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Second Person is Primary in Language Development

1985 by Ralph E. Kenyon, Jr.

In a broad sense, I think it impossible to develop a coherent theory of language without including the second person. With only one person, language is totally unnecessary. So far, I have only encountered discussions of and reference to the first and third person forms; indexicals discuss the first person, while demonstratives discuss the third person. Any viable theory must include the second person.

There is a difference between the written and spoken form of the second person. For the purpose of this exposition I shall include all recorded media as subsumed under writing. I feel that the structures in the written forms can be accounted for as modifications of the basic spoken forms. I wish also to distinguish among direct quotes, indirect quotes, and other forms of speech. The quote forms presume a previous context which included first and/or second person forms, and may include third person forms. Accordingly, quote free forms need to be accounted for prior to the introduction of quote forms.

For some motivation, we must consider the primary purpose of language, which is communication among its users. The simplest level is simply performing indications. The context structure implicit in such action is that of one individual addressing another, (occasionally himself). Now, indications can be performed without verbal accompaniment, therefore the purpose of such indications intimately involves the relationship between language and the actors (the first and second person). Since the relationship between a sign and its referent is arbitrary, one purpose for the indication is to fix exactly that reference relationship in the context of the first and second person. Accordingly, "what is going on" is the establishment of a convention that the utterance of the sign is "fixed" and to be associated with the object indicated. The referent is fixed, in Russell's terms, by acquaintance. Some signs so fixed are names of objects and some are names of acts by agents (such as responses by the second person to imperatives 'give', 'get', 'go', etc. and interrogations by the first person, 'which', 'where', etc.; etc.) Demonstratives perform two functions in this primordial context, establishing what sign shall be associated with a non-verbally demonstrated object, and, once the association is fixed, using the sign as the response to an interrogative in order to refer to the object to which the sign was associated.

It is my contention that the most primordial verbal expressions are commands by dominant persons and requests by subordinate persons. These two differ only in the attitude which must be displayed to the second person. A request by a subordinate is an interrogative. Generalization of interrogatives from application to only names of acts by agents to names of things as well provides for questions about things. The earliest forms should require simple affirmation or denial as a response. Emphasis of the denial or affirmation can be accomplished by repeating the interrogative as a response to the question. (Give food? -- No food! Clearly this response can be given in both the case of a denial of the request and the case that there is no food to give.) This forms the basis of the simple assertion or denial.

Simple assertions about a speaker can use the third person by using a fixed sign, or the first person by using the indexical 'I'. Which came first? (The body or the ego?) I can hypothesize a need for the first person from the original context. Whenever there are more that two agents, the possibility arises for having different signs fixed to the same object or act, or for the same sign to be fixed (by different pairs of agents) to the different objects or acts. Also, there arises the possibility for individuals to not know the sign fixed to each other (not know each others names). The first person form permits communication to occur without exchanging names and by constantly using names. The first person is, in this sense, a simple matter of economy; the same argument holds for the second person form. Heretofore all commands and requests may have relied totally on non-verbal indications to mark the addressee. Once the first and second person signs are formed, it is simply a matter of generalizing to adapt the economy to the third person. On the other hand, it is easy to conceive that demonstrative signs preceded naming; the simple economy of a few signs which are used in many contexts allows everyone to learn identical sentences to perform the "same" (relative) indication. Does it become an empirical question? One the answer to which we can find out by suitable examination of the past? Or by examining the pattern of language acquisition among children? Perhaps, but it is possible to learn much about what should be found out by devising structures which can account for what we see today.

Once the particular act of a person we call 'speaking' (said, asserted, etc.) is named, and the speech forms involving a direct object (Give food!) are in use, a pattern is available for quotation (Oog say, "Give food!").