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    What is Language ?
    By Patrick Lockerby | May 19th 2009 05:24 PM | 14 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
    About Patrick

    Retired engineer, 60+ years young. Computer builder and programmer. Linguist specialising in language acquisition and computational linguistics....

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    What is Language ?

    We are tool-using social  animals. The most powerful tool known is the one we use to build every other tool: language - spoken or written. But tools can be used with little or no skill to turn out mundane artifacts and garbage. By honing your skills with language you - yes, you - can craft masterpieces. A study of linguistics can help you acquire such skills, but be warned: the pursuit of linguistic knowledge is highly addictive.
    ... consider the consequences of adopting, as an understanding of education, the ability to tell rubbish from Reason. Nothing more. Nothing but the power, and the propensity, to discover that a statement is worthless, or a term without meaning, or a proposition absurd. That would also be the power to make statements that are not worthless, and propositions that make demonstrable sense.
    The Gift of Fire, Richard Mitchell - (The Underground Grammarian)

    Linguistics is the scientific investigation of language, a means for discovering the mechanisms of language by asking well-formulated questions and seeking answers. The first question to be answered about language is quite a simple one: what is language?

    A Language is a coding system and a means by which information may be transmitted or shared between two or more communicators for purposes of command, instruction or play.

    Not every coding system is a fully-featured language like human speech, yet it will have some of the features of all languages. A coding system may be artificial or natural. Computer languages are artificial languages modelled partly on human language. The 'helix of life' - DNA -  has many of the hallmarks of a language in the way that it carries codes for the production of the chemicals of life. It even has components which may be called 'words', and it has stop codes which correspond to our written punctuation.

    In every transmission system there is at least one element of language. An ordinary lighthouse can be thought of in terms of language: it is part of the maritime signalling system and it conveys at least one message. The simplest message is "keep clear!", but other information can be transmitted. Where the height of the light is given on charts it allows a navigator to determine the ship's distance from the coast by use of the dipping range or a sextant.   Colour, flashing, or occulting applied to the light can be used to identify the lighthouse by name and by geographical location.

    Any means by which a signal is communicated, where the signal can be received and acted on as a command, instruction, or element of play qualifies as use of language. A visual, chemical, auditory or mechanical event does not alone count as an instance of language. If the wind causes a tree to tap on your window, it isn't language. But if you see a large plant tapping on your window where there is no breeze - and you have no garden - you may need to read up about triffids.

    Until about the start of the 20th century, language study was mainly concerned with grammar. Since that time, linguistics has grown many branches, and overlaps with many other disciplines. Grammar still remains a core area of study, with its components of word sounds - phonology, written word 'shapes' - morphology, letter and word sequences - syntax and the meanings behind the words - semantics.

    Linguistics has had to expand its horizons because there is more to language use than just the spoken or written word. To take part fully in a conversation we need to take advantage of every clue offered as to a speaker's intended meaning. We need to understand the speaker's body language, the speaker's beliefs about what words mean and the speaker's agenda. Absent any of these and a listener may well 'get hold of the wrong end of the stick', which is a really bad idea.


    Semiotics: the study of signs.

    Spoken language is merely the most common form of human language, other forms are possible.  An established sign language is a true communal language independant of spoken language - it has its morphemes, words and syntax, and these are not just gestural equivalents of spoken words. But even hearing people supplement spoken language with body movements. Some gestures are conscious and some are subconscious, but alongside the gestures that we all recognise is body language. In order to fully understand someone in conversation, we must understand the gestures and body language of the community. By way of example, in England, an upwards and backwards jerk of the head with a click of the tongue in response to a question is considered rude, and may mean: "What did you say?" or "What a stupid question!".   In Iran, it is a socially normal and acceptable gesture, and simply means "no."

    Hermeneutics: old world knowledge.

    Hermeneutics deals with the relationship of parts of a text with the whole of a text.  We cannot understand the parts, except within the context of the whole text, but we cannot understand the whole text and thus derive its context without knowledge of the parts.  By applying various insights we can break out of this hermeneutic circle.  For example, in order to find out what Shakespeare meant by a specific word or phrase we can look at contemporary documents to see how the term was used by others in Shakespeare's day.

