Language as Behavior and as Symbolism

Jacob Robert Kantor

AMONG the most firmly established fallacies in current thought is the conception that language consists of symbols. Accordingly it is the purpose of the present paper to examine this fallacy to the end that we may achieve some better notion of the nature of language.

In a paper on language it would be highly inappropriate to trip ourselves in "language's tangled skein." The term "language" stands for many things. Let us therefore at the threshold of our inquiry attempt to make clear what we plan to treat. Our interest is in living language, the sort of thing that occurs when men converse. We exclude, therefore, those phases of language that belong to the stuff of books. The verbal stones of poetry or prose construction, whether musical sounds or visual signs, fall without our purview. As we shall see, it is the confusion of living language with this dead product of speech or writing (and printing) which is in part the basis of the symbolization conception.[1]

( 151) Having thus delimited our subject we may now attempt a separation of symbolism and language. First a few remarks about the former.


Symbology is the science of implied relations. The simplest of these relations is that obtaining between two things. One of these is called the signifier and the other the significant. The symbologist is interested in the conditions under which each of the members of a couple imply' or stand for the other.

Symbology might be regarded as either an independent or an applied science. As an independent study it is interested in relations irrespective of the specific nature of the related members. When, on the other hand, symbology is primarily concerned with the nature of the related members, it becomes a branch or aspect of some other science, for example, logic or mathematics.

Language may also be a field of symbological application. When spoken and written words constitute the materials of symbology, symbols naturally become of interest to the linguist and the psychologist. But this fact merely warns us to observe clearly the distinction between linguistics, the symbology of language, and the psychology of language.

We take it as invariably true that when linguistic phenomena are most symbolic they are farthest removed from being behavioristic or psychological. The best example of symbolic language is represented by the relation of words and things. When words are taken to be symbols it is assumed that the names of things or of acts constitute the signifiers for those things or acts as significants. Hence, it is clear that symbology applies best to language when words are regarded as objects or marks on paper.

Verbal acts, too, can be symbols. Quite as much so as things. But does this mean that speech is a type of symbolism? Decidedly not. There is no justification for calling true linguistic reactions symbols. [2]

A sharp line divides adaptational acts from symbols. Even the members of a simple stimulus and response couple are not symbols one of the other. In what sense is it true that the hot object which stimulates me to jerk my hand away when I perform a reflex reaction is a symbol of something? Only by the most arbitrary conversion could the situation be so interpreted. How much less then can we

( 152) convert the speaking behavior situation into a symbol relation. When a person speaks to me, his speech reaction stimulates me to act. Why should his action be regarded as a symbol instead of a stimulus? Clearly to do so means that we have fallen into the error that stimuli words (acts in this case) are signs.

But our inquiry does not stop here. Let us not limit our situation to two variables. Assume that our relation is triadic, including (1) the person who utters the words, (2) the words, and (3) the thing to which they are reactions. When a person utters a word or a sentence, must we regard the utterance as a symbol signifying the thing to which it is a response?

Language is not symbology. While it is possible to stand beside a speaker and interpret his words as symbols standing for things, this does not mean that language is symbolic. No more so than the comet is a symbol of kneeling, although we might observe a person kneel whenever a comet swims into his ken. True we may symbolize or interpret the comet as a sign of required worship. This is merely applying a name to a thing, to wit, calling it a symbol. But clearly the name represents no description of the thing. It does not expose its essential character or function. The comet, and by analogy the word, is only a symbol by someone's thinking or saying so or otherwise intentionally or unintentionally making it so by their action.


Language is behavior. It is adjustmental performances. To speak is to adapt oneself to a situation. Language is surely not essentially the setting up of symbols. Now it is true that speaking reactions involve two stimuli, the thing spoken of and the person spoken to.[3] But does the fact that the speaker tells the hearer something about the thing spoken of make his speech into symbols for the thing?

Surely there is neither an intentional nor unintentional setting up of a symbol. The person, being a speaking animal, simply performs that kind of action. As a matter of fact, the speaker may not be able to adjust himself in the situation by speech reactions. When an auto is about to strike some person, especially when the latter is a very young child, the acting individual merely pulls the other person out of the way. Speaking is an alternative form of adjustment only when there is time, and when there is an understanding hearer.

Psychological or genuine language is never merely a series of counters standing for things or acts. It is impossible to think of

( 153) the intimate adjustmental acts such as psychological language as being mere signifiers. To do so is to overlook all of the actual adjustmental event. Here we see why the symbolizers of language are not favorably inclined toward interjections. The latter are hard to place as symbols.

