issue 191 - January 1989
Linguistics is the study of language. It is not like grammar which
defines how we should use words. Linguistics looks at what we actually say
and write and tries to explain why. How can human beings in normal conversation
make sense of 5,000 words an hour of confusing, semi-organized information?
Human and animal communication are very different. Animals can usually only 'talk' about things happening here and now - a bird will squawk when danger is imminent Some creatures can indicate in a very limited way things happening elsewhere: bees have half a dozen different serial dances to indicate where to find nectar. But nectar is all that bees can 'talk' about - of limited interest to the rest of us.
Human language is much more powerful - so much so that it has been suggested that the ability to speak is what really distinguishes people from animals. We are able to explain and - 'understand completely new ideas with relative ease. You have probably used sentences today which have never before been used by the human race. The sentence: 'Algerian milk runs quickly up a drainpipe' has almost certainly never appeared in print before (another NI first) but you know exactly what is meant.
IN THE SWIM
We rarely reflect on such mysteries. As the Chinese proverb has it: 'The fish will be the last to discover the water'. The Greek philosophers were among the first to grapple with language. They asked how we linked words with objects. Plato argued there must be an intrinsic connection between words and what they mean. This is understandable with onomatopoeic words like 'crunch' but less obvious for 'tree', say, which appears as baum, or arbre in other languages. Aristotle held what is the common-sense belief today - that words are arbitrary choices which we link with objects or actions.
THE SOURCE OF LANGUAGE
Hindu priests in the fourth and fifth centuries AD made remarkably detailed studies of their sacred texts - the Vedas. But collecting and analyzing written and spoken information on language - what is now called linguistics - is said to have started with Sir William Jones in Calcutta in 1786. He pointed out striking similarities between Sanskrit, Greek, Latin and the European languages like English and French. The word for 'seven' is sapta in Sanskrit, hepta in Greek, and septem in Latin. He suggested that these formed an 'Indo-European' language family which sprang from a common source - the original word was probably something like septem.
One can reconstruct the original language by looking for common words and then make a guess about where the language came from. This original language does not seem to have had words for 'vine' or 'palm-tree' so it probably did not start in the Mediterranean. But it does have a word for 'beech tree'. This does not grow in Asia suggesting the language came from north-central Europe.
The first linguists concentrated on how languages changed over time - how Old English became Modem English, say. The modem word 'chin', for example, used to be pronounced 'kin' in Old English and many other similar words have changed their pronunciation. Words like 'chicken' and 'cheese' were also once pronounced with a 'k'. So it was believed that pronunciation change in one word would be followed by changes in all similar words - that there are laws of language evolution - and that is generally the case.
There is also a tendency for the ends of word to disappear. In languages which sound melodious to English ears like Italian and Spanish this has already happened - many words have lost the final vowels. We seem to resent this when it happens in English - when we leave the 't' off the end of 'hot', for example, and replace it with a 'glottal stop' (try saying 'hot milk' three times quickly).
Words in the 19th century were still viewed as individual items which could be stuck together like bricks to make up sentences. This view was challenged in the 1930s by the Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure.
Take the sentence 'I read the magazine'. The 'I', he would have argued, only means something in relation to all the other words that it is usually compared with - in this case the persona pronouns like 'you', 'she' or 'it'. Words, he said are interdependent parts of the 'structural' system which makes up the language. Similarly: 'magazine' only means something in comparison with 'book', say, or 'notice'. Meanings he argued are created by differences. All linguistics since Saussure has been 'structural'.
You can sense the interdependence of words when they change their significance according to the words around them. Thus 'I look at the sun' and 'I sit in the sun' use the English word 'sun' in two different ways.
Saussure compared language to a giant gain of chess. If you walk in on any game you asses the relative positions of all the pieces - regardless of how they got there. Everything depends on difference between sounds and between words not on the words themselves.
THE INDIAN TRAIL
Linguistics in the US at this time was taking different direction. It was prompted by the need to document Native American languages which were distinctive and interesting but in danger extinction. Their uniqueness was exploited in World War II. General Patton used to send radio messages using Mohawk speakers at either end to confuse the Germans into thinking that Mohawk was a new code.
Documenting such unwritten languages was hit-or-miss affair until in 1933 when Leonard Bloomfield suggested more rigorous 'scientific techniques for writing the grammars of unwritten languages. His methods however were mostly do with the syntax and vocabulary and sounds and had little to do with what the languages meant. Linguistics became an abstract and dry subject of little interest to non-linguists.
All this was changed by Noam Chomsky. Since 1957 this US linguist (who is also a prominent political radical) has transformed the subject into a lively and controversial area. His most striking proposition to the lay reader is that human beings are genetically programmed to learn certain kinds of language.
There is strong circumstantial evidence for this. All human languages are remarkably similar - bearing in mind the almost limitless number of ways of combining words. There are for example only two main ways of constructing 'relative' clauses - like phrases linked by 'which'. In English we say 'I read the magazine which you read' - French is constructed in a similar way. The other approach, as in Hebrew, is equivalent to: 'I read the magazine which you read it'. Most languages have one or other of these forms - even though there are many other possibilities.
Also, children everywhere go through remarkably similar learning stages. They start with one word like 'Daddy' and then progress to two-word utterances like 'Daddy come'. To make this negative they will first say 'Not Daddy come' then 'Daddy not come' until they finally hit the correct version 'Daddy hasn't come. These steps could not have been imitated from adults since the last is the only version they are likely to have heard.
Some people argue that language learning is just part of a wider process of learning. But there does appear to be something distinctive about language. A child's capacity for abstract reasoning (for mathematics, say) increases through puberty while the ability to learn languages is declining. An eight year-old who can beat a chess master is remarkable, though it would not be so remarkable if they were eighteen. However if the 18-year-old could pick up languages merely by exposure they would be considered a real prodigy.
Chomsky suggests that there is a 'universal grammar' - a limited set of rules which all languages follow. Each child is genetically equipped to cope with any of these rules but must discover from its surroundings which option its own language has taken.
They have to find out, for example, if their language drops the pronoun at the beginning of a sentence. Little Nicaraguans learn that it is possible to say either 'Yo soy nicaraguense' (I am Nicaraguan) or merely 'Soy nicaraguense' (Am Nicaraguan). Only the first construction is possible in English.
DEEPER THAN YOU THINK
Human speech is only the tip of the iceberg. Take two statements: 'Mary is eager to please' and 'Mary is easy to please'. They are superficially similar but have very different underlying meanings - different people are doing the pleasing. One of Chomsky's major technical contributions is a set of rules to describe the production of such utterances from their deeper meanings - a 'generative grammar.
Chomsky's philosophy is that linguistics should help illuminate the human mind. 'How come,' he asks, 'that human beings whose contacts with the world are brief and personal and limited are nevertheless able to know as much as they do?' You might take comfort from the fact that someone at least is astonished by the depth of your knowledge.