What is language?
8 myths about language and linguistics
What is language?
Language is an arbitrary, conventionalized association between a symbol and a meaning: there’s no necessary connection between the meaning of a word and how it’s represented in language (spoken, signed, or written). This idea comes from Saussure.
If there was a necessary connection between symbol and meaning, we would expect there to be only one possible language. Even for domains where there’s a closer link, such as onomatopoeia and the first words that a baby speaks (often mama, baba, papa, dada since these are easy to articulate), there are still differences cross-linguistically. And for other words, such as dog, chien, perro, languages differ even more.
The conventionalization criterion distinguishes language from other, non-linguistic forms of communication, such as body language and gesture. Two monolingual speakers of English are equally likely to produce similar or dissimilar gestures in describing a given situation (such as a ball rolling down a hill) as a monolingual speaker of English and a monolingual speaker of another spoken language, but two speakers of ASL will produce signs to describe that situation in a way that are systematically similar to each other and different from another sign language such as BSL.
What is grammar?
In linguistics terms, your mental grammar is the system of unconscious rules and patterns behind how you speak. It’s what tells you that “the cat sat on the mat” sounds natural in English but not “cat the mat the on sat” (although the equivalent could be fine in another language), or that “blick” could be an English word but no “bnick” or “tlick”. You aren’t formally taught a mental grammar, and it’s not just a list of all the words and sentences you’ve heard, because you can also understand words and sentences that you’ve never heard before:
“Last week a former Royal Marine who is the boyfriend of the model Kelly Brooks crashed into a bus stop while driving a van carrying a load of dead badgers.” (via Language Log)
anti-paper, anti-anti-paper, anti-anti-anti-paper “people who are against people who are against using paper” (etc)
What is a language?
A language like English, French, Japanese, etc. is an accumulation of all the unconscious rules in the brains of all the speakers who can understand each other. Mutual intelligibility is generally how linguists distinguish languages from dialects, although in practice there are also social factors at play. (Hence the quote: “A language is a dialect with an army and a navy”). For example, although Swedish and Norwegian are mutually intelligible, they’re spoken in different countries so people often call them languages, while Mandarin and Cantonese are not mutually intelligible at all but are sometimes both referred to as Chinese.
Even with the mutual intelligibility test, there are inevitably going to be some inconsistencies between the mental grammars (idiolects) of various speakers, but there are enough general similarities that we can all understand each other and can thus be said to speak the same language. And although a language exists in the minds of speakers, as a speaker if you just up and decide some day that you’re going to call a pen a “frindle” that doesn’t necessarily mean that this is part of the language, because no one will know what you mean, but maybe if you do it long enough it might eventually spread more broadly. Linguists often study language in just a few individuals because any individual is a representation of how the human mind works with respect to language, even though there is also variation between individuals.
What is linguistics?
Linguistics is the study of human language, as we actually speak it, both in terms of an individual language spoken by an individual person and what that tells us about language in general. Linguists seek to answer questions like: what are the unconscious rules that we use when we speak? And, since no one ever actually taught us these rules, how did we come to learn them?
Myths about language
Myth #1: Children learn to speak through explicit teaching or memorization
Children learn language long before they enter a classroom, just from exposure to it, and they produce language that they couldn’t have ever heard before based on figuring out linguistic patterns. A classic example showing that children figure out patterns in language that they can generalize to unfamiliar data is the wug test, but another source of evidence comes from children’s overgeneralizations of irregular forms. For example, children may produce goed, eated, foots despite the fact that they’ve only ever heard went, ate, feet.
In fact, children may even resist explicit teaching of language, as this example shows:
Child: Want other one spoon, Daddy.
Father: You mean, you want THE OTHER SPOON.
Child: Yes, I want other one spoon, please, Daddy.
Father: Can you say “the other spoon”?
Child: Other … one … spoon.
Father: Say … “other.”
Father: “Other … Spoon.”
Child: Other … spoon. Now give me other one spoon?
Myth #2: Animals have language just like humans
Animals can communicate with each other, but human language is unique for several reasons. Firstly, human language is recursive: sentences can be infinitely long (or as long as your breath/memory will hold out) by embedding one phrase or sentence into another. Some examples from children’s songs: “the branch on the tree and the tree in the hole and the hole in the ground…”, “…she swallowed the spider to catch the fly, and I don’t know why she swallowed the fly…”, “…who lived in the house that Jack built”.
Human language is also creative and productive: you can make sentences and even words that no one has ever heard before (e.g. snowpocalypse, I’m all cookied-out). Finally, human language is more abstract than animal communication: we can talk about past and future and even hypothetical events and entities. Although bee dances can communicate information about food and distances, and dogs can recognize names of toys and even whether you’re happy or angry, neither of them can tell you about how their weekend was or what they’d do if they had a million dollars.
