On Human Communication

AutorCherry, Colin
PealkiriOn human communication : a review, a survey, and a criticism / Colin Cherry
IlmunudCambridge ; London : MIT Press, 1977. [Trükikordus: 2nd ed. Originally 1957]
ViideCherry, Colin 1977. On human communication: a review, a survey, and a criticism. 2nd ed. Cambridge; London: MIT Press.

The study of the signs used in communication, and of the rules operating upon them and upon their users, forms the core of the study of communication. There is no comunication without a system of signs - but there are many kinds of "signs." (Cherry 1977: 6)
Let's keep in mind that this book was first published in 1957 and already then signs and communication went hand in hand in communication theory. That is, when in the review of Interdisciplinary Work-Conference on Paralanguage and Kinesics (1962) it is stated that semiotics is the "developed theory of communication", this does not borne out of a vacuum of definitions, but these two are already intimately related.
The suggestion that words are symbols for things, actions, qualities, relationships, et cetera, is naive, a gross simplification. Words are slippery customers. The full meaning of a word does not appear until it is placed in its context, and the context may serve an extremely subtle function - as with puns, or double entendre. ANd even then the "meaning" will depend upon the listener, upon the speaker, upon their entire experience of the language, upon their knowledge of one another, and upon the whole situation. Words do not "mean things" in a one-to-one relation like a code. Words, too, are empirical signs, not copies or models of anything; truly, onomatopoeia and gestures frequently seem to possess resembalnce, but this resemblance does not bear too close examination. A cocerel may seem to say cook-a-doodle-do to an Englishman, but a German thinks it says kikeriki, and a Japanese kokke-kokkõ. Each can paint only with the phonetic sound of his own language. (Cherry 1977: 10-11)
"I don't talk things, sir," said Faber. "I talk the meaning of things." (Bradbury 1953: 66)
An utterance stimulates the hearer into response with another utterance, back and forth. And the whole of this proceeds amid what we may call "environmental uncertainties" - street noises, other people's chatter, dogs barking. It is remarkable that human communication works at all, for so much seems to be against it; yet it does. The fact that it does depends principally upon the vast store of habits which we each one of us possess, the imprints of all our past experiences. With this, we can hear snatches of speech, see vague gestures and grimaces, and from such thin shreds of evidence we are able to make a continual series of inferences, guesses, with extraordinary effectiveness. (Cherry 1977: 12)
In this brief paragraph, the reader is given (situational) noise, habits or associations/sign-relations, and abduction (inferences, guesses).
At our present descriptive level we may say that it is the most infrequent words, phrases, gestures, and other signs which arrest our attention; it is these that give strenght to the links. The others we can predict very readily. The great majority of our everyday surroundings, the sights and sounds of home and street, we largely ignore from familiarity. (Cherry 1977: 15)
The abnormal is more important (to selective attention) than the normal. It should also be noted that here the exception does not prove the rule but solidify the habit (strenght of the link).
Among the very simplest creatures, the absence of learning, or its restriction to elementary types, ensures fixed and common behavior patterns under similar conditions. Experiments are repeatable, and the results may to a great extent be generalized from one creature to his brothers. But as we proceed higher up the evolutionary scale, and learning faculties improve, behavior becomes far less regular and predictable. If a man is subjected to some experiment involving his responses to, say, spoken or visual signals, he may react in varied ways according to his personal experiences and habits, or his prejudices and anxieties - or he may deliberately cheat. His responses may even depend upon anticipation (of the consequences, or future test conditions, for example). But well-designed experiments may guard against such variables. (Cherry 1977: 16)
Cherry is here speaking from an experimenter's perspective, but the general remarks are similar to that of other suchlike discussions (e.g. Lotman 2009: 27). Personally I like how the terms prejudices and anxieties are elsewhere replaced with attitudes and emotions, which signify the same categories, but in different discourses.
