I discuss processes of language change in this context. 


My aim is to supplement synchronic studies, not to displace them.  There are features of personal languages which do not change over relatively long time periods, and synchronic studies have been and are very useful in finding and analyzing such enduring features.  On the other hand, diachronic studies based on personal languages are useful in reveal some of the features of how languages change.  I discuss some of the social and political processes which lead to standardizations of personal languages, so that one can speak usefully of such things as dialects, or even, with suitable disclaimers and qualifications, the English language.


I also propose and give examples of how it can be useful to speak in terms of pointing and pointers rather than meaning and meanings.  I quote and discuss some opinions of well-known linguists which I take to give some support to my proposals, and in one case I argue against an opinion of one linguist that language studies cannot be usefully based on idiolects.



1. English as she is spoke.  Many people in this world can make use of sounds as one of their ways of communicating.  Some of these people belong to the English language communion.   They can make some use of certain English personal signs (sounds and marks and English personal languages in attempts to interact with other people, or to act within themselves, in order to understand or to be understood. The number of people in the English language communion continually changes, as people begin to learn to speak English personal languages, and as people, for one reason or another, lose ability to use such languages. 


When people communicate in the presence of each other with the help of sounds, they also use body movements besides those involved in making or hearing sounds, such as facial expressions, motions of arms and other body parts, different body positions, and so on.  In writing and reading, they use punctuation, capitalizing, underlining, different type faces, and so on, in addition to alphabets and other character systems.  Sounds used in speaking and hearing languages, numerous kinds of body movements of people, and certain arrangements of recordable characters are all kinds of signs, or parts of signs.


English personal languages are a kind of time-dependent English idiolects.  In particular, at any one time each person in the English language communion has the ability to use certain sounds as an aid in communicating.  Each such linguistic sound is a class of physical sounds, called a phoneme.  At different times, a person will customarily use different physical sounds from a particular phoneme, and at any one time, different persons in the English language communion will customarily use different sounds from a particular phoneme.  Sometimes a person will customarily use one phoneme where another person customarily uses a different phoneme.  There are relations between phonemes, so that often enough one person will be able to translate between such phonemes.  This happens when people speak English personal languages to each other which belong to different dialects.  However, sometimes translations will be incorrect, which may make communication difficult or fail.


The English personal languages usable by a single person change in time.  If it seems to you unlikely that your English personal language now is in some ways different from the one you were able to use a few minutes before now, I propose you don’t think of your English personal languages as changing from instant to instant, but rather from time to time, where the implied period between these two times varies according to circumstances.  For example, think of the English you had an ability to use when you were five years old, the English you might have been able to use when you were half your present age, and the English you can use right now.  You have added words to your vocabulary, and no doubt subtracted a few.  You have become able to use and interpret combinations of words you hadn’t been able to use and interpret before.  You use and interpret many more kinds of gestures associated with speech, and have abandoned some.  Maybe you’ve moved from somewhere in the USA or Canada to somewhere in England or New Zealand, and have learned to handle different dialects. 


Saying that a person uses different English personal languages differently at different times is close to (though not really the same as) saying that the person uses different Englishes at different times.  I’ve been using my own Englishes throughout this essay.  One way the English I was using to start with is different from the one I’m now using is that I have used the phrase ‘English personal languages’ in ways I never had before I started on this essay.



2.  What did you say?  In infancy, a person most often has abilities to imitate, remember and create personal sounds.   As a person grows up, some members of the English language communion implant sounds in the person which are imitations of English personal sounds spoken by the members.  These include sequences of ranges of certain basic sounds, used with various intonations and stresses, and accompanied with various kinds of body movements.  The transmission and reception of such sounds are the subject of phonology and phonetics.   These sounds are presented according to certain orders, their syntax.  A child who is implanted from infancy with sounds from more than one language communion may acquire from members of different language communions the ability to use more than one kind of personal sounds.


As members of the English language communion implant and confirm orderings of sounds and accompanying movements for a child, they also implant, by means of various kinds of interactions with the child, English personal linguistic pointers which are linked to English personal linguistic sounds and body movements.  These serve to link ordered sound sequences to parts of the external and internal environments of a child.  What the links point to are things.  I use the word ‘thing’ in a broad sense to include whatever a person may intend to point to or judges may be pointed to.  This includes such things as the present king of France, Sir Walter Scott, Sherlock Holmes, ‘carbon dioxide’, ‘rocks’, ‘all the insects in the world’, ‘everything’, ‘something’, ‘nothing’, ‘things’, ‘parts of things’, ‘the cat on the mat’, ‘the cat is on the mat’, ‘who knows what?’, and so on and on.


