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Unformatted text preview: 42 LANGUAGE AND ITS STUDY the phonology, morphology, and syntax of spoken language and their soundless equivalents in American Sign Language (ASL). And in "Nonverbal Communication,” George A. Miller explores the role of vari- ous types of body language—adornment, ritualized gesture, spatial rela- tions, and eye contact—in human communication systems. These nonver- bal signals vary from culture to culture, and they are frequently as neces- sary as words and sentence structures to our understanding of one another. Y 5 Nine Ideas about Language Harvey A. Daniels In the following chapter adapted from his book Famous Last Words: The American Language Crisis Reconsidered, Professor Harvey A. Daniels pre- sents nine fundamental ideas about language that are widely accepted by contemporary linguists. In doing so, he dispels a number of myths about language that are all too prevalent among Americans. The ideas intro- duced here provide a foundation for readings in later parts of this book, where they are discussed in more detail. Assuming we agree that the English language has in fact survived all of the predictions of doom which have been prevalent since at least the early eighteenth century, we also have reason to believe that current reports of the death of our language are similarly exaggerated. The man- agers of the present crisis of course disagree, and their efforts may even result in the reinstatement of the linguistic loyalty oath of the 19203 or of some updated equivalent (”I promise to use good American unsplit infinitives”) in our schools. But it won’t make much difference. The English language, if history is any guide at all, will remain useful and vibrant as long as it is spoken, whether we eagerly try to tend and nur- ture and prune its growth or if we just leave it alone. Contemporary language critics recognize that language is changing, that people use a lot of jargon, that few people consistently speak the standard dialect, that much writing done in our society is ineffective, and so forth—but they have no other way of viewing these phenomena except with alarm. But most of the uses of and apparent changes in lan- guage which worry the critics can be explained and understood in unalarming ways. Such explanations have been provided by linguists during the past seventy-five years. I have said that in order to understand the errors and misrepresenta- tions of the language critics, we need to examine not only history but also ”the facts.” Of course, facts about language are a somewhat elusive com- modity, and we may never be able to answer all of our questions about this wonderfully complex activity. But linguists have made a good start during this century toward describing some of the basic features, structures, and operations of human speech. This section presents a series of nine funda- mental ideas about language that form, if not exactly a list of facts, at least a fair summary of the consensus of most linguistic scholars. 43 44 LANGUAGE AND ITS STUDY 1. Children learn their native language swiftly, efficiently, and largely m Language is a species-specific trait of human beings. All children, unless they are severely retarded or completely deprived of exposure to speech, will acquire their oral language as natu- rally as they learn to walk. Many linguists even assert that the human brain is prewired for language, and some have also postulated that the underlying linguistic features which are common to all languages are present in the brain at birth. This latter theory comes from the discovery that all languages have certain ro i statements, questions, and commands, ways of referring to past time; the W so on.l In spite of the underlying similarities of all languages, though, it is important to remember that children will acquire the language which they hear around them—whether that is Ukrainian, Swahili, Cantonese, 0r Appalachian American English. In spite of the commonsense notions of parents, they do not ”teach” their children to talk. Children learn to talk, using the language of their parents, siblings, friends, and others as sources and examples—and by using other speakers as testing devices for their own emerging ideas about language. When we acknowledge the complexity of adult speech, with its ability to generate an unlimited number of new, meaningful utterances, it is clear that this skill cannot be the end result of simple instruction. Parents do not explain to their children, for example, that adjectives generally precede the noun in English, nor do they lecture them on the rules governing formation of the past participle. While par- ents do correct some kinds of mistakes on a piecemeal basis, MVering the underlying rules which make up the language is the child’s job. From what we know, children appear to learn language partly by imi- tation but even more by hypothesis-testing. Consider a child who is just beginning to form past tenses. In the earliest efforts, the child is likely to produce such incorrect and unheard forms as I goed to the store or I seed a dog, along with other conventional uses of the past tense: I walked to Grandma’s. This process reveals that the child has learned the basic, general rule about the formation of the past tense—you add -ed to the verb—but has not yet mastered the other rules, the exceptions and irreg— ularities. The production of forms that the child has never heard suggests that imitation is not central in language learning and that the child’s maimrategy is hypothmdeducing from the language she hears an idea about the underlying rule, and then trying it out. My own son, who is now two-and-a-half, has just been working on the -ed problem. Until recently, he used present tense verb forms for all situations: Daddy go work! (for: Did Daddy go to work?) and We take a bath today! (for: Will we take a bath today/.2). Once he discovered that wonderful past tag, he attached it with gusto to any verb he could think up and produced, predictably enough, goed, eated, flied, and many other 1 Victoria Fromkin and Robert Rodman, An Introduction to Language (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1978), 329—342. Daniel; / Nine Ideas about Language 45 overgeneralizations of his initial hypothetical rule for the formation of past tenses. He was so excited about his new discovery, in fact, that he would often give extra emphasis to the marker: Dad, I swallow-ed the cookie. Nicky will soon learn to deemphasize the sound of -ed (as well as to master all those irregular past forms) by listening to more language and by revising and expanding his own internal set of