    Pragmatics: real world knowledge.

    Pragmatics deals with common knowledge.  Or rather, it deals with language users who have real-world knowledge, wants and needs.  When we write or talk, we rarely feel the need to explain all or indeed any of the physical, chemical or biological processes implied by our words.   If a child says: "I fell from a tree and hurt my leg." , it is a plausible statement.  It is plausible to the hearer because we humans tend to share our experiences, either by word of mouth or by attempted defiance of gravity.  Evolution teaches us that learning by word of mouth tends to be more survivable.  Unless we are inhumanly antisocial, we take the child's statement of injury as a request for assistance, an expression of a need.  There is nothing in the grammar of English that identifies the statement as a request, but we pragmatic humans still manage to understand the intent behind the words.

    Philosophy: the pursuit of knowledge.

    A study of philosophy is not essential to a study of linguistics.  However, if not pursued to excess it can give insights into how the mind works.  Human language may be viewed as a means by which an idea in one mind can be transmitted with minimal distortion into another mind.   Philosophy - especially in its historical shifts -  is a useful tool for helping to understand how the mind works.  Please note: mind, not brain.

    Psychology: language as behaviour.

    The function of the brain as regards language acquisition and use is a major area in its own right: cognitive science.   But that must remain a subject for another article.  For general linguistic purposes it is enough to learn something about the psychology of how language interfaces with emotion.  Rather than make this article overlong by talking about emotions, I shall attempt, by way of demonstrating my point, to stir some up:
        A Drop In The Ocean

         A breeze on the ocean,
           a star in the sky,
        a sea in slow motion,
          a shadowing sky.

        A silence, so moving,
          a too swifting hour,
       an all too brief kiss,
         a single red flower.

        Two hands, gently parting,
          two people, one sigh,
       a too empty harbour,
         a  glistening eye.

       A drop in the ocean,
         a  ship on the deep,
       a stifled emotion,
         a man does not weep.

    Recommended reading:
    The Rhetoric of Richard Mitchell: Is Literacy a Moral Condition? Free pdf
    Some full texts on General philosophy

    If you enjoyed reading this article, or if you are keen to know more about how language works, these links to some of my related articles may interest you:
    A mother's influence on language
    How babies learn language
    A brief history of the English language - not that brief, there are 6 parts!
    Did language invent humans?
    Pragmatics
    The hermeneutic circle.
    Digging Beneath the Surface of Grammar
    A Grammar of Questions.

    John Searle' Chinese Room Argument:
    Thinking Machines and The Semantic Quagmire
    The Intelligence in the Chinese Room.

    Ambiguity in language:
    Strangeness And Ambiguity In Language
    Random Reward Schedules and the Ambiguity of Language.

    Comments

    Becky Jungbauer
    Consider the consequences of adopting, as an understanding of education, the ability to tell rubbish from Reason. Nothing more.
    Now that is a superpower I'd like to have. It used to be flying, but this is my new choice. How powerful.

    To take part fully in a conversation we need to take advantage of every clue offered as to a speaker's intended meaning.
    So, are we able to fully partake in a conversation online? And what if the speaker is still working out what he/she is thinking? (For example, free association.)

    If the wind causes a tree to tap on your window, it isn't language. But if you see a large plant tapping on your window where there is no breeze - and you have no garden - you may need to read up about triffids.
    If I see a large plant tapping at my window when there is no breeze, I'm first going to check my drink to make sure it's something innocuous. Then I will look out the window to see if someone is pranking me. Then I will call my mom and hide under my bed.
    logicman
    Becky:  you may have unwittingly given ammunition to the creationists.  It is only on Squornshellous Zeta that hiding under the bed could have evolved naturally as a human survival strategy.  I am forced to conclude that the bed is a product of intelligent design - probably for military purposes.
    Becky Jungbauer
    Yeah...I have a sleep number bed so I'm gonna go with the theory that it isn't a freeze-dried Zem corpse. And while wanting my mom when I'm scared of a strange window-tapping plant could conceivably be an evolutionary strategy, I could just as easily hide under a blanket or a table or a rug, and why would some intelligent designer build superfluous redundancy into his/her creation?
    logicman
    why would some intelligent designer build superfluous redundancy into his/her creation?
    Good point!  That's why I am convinced that human language evolved - it is over 50% redundant, partly due the the superfluous redundancy inherent in tautology.

