The more I read around the subject of language, the more I realise that the study of language is in fact the study of humanity. Language is at the heart of what it means to be a human being. It is one of the things that makes us different from all other creatures on this planet. Some would perhaps say it is the evidence of a ‘divine spark’ within each of us. Language is the prism through which we understand the cosmos and the means by which we interact with each other. But before getting into all this, it makes sense to consider what we mean by the term ‘language’.
Signs, meanings and syntax
I find it useful to think of language in terms of signs, meanings and syntax. Signs are things like sounds, letters and gestures which are given certain meanings. These signs are necessarily limited, for example by the range of sounds that humans are able to produce with our vocal chords and this could severely limit our ability to communicate. But we are able to put these signs together into sentences and thus use them to express a wider and wider range of ideas, thoughts, feelings and opinions. We call the system that puts these signs together syntax; “a mechanism that enables human beings to utter or understand an infinite number of sentences constructed from a finite number of building blocks.” [reference] Different languages have their own range of signs and meanings and their own syntax which have developed over time in different places and in different social, economic and cultural contexts.
Value judgements and armies
All languages are spoken but only about a third of them are written. For example, relatively few African languages have been written down and of those few, most were written in very recent times and using characters from other languages. The fact that a language is not written is sometimes interpreted to mean that its speakers are backward. Another closely connected, and equally arrogant, value judgement is the notion that oral spiritual systems and religions are inferior to those centred around sacred writings. This is just one of a number of fascinating discussions in the field of linguistics – the study of language.
Another interesting debate relates to how we distinguish languages from dialects. You might think that there are some clear scientific steps for doing this. Dialects are often thought of as ‘sub-languages‘, forms of communication which are not distinct or formalised enough to qualify as fully-fledged languages. But in reality, these labels depend much more on power relations between groups of people than on any technical criteria. For example, during the European colonisation of Africa, the colonialists decided that the languages spoken in Africa were actually just dialects whereas European tongues were the only proper languages. This has persisted beyond the end of regular colonialism in Africa. As you’ll see elsewhere on this site, there is much truth in the idea that “a language is a dialect with an army and a navy.”
The power of language
Another fascinating linguistic discussion centres on how language affects the way we see and understand the world and how does it shape our behaviour? Some argue that language completely determines these things, while others suggest more plausibly that the influence is only partially. Several studies have been done in this area. There is some evidence that speakers of Chinese languages may be less able to think in hypothetical terms because the grammar of these languages lacks a clear way of expressing such concepts. Another study suggested that speakers of east Asian languages may have an advantage over English speakers in mathematics because their numbering systems are more transparent. This website will get right into this thorny area and will consider how these discussions can have serious social implications.
But that’s all for the future. Now that we have a basic definition of language, the next question to ask is where do words come from? That will be subject of the next blog in this series of Language 101. In the meantime, make sure you get future articles in your inbox as well as other exclusive content by subscribing to the Language and Life e-alerts. And please share any questions or comments you’ve got below.