Human linguistic communication differs from the communication of other animal species in two main ways: it is grammatical and it is symbolic. For both Saussure and Chomsky grammar is the central concern. According to Tomasello’s interpretation of the empirical evidence, though, symbolization occurs first developmentally and is the most important feature of human language. In “Origins of Language, the second chapter of Constructing a Language, Tomasello describes symbolization:
Linguistic symbols are social conventions by means of which one individual attempts to share attention with another individual by directing the other’s attentional or mental state to something in the outside world. Other animal species do not communicate with one another using linguistic symbols, most likely because they do not understand that conspecifics have attentional or mental states that they could attempt to direct or share. To oversimplify, animal signals are aimed at the behavioral and motivational states of others, whereas human symbols are aimed at the attentional and mental states of others.
If we reproduced language unintentionally through repeated exposure, our linguistic behavior wouldn’t be much different from rats running a maze. There would be no reason to assert any sort of active cognitive processing in the human brain; language is just another behavior to be learned through repetition and association, a procedure for winding our way through the linguistic labyrinth that surrounds us. Intentionality doesn’t necessarily mean that we are completely free to decide consciously what we’re going to do and how we’ll do it. And certainly animals act intentionally, seeking food and shelter and reproductive opportunities. But human intentionality is more flexible and less purely imitative or instinctive; an individual human is more capable of spontaneously producing novel behavior that she’s never explicitly observed or learned. What Tomasello points out here is that the human language user also attributes active and intentional mental activity to the other.
We’ve talked about how Tomasello’s usage-based linguistics is a pragmatic theory, but nonhuman primates are even more pragmatic communicators than we are, using vocalizations almost exclusively with the intention of getting somebody else to do something. Only humans share attention or information in a disinterested manner, just because it’s interesting. But significant pragmatic benefits accrue to the individual who interprets the other as an intentional agent. Says Tomasello:
Children who understand that other persons have intentional relations to the world, similar to their own, may attend especially carefully to the behavioral means that these persons have devised for meeting their goals, and so may imitate their intentional actions… This of course opens up the possibility of acquiring the conventional use of tools and other artifacts that presuppose or “point” to outside entities, including symbolic artifacts such as linguistic symbols.
Tomasello cites two studies demonstrating that infants infer intentionality in others’ behavior. One group of 18-month-olds observed adults performing a set of actions on objects; the other group watched adults trying and failing to perform these same actions. The two groups were equally adept at reproducing the behavior, even though the second group never actually saw the behavior performed successfully. This implies that the second group inferred the intent behind the failed behavior rather than merely imitating it. In another study, 16-month-olds watched an adult perform various sequences of actions on objects that made interesting results occur. Sometimes the adult, upon finishing the action and observing the result, said “There!” For other action-result sequences the adult said “Woops!” When the children were given the opportunity to perform the behaviors they had observed, they mostly reproduced the adult’s “There!” actions rather than the “Woops!” This implies first that the children were able to distinguish between intentional and accidental consequences of behaviors, and second that the children prefer to perform intentional actions. The implication for linguistics is that inferring intentionality isn’t limited to language acquisition; it’s a more general capability of the human brain that emerges at a very early age.
I’m trying to read Tomasello through a structuralist lens, so at this point perhaps it’s appropriate to insert a caveat about intentionality. Paradoxically, we can learn to use language consciously and intentionally without ever being consciously aware that that’s what we’re doing. A kid might become a skilled and flexible English speaker without ever realizing that English is only one of a virtually unlimited number of languages that could be spoken. When I was walking through an untouristed part of France I saw some kids playing with a ferret and asked them about it. One very little kid, maybe 3 years old, asked me something I couldn’t understand. I told him that I spoke English but didn’t understand French very well. The kid didn’t get it: how can there be an adult that can’t even understand language as well as I do? His somewhat older pals tried to explain it: the man speaks English, not French. The little kid nodded but I’m pretty sure he didn’t grasp the concept. We are intentional language users within a specific linguistic medium that we did not choose and of which we usually remain unaware — unless we happen to be living in a culture that speaks a language other than the one we grew up in.