As a person grows up, other such pointers are implanted in and created by a person as a result of interactions and introspections the person undergoes and participates in.  Some links are abandoned, and some are forgotten, but many are extended or otherwise modified.  Linguistic pointers are tools which people use to refer or to be referred to when they communicate using sounds they make and hear in certain ways, or by using marks represented such.  I will call English personal linguistic sounds and body movements linked by English personal linguistic pointers to things English personal linguistic forms


3.  Sapir on meanings as pointers and on visual images.  Edward Sapir wrote:[1] 


However, a speech-sound localized in the brain, even when associated with the particular movements of the  “speech organs” that are required to produce it, is very far from being an element of language.  It must be further associated with some element or group of elements of experience, say a visual image or a class of visual images or a feeling of relation, before it has even rudimentary linguistic significance.  This “element” of experience is the content or “meaning” of the linguistic unit; the associated auditory, motor, and other cerebral processes that lie immediately back of the act of hearing speech are merely a complicated symbol of or signal for those “meanings,” of which more anon.


            Along with personal meanings, people use other pointers, such as body movements – extending forefingers, waving arms, nodding or shaking heads, signing, and so on.  Sapir wrote (p. 8):


The word “house” is not a linguistic fact if by it is meant merely the acoustic effect produced on the ear by its constituent consonants and vowels, pronounced in a certain order; nor the motor processes and tactile feelings which make up the articulation of the word; nor the visual perception on the part of the hearer of this articulation; nor the visual perception of the word “house” on the written page; nor the motor processes and tactile feelings which enter into the writing of the word; nor the memory of any or all of these experiences.  It is only when these, and possibly still other, associated experiences are automatically associated with the image of a house that they begin to take on the nature of a symbol, a word, and element of language. . . . . . The association must be a purely symbolic one; in other words, the word must denote, tag off, the image, must have no other significance than to serve as a counter to refer to it whenever it is necessary or convenient to do so.  Such an association, voluntary and, in a sense, arbitrary as it is, demands a considerable exercise of self-conscious attention.  At least to begin with, for habit soon makes the association nearly as automatic as any and more rapid than most.


            Using my terms, I take it that Sapir stated here that he thought meanings are something like my pointers.  He concentrates on the use of meanings to point to visual images.  As I see it, a visual image can be either what a person receives and processes using his or her eyes and brain when looking outward, a perceived visual image, or what a person may receive and process when looking inward, an imagined visual image.



4.  Powers that be.  As members of a language communion use their personal languages to communicate with other members of that communion, they imitate each other, consciously and unconsciously, in such ways that personal languages of various overlapping groups of people within the communion come more and more to resemble each other, at least as least as they are used in some contexts.  Powerful forces acting to standardize personal languages are exerted during formal schooling of people, including religious instruction.  This is an important part of the integration of people into various groups within societies to which members of language communions belong.  Contrariwise, some groups have members with political power who arrange, or acquiesce to, policies which ensure that members of other groups receive inferior schooling.


Various political factors and policies also tend to equilibrate personal languages.  For example, nations often declare some particular language communion to be the one and only national language.  Immigrants into a nation who are not members of the national language communion for that nation, and who want to become citizens, may be expected or required to have or attain sufficient competency to communicate with other members of the national language communion with some degree of fluency, at least in certain contexts.  Such policies get tangled up with such matters as ethnic differences and antipathies.  This leads to people opposing bilingual education during schooling of children, when they can most easily learn languages.  A less political reason for opposition to such education might be that some people may feel uncomfortable having around them children who will be able to be more fluent than they are in using personal languages of a national language communion.


          A book by Bahavna Dave gives a very detailed study of matters concerning national languages which took place in Kazakhstan before and after it declared its independence from Soviet Russia late in 1991.  Dave writes:


