Thoughts on a visual e/i-language

Big breath; prepare for a long post…

Most of the time, people think about languages as being “out there in the world” – consisting of a conventional list of words and rules that we all access. This leads to people commenting frequently things like “that’s not a word,” out of the belief that there is some external authority that dictates what is or isn’t in a language.

In contrast, a cognitive approach to language looks at it as a phenomenon of individual’s minds, and that the mutual conventionality of many minds creates the artiface of a system that is “out there” abstracted from those individuals. Several linguists have tried to delineate the relationship of a language to its speakers.

The first major one would have to be Ferdinand de Saussure, who made the breakdown between langue and parole. While parole describes a language in use as a dynamic social activity, langue was the notion of an abstract system of expression beyond its usage.

Noam Chomsky did Saussure one better though. Chomsky maintains that this system of expression is located squarely within a human mind/brain, what he calls an internal or i-language. In contrast, and external or e-language covers both of Saussure’s terms: 1) external speech behavior and 2) the system as something in the world, abstracted as we call English or Chinese.

In reality, E-langauges are built out of the mutual intelligibility of people’s i-languages, which often differ based on geography and community. A good example is an irregular derviational rule like the plural of “cactus.” For a Southern Californian like me, the plural is the irregular “cacti,” because it’s common enough in daily life to be out of the ordinary. But for, say, a Bostonian who lives around me now and never interacts with them, the prickly stuff might be called “cactuses” using the plural “s” rule of English. Both are “right” in a cognitive sense, because the cognitive structure differs based on ecological context (most jargon is like this too).

An “e-language” distinction dislikes this, yet it’s the reason that dialects exist at all. They are just degrees to which people’s mutual intelligiblity of i-languages group in a graded way. The “r”-less Bostonians down the road from me certainly have different rules that they follow in their i-language than I do, but our systems are close enough that we understand each other.

And… all this is setting up some useful concepts for what I really want to talk about: drawing.

I’ve discussed previously that there is a cultural force of an “Art perspective” that affects the development of people’s drawings skills in our culture. While they may be cognitively inclined towards imitation, the Art perspective guides them towards having an individualistic style and away from using the shared structures of a community.

OR, in Chomsky’s terms… the Art perspective pushes people to have i-languages that (for the most part) don’t build into an e-language. There are some exceptions to this of course, maily in conventional symbols like word balloons and speed lines.

Note the semiotic allowance here though: the symbolic aspects must be conventionalized and thus easily build to a shared structure that becomes more “out there” in the world abstracted from users. But, the broader iconicity of the system (that the signs resemble what they look like) allows for a degree of mutual intelligibility without mandated conventionality. This lets individuals’ styles be inexplicably tied to their own i-languages.

We immediately recognize people’s styles as belonging just to them, expressing their i-language, not tied to a broader visual e-language. And, people tend to get in a huff when other people “encroach” upon one’s visual i-langauge. This is the taboo of copying another person’s style, instead of being looked at as building or accessing a broader visual e-language.

A result of this is the belief that images have no explicit system behind them at all, since no e-language is built. Again, since drawings are iconic, and everyone’s i-languages tend to differ so much, there is an appeal to perceptual knowledge as why we can understand images, instead of a specific cognitive system at work in graphic creation.


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