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September 14, 2009 | by  | in Features | [ssba]

A Word About Language

“I don’t know what you mean by ‘glory’,” Alice said. Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously.
“Of course you don’t—till I tell you. I meant ‘there’s a nice knock-down argument for you!’”
“But ‘glory’ doesn’t mean ‘a nice knock-down argument’,” Alice objected.
“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”
“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”
“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master—that’s all.” —Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking-Glass

The egg has a point. What’s in a name? What is the meaning behind words? We all know how to use words—hopefully—but what set of unwritten rules limits written definition? Who defines the meaning of a word? Hopefully not Humpty Dumpty, we all know how that turned out.

Language is a funny thing. Social interaction in the form of sounds, scribbles or gestures, making words which communicate meaning, a meaning shared among large groups of people, spread over lands, cultures and counties, countries and continents. Language is infinite in its potential—with it one can express ideas, truths and untruths; one can request information, ask if they want fries with that; and command people to do things, cook me some eggs bitch.

We use language every day. There’s no avoiding it. There’s no doubt that it’s something most people take for granted. Without written language we would not be able to send emails, write letters or books, or record thoughts, ideas and events—history would succumb to our failing memories. Without a spoken language, communication would be impossible. No conversations. No socialising. No society. No thought.

“Verbing weirds language.” —Calvin (Bill Watterson, Homicidal Psycho Jungle Cat: A Calvin and Hobbes Collection)

Language is surprisingly difficult to explain. Using language to describe language seems quite ironic, paradoxical even. Laurie Bauer, Professor of Linguistics here at Victoria University, feels that the broad scope of language makes it hard to define.

“Providing a definition is really difficult,” he says. “Some of the features that distinguish language from other communication systems are very technical, like recursion. Recursion means that you can have a construction of a particular type within a construction of the same type. So in ‘I think language is hard to define’ we have a sentence— ‘language is hard to define’—within a sentence—‘I think language is hard to define’.

“This is central in human language and either very rare or non-existent in other communication systems. But that does not mean that it defines language, just that it is one of the characteristics of human language.”

Language is complex, but what do we need it for? What is the purpose of language?

“The [definition] that is most often given is to communicate information. That may not be the most common use of language. Others include to act as a substitute for grooming in the other great apes; to ease social interaction; and perhaps most cynically, though note that chimpanzees have great difficulty in doing this, to lie.”

“What do words mean? Well, you should know that! You shouldn’t need me to tell you. But a lot of people don’t even know this kind of thing, that a word is do mean.” —Guy Armstrong

In order to discover the meaning behind language and words, it may be important to take a look at where it came from. The emergence of language in primitive humans is not an easy thing to document, as you can imagine, as any form of language that may have existed—spoken or gestural—leaves no trace whatsoever.

Language didn’t just appear overnight either. It is believed that its origins were simple gestures, such as are seen with apes, but that there was a shift to vocalised language because of its advantages. Then, not only would early humans have had to develop the anatomical means to speak, but neurological changes in the brain to support language.

The first word may have been something that sounded like “wuuurgh”, meaning in our more complex modern speech, “Oh shiz, there’s a big-ass tiger coming our way!” Every time caveman Frederick Worthington II, Esq. saw said tiger coming his way (which was often, as he was always seen carrying around a slab of the finest quality mammoth meat) he would shout out a terrified “Wuuurgh!” His fellow cavemen and cavewomen quickly associated this sound with the occurrence of big-ass hungry tiger, thus giving the sound meaning, a meaning they could replicate if they needed to. The first word was born!

From such speculation we can see that the meaning behind this word was defined by both the individual and his peers. If he had not said the word in a certain situation, or his peers had not interpreted it, such a sound would be meaningless. Meaning for words and language, then, is a consequence of society. It is also follows that language has developed and evolved over time, as has society—the two change hand-in-hand, and continue to do so even today.

