The Ontogeny of Meaning

Latif, Israil A. 1934. The Physiological Basis of Linguistic Development and of the Ontogeny of Meaning. Part I. Psychological Review 41(1): 55-85.

The behaviour of the new-born human infant, during its waking hours, consists largely of reflex vocalizations and other random movements such as squirmings, writhings, and wrigglings. On account of its important role in the subsequent development of language, infantile crying, although it is regularly connected with other behaviour, has often been singled out for separate investigation. It is only by the artifice of abstraction that we can treat of sounds as if they existed separately from the other bodily manifestations concomitant with them. C. Bühler says, "The first and most striking observation to be noted in the first year is that crying always occurs closely connected with movement. We have, therefore, a unit of behaviour in which the crying is 'the dominant.'" (Latif 1934: 55)
Far from being restricted to Jakobson's poetics, the notion of "dominant" can therefore be applied to behaviour as well, noting that whatever occurs alongside some behaviour is it's dominant. This use must be restricted in some way, though, so that we don't come to conclude that "being annoyed" is the dominant of rolling one's eyes, for example. P.S. The C. Bühler in this instance is not Carl, but Charlotte!
Charlotte Bühler remarks that "All causes of crying in the first four months revert back directly to bodily hurts and needs." And she specially mentions pain (e.g. colic, prick wounds, illness), strong and sudden stimuli (e.g. very bright light, sharp noises, sudden contacts, sudden changes of temperature), abrupt and sudden changes of posture, fatigue, hunger, etc. Margaret G. Blanton gives, as the principal causes, hunger, naxious stimuli, fatigue, and colic. (Latif 1934: 56)
It is noteworthy that these do not cease to purport feelings of discomfort in the adult, but that there are other factors besides these that can make the adult cry.
There is general agreement that along with the development of specific movements, there is a gradual differentiation of acoustic pattern in an infant's cries, according as they are evoked by this or that stimulus. M. G. Blaton writes: "The 'hunger cry' has generally a well marked rhythm, the first syllable of preliminary sound coming on the first part of the first beat, the second or accented syllable on the second part of the first beat, and a quick intake of breath as the third beat. This measure is most often repeated in groups of 5 or 6, each slightly more forceful than the preceding ones until the fourth or fifth, the last one being softer. Thus also will the group be repeated. Each measure is also a trifle higher in pitch than the one preceding." (Latif 1934: 56)
Getting the infant cry down to a science. I was not aware that there are specific distinguishable cries, but it does seem probable.
She further reports that in the two-months old child "habitual crying" may be distinguished from significant crying. The former is characterized by "uniformity, weakness, lack of variation in intensity, and interrupted pauses," and it continues "beyond an immediate need." The accompanying bodily movements, she says, are not strong. (Latif 1934: 57)
Are "insignificant cries" the deceptive attention-seeking cries we have been told about?
To sum up: (I) Infantile crying is only a part of the total infantile behaviour at any given moment.
(2) It is purely reflex in nature; and is due to purely physiological causes. No intention to communicate, on the part of the infant, is involved.
(3) The adult learns to read meanings into the cry of the infant by a process of inference. Inside the child there is only released nervous energy (internal stimulation): from the motor effects of this released energy the adult infers (from his previous experience) this or that about the processes going on in the child's internal organs. A state of contentment and comfort is inferred when the infant's muscles are relaxed, and its body is in an attitude of repose.
(4) In order to interpret the infantile cry accurately it must be taken in conjunction with the entire behaviour of the infant, together with such stimuli as may be playing on it at the moment. (Latif 1934: 58)
I can see why Sebeok's views this text as "unmistakably semiotic."