Why does society continually split into two, like the two opposing teams in a game: capital and labor, the two parties of stable democracies, the two sides in war, believers and infidels? Within each side there is sense of cohesion, loyalty, and rectitude. Our side is wholly good, the other wholly evil. Is such dualism inherent in the way we think? (Cherry 1977: 26)
A romantic thought which has been chased before. In Yuri Lotman's writings, isomorphism pierces all levels of organization and "cohesion, loyalty, and rectitude" are not given, but in the tension field of yet more (internal) oppositions.
Rather than think of real-life organizations as single "networks," it may be more realistic to regard them as a number of networks superimposed. For example, in an army the pattern of relationships is clearly laid down, but this pattern is not a simple network. There is a network for supplying the army in the field; there is a patterning of flow or orders and directives, relating to the movement of troopsa; another may represent the flow of intelligence signals. Each network would represent the flow of messages of a particular class: messages concerning materials, quantities, messages representing orders on troop disposition, messages representing secret information. Such patternings are not necessarily independent parts or subsections of the entire system but have rather the nature of projections; they exist simultaneously and are superimposed. (Cherry 1977: 29-30)
This chapter introduced concepts of network theory, e.g. nodes, links, charts, diagrams, etc. Stuff I am familiar with from my information technology and project management courses yeas back. This quote is here because it seems that aside from corporate institutions, the army is perhaps the only social system that might still use this networking paradigm - at least this is the impression I got from skimming a book on intelligence analysis published in 2004.
Real understanding of any scientific subject must include some knowledge of its historical growth; we cannot comprehend and accept modern concepts and theories without knowing something of their origins - of how we have got where we are. Neglect of this maxim can lead to that unfortunate state of mind which regard the science of the day as finality. (Cherry 1977: 32)
This is beautifully worded. In fact, I am going to place it next to Foucault's (2005: 359) quote about reading and writing which I admire so much.
The ancient Celts, some 1500 years ago, invented a script of interest in this connection, known as the Ogam script, which is found carved upon stone pillars in Ireland and Wales. Most scripts have developed into structures of complex letters, with curves, angles, and various ornaments, difficult to chip in stone, but the Celts seem to have consciously invented this script, for making hasty inscriptions on warriors gravestones, using the simplest symbol of all - a single chisel stroke - discovering that this is all that is necessary. (Cherry 1977: 36)
Neat, a script consisting of lines.
...study of the history of science shows over and over again the cyclic process of its evolution - ideas and theories coming to a stop because of a lack of technique, and the later reciprocal effect of new techniques upon revival and extension of earlier theory. We cannot escape our past; it continually shapes our ideas and our actions. (Cherry 1977: 40)
Yet another sentiment for archaism.
For these automatic control systems the term "servo-mechanism" has been coined. The existence of numerous controls in the body accounts partly for a common interest with physiology. For example, there is homeostasis, or involuntary regulation of body temperature, of heart rate, blood pressure, and other essentials for life; voluntary control is involved in various muscular actions, such as those required for balance when walking along a narrow plank; the simplest motion of a limb exercises multiple feedback actions. If a stabilized servo-mechanism has its feedback path broken, so that the magnitude of its error cannot be measured at the input end and automatically corrected, it is liable to vilent oscillation; and analogous state of affairs in the body has been mentioned by Wiener, a nervous disorder called ataxia, which affects the control of muscular actions. The analogies in physiology are countless; Wiener goes even so far, in developing the functional analogy between the operation of feedback machines and of the brain and central nervous system, as to compare certain mental functional disorders (the layman's "nervous breakdown") to the breakdown of a machine when overloaded with excess of input instructions, for example, when the storage or "memory circuits" cannot store enough instructions to be able to tackle the situation. Note again the emphasis on operation; no material damage may have occurred. (Cherry 1977: 58)
The functional analogy between the human body and a machine is an interesting one, because, as far as I know, in early cognitive science it was pushed to the limits.