“The language denotes the man. A coarse or refined character finds its expression naturally in a coarse or refined phraseology.” —Christian Nestell Bovee

Dr Dianne Bardsley, lexicographer and Director of the New Zealand Dictionary Centre, documents words that appear in New Zealand English, and words that have a meaning specific to New Zealand English. “Words come to New Zealand English from Maori, so, we borrow terms,” she says. “We also borrow terms from British English, and we change the meaning of them, give them a new sense. So terms like ‘paddock’, for example, and ‘creek’, are not used in the same way they are back in Britain, but we’ve given them a specific use here in New Zealand.”

She agrees that language changes with society. A social situation, and society in a wider sense, does affect language in some way.

“Words are like chameleons, they just change their colouring and they change their nature depending on who is using them. And you know, most language is dependant on—and the kind of language you use—is dependant on the participants, who’s using them, the purpose of the language, whether it is to amuse or to entertain, to instruct, and the situation itself… I mean, if you’re on a yacht, and you’re all busy working together, you’re using quite a different language than if you’re playing chess, or if you’re just down at the pub.”

She mentions six domains of word generation in New Zealand, for example the rural sector, politics and sport. Words appear in these circles and become a part of the language through frequent use, although, mostly inside those circles. On the national scale, Maori language and culture has had a huge influence on New Zealand English.

“[It] really affects us and brings in a lot of new terms. What we’re doing now is compounding New Zealand English terms in Maori, so you’ve got ‘Kaumatua Flat’ and ‘golden koha’, and you’ve got this blending and compounding of these two different languages, which is interesting.”

One interesting area of word generation, she noted, was crime. “And our criminals… I mean, all criminals, whatever language they speak and whatever culture they’re involved in, they have to have a code which means that they’re excluding anybody else. Particularly with drug dealers, and people in prison, they have a language all of their own.

“They have a code that excludes prison wardens and the police and anybody else. They even use, for money, for example, different words for each note, for each value. So a ten dollar note is a ‘shepherd’s pie’, because Kate Sheppard’s on it. And a twenty dollar note is a ‘lettuce’ because it’s green, and a hundred dollar note is ‘tomato’ because it’s deep red, and a cash of cannabis is a ‘bank card’, because you put it in a hole in the wall, and out comes some money. A lot of it is very very clever, very witty, but it’s totally code.”

This form of language, these words, however, are not likely to come into general usage. What happens in the clique, stays in the clique. “Academic linguists know about them, and the prisoners know about them.”

“He who is ignorant of other languages is ignorant of his own.” —Goethe

When it comes to understanding language, especially your own, learning a foreign language is the best way to do it. So say I, and the experts on language I talked to. Derek Wallace, senior lecturer in linguistics and director of Victoria’s writing programme(and one such expert), outlined what advantages language learning can have.

“Learning a foreign language has at least four benefits,” he says. “A pragmatic benefit of being able to communicate with other people better in specific situations; an epistemic benefit of assisting you to reflect on your own language and therefore understand its structure better; a philosophical benefit of helping you to get a clearer insight into how people of other cultural backgrounds might view the world differently; and a political benefit of showing willingness to engage with other people on their own terms, rather than add to the chauvinism of English.”

With all of these benefits, does learning another language, speaking it, have the power to change a person’s behaviour? Are we defined by the language we speak?

“I would agree that someone might be a different person, or at least act differently when speaking another language, or at least when they are really competent in that other language.

“This would be consistent with the idea generally that people are context-sensitive, which gives rise to expressions like ‘He is a different person when he is at home than when he is at work’.” This is something we can all relate to. It’s not necessarily a conscious behavioural change either.

Perhaps you swear more around your school friends than when with your parents or somebody you don’t know well. Maybe you speak in a high-pitched voice to your cat, but not to your lecturer. The behavioural change is the most noticeable if the two situations come together and clash.

“Two languages in one head? No one can live at that speed!”