We come now to a point of importance. It is the question as to what, precisely, in an infant's movements, constitutes 'meaning.' The terms 'meaning,' 'significance,' and 'interpretation' need to be examined more closely. Why is it that a new-born infant's squirmings, writhings, and wrigglings, and even his early vocalizations, seem to be so lacking in significance? As we watch the movements of a very young baby we find ourselves saying that such mere writing is pointless or aimless; the limbs are flexing and unflexing at random; the organism is not doing anything in particular, not doing anything describable. Further observation of the infant, as those movements develop which we do declare to be 'meaningful,' convinces us that 'aim' and 'point' came into the picture precisely when any of the baby's movements are aimed or pointed at its environment. The first change in the behaviour of the infant that gives us the impression that the infant's movements do have a 'meaning,' comes when we can see that they are directed towards (or away from) an outside object. If the child orients itself in any definite way towards a bright light, for instance, we instantly find the child's behaviour to be significant, meaningful. Nor can we easily resist inferring that the child is, to some extent at any rate, 'aware' of that light. (Latif 1934: 58-59)
It seems that the infant's behaviour becomes "meaningful" for us when we can impute some intention to it.
It is this fact of the orientation of organisms towards objects outside of themselves that leads us to find significance in 'topistic' responses, at the lowest biological level. Inasmuch as the sunflower turns towards the sun, its reaction is significant. And the same principle holds in the case of the behaviour of more complex living organisms. (Latif 1934: 59)
And we must keep in mind that intention exists only insofar as it is oriented towards some object. Significance is here intimately tied with goal-orientation and purposiveness.
The first results of the workings of Pavlov's law (of the conditioned reflex) are what Dr. S. T. Box (1917) has called 'reflex-circles.' Let us consider any muscle at a moment when a nervous excitation, seeking some outlet of least resistance, purely fortuitously finds its way into the motor neurone of this muscle. The muscle contracts, - a random movement. But now something happens which is not random. Every muscle has sensory organs embedded within it, its proprioceptors, which are stimulated, probably by mechanical pressure, when the muscle contracts. And so the sensory cells of this muscle (of its tendons also and of the joint involved) are now stimulated and send an excitation along their afferent nerves to the central nervous system. (Latif 1934: 63)
It is probable that something like this is involved in facial expressions as well - e.g. that one has to contract the muscle somehow (e.g. put a pencil between the teeth in case of the lower face) and then receive a sensation of what it's like to contract specific muscles; that is, to learn how to use some very fine muscles.
Therefore by Pavlow's law (or equally by the law of neurobiotaxis) the incomplete excitation will find outlet along the tract just used by the random impulses, that is, will go back to, and will further contract, the very muscle from which it came. Thus the afferent neurones from this muscle will begin to acquire, and after a few repetitions of this process will acquire, a synaptic connection with the motor nerve which goes out to this same muscle. A reflex circle is established. (Latif 1934: 64)
It would probably be embarrassing to use these terms today. Neurobiotaxis is the hypothesis that nerve cells have phylogenetically migrated towards regions of maximum stimulation. The modern neurologist may scoff at this, I don't know.
Of course, this principle is the basis of all onomatopoeia; and indeed Prof. J. M. Baldwin (1895, pp. 130-34) has called it the principle of 'simple imitation.' The reflex circle in factgives ruse to a general law of iteration: A child will repeat any of its own random acts provided that this action (simultaneously) stimulates, howsoever indirectly, any of its own sense-organs (and also of course, that no other reflex steps in to interrupt). (Latif 1934: 64-65)
I think this can be framed as the "nonverbal self-communication" aspect of ontogenesis. Another function of autocommunication uncovered (from the endless list of functions).
Although Baldwin was early in discerning this principle, he did not have the full secret of the reflex-circle, and he unfortunately made use of the hedonic concept, e.g. 'delight,' which in addition to other defects involves the fallacy of enelicomorphism - since this circular activity appears in early infancy. (Latif 1934: 66)
Powys can probably be accused of using a lot of hedonic concepts. Enelicomorphism is adultomorphism by another name (this odd term was proposed by Howard C. Warren after "ενήλικ" in Greek for "mature".