Although the reflex response had been observed in the sixteenth century and the essential function of the spinal cord discovered in 1751, the relation between function and structure remained elusive until the dawn of the nineteenth century. In 1861 Broca fixed on the area of the cortex concerned with speech, and Thomas Young, in 1792, had already settled that part associated with the eye. The "on-or-off" impulse action of nerve cells was first discovered by Bowditch in 1871, but the neuron theory, that the entire nervous system consists of cells and their outgrowths, has been developed only in our own generation. That the intensity of nerve signals depends upon the frequency of nervous impulses was observed by Keith Lucas in 1909 - work which Adrian subsequently carried to an extreme elegance with the assistance of modern amplifier and oscillographic technique in the late nineteen-twenties. (Cherry 1977: 60)
The historid datums are neat, but the bold span of the last sentence should really be stored to memory by repeated utterings.
It is only too easy to use clichés, proverbs, and slogans as a substitute for reasoned statements; to accept the smooth persuasion of well-sounding humbug; to misunderstand a difficult passage in a book by misreading into it our own preconceived ideas. The broad pastures of our minds are crisscrossed by pathways of verbal habit.
If speech is our first, it is not our only mode of communication. Most human beings, but not most societies, have some form of writing or scribing. The present times might well be called the Age of Paper; without the written word civilization, in the form we know it today, could not be sustained. (Cherry 1977: 79)
This last, bolded, part made me realize that the present times might well be called the Age of Pixel.
Spoken language may well be enhanced in effect by stressing, by changing speed or pitch of speaking, together with reinforcement by gestures. But signs such as frowns, smiles, tears, bared teeth, and blushes do not constitute part of human language; they are not arbitrary symbols but are signs evoked by a situation or environment. They are akin to the signs used by birds and animals, their cries of alarm, their postures of threat, and their attitudes of defense. These various releaser stimuli, the signs indicating friend or foe, are not to be thought of as "language." The writer has argued elsewhere that there is one specific situation in which we humans are "reduced" to animals, inasmuch as we are bereft of human language and are forced to use a determinate alphabet of preformed signs - namely, when we are driving our motor cars. We cannot speak to one another, show gestures of sympathy, apologize, discuss, give opinions, etc. We must conform to the externally determined rules of the Highway Code Book. The street and road signs, our car blinkers, policeman's signs, etc., do not constitute language, and we are held incommunicado, as we are when in prison, or if "sent to Conventry" by our colleagues. And a man incommunicado is not part of our society; we must expect motorists to show their present amoral attitudes and behavior until they can speak to one another. (Cherry 1977: LK)
Being reduced to an animal while driving a car is simply a brilliant observation. A daring, but brilliant, one. And the notion of incommunicado should be kept in mind and perhaps compared to non-communication.
Let us return to our real subject and apply these arguments to the description of language tiself. We can only describe attributes of an observed language in terms of another language and it saves much confusion if the two are kept distinct. The natural human language being observed and studied (English, French ...) is usually called the object-language, whilst the scientific language with which the observer describes this is called the meta-language. Figure 3.2 illustrates the distinction; here, two communicants (A and B) are shown in conversation as forming an object-channel of communication, while they are being observed through the meta-channel, or channel of observation. In other circumstances, the observer himself acts as one communicant, as Fig. 3.2 (b). (Cherry 1977: 91)
Object-channel and meta-channel could become useful. Figure 3.2 from page 92:

Even more broadly, Martin Joos defines all language as "code" because it is both symbolic and organized. But it will serve our purpose here merely to make a distinction between "language" and a "code." By "language" we shall mean those organically developed systems, whether spoken or scribed, by which humans transmit messages; but the word "cipher," or "code," will be used to mean any invented, self-consistent system, whereby one set of symbols may be transformed into another for certain special stated purposes (i.e., Morse code which converts printed letters into dots and dashes). (Cherry 1977: 93-94)
This is known in TMS as a simple formula: "language = code + history".