“But the Dutch speak four languages and smoke marijuana.” —Eddie Izzard

Linguistics PhD student Anna Piasecki disagreed that speaking in another language would change a person’s social behaviour. “You may argue that you are different people when living in different countries, adapting to the world surrounding you really, but your basic social behaviour or characteristics will somehow remain the same.”

Anna’s studies and experience, however, have shown that learning another language has a significant effect on the way the brain processes language.

“If one realises that already monolinguals are capable of selecting or identifying a word within a third of a second from a lexicon of 50,000 words or more, bilinguals could hypothetically be expected to make many mistakes and process speech generally a lot slower. If you are reasonably fluent in your second language, a proficient bilingual must have tens of thousands of additional word forms for use in the second language—and the number of extra words from yet other languages in a multilingual must be immense.

“So, basically during speaking, reading or other, thousands of extra words are available for being selected for recognition or articulation. Yet, the cost associated to the ability of processing more than one language has been observed to be relatively mild. For example, it has been observed that bilinguals made English—first language—lexical decisions on words (i.e. is this a word in English? – yes/no) that were only about 125 milliseconds slower than those of monolinguals, but just as accurate!”

Your actual thoughts are also affected greatly by the language in your social environment. Your thoughts will adapt to the new environment, Anna says, depending on how you interact and identify with it.

“From my experience the language you have been using most extensively is the one that you’ll be generally thinking in. This may slowly shift, however, the longer and more extensively you are surrounded by your other language. To illustrate, when I came to New Zealand my thoughts were greatly affected by German. About six months in or so, lacking major exposure to German, my thoughts shifted to English. Some time later, once I moved in with two Polish friends of mine, some of my thoughts shifted to be in Polish. Currently, I guess I have a mixture of three, with English being the strongest one, followed by Polish and then German, which I use the least at the moment.”

But how broad is language’s influence on the human mind? What other possible effects could thinking in a different language have? If you thought in a language that had a more logical structure, would your thoughts themselves reflect this and become more logical?

“Not necessarily, and if so then only at the beginning stages of learning a second language. I guess there is some sort of logic to every language, and even if there is not, once you become a highly proficient speaker of a second language processes become more automatised—you don’t think about what is logical or what is not, you just automatically use the correct forms and structures.”

“This is the sort of English up with which I will not put.” —Winston Churchill

And where is language going? Grammar nerds such as myself don’t think that language has such a bright future. No, it is a dark future we see. Everywhere we look we see signs of the English language’s deterioration—people misplacing apostrophes everywhere, youngsters not using any punctuation, the abbreviation ‘lol’—we’re not happy with where this is going, or what it is doing to our language. We collectively cringe with each ‘offence’ made against our language.

I was surprised, then, that none of the experts I talked to shared my sentiment. Professor Laurie Bauer explains:

“While we might try to argue that individual changes cause improvements or deterioration in the language system, when we look at them as a whole, they neither make a change for the better nor for the worse, it is simply change. We tend to give the changes that occur social values, but those social values change as language does. The social values often consider relatively recent changes as bad and longer-established ones as good, but that really has nothing to do with the linguistic structures involved, which are neutral.”

Indeed. Society changes with language, as we have seen. People don’t like change, myself included, but what can we do other than sit back and enjoy the ride? Derek Wallace offers a positive outlook to the future of language:

“I don’t go along with the idea that the English language has deteriorated recently. It functions in coordinating people’s actions and beliefs just as well—or badly—as it always has. In fact, through mass education, global entertainment and broadcasting, and expansion of the technological means of expression available to large numbers of people today, it may have become more varied and therefore richer than ever. Because of the centrality and pervasiveness of language, if it had deteriorated people would feel that their lives had become socially impoverished, and this doesn’t seem to be a widespread perception.”

