Wednesday, 6 March 2013

1) What is 'language'?

Language is frequently defined as being simply a form of communication – and this is true to an extent, because language is certainly a means of communication. But then there are many ways in which both humans and animals communicate. A Chimpanzee might wave its hand in such a way as to communicate irritation, or anger. A husband might leave a rose with his wife’s breakfast in order to communicate love. There are even forms of communication which humans and animals make without any conscious effort at all.

As two cats approach each other, they pick up from scents, sounds and body posture whether the other cat is friendly or unfriendly. A women meeting a man for the first time might unconsciously flutter their eyelids, part her lips and fidget with her hair in a way which indicates attraction. Or a man being questioned by the police might blink rapidly and look up towards the right in a way which might suggest they are lying.

In both these examples, we can see a means of communication. Experts refer to them as examples of ‘leakage’, since communication is leeking out through body language. There are other forms of communication of course. Bees for example, communicate the location of the best nectar by performing a dance. Birds sing songs. But none of these examples are means of communication which demonstrate anything like the scale of complexity that human verbal language can. As Geoffrey Finch writes: “Verbal language is the most complex and sophisticated form of communication to have evolved on this planet” (Finch, Allan, Bradshaw, Heyden and Burridge, 2009).

Indeed as Finch notes in another book, language itself is such a powerful and mysterious thing that it is often attributed with magical powers (Finch, 2003. p. 1). Spells and curses use language to perform magic, while in many religions and philosophies the word is explicitly associated with the divine. The gospel of John in the Bible states that “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” In Greek philosophy, the Word was the Divine Logos – the Reason which underpins all reality (see the works of Epictetus). Marcel Griaule, in his study of the African Dogon peoples, discovered that according to their beliefs, every object is made of words. Words are spirits that inhabit peoples bodies. According to Dogon beliefs, speaking to a woman means that the spirit of words fertilizes her, enabling her to give birth (Griaule and Dieterlen, 1954).

The Dogon people of Mali

The truth is though, that language is a system. It is a machine – and a machine which easily eclipses any other man-made invention for the enormity of its significance:

“We take our ability to speak entirely for granted, which is as it should be of course. Like walking, or breathing, it seems an entirely natural function. But all languages are inventions. The words we speak or write, and the system which underlies their use, have all been made up.” (Finch, 2003. p. 1).

Well, there are a range of things many of which would give us all a headache if we attempted to address them all now. However, there are certain characteristics that we can identify more simply. Here, I am going to concentrate on just 5.

  • Displacement: We have already encountered this in the Module Guide. Human language can “range over time and space” (Finch, 2009). When we meet each other we might ask how we have been. ‘How was Christmas?’ Even when returning from lunch break, we might ask each other ‘was it nice? Is it better than the food in Café Mondo?’. By referring to the past we are communicating in a way which displaces us in time – it takes us back in time. By referring to the Café Mondo, we are displacing ourselves in space – taking us to a different place. Animal communication simply does not replicate this capacity for displacement. A dog might come up to you with a lead in its mouth, wagging its take in a way which communicates it wants to go for a walk – but the next day it is unlikely to suddenly roll over and yawn in a way which suggests ‘you know, I enjoyed that walk yesterday – but I preferred it last week when we went by the park’.
    • Ideational Function: A rather highbrow linguistic term this, and the meaning is a little bit complicated too – so hold on to your hats. We use language when we think. Let us use for a moment the word ‘rights’. The word ‘rights’ contains within it an ideal which is entirely abstract. A notion about certain standards of respect or of remuneration which we are all entitled to on account of being something or other – our rights as human beings, our rights as students, or as employees, etc..
      Here is the question though. Was there such a thing as human rights before the words existed with which to express the idea? We live in a world now where there are lawyers by the zillion all expressly intent on asserting all our rights. Are we more conscious of the idea now than we were twenty years ago? 
      Again, Finch provides a neat summary: 
      “But there is a certain type of thought which is dependent on language. Language enables us to reason about the world … We need language in order to conceptualise experience. Concepts such as ‘time’, ‘love’, ‘honesty’, are abstract. Language brings them into being as ideas which we can manipulate and use to construct our lives. Once we have the concepts of ‘fidelity’ and ‘punctuality’, we can actively try to be faithful or punctual. In such ways our lives depart from those of other animals” (Finch, 2009).
    • Grammar: It is tempting to think that animals use a human-like language. For example, when a meerkat standing on guard sees a predator approaching, it will let out a series of high-pitched cries which all the other meerkats recognise as a signal of danger. It is feasible to think that an animal might have a different cry depending on whether the danger is in the sky or on the ground – but that is probably about as sophisticated as it gets.