Even though every linguist may fall into the error of treating spoken words as symbols or signs, he yet knows full well that they are not that sort of thing. When one is on one's guard, it is quite permissible metaphorically to describe spoken words as things. To be on one's guard, however, is to appreciate that language consists of superlatively active behavior which is constantly becoming modified and changed; so that a particular act now constitutes a reaction to one thing and soon after to something else. Even spoken words are in no sense fixed elements bearing a direct and definite relation to a referred-to object. Words regarded as symbols are still farther removed from psychological adjustment than are the words or action patterns of the grammarian.

To crystallize speaking events into symbols results only in forcing out of the events all that actually transpires. It leaves out such factors as the person speaking to himself, in which case obviously no definite, symbology is necessary. The speaking individual need not be referring something to someone. Further it leaves out the definite conditions of the reaction. A speaking individual is not merely translating an object into a symbol or using a symbol which stands for an object. He is casually, excitedly, or irritatedly responding to a situation. . His response, so far as words are concerned, may be all jargon.

One can, of course, speak symbolically. This is the case when one adapts oneself linguistically by writing or signalling. But in any event, the person is performing a distinct psychological adaptation. It is immaterial whether the adaptational response consists of speaking or writing words, making gestures, sending flowers or bonbons, developing mathematical equations, or waving a flag or a lantern. Symbols can very definitely be used as tools in adapting oneself linguistically. For instance, when I want to talk to a student about a reflex action, I use pictures to aid me in my adaptation. But the pictures are in no sense my acts of adaptation. The diagrams I project on the screen are not my conversation. They are often so much better as instructorial tools as obviously not to be the same phenomena.[4]

Speaking is entirely different from setting up a sign which refers to some thing or condition signified. In the latter case, the sign

( 154) or symbol, even il' il be the active performance, must, be regarded as a fixed thing, a sheer member of a relation. The important adaptation from the standpoint of the symbologist is to be made by the person who takes the symbol in its proper relationship to that thing or condition symbolized .[5]

An important question arises. Do not those who insist upon making language into symbols do so because of the psychological factor involved? Apparently it appears to them that because symbols are set up for others to see or make use of that there is a linguistic element added to symbols. Even on this basis we must deny that symbolism is language. How can the mere fact that a person sets up symbols to puzzle or enlighten somebody make either the symbols or the activity into language? Does the sheer introduction of a psychological factor transform a symbological situation into linguistic activity? Decidedly not. Not even when symbols are verbal. The symbolizing activity is no more a linguistic response than putting a red light upon a pile of debris at sundown. The intention of warning somebody or the desire to avoid an accident is not language. No more is the act of taking an object from one place and putting it some place else. The problem here is the actual character of a psychological performance.

Now so far we have been considering the linguistic fact from the standpoint of the speaker. Let us turn then from the language reaction of a person which stimulates some other individual, to the reaction of this other person when he adjusts himself to such a stimulus.

Is the linguistic hearing reaction [6] nothing but a response to a symbol? [7] To say yes means that we misinterpret a complex adjustment in the interest of traditional prejudice. At once we forget the complex linguistic situation out of which our hearing response emerges as from a living matrix of human circumstances.

Upon us now devolves the task of inquiring into the nature of a linguistic hearing reaction. In the first place it is a distinctive form of adjustment. During its performance the person comes into referential contact with some stimulus object the thing spoken of. Can we make clearer this referential response? Perhaps not, although in the light of the total conversation of which this response

( 155) constitutes a part, we understand it thoroughly. This referential response consists of psychologically getting into contact with an object or event so we can learn about it, know it, appreciate or take delight in it. This response is a precurrent or a preparatory reaction in function. But in no sense is it a response to a symbol. When I am the hearer of something spoken to me I react to the object and not to a symbol of it.

As we have indicated, every linguistic reaction is a response to two simultaneous stimuli. Does this fact warrant us in making the other person's reaction-stimulus into a symbol? We think not. That auxiliary stimulus is no more a symbol than the bell in the conditioned response experiment is a symbol to the dog for the food. In that experiment, after the conditioning, we merely have two stimuli either of which will call out the secretion reflex.

Naturally the linguistic situation is entirely different from the conditioned reflex situation. To mention only one thing, the two eliciters of the response in the conditioned reflex experiment are independent functions, while in the case of the linguistic situation the two stimuli are absolutely interdependent and simultaneously operating functions. Again, linguistic situations, of course, are highly complicated affairs, and as we have indicated, the referential response is not ordinarily an independent response although it might be. On the çontrary, it is usually connected with many other kinds of reactions to the adjustment stimuli objects. There are in addition knowledge and understanding responses as well as affective behavior of various sorts.

