‘Dis Place Has Gone to the Dogs

Books on shelf in Elmhurst Public Library. Titles of two books say "Crying Shame".
Books allow us to see other times and places.
(Irony sold separately.)

One of the interesting things about language is its ability to help us perceive change, to give us a sense of history.

Instead of living in the moment and dealing with the ever-changing situations of life, we have developed a way to recording the past — both in memory and in writing. If humans have a true superpower, this is it.

What would life be like without language? While most people haven’t studied primate cognition, many of us are familiar with dogs. In fact, we love dogs, and we like to think they love us, too.

Dogs, we can surmise, exist more or less in the present. Even dogs that understand some words don’t seem to be caught up in the intricacies of language.

Anecdotal Evidence: Snoopy

I grew up with an English Springer Spaniel (mis)named Snoopy. He was smart; he understood many words, though he did seem oblivious to the complexities of grammar.

English Springer Spaniel
“Back in those days everything was simpler and more confused.” — Jim Morrison, “Stoned Immaculate”

Snoopy knew “walk” and “leash” and “car” and “boat.” In fact, he probably knew dozens of words, and possibly many more.

From the outside, at least, many of the things that he understood had everything to do with their (dare we say it) emotional content. The dog just loved cars rides, and boat rides, and walks. On a good day, he even understood that leashes were a necessary part of the process.

But Snoopy’s schemas, if we can pretend for a moment that we’re sure dogs have such things, meant that these words could be strung together any which way, and the exact referents were pretty nebulous. There was no organizing principle in the dog’s “language.” His understanding of words did not extend to grammar.

We might say,  “Hey, Snoopy, wanna go for a walk? Get your leash!” and he’d run and get his leash…which he would usually then try to play “keepaway” with. Like I said, he was smart. (Smart for a dog, anyway — he also chewed rocks to dust and ate them…à chacun son goût.)

But we could just as easily have said, with the same emotional content, “Snoopy, salad bonobo walk? Youbetcha leash!” and it would mean the same thing to him. All he was hearing was emotional tone and certain signifiers. “SNOOPY…WALK…LEASH!” was about what he got, and sometimes that was all we’d say. And as long as he got his walk, he wasn’t going to grade our grammar, anyway.

That Was Then, This Is Now

Big Ben At Dusk
The Wristwatch of the Empire

So, what’s the difference between knowing some words and actually having language? Language, as it turns out, is capable of productivity and displacement. Productivity is (in short) the ability to generate new words using grammatical processes. Displacement is the ability to use language to describe things that exist at a distance, either temporally or spatially.

Linguistic displacement is the feature of language that allows us to recognize, and talk about, times and places besides here and now. But language is more than just a tool for communication. It’s also an organizing tool, and sometimes a measuring tool as well.

Without linguistic displacement, we wouldn’t be able to even conceive such ideas as “today is better than yesterday was.” Language is what allows us to compare the “here and now” with anything else.

Language is the human superpower. Without it, it’s a dog’s life.


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