Analytical Essay 2

Human Babies Do Not Possess Linguistic Language

In John Searle’s What is Language? Some Preliminary Remarks, he begins by discussing the achievements made in the field of philosophy over the last century or so.  While praising his colleagues, he has one major complaint.  He states, “the problem is that its practitioners in general do not treat language as a natural phenomenon.”  In saying this, it is appropriate to assume that Searle himself must believe that language is a natural human ability.  However, after a deeper look into his paper, although he claims language is naturalistic, from Searle’s perspective, humans are not born with full language, but rather they develop it overtime.  I will attempt to substantiate this point by explaining that at birth children are prelinguistic beings, rather than linguistic begins because they lack the understanding of sarcasm, and therefore lack of representation of linguistic meaning, an essential linguistic language ability as outlined by Searle.

In order to assert from Searle’s view that humans do not naturally have complete language, I will first establish that human babies are born with the prelinguistic abilities he discusses in the first part of his paper.  Searle argues, that in prelinguistic language there are two major components: consciousness and intentionality.  First, I will discuss consciousness.  In section 5, Searle describes prelinguistic consciousness as having, “space, time, causation, agency, and object,” (Searle 181).  And this can definitely be seen very early on in a child’s life.  For example, during infancy when a child is in its crib, but wants to be held, he knows that if he cries loudly, a parent will soon come in to his room and pick him up.  In this example, the space is his crib, the time is how long he waits and cries for a parent’s response, the causation is the loud crying, the agency is the wanting to be held, and the object is the parent to which he cries.  In terms of intentionality, Searle explains that, “any intentional state determines its conditions of satisfaction, and a normal animal that has intentional states must be able to recognize when the conditions of satisfaction are in fact satisfied,” (Searle 179).  This can also clearly be seen in human infants.  For example, many times we know that babies cry for specific reasons, such as a wet dipper or hunger, and when their problems are solved, the babies are aware and usually their crying subsides.

Since it is now established that in fact human babies do possess prelinguistic language, according to Searle, I will now argue that they do not have linguistic language because they are missing sarcasm, which contains the linguistic representation of meaning, an essential piece that Searle describes as necessary to linguistic language.  It has been proven, that children do not have the ability to produce or understand sarcasm.  One 2009 study, by Glenwright and Pexman found that it is not until about six years of age that children begin to identify when sarcasm and irony are being used in conversation, and even when they can identify its use, children are not able to comprehend what the speaker is meaning to say, until about ten years of age (Glenwright and Pexman 1).  This is significant to my argument because at the basis of sarcasm is linguistic representation of meaning.  Searle explains that to have full language we have to be able to, “distinguish representation from expression,” meaning that we have to be able to not only hear and literally comprehend the words someone else is speaking, but also understand the point the speaker is making with the words, which is also obviously necessary in sarcasm (Searle 187).  For example, one night at a dinner table a parent is explaining to their child that they have a lot of work to complete.  Then they leave the table and five minutes later the child runs up to the parent and asks them to play a game.  If the parent were to respond sarcastically with, it’s not like I have anything else to do, the child would most likely think that their parent is free to play, although most people over the age of 10 would know that in fact the parent does have other things to do.  This example shows that children cannot separate the physical words an adult is says, with the actual meaning that the adult is trying to get across, and therefore children do not understand linguistic representation of meaning, which is the underlying foundation for sarcasm.

In sum, from Searle’s perspective, human children are not born with language, rather they are born with prelinguistic language, that overtime develops into complete language.  I confirmed this by first explaining that Searle believes both consciousness and intentionality are necessary in order to have prelinguistic language, and that babies indeed do possess both of these qualities.  Then I described how a fundamental aspect of language to Searle is comprehending linguistic representation of meaning, and explaining that it is evident children do not have this ability because they do not have sarcasm, and sarcasm is rooted in the linguistic representation of meaning.


Word Count: 844







Works Cited


Glenwright, Melanie, and Penny M. Pexman. “Development of Children’s Ability to Distinguish

Sarcasm and Verbal Irony.” Journal of Child Language, vol. 37, no. 2, 2010, pp. 429–451., doi:10.1017/S0305000909009520.


John R. Searle, “What is Language? Some Preliminary Remarks”, in: Etica & Politica / Ethics &

Politics, XI (2009) 1, pp. 173-202.

4 Replies to “Analytical Essay 2”

  1. Hi Rachel,

    I like the way you structured your essay, it is very easy to follow. You did a good job of discussing Searle’s argument and even extending it with your own examples. With that said, would you say that autistic children do not have language because in some cases, people on the spectrum can not understand sarcasm? Would you say that their language ability is below that of a “10 year old child?”

    1. Hi Rachel,

      Your title definitely piqued my interest and after reading your thesis I was very curious to see your evidence for the sarcasm argument. I would have never thought of the ability to use or understand sarcasm to be an indication of linguistic language. However, when you indicated what sarcasm represents, the ability to “distinguish representation from expression”, it made perfect sense to me. I thought the structure of your essay was logical and your arguments were well articulated, but I was left with the same question as Vy. Would you consider individuals with autism to lack language? What about individuals who just have a hard time picking up on sarcasm in general? I consider myself to be a pretty sarcastic person and I have some friends who don’t pick up on my sarcasm (or that of others for the sake of the argument) a majority of the time. Would you say that the difficulty to perceive sarcasm denotes a ‘less-linguistic’ form of language? Or does this theory only apply to children?

      Overall I really enjoyed your paper. It left me with a lot to think about!


  2. Hey Rachel,

    I enjoyed this piece. It took me a while to decide which essay to read but your title drew me in. I don’t think that Searle ever really tried to argue that humans came into this world with all the elements of Linguistic Language. I found that to be a more central argument in Pinker’s pieces. Nonetheless, your essay was concise and logical. For another class I did a research proposal on how metaphors and other forms of irony are concentrated on the right hemisphere of the brain and then redirected to the left hemisphere. You mention that children under 10 have a hard time recognizing sarcasm. Would you say that is because of a lack of maturity in the Linguistic Center or because the brain is still developing? A lot of sarcasm is based off of cultural/contextual experiences so would you think that Searle would argue in favor of a sociology-linguistic perspective?


  3. Hi Racheal,

    I think you had a very organized paper with clear streams of thoughts. I have never associated baby crying with prelinguistic intentionality, but I think you made it clear and explicit. I agree that Searle’s remarks were slightly extremely. Per Searle’s view of language, not only babies do not have it, either do people who cannot precisely and effectively express themselves in language. My paper II was similar to yours, in that I talked about how Searle would have viewed second language learners and their L2. Most speakers of their second language are deficient in understanding social messages, such as irony and sarcasm. With that said, do they have language? Their status is conflicting because they fully own their L1, but have not yet had a grasp on their L2. Therefore, I could definitely understand the points you are trying to make here.

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