Now it seems to us that awareness of a stimulus is nothing else than this response that is made to it. Certainly the reaction of an organism is the principal if not the sole test of its awareness of any stimulus. Indeed the response to a stimulus is not merely the criterion of bare awareness, for over and above that the nature of the response reveals, in our opinion, what the stimulus has meant to the organism so responding. If, for instance, whenever a loud noise occurs near an infant, it quivers, puckers its lips, pauses in its breathing and then bursts into a loud wail, we can hardly resist concluding that the noise had some very vague 'meaning' for the infant; of the sort that we should call 'a disturbance,' perhaps a disagreeable disturbance. We should conclude this all the more confidently if a loud noise always elicited this same response. For what is it that ever assumes us that another person has caught the meaning, even say, of a word if it is not that the particular word regularly elicits from the person a certain sort of response? If, on the other hand, a loud noise elicits from the infant sometimes laughter, sometimes a languid stirring of its limbs, sometimes screams, and sometimes no response at all, we are bound to conclude that the noise has no definite and settled meaning for it. (Latif 1934: 67-68)
I'm quite sure that awareness of a stimulus is something else than a response that is made to it. Otherwise a person who remains immobile and rigid would as-if have no awareness. But we are talking about the hey-day of behaviorism. From a more agreeable position this falls in line with Charles Morris's definition of signification and the reliability of the interpretation.
And again, "The meaning of an object is our attitude toward that object, our reaction to it." Thus the infant's awareness of the meaning of a stimulus, and its motor response to the stimulus, are identical phenomena - two ways of describing the same process. (Latif 1934: 68)
In this case even the notion of attitude is more welcome than the notion of reaction. The conflation of awareness and response is still detestable, but I have to get over it. Behaviorism wanted to reduce everything to behaviour, so I have to just keep in mind that a response to any given representamina can also be emotional or cognitive, not only energetic.
Concerning primitive language B. Malinowski observes that, "A word means to a native the proper use of the thing for which it stands, exactly as an implement means something when it can be handled and means nothing when no active experience of it is at hand." ... "In all the child's experience, words mean, in so far as they act and not in so far as they make the child understand or apperceive." Again, with Dr. Langfeld, "Words, in short, are conditioned responses to action, and only if we know this action, do we understand their meaning." (Latif 1934: 69)
I'd like to squash this argument and embrace it at the same time. The reference: Langfeld, H. S. 1927. Consciousness and motor response. Psychological Review 34: 8. Squash it because it is absurd that words should incite us to action (I think Wittgenstein or someone made a good argument against this), and embrace it because in case of concourse it does seem that understanding description hinges on experience or imagery of the action described.
An infant's awareness of some meaning does not imply any very precise appreciation. And, as a rule, the earlier meanings of an infant are exceedingly vague. Just as there are many grades of specificity between the random and the coordinate movements of a child, so also there are different degrees of precision in its meanings. Any individual's meanings, during the course of his life, will range from a vague and shadowy awareness to fairly clear and precise cognition. In short, whenever there is a response on the part of the organism to a stimulus, there is always meaning. But not until the response becomes specific can there be precise meaning. The explanation of the absence of precise meaning for an infant is the same as the explanation of his lack of coordinated and specific movements. (Latif 1934: 70)
One can even say, with Saussure, that meanings are vague in the infant because the infant is, by definition, speechless. But even in adults the meanings can be vague and precise. One person unknowledgeable about semiotics tried to write in Postimees about the restrictive nature of writing and his piece was exceedingly vague because he lacked precise terms.
When the stimulus responded to is a word or sentence, it is the response of the hearer which creates the 'meaning.' Wherefore the meanings of words have to be learned, even as the multiplication-table is learned. It is obvious that what logicians call the denotation and connotation of words are both realized in the objective reference of the response, while the 'feeling tone' or emotional value of the word lies in the subjective aspect of the response. (Latif 1934: 71)
This "feeling tone" or emotional value might be paralingual, in which case it is permissible that he was not aware of there being any objective qualities - actual "feeling tones" in sound were synthesized in the 1970s.