It was only towards the very end of the glasnost era, when cracks in the socialist system were surfacing, that the Kazakh Communist Party leaders and prominent cultural and literary figures began expressing their alarm over the erosion of the native [Kazakh, Turkish-like] language among the youth and urbanized strata. Soon following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the former communist elites and intelligentsia openly lamented that the young Kazakhs were turning into mankurts, a term coined by the Kyrgyz writer Chingiz Aitmatov to denote the loss of linguistic and cultural identity among the Russified strata of non-Russian nationalities.  However, mankurtism came to be seen as a stigma and a limitation only when the dissolution of the Soviet state suddenly ruptured the hegemony of Russian and spurred the top-down campaign to elevate Kazakh as the state language. The fact that the state-sponsored campaign to regenerate Kazakh and turn it into the sole state language did not acquire a decisive anti-Russian character shows the extent to which Russian had gained a natural acceptance among the Kazakhs. The various government bodies, organizations such as Qazaq tili, and other vigilante groups, zealously made efforts to regenerate Kazakh and to enshrine it as the sole state language in a context where Russian was the pervasive lingua franca. The Kazakh language proponents expediently argued that the loss of the native language, or mankurtizatsiia, of their brethren was reversible. The Kazakh language came to be seen as a powerful symbolic resource because only one in a hundred Slavs could claim any proficiency. If the lack of proficiency in Kazakh among the Slavs testified to a profound limitation of the Kazakh language during Soviet rule, Kazakh language proficiency became a vital symbolic asset in the post-Soviet period.[2]


          In 1989, before independence, the government of Kazakhstan enacted a ‘Law of Languages’ which declared Kazakh language to be the national language of Kazakhstan, and Russian language to be the lingua franca of Kazakhstan, the language of “inter-ethnic communication”.  In 1993, after independence, this declaration was reaffirmed in the first post-Soviet constitution of Kazakhstan.  During years of debate about language issues among members of various groups, some people had argued for both Kazakh and Russian be declared to be official national languages.  But this official recognition of national bilingualism was not realized.  Russian is still much used in Kazakhstan in some contexts.


          In the book, in discussing these matters, the author says in passing that “A lingua franca is a language used in communication between different groups, and not different individuals per se.”[3]  According to the viewpoints I am promoting here, I would put what I take to be his point this way:  A lingua franca is a language which consists of personal languages of members of some language communion, and which is commonly used for communication between members of certain social groups in certain contexts, although members of these and other groups may not customarily make use of the lingua franca in other contexts.



5.  Just between us.  A particular linguistic form may be used to point in many different ways, depending on how its sounds are delivered and interpreted.  It is difficult to properly transcribe into writing a lot of the different ways a particular linguistic form may be used to point with.  Rough attempts are made using variations of type faces and certain kinds of punctuation, and by using artificially constructed phonetic alphabets.  The collection of the English personal forms an individual could make use of at any one time is the individual’s English personal language at that time.


A person in the English language communion customarily finds that he or she can communicate with some other people by using as a tool his or her English personal languages.  That is, the person learns to exchange pointers with other people in the communion.  The use of personal languages accompanied with body motions is not the only way persons exchange pointers.  Communication involving use of personal languages involves in part processes in which a person uses English personal linguistic forms to activate or to try to activate corresponding English personal linguistic forms in some other person or persons.  Production and reception of such forms depend on personal contexts, which vary from time to time, and from person to person.  For a particular person, personal contexts arise from effects on the person of location in space and time, on environmental conditions where and when the person is, on physiological conditions of the person at different times, on how the person’s nervous systems are functioning, on effects on the person of other persons around the person, and so on.


One way for a person to attempt communication using English personal languages is for the person, as communicator, to produce English linguistic forms in his or her personal contexts, intending that one or more other persons, communicants, will consequently produce English personal linguistic forms of their own which resemble the ones used by the communicator, and perhaps intending that persons to whom they are directed will react in some particular way.  One kind of reaction commonly expected is that a communicant will become a second communicator and produce English personal linguistic forms of his or her own, which in turn produce in the first communicator forms similar to those of the second communicator, and also some reaction in the first communicator.  Iteration of such processes constitute a dialogue, a kind of discourse.


            In short, as a person grows up, his or her personal languages are modified, extended and regulated by interactions with parts of the world and people in it, and by interactions within the person.  As time goes on, new linguistic forms are implanted in the person, and also created by the person.  These interactions create a temporal sequence of personal languages for each able person.  Each person who participates in a language communion, be it English or not, does so because he or she has available changing abilities to produce and understand certain sequences of sounds and attached pointers with which he or she is  able to use as tools in communication.  Many people are also able to associate these sounds and pointers with certain marks with which they can also communicate by writing and reading.


