Names and Words

A recent observation from watching a toddler (20 months) learn to speak: she seems to treat words and names as equivalent, and watching her do so makes the distinction in my mind apparent. She is at a stage in her linguistic development where she’s learned to pay attention to speech, can distinguish individual words in a sentence, will interpret words as attaching to objects based on their use in the context of the sentence, will request the words for objects as a sort of game, and will parrot words as they’re given to her, or when prompted to name an object.

But she doesn’t yet have much in the way of grammar. She can form some two word phrases, in particular combining manual signs with spoken words to form compounds (e.g. sign for “more” with spoken word “cracker”). But these compounds are few in number and used frequently, making them seem more like two syllable words for a single concept (the act of giving her a cracker) rather than a combination of two concepts (act of giving + object to be given).

Related to that, she is also confused when items don’t have specific words that describe them. For example, she has a toy made up of plastic doughnuts that can be stacked. When she asks for the word for one such donut, I don’t have one to give her because I don’t think of these objects with a single word, but rather a collection of words that describe it: a hollow yellow plastic donut or ring. Since she doesn’t have a grasp of noun phrases, she can’t parse that, and just looks confused.

From these interactions, I wonder if what she is asking for are perhaps not words, but rather names, and I have been supplying names for objects. In my mind some objects don’t have names, but can nevertheless be described by words. In adult speech, many words can be applied to an object depending on their salience, so a toy may be a stuffed animal and an elephant. But her use of words seems limited to their naming use, rather than their more abstract use as words. She can recognize e.g. a dog as a dog, but probably can’t recognize that a dog is at once a dog and a pet and an animal. It isn’t clear that she will assign multiple words to the same object, which makes sense if they are acting as names rather than words (though this is hard to test: if she doesn’t understand a request, e.g. “bring me the doll”, she will guess, and her guesses draw on both the words used for the request and the gestures and attention of the requester).

Evidence against her treating words as names is her readiness to generalize, which she does both rapidly and accurately, e.g. identifying most dogs correctly after only seeing two or three (though not perfect; she confuses horses and cows despite several attempts to distinguish them). Names are specific to an object rather than used for any member of a class. However, it is consistent with a hypothesis that the distinction between words and names is not sharp for her, and thus learned rather than inborn. This also fits with known a lack of abstraction in early speech: names for members of the class ‘dog’ are understood, but attribute classes such as color, shape, texture, and number are more abstract, and must be built from concrete concepts.

there are several points here…

about the nature of innateness and language…
you identified that for a child, names and words are often the same…
suggesting that it is learned…I would suggest that langauage, the entire
thing is learned…not innate…due to DNA, we have the programming
to learn language… the ability to learn language… but that comes
within the rules of biology…animals make noise… cow moo, dogs bark,
cats mow, humans talk…from a biology standpoint, they are all the exact
same thing…and part of the core aspect of that animal… dogs, for example,
seem to have traits in common…innate aspects of dogness, as it were…
that is part of the programming of dogs… coming from the evolution of dogs,
traits that allows a biological creatures to survive in a given environment…
traits that got passed down from generation to generation of dogs…now
it is possible, not likely, but possible that in the beginning, when dogs meet
humans, dogs couldn’t bark… that dogs learned to bark because of their
associations with humans
and in that possibility may come the answer to
how humans learned to talk…we learned to talk in our associations with other
humans… and that trait, that allowed us to survive, was passed on from
generation to generation…think in terms of evolution when thinking
about language… what you are seeing comes from a million years of
evolution…the tendency in thinking about these things is to isolate them
from the past and focus on them as independent, isolated things, when
in fact, everything is connected in one fashion or another…


That’s accurate. All word denominators begin as “Names”. Infants begin to “Name” the world. Nouns are first, Verbs/Actions come later. A process can be “Named” too.

Nomenclature - she’s naming all the things because the first step in conversation is the definition of terms. It makes me wonder how the first humans named things and then stringed the names into sentences to convey meaning. The baby has an advantage of being taught the prior-existing names, but can you imagine starting from scratch?

This isn’t the Alan Watts bit I wanted, but it’s all I could find:

[i]"That in this universe, there is one great energy, and we have no name for it. People have tried various names for it, like God, like Brahmin, like Tao, but in the West, the word God has got so many funny associations attached to it that most of us are bored with it. When people say ‘God, the father almighty,’ most people feel funny inside. So we like to hear new words, we like to hear about Tao, about Brahman, about Shinto…and such strange names from the far East because they don’t carry the same associations of mawkish sanctimony and funny meanings from the past. And actually, some of these words that the Buddhists use for the basic energy of the world really don’t mean anything at all. The word tathata, which is translated from the Sanskrit as ‘suchness’ or ‘thusness’ or something like that, really means something more like ‘dadada,’ based on the word ‘tat’, which in Sanskrit means ‘that,’ and so in Sanskrit it is said “tat tvum asi”, ‘that thou art,’ or in modern America, ‘you’re IT.’

But ‘da, da’–that’s the first sound a baby makes when it comes into the world, because the baby looks around and says ‘da, da, da, da’ and fathers flatter themselves and think it’s saying ‘DaDa,’ which means ‘Daddy,’ but according to Buddhist philosophy, all this universe is one ‘dadada.’ That means ‘ten thousand functions, ten thousand things, one suchness,’ and we’re all one suchness."[/i]

He seems to be saying that when a baby enters the world, she’s saying “that, that, that”.

The Oceanic Feeling

Freud argues that the “oceanic feeling”, if it exists, is the preserved “primitive ego-feeling” from infancy. The primitive ego-feeling precedes the creation of the ego and exists up until the mother ceases breastfeeding. Prior to this, the infant is regularly breastfed in response to its crying and has no concept that the breast does not belong to it. Therefore, the infant has no concept of a “self” or, rather, considers the breast to be part of itself. … xplanation

From then on, they say, the child is taught what is “me” and what is “not me”. And later, what is “me” and what is “you” and what is “not you nor me” (a thing). And then WAY later on, if at all, the person may begin to unlearn and realize oneness once again. I haven’t gotten there yet :confused:

Human infancy is bound between mother-child, subject-to-subject. It is not until much later in pathological development that an infant begins to identify things as ‘Objects’ proper. Objectivity comes later. This is also why humanity has a compulsion to identify ‘God’ (Subjectivity) in all things, or that rocks and other inanimate objects, “have souls, energy, force” in them. Nature is alive, Nature as subjectivity. Again, this is all linked to the mother-child subject-subject bonding.

This leads to Solipsism (absolute Subjectivity) if infants are not weaned, and made to identify the “objective” (evil, bad, mean, cruel, negative, lifeless) aspect of existence.

I agree. I think we have an innate ability for language, but it also has to be learned while interacting with others.
This reminds me of this story about a deaf/mute man who never learned language in his young age:

Names and words in the either/or world are one thing. Wait until she starts to integrate them into whatever particular moral narrative she is given. That’s the part that always fascinates me. What can we pin down with words and names when it’s no longer a question of what we want but whether or not we ought to want it.