Some Notes on Language...
University of North Florida
What is language?As North Americans living in the early 21st century, we have been educated about language from the time we entered school. But much of what we learn about language in schools belongs more to a folk model than to an analytic model of language. Here are several pervasive aspects of our folk model of language.
An analytic model of languageA language is a representational system composed of a set of oral (or, in the case of the hearing impaired, signed) symbols shared by the members of a social group, and a computational system (or grammar) for combining the symbols into phrases and sentences. People use language for internal representation (thinking) and for external representation (communicating). For linguists, the "grammar" of a language is what the native speakers of the language know about their language. Some of the things speakers of a language need to "know" in order to speak a language are:However, the knowledge native speakers have is mostly unconscious knowledge; they "know" how to say it, but they (usually) can’t tell you how or why they say it that way.
Language as both biology & cultureIt seems clear that language is a part of the human biological endowment. Perhaps the most compelling evidence for this can be found in the area of children's acquisition of language.
All normal human children, everywhere, acquire the language of their social setting at about the same pace and in the same way. They do so without formal training, and they do so in social and cultural contexts which differ in terms of what kinds of linguistic interactions are supposed to be appropriate between parents/caregivers and infants. These differences do not seem to affect the rate or quality of children's acquisition of language; in a sense, children acquire language in much the same way as they acquire the skill of walking. However, children who are isolated, for some reason, from all forms of linguistic interaction do not acquire language, and if they reach puberty without exposure to language they may never be able to acquire more than a very rudimentary linguistic ability.
By the time they are around 3-4 years of age, children have mastered some of the most complex and subtle rules of their language, rules which no teacher of language could ever teach them. Of course, they still have lots of vocabulary to learn, as well as some of the pragmatic rules of language use in different social situations, and they have to learn to read and write.
While the underlying shape of language is biological, any given language itself is a cultural artifact. The best way to illustrate this is to take the words for the domesticated animal which English speakers refer to as a dog. All languages have a word for this animal; no language has a word for "half-a-dog." This seems to result from a property of the human brain that guides our perception and representation of natural objects in the world, like dogs, which come to us in whole "packages" (other candidates might be rocks, trees, birds, and so on). At the same time, though, the words we find in different languages
are as different as dog (English); perro (Spanish); anu (Aymara); kelb (Arabic); sobaka (Russian). None of these words has a privileged connection to the animal itself. Each is an arbitrary but conventional answer to the problem of naming these familiar domesticated animals.
The nature of languageLanguage (not just any language, but all languages) share a number of characteristics or design features that help fill out the concept of just what language is. Here are a few of the most important…
Infinite use of finite media. Although languages are complex, they are not infinitely complex. The number of rules that anyone needs to "know" to create sentences in their language is relatively small, and the number of different kinds of sentences is quite small. Still, the number of sentences that can be produced by any speaker of a language is potentially infinite.
Multiple patterning. Language is patterned at a number of levels of organization: sounds are patterned into phonemes, phonemes into words, words into phrases, phrases into sentences, sentences into larger units of discourse. This is what makes the infinite use mentioned above possible.
Predication. All languages make it possible for their speakers to name something and then make some kind of assertion about whatever was named. In other words, all languages allow for sentences that contain a subject and a predicate. We’ll explore this further in the unit on syntax.
Learnability. A central fact about all known languages is that they are all learnable by human beings. All normal human children acquire the language of their social group, and many (perhaps most!) go on to acquire more than one.
Traditional transmission. While all humans appear to have a built-in, genetically provided capacity for language acquisition, the actual acquisition of language must take place in a social context. The social context determines whether the language acquired is English, Russian, or Inuit, etc.
Displacement. Unlike most animal vocalization systems, which require that a stimulus be physically present for the vocalization to take place, human language allows us to talk about things that are absent in either space or time, or both. Without this feature, humans would not be able to talk about dinosaurs, or Cleopatra. We can add that this feature also allows us to talk about things that never existed, such as Klingons. Without it, we could have neither history or fiction.
Openness. Also unlike other animals, which typically have a fixed set of vocalizations, humans can increase the number of expressions at their disposal by inventing words. This feature allows us to add new words to our vocabulary such as hard drive, internet, and gigabyte.
Language & dialectIn our folk model of language, dialects are usually considered to be incomplete, perhaps ungrammatical, certainly less desirable forms of a standard language. The standard language, in contrast, is seen as more developed, more of a true language. The standard language is the form insisted upon for writing, for use in formal situations, certainly for reading and writing in schools. People who do not know the standard language are sometimes viewed in the same way as deficient, incomplete, lacking in education.
The analytic model of language includes the notion of linguistic relativism, which suggests that there is no point in trying to rank languages on any kind of scale. All human languages that we have any direct information about appear to contain all the characteristics necessary for language. In this view, there is no qualitative difference between a language and a dialect; the reasons why a particular variety of speech gets labeled as a dialect instead of as a language must be sought elsewhere. In particular, the reasons are to be found in the political, social, and economic value placed on the speakers of the language variety in question. The people who wield political, economic, and social control speak the "language"; those who do not speak the "dialect."
The realization that languages and dialects are not qualitatively different, and that attitudes toward them really reflect social prejudices, has led some linguists to say that a language is "a dialect with an army and a navy." For linguists, then, what counts as a "language," as opposed to a "dialect," is socially and culturally negotiated; not determined by some objective linguistic truth. Sometimes the negotiation is spectacularly unsuccessful, as when the Oakland (California) school board attempted to declare African American Vernacular English (Ebonics) a "language." There was a great public outcry against this, but almost nobody understood the real reason: African Americans in the US do not have "an army and a navy"; therefore, they are not entitled to have a "language."
I tend to avoid the difficulty of the word dialect by using variety instead. It seems easier and less judgmental to speak of varieties of English such as British, Australian, North American, or West Indian. We can even talk about varieties of creole English, such as Jamaican, Trinadadian, Barbadian, Belizean, and so on. Or, we can go in the other direction, and discuss varieties of Romance such as Spanish, Portuguese, and Italian; varieties of Indo-European such as Germanic and Balto-Slavic; or even varieties of human language such as Indo-European, Austronesian, and so on. It all depends on what level of abstraction we are interested in.
Although from an analytic viewpoint they "know" a language as well as anyone, speakers of non-standard varieties of language are often assumed by the folk model to be language-deficient. In the Caribbean, this manifests itself especially when creole-speaking children get to school and come up against the standard language in an intense way for the first time. Teachers, who through no fault of their own very often have only minimal training, are aware only of the folk model for language. They assume that deviation from standard language forms is evidence for a lack of language, and that children "have no grammar." The analytic model of language tells us that all normal human children "have grammar" but that grammar is their own knowledge of their native language, not the rules written down in school books.
Last update: May 15, 2005
Copyright © Ronald Kephart, 2005
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1. Complimenting colleague’s looks is language sexism.
2. Text messages and social networks ruin the modern languages.
3. Is the use of neurolinguistics programming ethical?
4. The change of languages over time: is this good for a society?
5. Is there a way to understand each other for people speaking different languages?
6. Google’s auto-complete function uses negative stereotypes.
7. Metaphors have the power of controlling people’s minds.
8. Telling jokes or declaring love in a foreign language is easier to multilingual.
9. Jargon is caused by speakers’ laziness, not language evolution.
10. A phonetic language system should be simplified to help language students speak their target language.
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