In what follows, I will most often abbreviate, and speak of English languages or the English language, or in some contexts, just English.  I will refer to people in the English language communion as speaking and understanding English, and as writing and reading English.                                                                       


I will assume that someone becomes a member of the English language communion when the person is able to use a single English personal linguistic form for purposes of communication.  For example, a baby whose first such form is the sound “No”, uttered when expressing rejection or disapproval, becomes thereby a member of the communion.  A person who belongs to some other language communion enters the English language in the same way, at any age.  Naturally, communication is more extensive and variegated as a person learns to use and creates more linguistic forms.  For some purposes it is desirable to somehow estimate degrees of ability to communicate using a personal language, if only by using some such modifiers as “fluently”, “quite well”, “haltingly”, “not very well”, “well enough only in some contexts”, “not fluent”, etc.  These terms point to degrees of competency.


With such a criterion for membership in a language, most people will belong to a number of different language communions, since most people will know at least one word from communions in which they are not fluent or only slightly fluent.  Thus language communions overlap.  That is, a person customarily belongs to a number of different language communions.  If one wants to assign numerical values to degrees of language fluency, this can be done in various ways.  For example, one could administer fluency tests based on samples of personal languages as used by members of a number of various language communions, and subject the results to various kinds of statistical analysis which would yield numerical degrees of competency from 0 to 100.  Depending on circumstances, this might or might not be more useful than making comparisons using qualitative or vague modifiers.



6.  The more things change?  There was presumably a time when no one spoke English, and it looks like there will be a time in the future when no one on earth will speak English.  However, I will assume that in what follows that I am dealing with periods of time during which the term ‘English’ is used (in English) to refer to what I have called English personal languages which are used as aids in communication by people while they are members of what I have called the English language communion.    


          The linguist Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913) introduced the notions of diachronicity and synchronicity into language studies.  Diachronic studies are concerned with how certain abstractions called langues by Saussure change as time goes on.   Synchronic studies are concerned with properties of these langues when such changes are ignored.


          The linguist J. R. Firth (1890-1960) spoke of de Saussure’s viewpoint this way[4]


            “De Saussure’s general linguistics is closely linked with the sociology of Durkheim.  . . .  De Saussure, thinking in Durkheimian terms, regarded social facts as sui generis and external to and on a different plane from individual phenomena.  The ‘collective conscious’, though perhaps a psychical entity, is not arrived at by studying the psychology of the individual.  The social fact is on a different plane of reality.  The group constrains the individual, and the group culture determines a great deal of his humanity.


            “Consequently de Saussure in terms of his linguistics could only refer to my personal linguistic activity, writing or reading this paper, as emanating from un sujet parlant.  . . .  Our linguistic behaviour as sujets parlants he would classify as ‘parole’ – the activities of ‘sujets parlant’.


            “But la langue, une langue, any socially established language, is a function of ‘la masse parlante’.  . . . 


            “Now if from [the] generality he calls ‘langage’ in any community we subtract all the individual items of speech, all speech-sounds on the air, and all spelling marks on vast masses of paper – that is, if from ‘langage’ in general we take away all the overt individual acts of the language of any given community, we have the all-important residue, the language of the community,  . . .  stored and residing in the conscience collective – a silent, highly organized system of signs existing apart from and over and above the individual as sujet parlantLangage minus parole gives you langue  . . . which is the real purpose and object of linguistics synchronic and diachronic, i.e. descriptive and historical.


            “Such a language in the Saussurean sense is a system of signs placed in categories.  . . .  Actual people do not talk such ‘a language’.” (p. 179-180)       


          My English personal languages may be viewed as a variety of Saussurean paroles, as described by Firth.  But I am not making use of an abstraction like Saussurean langues.  I am instead taking “English language” to be a function of time, consisting of all the English personal languages of all the members of a social collective I call the “English language communion”, which is itself a function of time, inasmuch as its population changes as members enter and leave the communion.  There was a time for this communion to be born, and there will be a time for it to die.


This is not to say that no one has profitably proceeded in language studies as if during some time period there is such a thing as an unchanging English language common to some or all of the members of the English language communion during that period.  People can concentrate on what they take to be unchanging in all English personal languages over some time period.  For two or three millennia or so, such attitudes have facilitated finding and teaching enduring properties of  personal English languages.  A linguist may proceed by abstracting synchronic languages which the researcher bases on usages of personal languages made during some time period, which the researcher takes to be representative of this period.  For purposes of historical linguistics, a linguist may proceed by abstracting sequences of synchronic languages made during sequences of time periods.