Myth #3: Reading and writing are an essential part of language
Not all languages are written, and language has been around at least a hundred thousand years before any writing. Spoken and sign languages (at least for young children) are acquired naturally and without conscious effort, whereas reading and writing can take years of formal instruction and effort that results in varying levels of proficiency. Writing is also idiosyncratic and doesn’t reflect everything about spoken language (and is often even less accurate for sign languages). Spelling doesn’t change as quickly as speech and is more standardized.
English spelling is also complicated and inconsistent. For example, the sound /i/ can be spelled at least 8 different ways, as in meet, eat, Pete, funny, key, quay, machine, and ceiling. And the symbol “e” can represent at least 4 different sounds, as in pen, game, redo, and the. Even in languages with more logical spelling systems, like Spanish, the spelling doesn’t reflect the whole language because it misses important aspects like prosody (the intonational pattern of a sentence or phrase).
Linguistics looks at the sounds of language and analyzes the words based on their sounds, not their spelling, although “non-standard” spellings can often give clues as to how words were pronounced when we don’t have recordings of speakers.
Myth #4: Some languages/dialects are more complex or better than others
Children learn whichever language they are exposed to at a similar rate (although children exposed to multiple languages may learn each language slightly slower, they will catch up and often exceed their monolingual peers within a few years). What seems “simple” or “complicated” to you as an adult depends on what you already know: for example, if you speak a language that already has tone or case marking or definite/indefinite articles or a tense/lax vowel distinction, these concepts will seem easy to you, but if you haven’t been exposed to them early, these concepts will seem hard.
Languages that are straightforward in one area are often complicated in another area. For example, a language with a rigid system of word order and many prepositions may lack case marking, while a language with many cases may have freer word order and/or fewer prepositions. Another example is that a language with fewer sounds overall is likely to have longer words than a language with many sounds (the number of possible words of length CV is the number of consonants C in the language times the number of vowels V in the language), and languages with less complicated syllable structure tend to be spoken faster.
There’s some evidence that languages that have been learned by a lot of speakers in adulthood are likely to be more isolating, while languages that have predominantly been learned by speakers in childhood are more likely to be more agglutinative/polysynthetic, suggesting that these might be factors in relative ease or difficulty, but children are still equally capable of learning any language and even if we end up finding some differences, this is not evidence for one language being superior. (There are definitely easier and harder writing systems though: English-speaking children, for example, take longer to learn to read andare diagnosed with dyslexia at higher rates than Spanish-speaking children, because the English orthography is far more irregular than the Spanish one.)
Languages or dialects that people think of as “better” reflect a social (and often racist) judgement about who has power or who is considered more important, not anything intrinsic about the language itself (here’s one example).
Myth #5: Languages deteriorate over time
It’s common to think that “kids these days” aren’t talking as well as previous generations, but all living languages change over time and it is not a sign of inferiority: any language at any stage still consists of complex subconscious patterns. Borrowing words also doesn’t make a language inferior or corrupt: all languages borrow, and borrowed words get adapted into the sound system and grammar of the borrowing language.
Myths about linguistics:
Myth #1: Linguists speak all the languages
Linguists aren’t necessarily polyglots, and a linguistics course will definitely not teach you how to speak all the languages (if only it were that easy!), although an awareness of the diverse features of language may make it somewhat easier to learn languages in the future. Although some organizations such as the military use “linguist” to refer to people who speak multiple languages, this is not the same as an academic/theoretical linguist. For more, see Why linguists hate being asked how many languages they speak.
Myth #2: Linguists correct/criticize how people talk
Linguists analyze language how it exists, not how some people wish it exists: for a linguist to tell someone that they’re speaking wrong is like a biologist telling a bird that it’s singing wrong. You may be thinking of grammar mavens, editors, and/or lexicographers, although many editors and pretty much all lexicographers are actually quite tolerant about this kind of thing and only give feedback when asked. For more on the interplay between prescriptivism and copyediting, see this post.
Myth #3: Linguistic/grammar rules include things like don’t split infinitives, don’t use ain’t
Linguists analyze the part of grammar that is automatic and generally subconscious. Grammar rules that you have to be taught in English class or a style guide are:
a) Often about spelling/punctuation, not the structure of the language, and we’ve already established that writing doesn’t reflect the full language anyway
b) Often based on the misapplication of Latin grammar to English by 18th or 19th century grammarians (for example, the confusion about “you and me” vs “you and I”)
c) Often modelled on the speech of people who have historically had power (rich old white men).
None of these are particularly relevant to answering the question of how language in both its diversity and commonality came to exist in the human mind: linguists analyze what people actually do when they’re speaking, not what they or someone else thinks they should do.