    1. Perceived (or conceived) location of the object (denotation)
    2. Percetion (or conception) of the properties of the object, what it is, etc. (connotation)
  1. Subjective reference, or aspect:
    Attitudes of acceptance, rejection, or other personal intention toward the object: feeling, emotion, evaluation, use.
(Latif 1934: 71-72)
"Where the object is" is denotation and "What the object is" is connotation? This seems quite different from Barthes's semiology.
Empathy, or Einfühlung, was first brought into special prominence by Theodor Lipps, as the essential process underlying 'aesthetic perception.' It has been further studied and discussed largely by students of aesthetics: by K. Groos, Vernon Lee, C. Anstruther-Thompson, H. S. Langfeld, and many others. Aesthetic perception, as Prof. Langfeld has shown, is not a 'mentalistic' state, but a motor or emphatic response of the percipient to the object perceived. Emphatic response is the process through which 'the activities of the perceiving subject' are merged 'with the qualities of the perceived object.' In other words, the percipient re-creates the various contours, lines and configurations of the object of aesthetic perception. But whatever the type of perception, aesthetic or other, the process of perception is the same. Thus, as Prof. Langfeld says, with regard to the perception of movement: "The perception of a movement ... is first identified in the object and not in one's self." (Latif 1934: 72)
I was not at all aware that empathy comes from aesthetics. But then again I didn't know that aesthetics comes from perception. The history of philosophy seems complicated.
The word 'empathy' was coined by the late Prof. Tichener as an English equivalent for Lipps' term Einfühlung. (Latif 1934: 72)
The more you know.
But the various stimuli that excite us are not always immediately present. An infant, for instance, reacts not only to the physically present mother or the nursing-bottle, but it also 'reacts to,' i.e. recreates, these objects even when they are not in sight. But whether the stimulus is present or absent, our reaction to it involves the process of re-creation through emphatic response to (re-creation of) an absent object, the original neuromuscular patterns must have been learned, so that they persist as "neurograms which, even when the original object is absent, will re-create its surface contour." (Latif 1934: 75)
Neurogram is "the postulated medified neural structure resulting from activity and serving to retain whatever has been learned; a neural engram" (Merriam-Webster). Sounds like something like a "mentifact" but in terms of neurons.
We saw at the end of the preceding section, how through the operation of Pavlov's law a tone or a word can serve as a substitute stimulus, a 'symbol,' for the physical object mother; so that in the absence of the mother it will touch off the same responses in the infant. The infant will thus re-create the familiar figure of its absent mother through the mediation of a symbol which stimulates its neurograms. (Latif 1934: 75)
The weirdest definition of a symbol I have yet come across.
The meaning of a word, the response which it stimulates, as mental content and in detachment from the word or symbol itself, is what is called an 'idea' or 'concept.' And thus I believe that all concepts and ideas, in fact all mental contents, are actual motor responses; a part of the response, in each case, being a re-creation by motion of some configuration of objects in the environment - this the objective or cognitive part - and the rest of the response being merely a personal posture or attitude - this the subjective, emotional or affective element of the idea or concept.
(Quoted from E. B. Holt's unpublished paper "On the conceptual affinity of opposites"; Latif 1934: 76)
Wat. No wonder behaviourists were beaten to submission without mercy. This is either sheer stupidity or blind hope in finding motor responses for everything, even cognition.

It is through the intervention of its elders that the general movements and postures of an infant gradually pass into symbolic gestures. A hungry infant, for instance, soon comes to react to the sight of the nursing-bottle by writhing, wriggling and directing its head and eyes towards it - general indication of food-adience. At the creeping stage an infant will creep towards its bottle. This is its direct response to the sight of the nursing-bottle. This response, however, has a 'significance' for the interested mother, inasmuch as she understands it to mean that the infant wants food. The general behaviour of the child may thus be termed a whole-body language, since the attitude and activity of its whole body convey meaning to an onlooker. (Latif 1934: 76)
This was the reason for reading this paper in the first place. Sebeok proposed that the expression "body language" might be a misinterpretation of this notion, "full-body language". What an unfortunate misinterpretation indeed, because today we have identified "body language" with all forms of nonverbal behaviour, while the original term refers only to full-body movements, such as crawling or walking.
