Those who follow me on this blog or Twitter know how much I appreciate language. I’ve written on many aspects of how it’s taught (for example here, here, and here), what it means (like here, here, and here), and the rise of multilingualism (such as here, here, and here). I lean theoretical and so I sometimes am unsatisfied unless I finish a post with some kind of meaningful extrapolation.
This started out as a post, but it became too big, so I will break it down into three posts. For the first post, I’ll look at the boundedness of language. That is how language has limits and how one language is not completely accessible to an outside user. The second part will look at how porous language is. How languages are constantly changing even if we are not always aware of it. Finally, the last post will look at how both of these two concepts can benefit us in other areas of life.
The Boundedness of Language
You can probably relate to the feeling you get when you’re listening to someone or a group of people speaking a language that you don’t know. You can feel a little helpless, vulnerable, and sometimes even a little stupid, especially if you’re alone in this group.
And this is just spoken language.
The expression “it’s all Greek to me” relates to the sense of bewilderment you get when you’re looking at something you cannot understand at all, such as a complicated instruction manual or the directions your friend sent you to their house. Languages are so otherly! And if you can pick out the letters in a language that shares your language’s script and perhaps luck out on some shared words, you won’t be able to do that for a language that uses a different script from yours, such as Chinese, Thai, Hindi, Arabic, or Greek.
In these instances language clearly seems to have very high and largely insurmountable barriers. And language is indeed like that. When all the known users of a spoken language die, the language dies with them. For written languages, it’s the same.
The Rosetta Stone, which was discovered in 1799, had the text of a decree issued during the reign of King Ptolemy V in 196 BCE. The decree was written in three languages. Two of the languages were Egyptian, undecipherable since ancient times, and the third was written in Ancient Greek, a language already known. This finally enabled scholars to decode Egyptian hieroglyphics, further opening a window onto the ancient past. Today most people are more familiar with the digital learning tool Rosetta Stone than they are with the actual origins of the company name, this itself an interesting instance of language obstruction.
With the emergence of digital tools like Google Translate, which is powered by deep learning neural networks, we are now able to get decent enough translations from more than 100 languages, from Africaans to Zulu. (Non-Chinese reading foreigners living in China have learned to exploit these tools to benefit from the many online shopping opportunities offered there!)
So language is bound in terms of our ability to comprehend an unfamiliar version of it.
But language is also bound by rules. There are two types: logical/grammatical and social.
At its core, language (and perhaps our brains, too) seems to need at least two things: things like nouns and noun phrases; and actions, such as verbs and verb phrases. The simplest complete sentence in English apart from an imperative order like “Go!” can contain just two words. Jawad eats.
In fact, if you want a slight shortcut when learning a language, do the following. First, find out the sentence word order of a language, such as whether it’s subject-verb-object or subject-object-verb. Then learn the 10 most common verbs like, eat, want, put, and go. Learn some basic pronouns like me/I, you, and this and you’re good to go! You may only have the life equivalent of a blind worm in terms of linguistic complexity, but you’re on your way to becoming a much higher level organism.
A sentence needs to have a complete thought. Grammar rules help structure the expression of thought and can fill in gaps, but they can’t replace a gap in logic. Sentence fragments show this limitation. If a language has the conjunction if or because, and as far as I know all languages do, then you’ll have some very confused listeners if you make sentences like these: (*indicates an incorrect sentence)
*If I am tired. (If you are tired you will..???)
*Because we were hungry. (Because you were hungry…???)
(I need to make an important side-note. Because BECAUSE can lead emerging writers to inadvertently create sentence fragments, the unfortunate “never start a sentence with because” rule emerged and has been applied roughshod over the honest queries of countless thousands of students!)
I will not comment more on this because we’re already pushing at the limits of my own informal linguistic training. If you are interested, however, you could spend the rest of your life investigating how conjunctions conjunct and many other fascinating topics in grammar. The point I am making is that once a language user understands the meaning of the symbols of a language, they then must follow both logical and grammatical rules in applying them so that other members of the language community can sensibly understand. Which brings us to the next type of boundary.
Languages have acceptable and unacceptable forms
We all have heard kids say the darndest things. Things like, “I goed potty” or “He no like me.” Eventually kids work out the language’s rules and end up speaking natively with little to no direct instruction. It really is cool. But it’s not cool for language learners, especially older ones, who find it a lot harder to drop incorrect forms of speech acquired when they were younger.
My wife is Chinese and she learned English as an additional language. Although her English is excellent, she will sometimes drop the s at the end of third person present type sentences such as She buy it today. Or, she may neglect to use the correct tense in a sentence like Yesterday, we win. When I speak Chinese, I’ll mix up the measure word that goes before a noun, with the English equivalent of me saying something like a bread or a glasses when I should say a slice or piece of bread and a pair of glasses. For French students, learning the masculine and feminine forms of nouns can be brutal as English doesn’t have these gender rules.
The thing is, these types of errors don’t usually impede meaning or communication. They frustrate purists and other phobes, but they’re just calcified elements of language that are perpetuated by educational institutions and editors in publishing. Without literacy, and with continued exposure to other languages, these linguistic inefficiencies would probably be shed quite quickly.
Until the language evolves substantially these rules tend to be enforced. They can be enforced in ways that are less consequential to ways that are more serious. Not all language mistakes are equal in status. And, unfortunately, they might also signify in negative ways for the listener that you are an outsider, a non-native. Entire English education language industries have emerged as a result of this distinction, with college students traipsing around the world to teach English (I was one of them) alongside or above more highly knowledgeable and often more effective “non-native” language teachers.
Different communities will respond to non-standard versions of language differently, but monolingual users of high-status languages with less exposure to other languages will likely be pickier. Italian tourists may wish that the country they are travelling to has more Italian, but they don’t act surprised or complain as much when it doesn’t! Unlike many tourists from some other countries – no names being mentioned!
Belonging can also be signified in the way a community tolerates certain kinds of speech. This is where the politics of the N word comes to play, or the way that some speakers of “standard” English may perceive the inferiority of other English vernaculars. But it’s important to remember that this is done in all languages. There are versions and accents of Arabic, French, Chinese, Dutch, Spanish, and so on.
In more stratified societies, the way you speak is at once a proud marker of your identity as well as a means of keeping others out or having oneself kept out. The slang of the street is not permitted in the classroom, or the office, or on air. Of course we see how these conventions evolve, sometimes for the better and sometimes for the worse. I will explore more of the lessons we can learn about attaching less significance to the specific ways we speak and more to the messages that we carry in my third post.
So language is bound in terms of its symbols being comprehensible to the user. Once the sounds are comprehensible it must adhere to a logical structure that takes form in a variety of ways in the different grammars of different languages. A boundary in language is also formed both naturally and intentionally as a way of differentiating between insiders and outsiders. At its worst these boundaries can lead to discrimination and even violence. But is there an “at its best” for the boundaries in language? Or are our languages what’s dividing us?
While all that I wrote above is true, it’s not the whole picture. In my next post I’ll explore how porous language is, that is how language is always changing in spite of our efforts and often beyond our own awareness.
Post your comments and critiques below. I would love to further the discussion.