The second use of binary coding relevant to our theme arises from the concept of distinctive features, which we shall discuss next. A linguist, in his earch for structure, breaks down whole utterances into segments of various sizes - into phrases, into words, into phonemes. The phoneme is the smallest segment to which we have so far made reference; but why stop there? Further analysis may reveal the basic materials of which these phonemes are constructed - their attitudes. The independent (or autonomous) attributes, chosen for unique description of the phonemes of a language, are called distinctive features. The great significance of this concept lies partly in a certain lack of empiricism that it possesses and partly in its function of relating the phoneme to its articulatory production. Both these aspects will need some closer examination because, as stated thus, they are not wholly true, and some qualification is called for. (Cherry 1977: 94)
A simple note into the binary oppositions - distinctive features bucket.
It is, however, the microscopic aspects of language which shift with time and place; the vocabulary alters, and the frequencies or rank orderings of specific words change. It is such microscopic aspects of which we are aware when we sense the difference between, say, Jane Austen and James Thurber - though both may be subject to similar macroscopic conditions which determine the production of language itself. "Macroscopic" aspects concern how many words, et cetera; "microscopic" aspects concern which words. Again such ideas apply mainly to print. (Cherry 1977: 109-1109)
Is the difference similar betweeb micro- and macropolitics (e.g. Henley 1977)?
The eyes, when they scan the lines of a printed page, or in fact any scene, do so in a series of extremely rapid jerks (called saccades between points of comparative rest (fixation pauses) at which they take in information. Such a scanning rpocess converts the spatial signal to a temporal one but, as mentioned, in a manner unique to each occasion. (Cherry 1977: 126)
Saccades I knew about, fixation pauses should be kept in mind.
All communication proceeds by means of signs, with which one organism affects the behavior of another (or, more generally, as we shall argue later, the state of another). In certain cases it is meaningful also to speak of communication between one machine and another as, for example, the control signals which pass between a guided missile and a ground radar. But we shall confine our attention mainly to human communication.
There is here immediately a difficulty of definition. How can we distinguish between communication proper, by the use of spoken language I tell someone to go and jump in the lake and, in fear, he does so, then I have communicated with him; but if I push him in, his final state may appear similar, but I can scarcely be said to have communicated with him! What is the difference, then, between my spoken message and my push? (Cherry 1977: 221)
This last remark once again brings to fore the question of intrinsic semes (or instrumental behaviour). Just like others, Cherry does not have a clear answer how to handle this: "It is indeed difficult to draw a sharp and clear distinction." (ibid, 221). Yet he does add a significant remark: it is essentially the "distinction between direct cuasation (e.g., a push) and communication (e.g., a spoken command) in that the first is a simple, inevitable, cause-effect relation, whilst the second is only a probabilistic cause-effect relation." (ibid, 222)
In formal sign systems, such as mathematics, it is widely and readily accepted that we do not need to know what the fundamental concepts "are" - only how they are related, as we have discussed before (Chapter 6, Section 5). In Euclid, we do not know what are "straight lines," "infinity," et cetera, we need only know the rules of the system and can build up all the theorems. We may think we have intuitive knowledge about these basic concepts, but whether or not we have is immaterial to Euclid; how to relate forces, masses, et cetera, but never need to consider, say, force by itself, in a void - only in realtion to mass or acceleration. Peirce thought language is not a highly regular system like mathematics. Signs are only used in relation to one another, in a working system of signs, but never in isolation. Every sign requires another "to interpret it." (Cherry 1977: 266)
So Peirce was also against the idea of an isolated sign.
The final chapters of this book should be re-read because at this time I had to skim them, starting with the chapter on statistical theory of communication (which is useless for my current purposes).
  • Hartley, R. V. L., "Transmission of Information," Bell System Tech. J. 7, 1928, p. 535. URL
  • Joos, M., "Description Of Language Design," Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, 22, No. 6, 1950, pp. 701-709 (Proceedings of the Speech Conference at M.I.T.). TÜR

  • Shaw, Anne Gillespie 1952. The purpose and practice of motion study. Manchester: Harlequin Press.

  • Zipf, G. K., Human Behavior and the Principle of Least Effort, Addison-Wesley Publishing Co., Inc., Cambridge, Mass, 1949.


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