7.  Putting together and taking apart.  Here are some remarks made by the linguist Roy Harris (1931-    ) on his website[5], interspersed with comparisons of his views with mine (I have added numbers to his paragraphs:


(1)  Communication  . . .   is not a closed process of automatic 'transmission' of given signs or messages from one person's mind to another's, but of setting up conditions which allow all parties involved the free construction of possible interpretations, depending on the context. These contextual possibilities are intrinsically ongoing and open-ended.  . . .  This open-endedness outstrips and defies any 'rules' or 'codes' that participants may think can be imposed, either in advance or retrospectively.  . . . . .


Note:  In my view, different communicants may and often do interpret what a communicator speaks or writes and different communicators speak and write in different ways at different times and in different contexts.  But still, unimpaired communicants will interpret and communicators formulate subject to certain constraints, such as for example previous usages of linguistic forms formed as they go along in life.  Such usages may and often do change as time passes, and may be and often are different in different contexts, but some such previous usages are always present in an unimpaired member of a language communion.  This is not to say that a person never interprets or formulates in ways or with results different from any used by the person previously, nor is it to say that a person is somehow necessarily interpreting and formulating by making use of a fixed code and rules for using such a code which have somehow been implanted or inborn (or both) in the person.  Still, each person in a language communion has at any time a personal language which the person may use to communicate with other members of the communion, albeit the personal language the person has will differ at different times and will be used differently in different contexts.


(2)  One reason for this indeterminacy is that all communication is time-bound. Its basic temporal function is to integrate our present experience both with our past experience and with anticipated future experience.  . . .  In a timeless world, that temporal integration would not be possible: there could be no signs and no language. So the first precondition for any society that depends on semiological proficiency (operating with signs) is that the participant members must be creatures capable of grasping that integrational process and its temporal implementation.  . . . . .


Note:  Clearly I agree with this assessment of the importance of taking time into consideration when studying the nature of languages.  I am developing in this work an approach to studying English based on time-dependent and context-dependent idiolects which I call English personal languages.  However, as I explained above, I don’t propose that one should give up studies of time-independent linguistic structures.  Some features of personal languages change in time, but some of their features stay the same for long periods, or never change.  From my point of view, these latter features are mathematical in nature, and are to interpersonal communication as the conic sections of a geometer are to the orbits of an astronomer or astronaut.


(3)  Recognition of this fundamental integrational function provides a basis for comparing and analysing all communication systems, both linguistic and non-linguistic. Such an analysis stands in marked contrast to traditional semiology, where the reigning assumption is that there must already exist established systems of signs (e.g. languages), without which communication would be doomed to failure. Thus integrationism (as opposed to 'segregationism', i.e. any approach which assumes that systems of communication are independent of their potential users or of the contexts in which they can operate) denies the existence of context-free signs. Signs, including linguistic signs, are products of the communicational process, not its prerequisites.  . . . . .


Note:  My viewpoint is definitely not a form of segregationism as described above by Harris.  I’m not sure if my viewpoint is some sort of integrationism or not.  I‘m certainly describing a way to approach communication processes making use of linguistic signs which always depend on contexts and change in time, along with the user.  As to linguistic signs being products rather than prerequisites of communicational processes, I would rather say that some linguistic signs are products of members of a language communion, but some of them are prerequisites for a baby to start becoming a member of a language communion.


(4)  Integrationist theory recognizes three parameters relevant to the identification of signs within the temporal continuum. These are (i) biomechanical, (ii) macrosocial, and (iii) circumstantial. The first of these relates to the physical and mental capacities of the individual participants. The second relates to practices established in the community or some group within the community. The third relates to the specific conditions obtaining in a particular communication situation.  . . . . . 


Note:  This sounds good to me, although I’m not sure that these three are all the parameters one would like to have.


(5)  By contrast, segregational approaches treat communication as a process by which two individuals, A and B, both already knowing a particular system of signs, choose signs from this given system in order to pass messages to each other. Accordingly, communication can only break down if A or B misapplies the system they are both deemed to be using. But the system itself is, ex hypothesi, adequate for 'conveying' the messages required. It allegedly stands, epistemologically, 'above' and 'beyond' its users and their individual circumstances. In this respect, orthodox theory implicitly treats communication systems as being analogous to institutionalized games, which cannot be played properly unless the individual players not only understand and master but consciously abide by the institutionalized rules.  . . . . . 