    Sorry, couldn't resist!  ( Ducks and runs. )
    Becky Jungbauer
    :) Ah, ταυτολογία - the political strategy of Karl Rove. Say it enough times and people start to believe it's true.
    logicman
    Well, Becky, I'm impressed!   Tautologia - in real Greek letters.  I had to google for Karl Rove, though.  :(
    But I take your point.  Our Tony Blair is of that ilk.  His famously mis-heard slogan was 'education, education, education', but I believe that what he actually said was that his government's priority was 'prevarication, prevarication, prevarication'.
    Becky Jungbauer
    'prevarication, prevarication, prevarication'
    Well done, Patrick! :) Perhaps as an American my opinion is skewed...I do watch BBC and am aware of the ins and outs of Blair's term and continued work in the global space, but while he definitely made some mistakes, as all leaders do, I don't view Blair as the spawn of Satan, whereas Rove is evil incarnate (albeit in flabby pasty arrogant human form, much like Limbaugh).

    I have a penchant for greek letters - my freshman year of college we had to memorize the intro to the Iliad in the original greek (both verbally and in writing), and I was hooked. I do like the idea of learning a language in order to read text in its native form; what we did wasn't anywhere near that but it gave us a taste.
    Gerhard Adam
    Patrick, I'm curious why you didn't mention rhetoric in this discussion of language, since it seems so much of our daily interactions are governed by it?  Did I miss something, or just screw up the terminology?
    Mundus vult decipi
    logicman
    Gerhard: from the aspect of how language works, i.e. as a biological system, rhetoric isn't all that relevant.  Besides, rhetoric can mean the old 'colour scheme' of a writers' style guide, or the 'argumentum ad hominem' opponent to logical discourse.  However, rhetoric does, in a sense, get first place in my 'recommended reading' list, above.

    I also mentioned rhetoric in A Brief History of the English Language Part 3 - Orthography.

    Maybe I'll write a brief history of rhetoric sometime.  Meanwhile, this article was intended as a brief  introduction to the topics of linguistics, and a background to my article on quistic grammar: A Grammar of Questions.
    Gerhard Adam
    I can see where you're going with this.  The only reason why rhetoric occurred to me as being of potential biological consequence, was the need to be able to persuade or maintain cohesiveness within a social group.  I'm certainly not thinking about the city-states or modern nations, but rather the role it would've played in convincing others of a particular choice or decision (especially if making emotional appeals).
    Mundus vult decipi
    logicman
    I can see where you're going with this.  The only reason why rhetoric occurred to me as being of potential biological consequence, was the need to be able to persuade or maintain cohesiveness within a social group.  I'm certainly not thinking about the city-states or modern nations, but rather the role it would've played in convincing others of a particular choice or decision (especially if making emotional appeals).

    Gerhard:  while you were writing this, I was writing this:
    http://www.scientificblogging.com/chatter_box/blog/grammar_questions#com...
    A study of philosophy is not essential to a study of linguistics. However, if not pursued to excess it can give insights into how the mind works.
    While I was earning my degree in philosophy, we did extensive work in linguistics. It was considered a necessary component of logic. The reason being, is because so many fallacies arise from the ambiguity inherent in the use of language. So we were trained very intensively to flush out fallacies that were a result of poorly worded propositions.

    This is not so much a problem with symbolic logic as symbolic logic is more closely akin to mathematics. But it certainly is a problem when reading the arguments of any given philosophical or for that matter scientific essay.
    logicman
    Hi, Eric.  Fancy meeting you here.  ;-)

    It seems we both know that 'logic' can mean the self-consistency of the universe as expressed in self-consistent phrases.  Once someone knows that kind of logic - common-sense logic -  they are able to spot propaganda a mile away.
    Very true, Patrick! ;-)