Perhaps we can put our finger on the nerve of the difficulty of those who symbolize language by indicating that what they mean by saying that a linguistic hearing reaction is a response to a symbol is that the knowing responses which accompany referential adjustment are responses to symbols. Clearly they are confusing here knowing and understanding responses with acts of responding to symbols. This multiplies our errors by two. Granting that we have meaning and understanding reactions in linguistic situations, are these reactions simply reactions to symbols? No more so, we should say, than in the case of responding to a conditioning stimulus object. [8] It is not within our province, however, to unmask this error, for even if understanding and knowing were symbolization processes this would have no manner of effect upon our problem, since under-standing patently is not language.

It appears that here once more those who symbolize language isolate words, namely, the dead fruits of speech, and make them into

( 156) signifiers or elements in a relational couple. These, as we have indicated, are indeed symbols. This brings us to a consideration of what is involved when we actually respond to symbols.

Symbols are no more language than the object in the road that is used as a landmark for it certain purpose. True enough that object means something to me. When I see it, I know I must turn to the right; but where in this whole situation is there that living interaction in which some one speaks to some one or tells him where to go? Symbols are very definitely objects of particular sorts and they indeed exhibit stimulational functions. As substitute stimuli they elicit understanding responses among others, but in no case as symbols do they constitute any essential feature of a living linguistic event.[9]

The words in a book or hieroglyphics on a monument may be regarded as symbols in this same sense. When I discover what these words or signs stand for, it is no violation of metaphor to say that these hieroglyphics excite and enlarge my understanding. They are my teachers. From them I learn all the glories and vicissitudes of a departed race of people. I know how they lived, worshipped, and spoke. Now even if these signs are the crystallized precipitates of what was once actual adjustmental language, they are obviously not so any longer.

Again, I visit a foreign country. I hear a strange tongue spoken. I infer that the speaker is telling the other person something. By analogy with my own speech activities the words spoken convey to me a world of meaning. I understand much of what is going on. If anything that stimulates me to understand is a symbol, we have here perfectly operating symbols, but no language.

In none of these cases am I as the hearer or reader involved in a language situation. I am not adjusting myself to linguistic stimulation. I am neither engaged in conversation nor being commanded or requested to do something.[10] My reaction is a psychological response to an event precisely as when I see the lightning and know that I must hurry home to avoid a drenching.

Our task of separating symbolism from language is finished. We conclude that language as living phenomena can not be regarded as other than behavior. Language consists of a series of adjustmental interactions and not a set of symbols.

This does not mean, of course, that language can not be symbolized. That it can we have already indicated. We can symbolize any kind of data. Then why not language? We can just as well

( 157) abstract all the actual content of a stimulus and response event as of any other. It is no great feat to make the speaker's action, which ordinarily is a stimulating response, into a signifier as a fixed correlate to an object as significant. But the slight value this procedure promises for linguistic description is indicated by the fact that the object may just as well be made the signifier as the significant.

One more point. Let us not be misunderstood. So far we have been interested in the actual nature of language. We may freely admit that for purposes of studying language and organizing our knowledge about language we must symbolize such data. All sciences must make use of such contrived relationship as symbolizing is concerned with. But surely we can not confuse such schematic materials designed to describe language with the actual language which we are attempting to describe.


In view of the quite obvious differences between symbols and language the question arises as to how it is possible to confound them. What are the mechanisms of transforming language into symbols t We have already suggested one. Namely, we start with the confusion of verbal signs-written or printed characters which are symbols-with living language which is not.

Another such mechanism is the employment of the principle of context. Essentially this principle amounts to a process of loading symbols with definite linguistic content. The result is that symbolizing becomes language. In this way one takes care of the fact that one can adapt oneself adequately to different circumstances with the same acts such as pair, pare, pear. [11]

A typical example of the employment of the context mechanism is to assume that what the speaker does is to act in such a way as not only to symbolize the reference, but to express an attitude toward the listener and the thing referred to, to bring about effects in the listener, and to make his reference in the easiest and best way. While the symbolist may reject as irrelevant some of the factors of the psychological action, he may put in a sufficient number to make his symbology correspond pretty closely to a language situation. But here it is in no sense pure symbological relations that are being discussed, but something else. In other words, symbology is no longer regarded as the science of relations. But all of these manipulations enable us to see the likenesses and differences between symbology and language.