Note:  People can learn to communicate with the aid of certain sounds starting from infancy and live four score and ten years doing so without ever knowing grammatical rules, unless ‘knowing’ is interpreted as being able to exercise such rules because people somehow possess them without being conscious of them.  Someone else, such as a linguist, may extract grammatical rules from what an illiterate person says, but the linguist need not be able to do so because these grammatical rules are somehow in the person.  The rules are in the linguist, and the linguist is able to communicate them using linguistic signs.  It may or may not be the case that nervous systems of unimpaired persons are so constituted that linguists might be able to formulate universal grammatical rules based on the speech of a number of members of a number of language communions, rules which the linguist believes are followed in the speech of any member of any language communion whatever, at any time and in any context.  The rules would constitute the basis for a kind of universal grammar.  This would indicate that there are physiological limitations to the kinds of grammatical rules which a person can follow.  But this is not to say that if such rules can be found, one must conclude that these rules are in a language user, nor is a fixed and person-independent language present in a language user. 


(6)  Integrationism questions this rule-based 'games' approach to human communication, regarding it as an attempt to impose a pre-determined static model on an essentially dynamic and creative process. Only by rejecting static models does it become possible to explain linguistic change or the development in human history of quite novel forms of communication, such as writing or television, that are semiologically unique and unprecedented, but nevertheless rooted in the biomechanical, macrosocial and circumstantial conditions obtaining at a particular time and place.  . . . . .


Note:  I am working on dynamic models, but I am not rejecting static models, as I have explained above.


(7)  The integrationist approach to language rejects the 'language myth' that has dominated Western thinking on the subject for centuries past. This myth continues to dominate modern linguistics, whose orthodox exponents postulate idealized linguistic communities bound together by shared systems of known rules and meanings. The integrationist agenda offers the prospect of an alternative: a demythologized linguistics which corresponds more realistically to our day-to-day communicational experience. High on this alternative agenda are the demythologization of the concept 'language', the demythologization of the connexions between speech and writing, and the demythologization of the linguistic relationships between individual and society.


Note:  Maybe I am being some sort of integrationist here, albeit one who seeks to retain, not abandon, much work of segregationists.


(8)  Please refer to the book Introduction to Integrational Linguistics by Roy Harris for further discussion of Integrationism and its role in redefining communication.


Note:  This brings up a disagreement I have with Prof. Harris.  In his book referred to here, he argues against founding linguistic studies on idiolects, which I suppose includes what I call personal languages.  In the book he refers to here he says [6]:


Segregationists . . . relocate the fixed code at a lower level still, and identify the ‘idiolect’ of each individual speaker as their object of description (and the ultimate ‘system’ on which linguistic communication is based).  Exactly how the idiolect is to be defined is a matter of controversy among segregationists, but a more important point for our present purposes is that, however it is defined, the identification of the ‘system’ with the individual resurrects the problem of explaining how A communicates with B if each is using ex hypothesi a different code.


Note:  I have not by hypothesis or otherwise assumed a fixed code or ‘system’ on which individuals base their personal languages.  I have instead hypothesized that individuals base their personal languages to start with on personal languages they hear from people around them, notably in many cases on those of their parents (‘mother tongue’).  Later many individuals base their personal languages to some degree on ‘systems’ of grammar taught to them in schools, but I hypothesize such grammars are in turn ultimately based on personal languages of numerous people.  Grammarians and language teachers have been supplemented by linguists who have constructed more elaborate ‘systems’ of various kinds.  Even people who receive little or no formal language instruction continually change their personal languages as they communicate with other people during their lives, especially some people which individuals take to be authoritative, such as religious counselors, good story-tellers or people with some sort of power over them such as good friends, etc.  Harris says:


. . . . .  the very notion of an idiolect seems to imply that the individual constantly speaks in a characteristic or uniform way.  That this is far from being the case is suggested by studies documenting the phenomenon called ‘accommodation’, whereby speakers consciously or unconsciously adapt the way they speak towards that of their interlocutors . . . . .


Note:  I don’t know why Harris thinks that the notion of idiolect seems to imply some sort of uniformity, presumably analogous to a fixed code.  However, I note that the reason Harris gives for rejecting such uniformity can be used by me to support my view that individuals keep  changing their personal languages.


Harris wrote:


It is also worth noting here that the point at which the theoretical  concept of the idiolect is introduced is also the point at which synchronic and diachronic linguistics ultimately part company.  In other words, while it makes some kind of sense to say that languages or dialects can be passed on from one generation of speakers to the next, this makes no sense at4 all in the case of idiolects, since by definition the idiolect belongs to one individual only.  It dies with that person.