But this whole-body language of the infant soon comes to be abbreviated, through the solicitous participation of the mother. As soon as the infant shows a nascent attitude of food-adience, the mother brings the bottle and thus cuts short the adient efforts of the infant. Whenever it stretches out its hand towards an object, the attentive mother is there to put the object in its hand. Suc cooperation on the part of the mother, soon reduces the whole-body language of the infant to mere ('conventional') gesture, in which only a part and that the earliest part of an action is substituted for the entire action. The response of the infant thus becomes merely symptomatic, i.e. symbolic. (Latif 1934: 76-77)
Here I recognize what was termed "cue reduction and fixation" by Carpented, after Hollingsworth's "redente gration". We probably could, after Jakobson, call it metonymization of actions to signs.
The child's understanding of the behaviour of others does not begin with its appreciation of words; it begins with an appreciation of its elders' actions and gestures. As Colonel Mallery writes:
It [the child] learns words only as they are taught, and learns them through the medium of signs which are not expressly taught. Long after familiarity with speech, it consults the gestures and facial expressions of its parents and nurses as if seeking thus to translate or explain their words.
(Latif 1934: 79-80)
That is, verbal language is taught through the medium of nonverbal behaviour.
As vocal language (tonal or verbal) develops, the gesture-language recedes into the background. But not even at the highest levels of vocal communication, do gestures ever entirely disappear. They persist in a more or less vestigial form. For even when a speaker makes no conspicuous gestures, slight movements are always to be detected: movements of the eyes and eye-brows, and of the general facial musculature. In many persons, indeed, the facial musculature exhibits a continuous 'play of emotion,' as it is called. Thus Colonel Mallery writes:
Even among the gesture-hating English, when they are aroused from torpidity of manner, the hands are involuntarily clapped in approbation, rubbed with delight, wrung in distress, raised in astonishment, and waved in triumph. The fingers are snapped for contempt, the forefinger is vibrated to reprove or threaten, and the fist shaken in defiance. The brow in contracted with displeasure, and the eyes winked to show connivance. The shoulders are shrugged to express disbelief or repugnance, the eyebrows elevated with surprise, the lips bitten in vexation and thrust out in sullenness or displeasure, while a higher defree of anger is shown by a stamp of the foot.
(Latif 1934: 81-82)
This quote is attributed to: Mallery, G. 1881. Sign language among the North American indians that is available in the gutenberg project. Immediately following this quote is a discussion of Quintilian (I haven's seen anyone discuss Quintilian thoroughly), so it might be worth checking out some day.
Herbert Spencer believed that intonation is a part of what we have called the 'subjective' aspect of meaning.
All speech is compounded of two elements, the words and the tones in which they are uttered - the signs of ideas and the signs of feelings. While certain articulations express the thought, certain modulations express the more or less of pain or pleasure which the thought gives. Using the word cadence in an unusually extended sense, as comprehending all variations of voice, we may say that cadence is the commentary of the emotions upon the propositions of the intellect. This duality of spoken language, though not formally recognized, is recognized in practice by every one; and every one knows that very often more weight attaches to the tone than to the words. Daily experience supplies cases in which the same sentence of disapproval will be understood as meaning little or meaning much, according to the vocal inflections which accompany it; antd daily experience supplies still more striking cases in which words and tones are in direct contradiction - the first expressing consent, while the last express reluctance; and the last being believed rather than the first.
(Latif 1934: 83-84)
Surprisingly, "modulation" seems closer to Morris's "modors" than do Smith's "vocal modifications". This is from: Spencer, Herbert 1899. Essays scientific, political, and speculative, vol. II: The origin and function of music.


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