A richer language only means that we have more linguistic freedom to express ourselves—and that’s hardly a bad thing. Dr Dianne Bardsley agreed with me about the grammar, but that it’s not the most important aspect of language:

“Punctuation is changing, people are not as formal as they used to be in grammar. It’s changing. But we can’t say that it’s a good thing or a bad thing. The basic principle for me is always if a person understands it, if your meaning is clear, then that language is probably acceptable. So I think clarity has got to be the underlying principle.”

Clarity, then, to get meaning across as best as possible. Is this not the purpose of language? To communicate ourselves, our thoughts and feelings, as best as possible? To interact with our social environment? Language therefore, is what we make it to be, as Anna Piasecki puts it:

“What we currently use is what may become, or is established as, the norm. Each individual has his or her own language to some extent. And a bilingual even more so. Everybody adapts to their native language’s conventions for the most part, however, certainly including some unique features; and for multilinguals these will certainly come from the different languages they speak.

“Languages grow with us, we are the language.”


About the Author ()

Mikey learned everything he knows about English Grammar in an MSN chat room when he was 13. Believing that people don't say "LOL" enough in everyday conversation, he has made it his mission to teach the world about grammerz one person at a time.

Comments (5)

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  1. Mikey says:

    For those interested, Anna Piasecki will be talking about her research findings this Friday, September 18, at 4pm in the lecture theatre MY101:

    Michael gave his mother-in-law an expensive Gift”: Lexical Access in L2 Speakers

    “My research investigated the impact of language-specific cues, such as onset capitals for German nouns, on second language learners’ (i.e. native NZ English learners of German) reading. The current presentation will discuss the first set of results and their implications—so, is Michael a good or an evil son-in-law?”

  2. Rochelle Roxborough says:

    Fantastique, Miquee. Just boodiful!

  3. Sarah Robson says:

    I am proud of you too.

  4. Electrum Stardust says:

    “WORDS”, by Robin Hyde

    Because of the easy way with words, the quick
    Way of striping them tigers or butterflies,
    The craftsmen who watch my fingers mutter, ‘A trick!’
    (And fall back, watching my eyes.)
    But I tell you this, I,
    Who have shaped my word while the fools have bungled ten,
    Words should be hard old lamps, and white of wick,
    And the right flame rises then.
    But I, bringing forth from Egypt the strawless brick,
    (Call it cipher or lie!)
    User of words, shall be hounded down with words,
    Hung with words, gelded and shamed with words,
    Branded seared and torn apart with words;
    (And these the words of botchers, the words of men
    White-lipped for jealousy);
    Maker of words, kicked from the door of words,
    I shall be bound to the wheel of words, and die.

    Yet I think, having used my words as the kings used gold,
    Ere we came by the rustling jest of the paper kings,
    I who am overbold will be steadily bold,
    In the counted tale of things.

    I tell you this, I,
    The false magician who flourished Pharaoh’s snake —
    Long the word may curl in the tamer’s hand,
    For the true tale’s sake.
    I who hastened for Pharaoh the beaten king,
    (Call me bought or fool!)
    Fighter with words, must clasp the prick of words,
    Fawned on with words, sick at the heart with words
    I shall look to drink, and the well be foul with words;
    (And these the words of the mouths that cannot sing,
    (Of the minds cold, not cool.)
    I shall be struck on a futile mouth with words,
    Capped with a word, in that hour I die.

    Win then, the word-pack. But who bears silence best?
    (More in my Egypt than king or Jahveh knew);
    Who lifts the iron ring, unlocks the chest,
    Speaks to a wall . . . and the spell is true?
    This knowledge go seek who dares, in a certain hall
    Where a word shall rise, and a word shall fall.
    It is hued with ochre and green, with a slumbering red,
    Set with the jackal heads and the ibis head;
    It has set a store by words,
    Woven a book and shaped a scale for words:
    And it knows the mesh and the naked flesh of words:
    Thither march we all.

  5. Electrum Stardust says:

    In Wirklichkeit ist Englisch bestenfalls nur meine Zweitsprache: 向來如此,天經地義!

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