          It seems that here Harris is taking idiolects to be some sort of private languages of the sort Ludwig Wittgenstein discussed.  I wonder if idiolects as Harris describes them here amount to personal fixed codes of some kind?  In any case, I have tried to make it clear that I don’t think of my personal languages as being private in Wittgenstein’s sense.  On the contrary, my personal languages are formed to start with as a result of social interactions with other people.  A child from early on interacts with other people in ways that constitute a passing on of features of the child’s personal languages to other people, and these kinds of interactions normally continue throughout the life of the child.



8. More taking apart.  People have proposed many ways to decompose English personal linguistic forms into categories which can be applied to all the personal Englishes, such as:


Sounds and sequences of sounds with pointers: phonemes, morphemes, words, phrases, clauses, sentences, statements, utterances


Parts of speech: nouns, pronouns, adjectives, determiners, verbs, adverbs, prepositions, conjunctions, interjections

Sentence divisions: subject - predicate, noun phrases – verb phrases, clauses


Performatives: propositions, questions, requests, commands,  warnings


Literary categories: essays, books, poems, dialogues, monologues, discourses, speeches,  plays, cinemas



From a 21st century elementary textbook[7]:



Many people think of English grammar in terms of traditional rules, such as Never split an infinitive; Never end a sentence with a preposition. Specifically, these are prescriptive rules. They tell us nothing about how English is really used in everyday life. In fact, native speakers of English regularly split infinitives (to actually consider) and sentences often end with a preposition (Dr Brown is the man I’ll vote for.).


Prescriptive grammar reached its peak in the nineteenth century. In the twenty-first century, grammarians adopt a more descriptive approach. In the descriptive approach, the rules of grammar – the ones that concern us in this book – are the rules that we obey every time we speak, even if we are completely unaware of what they are. For instance, when we say John has been ill, we obey many grammar rules, including rules about:


1 Where to place the subject John – before the verb

2 Subject–verb agreement – John has, not John have

3 Verb forms – been, not being


These are descriptive rules. The task of the modern grammarian is to discover and then to describe the rules by which a language actually works.


Confirmation from a 19th century schoolbook[8] :





9. What does it all point to?  In Sections 2 and 3, I spoke of members of the English language communion as able to form and use English personal linguistic forms consisting of English personal linguistic sounds, marks, and pointers.  These pointers can be used by communicators in attempts to transfer intentions to communicants.


For example, I have on my desk at the moment a written communication purportedly sent to me from the president of a certain university.  It is addressed to me using a variant of my given name (intended to point to me), a number assigned to a certain residence and the name of a certain street (intended to point to a place in which I customarily dwell). the name of a certain geographical location (intended to point to a location at which my dwelling can be found), and certain numbers which postal authorities have assigned to a delivery place for items sent to that location (intended to point to a location of a postal facility to which the letter will be sent for delivery).


The envelope contains two printed cards and a form letter.  On one of the cards, there is the following sentence:  “The President’s Council is an annual giving society that recognizes [a university name followed by a possessive morpheme “’s”] most generous annual donors.”  This linguistic form, no doubt constructed by a person or persons other than the President, is intended to point to several things: (i) to a certain group within the university which solicits donations of money on behalf of the university; (ii) to warm and gratifying feelings I would have if I made a donation, since I would be ‘giving’, ‘recognized’, and ‘most generous’; (iii) to my planning to make a donation every year.


This sentence can be decomposed into separated linguistic forms which act as pointers on their own.  For example, the phrase “The President’s Council” points to the group soliciting donations.  Within that phrase, the word “Council” points to a kind of group which recommends things, the word “President” points to a person at the top of an administrative hierarchy, the morpheme “ ’s “ points to something that belongs to the President, the phrase “President’s Council” points to an advisory group within an administrative hierarchy, the word “The” points to the President’s uniqueness, the capital “T” in “The” points to the beginning of a sentence, the capitals “P” and “C” in “President’s Council” perhaps point to an official name for a group, the spaces within the sentence point to how certain forms, the words of the sentence, have been separated within the written sentence, and the period points to the end of the sentence.  When the sentences are spoken, these separations would not be so clearly indicated, and some processing of what would be said and heard would have to be made during communication which would act the way the spaces between word do.


I made this analysis during a short time period, using my English personal linguistic forms in order to communicate with myself, and perhaps to prepare for attempts to communicate with others.  I expect that anyone else who might make a parallel analysis with his or her own personal linguistic forms would not make an identical analysis.  However, I expect that another person’s analysis would have connections to mine, which could be exposed using some linguistic pointers.