      Despite all the attempts of programmes like Meerkat Manor to convince us otherwise, there is certainly not a cry which would translate as ‘look out folks! There is an African sea-eagle heading this way from the direction of that bilbao tree Henry fell off last month!’. 
      Human beings have given language a naming function, which linguists refer to as the process of nominalisation. Human language is not content with ‘danger’ standing as an entire construct of meaning all by itself. Certainly, children might point at something and exclaim ‘ball’ as a means of saying ‘I would like the ball now please, if you would be so kind’ (this is known as a holophrastic utterance – one in which the meaning of a whole phrase is compacted into a single utterance). 
       But even after about 18 months, children are already progressing beyond holophrastic language use. They are starting to recognise that there is a difference between what is meant by ‘ball’, and what is meant by ‘can I have the ball’. ‘Ball’ simply identifies the object itself. The phrase ‘can I have the ball’ is necessary if you want to get across the message of some action taking place in relation to the ball. To put it another way, a system of words – grammar – is required for the communication to function on more than one level. The object itself becomes turned into an abstract word which grammar can play with – it is grammar in language which means that we can say more than ‘ball’ to indicate an object in front of us. We can create images of ‘throwing the ball up in the air’, or of ‘kicking it from 30 yards out and watching it soar into to the top corner of the goal’. 
      Linguist Michael Halliday describes the difference between animal and human communication in terms of tiers (Halliday, 1985). There are 2 tiers to animal communication, and 3 in human communication. 
      Animal and early child communication has only two teirs: From meaning, to sound. This Halliday refers to as 'proto-language'. There is a simple meaning – i.e., ‘danger!’. This meaning is vocalised by a sound corresponds with that meaning. 
      Human post-18-month communication, in contrast, has three tiers: From meaning, through a structure of words, transcribed into sound. In other words, there is a simple meaning, which is passed through a structure of words in order to expand the possible meanings. This more complex meaning is vocalised using the words comprising that structure. 
      This diagram, I hope, makes this distinction sufficiently opaque: 
      The function of grammar is to enable the possibility of taking any finite number of sounds, and to fashion from them an almost infinite number of meanings. The short, monosyllabic proto-language sounds that a 6th month child might utter (‘dah’, ‘buh’, ‘mom’) quickly become assimilated into words (‘daddy’, ‘bottle’, ‘mummy’) and then advanced even further into a system from which precise meanings can be drawn (‘I want my daddy’, ‘can I have my bottle’, ‘I know her, she’s my mummy’).

    • Double Articulation: This process of taking sounds and adding them together to form words in a variety of different orders is known as double articulation.

      The only animals which have demonstrated anything like double articulation are birds – which take the various sounds they can produce and strong them together into a song which can have specific meaning. Even birds, though, only demonstrate double articulation in a very limited way. Their songs generally boil down to one of two meanings: Either ‘I’m here and I’m cross, so you’d better bugger off’, or ‘I’m here and I’m randy, so come and get it’!

    • Creativity: And this is anther aspect in which human language differs from the means by which animals communicate. Have you ever heard anybody say that they were ‘not creative’? Hopefully not – because no human being using language could ever be accused of lacking creativity. The creativity which is required to take the 40 or so sounds they are capable of, and to string them into consistently meaningful sentences, is extraordinary. Many of the sentences which we might say in the course of an ordinary day may well be unique – strings of words never before put together in the order in which we have done it.
      We can even construct sounds and words in orders which are totally unique in themselves, but which can still communicate complex meanings. Just think about the creativity with which the poet e.e.cummings has used words and sounds in the following: 
      anyone lived in a pretty how town 
      (with up so floating many bells down) 
      spring summer autumn winter 
      he sang his didn't he danced his did 
      The words are all familiar.  Even the grammatical contructs are standard.  However, cummings has used them here in a way which makes them sound unique and original.  Again, as Finch writes: 
       “Creativity and double articulation enable a system to take off from contextually bound fixed meanings to those which are constrained only by the conventions of particular languages. There is nothing to stop us inventing a new word or sequence of words and creating a genuine innovation … language is an open system as opposed to the closed ones of animals” (Finch, 2009)

    In Summary:

    So, we have explored several areas here – but there are six terms which I want you in particular to have grasped:

    1. Displacement: the ability to refer to things, events and processes removed in time and place from the present, e.g. Caesar, tomorrow, global-warming
    2. Ideational Function: the ability to conceptualise the world as an instrument of thought, i.e. to bring the world into being linguistically
    3. Grammar: the ability to generate and use a set of rules, or a system of words with which possible meanings can be expanded
    4. Double articulation: the ability to combine essentially meaningless sounds into units of meaning at a higher level, e.g. /h/+/a/+/t/ = hat
    5. Nominalisation: the ability to use sound sequences to represent things, events and processes, e.g. water, global-warming, driving
    6. Creativity: the ability, from a finite set of rules, to generate an infinite number of sequences, e.g. the rules for constructing sentences allow any speaker to utter entirely novel examples.

    There are some excellent resources available for getting a broad sense of what language and language study is all about.  Here are a couple:

    This video is a lecture by Prof. John McWhorter, which talks about the distinctiveness of human language:

    This video is a Horizon documentary which again explores some of the foundations issues of language, how it works, and what makes it unique:


    Finch, G. (2003). Word of Mouth: A New Introduction to Language and Communication. Basingstoke, Palgrave

    Finch, G., Allan, K., Bradshaw, J., Heyden, G. and Burridge, K. (2009). The English Language and Linguistics Companion. Basingstoke, Palgrave

    Griaule, M. and Dieterlen, G. (1954). The Dogon, in African Worlds: Studies in the Cosmological Ideas and Social Values of African Peoples, edited by Daryll Forde. Available at: (Accessed 22/01/2010)

    Halliday, M. (1985). Spoken and Written Language. Victoria, Deakin University Press

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