( 158)

Another mechanism for converting language into symbols is based upon monitorial prescriptions concerning the use of word symbols. The point here is that whenever we employ word symbols they must be regarded as precise instruments for our thought and more overt conduct. To illustrate, when a person speaks or writes of god, beauty, virtue, or freedom we prescribe a proper correlation between the language symbols and their referents. When these things actually exist, then the words must explicitly refer to them. If not, the metaphorical character of the speech symbols should be manifest. Linguistic symbology thus stands for the appropriateness and serviceability of words or phrases. The goal of such a study is to avoid error or misunderstanding in the use of language in order not to mislead oneself or others. One would not then be controlled by words, or substitute words for things. Such a study of symbolization culminates in the refinement of word usage. Thus it serves the same purpose as refinement of symbolization in logic and mathematics, in which clear thinking and proper calculation are the targets aimed at.

Such admonitory prescription may also be applied to living language. For, changing one's emphasis from word symbols to actual acts it is well to warn speakers to be careful in their speech. Speech is the adjustment to surroundings. Why not, then, be cautious and adapt ourselves well. What is involved here is really style of speech. We can not but regard this mechanism as a feeble means of turning language into symbols. The monitorial principle has exceedingly limited application. It can only apply to grammatical expression. But even here actual language will not tolerate the taskmaster. Bad grammar is a problem of etiquette and not of linguistics.


The confounding of language with symbology and the consequent complete misinterpretation of the former has its roots deep in a number of interrelated intellectual traditions. Let us consider only the conceptions of expression and communication. The idea that language is an instrument for the expression and communication of thought weighs heavily upon linguistic scholarship. As long as language is conceived of in this way it can not escape its thing, sign, and symbol character.

So far as expression is concerned this conception harks back to the old spiritistic psychology. Language according to this tradition consists of words or acts which materialize spiritistic or mentalistic states. That this worthless and outworn tradition need not stand in the way of a correct understanding of language is indicated by the availability of a completely objective psychology which can entirely supplant the mentalistic tradition.

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Language as the communication of ideas, feelings, and desires is only a modified and an applied form of the expression idea. It is modified merely to describe how A can translate his ideas into words, so they can be retranslated into B's ideas. To what we have already said about such a crude conception we need add nothing more.

But this communication conception might be improved. By communication may be meant merely the process of translation from one language to another. Communication of this type may be regarded as an entirely objective affair. The example is my speaking English which someone translates into French. But it is easy to see that it is only by a process of tearing out the adjustmental actions completely from their actual situations that words are reduced to sheer counters. Such a procedure emphasizes the great contrast between living language and the symbols to which it is reduced.

There remains another form of objective communication, namely, my speaking in order to inform someone of my desires, thoughts, or intentions. The proper description of this event concerns language as actual adaptational behavior and offers no warrant for the symbolization process.

With these suggestions concerning the traditional influences upon the symbolization of language we conclude our paper. We submit that when these are extruded from the linguistic domain the differences as well as the connections between language and symbols will become increasingly evident.



  1. Note that the distinction between psychological and non-psychological language is not the same distinction its that between speech (spoken-auditory language) and gestural, or all other forms of non articulate language. All of these are living language.
  2. At this point we may indicate the desirability of reserving the term "linguistics" for living language, while language symbols may be represented by the term "verbal signs." We may add, too, that the conversion of language into symbols is quite impossible when we leave the realm of single word names to go to the field of connected discourse.
  3. For an objective psychological description of language, cf. Kantor, Principles of Psychology, Volume II, 1926, Ch. 23.
  4. Since our primary task in this paper is to keep different things distinct, we must point out that in this illustration we add to our linguistic and symbological phenomena an educational or social factor.
  5. Here, too, knowing or recognizing that the lantern or word stands for something is not language, but some other sort of psychological performance.
  6. Unfortunately the poverty of our language deprives us of a name for this distinct and important form of psychological behavior.
  7. It is significant that even the symbolizers of language have not gone to the absurd length of making the hearing reaction into a symbol. Since both types of linguistic responses are reciprocal phases of a language event this fact perhaps argues that speaking events do not consist of symbol relations.
  8. Here the question arises whether the stimuli for implicit behavior are symbols. For a study of implicit stimuli see Kantor's Principles of Psychology, Vol. I, Ch. 10.
  9. As we have pointed out in discussing the speech phase of language, symbols, of course, can constitute features of a complex linguistic situation.
  10. All three of these terms, of course, refer to the sorts of bi-stimulational activities mentioned above.
  11. Note that these three words stand for a large number of different acts and not merely three. Here is a practical illustration of the striking difference between symbols and acts.

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