          I am tempted to go on to analyze other parts of the sentence, and then to use the idea of linguistic pointers to connect pointings of parts of the sentence to the pointing furnished by the sentence as a whole.  However, I will be content here to put this aside, and move on to a discussion of how I am using such terms as “pointers”  and “points to” in this essay.



          10.  What does it all mean?  I have used the terms “mean(s)” and “meaning(s)” sparingly up to now.  When I think about what meaning is or meanings are, or what it means to “mean”, I soon find myself up to my chin in speculations of all sorts of different kinds of specialists.  For example, here is the full title of a work by linguist Charles Kay Ogden (1889-1957) and literary critic Ivor Armstrong Richards (1893-1979):


The Meaning of Meaning, A Study of the Influence of Language upon  Thought and of the Science of Symbolism.


This book had its first edition in 1923, its last revised edition in 1936, its 10th edition in 1952 (my copy) with supplementary essays by anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski (1884-1942) and psychiatrist Francis Graham Crookshank (1873-1933), and a reprint paperback edition in 1989 with a new preface by medievalist, semiotician, philosopher, literary critic and novelist Umberto Eco (b. 1932).


          Already in the title we have the implication that there is something people have called “thought” which is not the same as “language”, although the latter influences the former.  We seem to be asked to take it to start with that our “thinking” always comes first and “using language” secondarily affects our “thoughts”.  This suggests that what language is, or languages are, are tools useful for transmitting, receiving, and otherwise dealing with a kind of private activity people have whose results they make or try to make public with the aid of speaking, listening, writing, and reading.  The title suggests that this may be done because using language amounts to conveying something called “meanings”: languages are meaning-carriers.


          Such hypotheses are ancient in origin, numerous other conflicting hypotheses have been offered for several millennia, many of the hypothesizers have been dismayed at the difficulties which arise when they worked with any of these hypotheses, some specialists have spent much time developing theories about language use on the basis of such hypotheses, and also much time falsifying or casting doubt on theories developed by other specialists based on conflicting hypotheses.


          I submit that one can talk about uses of languages using forms of “pointing” for forms of “meaning”.  I hypothesize that in many contexts, the substitutes will convey much the same information as the originals, and often without being much concerned with what leads up to such pointing or intent to point, such as what goes on people’s minds or brains.  One can speak of speaking as a kind of pointing, of listening as a kind of being pointed at, of replying as a kind of reciprocal pointing, and so on.


          Here’s an example.  Words and idiomatic phrases have definitions listed in dictionaries.  Here is one from a Merriam-Webster dictionary of American English (copyright 2000) in which I have in brackets substituted forms of “pointing” for forms of “meaning”:


          Main Entry: meaning [ pointing]

Function: noun

Inflected Form: -s                          


1 a : the thing one intends to convey by an act or especially by language : PURPORT ( do not mistake my meaning [point] ) b : the thing that is conveyed or signified especially by language : the sense in which something (as a statement) is understood : IMPORT (what is its meaning [point] to you?) [what do you think its point is?]

2 : the thing that is meant [pointed to] or intended : INTENT, PURPOSE, AIM, OBJECT ( a mischievous meaning [point, aim, intent] was apparent )

3 : SIGNIFICANCE ( a look full of meaning [a very pointed look] )

4 : meaning [pointing] in intension : the logical connotation of a word or phrase : the intension of a term : what a correct definition exhibits;  meaning [pointing] in extension : the logical denotation or extension of a term : the thing or class named by a word or substantive phrase.




[1] Edward Sapir, Language, An Introduction to the Study of Speech, Harcourt, Brace, 1921, p. 7-8

[2] Bhavna Dave, Kazakhstan: Ethnicity, Language and Power (2007), p. 3.

[3] Loc. cit., p. 101.

[4] John Rupert Firth, “Personality and Language in Society”, The Sociological Review, xliii, 2, 1950.  In J. R. Firth, Papers in Linguistics, 1934-1951, Oxford UP, 1957, p. 177-189.

[5] http://www.royharrisonline.com/integrationism.html

[6]  Roy Harris, Introduction to Integrational Linguistics, Elsevier, 1998. p. 48-49.

[7]  Gerald Nelson, English: An Essential Grammar, Routledge, 2001, p. 1-2.

[8]  Lindsey Murray, English Grammar, with an appendix containing rules and observations for assisting the more advanced students to write with perspicuity and accuracy, 58th edition, 1867, p. 13.