language rules. Linguists and educators sometimes debate about what percentage of adult forms is learned by a given age. A common estimate ‘ cent of adult structures are acquired By the time a child is seven. Obviously, it is quite difficult to attach proportions to such a complex process, but the central point is clear: schoolchildren of primary age have already learned the great majority of the rules governing their native lan- guage, and can produce virtually all the kinds of sentences that it per- mits. With the passing years, all children will add some additional capa- bilities, but the main growth from this point forward will not so much be in acquiring new rules as in using new combinations of them to express increasingly sophisticated ideas, and in learning how to use lan- guage effectively in a widening variety of social settings. It is important to reiterate that we are talking here about the child’s acquisition of her native language. It may be that the child has been born into a community of standard English or French or Urdu speakers, or into a community of nonstandard English, French, or Urdu speakers. But the language of the child’s home and community-1's the native language, and it would be impossible for her to somehow grow up speaking a language to which she was never, or rarely, exposed. 2. Language operates by rules. As the -ed saga suggests, when a child begins learning his native language, what he is doing is acquiring a vast system of mostly subconscious rules which allow him to make meaningful and increasingly complex utterances. These rules concern sounds, words, the arrangement of strings of words, and aspects of the social act of speaking. Obviously, children who grow up speaking differ- ent languages will acquire generally different sets of rules. This fact reminds us that human language is, in an important sense, arbitrary. Except for a few onomatopoetic words (bang, hiss, grunt), the assign- ment of meanings to certain combinations of sounds is arbitrary. We English speakers might just as’well call a chair a glotz or a blurg, as long as we all agreed that these combinations of sounds meant chair. In fact, not just the words but the individual sounds used in English have been arbitrarily selected from a much larger inventory of sounds which the human vocal organs are capable of producing. The existence of African languages employing musical tones or clicks reminds us that the forty phonemes used in English represent an arbitrary selection from hundreds of available sounds. Grammar, too, is arbitrary. We have a rule in English which requires most adjectives to appear before the noun which they modify (the blue chair). In French, the syntax is reversed (la chaise bleue), and in some languages, like Latin, either order is allowed. Given that any language requires a complex set of arbitrary choices 46 LANGUAGE AND ITS STUDY regarding sounds, words, and syntax, it is clear that the foundation of a language lies not in any ”natural” meaning or appropriateness of its fea- tures, but in its system of rules—the implicit agreement among speakers that they will use certain sounds consistently, that certain combinations of sounds will mean the same thing over and over, and that they will observe certain grammatical patterns in order to convey messages. It takes thousands of such rules to make up a language. Many linguists believe that when each of us learned these countless rules, as very young children, we accomplished the most complex cognitive task of our lives. Our agreement about the rules of language, of course, is only a gen- eral one. Every speaker of a language is unique; no one sounds exactly like anyone else. The language differs from region to region, between social, occupational and ethnic groups, and even from one speech situa- tion to the next. These variations are not mistakes or deviations from some basic tongue, but are simply the rule-governed alternatives which make up any language. Still, in America our assorted variations of English are mostly mutually intelligible, reflecting the fact that most of our language rules do overlap, whatever group we belong to, or whatev- er situation we are in. 3. All languages have three maior components: a sound system, a vocabulary, and a system of grammar. This statement underscores what has already been suggested: that any human speaker makes meaning by manipulating sounds, words, and their order according to an internalized system of rules which other speakers of that language largely share. The sound system of a langua e—its honolo —is the inventory of vocal noises, and combinations of n01ses, that it employs. Children learn the selected sounds of their own language in the same way they learn the other elements: by listening, hypothesizing, testing, and listening again. They do not, thou—gFltmaysmialTle—Farnte sounds first [after all, English has only forty) and then go on to words and then to grammar. My son, for example, can say nearly anything he needs to say, in sentences of eight or ten or fourteen words, but he couldn’t utter the sound of tli to save his life. The vocabulary, or lexicon, of a language is the individual’s store- house of words. Obviously, one of the young child’s most conspicuous efforts is aimed at expanding his lexical inventory. Two- and three-year- olds are notorious for asking ”What’s that?” a good deal more often than even the most doting parents can tolerate. And not only do children con- stantly and spontaneously try to enlarge their vocabularies, but they are always working to build categories, to establish classes of words, to add connotative meanings, to hone and refine their sense of the semantic properties—the meanings—of the words they are learning. My awareness of these latter processes was heightened a few months ago as we were dri- ving home from a trip in the country during which Nicky had delighted in learning the names of various features of the rural landscape. As we drove past the Chicago skyline, Nicky looked up at the tall buildings and announced ”Look at those silos, Dad!” I asked him what he thought they Daniels / Nine Idem about Language 47 kept in the Sears Tower, and he replied confidently, ”Animal food.” His parents’ laughter presumably helped him to begin reevaluating his lexical hypothesis that any tall narrow structure was a silo. Linguists, who look at language descriptively rather than prescrip- tivelyl use tmmmmmr. ' ' using, says that grammar is the system of rules we use to arrange words into meaningful English sentences. For example, my lexicon and my phonology may provide me with the appropriate strings of sounds to say the words: eat four yesterday cat crocodile the. It is my knowledge of grammar which allows me to arrange these elements into a sentence: Yesterday the crocodile ate four cats. Not only does my grammar arrange these elements in a meaningful order, it also provides me with the nec- essary markers of plurality, tense, and agreement. Explaining the series of rules by which I subconsciously constructed this sentence describes some of my l‘grammar” in this sense. The second definition of grammar often used by linguists refers to the whole system of rules which makes up a language—not just the rules for the arrangement and appropriate marking of elements in a sentence, but all of the lexical, phonological, and syntactic patterns which a lan- guage uses. In this sense, everything I know about my language& conscious and unconscious 0 erations I can perform when speaking or listening, constitutes my grammar. It is this second definition of gram- mar to which linguists sometimes refer when they speak of describing a language in terms of its grammar. 4. Everyone speaks a dialect. Among linguists the term dialect simply designates a variety of a particular language which has a certain set of lexical, phonological, and grammatical rules\ that distinguish it from other dialects. The most familiar definition of dialects in America is geographical: we recognize, for example, that some features of New England language—the dropping r’s (pahk the cab in Hahvahd yahd) and the use of bubbler for drinking fountain—distinguish the speech of this region. The native speaker of Bostonian English is not making mistakes, of course, he or she simply observes systematic rules which happen to differ from those observed in other regions. Where do these different varieties of a language come from and how are they maintained? The underlying factors are isolation and language change. Imagine a group of people which lives, works, and talks togeth- er constantly. Among them, there is a good deal of natural pressure to keep the language relatively uniform. But if one part of the group moves away to a remote location, and has no further contact with the other, the language of the two groups will gradually diverge. This will happen not just because of the differing needs of the two different environments, but also because of the inexorable and sometimes arbitrary process of lan- guage change itself. In other words, there is no likelihood that the lan- guage of these two groups, though identical at the beginning, will now change in the same ways. Ultimately, if the isolation is lengthy and com- plete, the two hypothetical groups wil pro a y eve op separate, mutu- 48 LANGUAGE AND ITs STUDY ally unintelligible languages. If the isolation is only partial, if inter- change occurs between the two groups, and if they have some need to continue communicating (as with the American and British peoples] less divergence will occur. This same principle of isolation also applies, in a less dramatic way, to contemporary American dialects. New England speakers are partially isolated from southern speakers, and so some of the differences between these two dialects are maintained. Other factors, such as travel and the mass media, bring them into contact with each other and tend to prevent drastic divergences. But the isolation that produces or maintains lan- guage differences may not be only geographical. In ma my American cities we find people living within miles, or even blocks of each other, who speak markedly different and quite enduring dialects. Black English and mid-western English are examples of such pairs. Here, the isolation is partially spatial, but more importantly it is social, economic, occupa- tional, educational, and political. And as long as this effective separation of speech communities persists, so will the differences in their dialects. Many of the world’s languages have a “standard” dialect. In some countries, the term Standard refers more to a lingua franca than to an indigenous dialect. In Nigeria, for example, where there are more than 150 mostly mutually unintelligible languages and dialects, English was selected as the official standard. In America, we enjoy this kind of national standardization because the vast majority of us speak some mutually intelligible dialect of English. But we also have ideas about a standard English which is not just a lingua franca but a prestige or pre- ferred dialect. Similarly, the British have Received Pronunciation, the Germans have High German, and the French, backed by the authority of the Académie Francaise, have ”Le Vrai Francais.” These languages are pically defined as the speech of the upper, or at least educated, classes Mew, are the predominant dialect of wfificomm and are commonly taught to schoolchildren. In the past, these prestige dialects have sometimes been markers which conveniently set the rul- ing classes apart from tm—as once was the case with Norman French. But in most modern societies the standard dialect is a mutually intelligible version of the country’s common tongue which is accorded a special status. A standard dialect is not inherently superior to any other dialect of the same language. It may, however, confer considerable social, political, and economic power on its users, because of prevailing attitudes about the dialect’s worthiness. Recently, American linguists have been working to describe some of the nonstandard dialects of English, and we now seem to have a better description of some of these dialects than of our shadowy standard. Black English is a case in point. The most important finding of all this research has been that Black English is just as ”logical” and ”ordered” as any other English dialect, in spite of the fact that it is commonly viewed by white speakers as being somehow inferior, deformed, or limited. Danielx / Nine Ideas about Language 49 . 5. S eakers of all languages employ a range of styles and a set of sub- dialects or jargons. Just as soon as we accept the notion that we all speak a dialect, it is necessary to complicate things further. We may realize that we do belong to a speech community, although we may not like to call it a dialect, but we often forget that our speech patterns vary greatly during the course of our everyday routine. In the morning, at home, communication with our spouses may consist of grumbled fragments of a private code: Uhhh. Yeah. More! Um-hmm. You gonna . . . .3 Yeah, if. . . ’Kay. Yet half an hour later, we may be standing in a meeting and talking quite differently: ”The cost-effectiveness curve of the Peoria facility has declined to the point at which management is compelled to c...
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