Linguistics is one of the less prominent fields of study, probably because it doesn't sound as exciting as being an Adventurer Archaeologist
and has no chance of rogue robots and mutants like most mad sciences
. Many people probably aren't even aware that formal studies of language exists (beyond studying a specific language), or that you need to study it - aren't people naturally skilled at language?
Well, not when it comes to SCIENCE
! Just as the ability to drive to work doesn't make you a car mechanic, the ability to speak a language doesn't mean you have any idea what's going on under the hood. You need to devote quite some time and brain power to learn terms like 'unvoiced dental fricative' or 'close-mid front vowel', what an active-stative language is, how to tell an Exceptional Case Marking verb from an Object Control verb, or and of the myriad of other formal distinctions and categories that describe languages and their various aspects.
What does a linguist do?
Basically, a linguist studies the structure of languages and whatever 'meaning' means, and then possibly applies this knowledge in some way. Linguistics has a number of sub-disciplines, such as historical linguistics (in which you study the evolution of languages, compare related languages and make deductions as to their mother language), descriptive linguistics (in which you describe the grammar, syntax and phonology of existing languages and document them), theoretical linguistics (in which you invent and use abstract tools to describe how language as a whole works), or applied linguistics (in which you, for example, help move computer-assisted translations beyond the "Blind Idiot" Translation
or try to make cell phones into better conversationalists).
Linguists who focus on describing living languages often are a bit closer to the Adventurer Archaeologist
archetype than one might think - areas with many undocumented languages include the Amazon rainforest and New Guinea. Linguists working there often combine language description with ethnography, describing both a language and the population of its native speakers.
What doesn't a linguist do?
A linguist doesn't necessarily speak very many languages
- they will usually know more languages than your average Westerner, but it's likely they will know the basics for many languages, but speak very few of them fluently. They may, however, know odd combinations, depending on their subfield. Basque and Quechua, maybe, with a cursory knowledge of the commonalities of the indigenous languages of Australia. But don't expect them to be available as your local tour guide.
A linguist probably also won't tell you how to use your language 'correctly' - there is a distinction between descriptive and prescriptive linguistics, but the former is by far the prevailing attitude today. Sure, a linguist may have their own private pet peeves when it comes to 'proper' speech, but if you use 'ain't' or singular they, they will only note that hey, these terms are used in this and that context, but they wouldn't label this usage as wrong. To most linguists, that would be like an astromomer concluding that some planets were orbiting wrong.
What is a language?
The stock quote
used to answer this question is "A language is a dialect with an army and a navy" - and there is definitely truth in that quote. There has been endless discussion as to how much difference it needs to turn two dialects into two languages - and it's sometimes a strongly politicized question, as some governments want to define a distinct national language for their country in order to distinguish themselves from a neighboring country. Or, in other cases, promote national unity by declaring a number of non-mutually comprehensible languages to be one. Sometimes, this can lead to flame wars
, and in other cases, the situation may be much more relaxed.
A few examples of this:
- The Chinese Language is often promoted as being, indeed, one language, with varieties such as Mandarin and Cantonese being 'dialects'. In fact, most of these dialects are not mutually comprehensible - at all. While they do form one branch of the Sino-Tibetan language family, they aren't related more closely than, say, English and German.
- Bosnian/Croatian/Serbian is spoken in the Balkans. Due to modern Balkanization of the region, almost each country in the region has given the language a different name.
- Swedish/Norwegian/Danish originated as East Norse, which developed into Swedish and Danish, and West Norse, which developed into Norwegian, Icelandic and Faroese. Due to centuries of Danish rule, however, Standard Norwegian has moved to be closer to Danish than Swedish, and it is relatively easy for the Scandinavians to read each others' language.
Because of the difficulty of drawing a boundary between closely related languages (drawing the border between French and German is easy, drawing the border between where Dutch dialects end and German dialects begin isn't), the term dialect continuum
exists. This applies to a region where each villages can understand their neighbors perfectly well, but when you compare the extremes, people may no longer be able to do so. Most places lie in one of these.
Varieties of a Language
Nevertheless, it's useful to be able to find and name varieties of a language (whatever a language is). The most common term is the above-mentioned dialect
, which is any variety spoken by a specific speech community. This may be social or regional. But those cunning linguists have come up with more variation:
- Idiolect - this is how you speak. All the peculiarities of your speech, and yes, you have those.
- Sociolect - a variety specific to a social group, whether it be an age group or a socioeconomic group or an ethnic group.
- Ethnolect - a variety of a language spoken by an ethnic group. African American Vernacular is one example of these.
There are also accents - but unlike dialects, they only refer to varieties in pronunciation. And everyone has an accent. Even you. For Americans, a Midwestern accent used by newscasters might sound neutral. Brits will likely disagree, while Americans will disagree with Brits that the Received pronunciation used by BBC newsreaders of old sounds neutral.
Early Childhood Language Acquisition, or the Million Dollar Question of Linguistics
On a totally objective scale, the single most important thing that you could do in your life is learning to talk and understand language, something most children have accomplished before they've gained complete mastery of their bladder.
The origin of language has fascinated mankind from the dawn of civilization. For most of antiquity, people believed that language was an innate God-given power. They believed that if you take a bunch of babies, lock them into a room the second after they are born, and only have deaf-mutes take care of them, they will revert to speaking the "tongue of Eden", the original language that God uploaded Adam and Eve with. Wild stories flew around Europe (they actually did this experiment for real a couple of times in the Middle Ages—obviously, don't try this at home), about children who spontaneously started talking in Biblical Hebrew, Babylonian, Egyptian, or Greek. Of course this was all utter bull, in reality, two broad outcomes can result.
- Those who grow up in the company of other children in the same situation will develop their own language to communicate, indicating that on some deep level, we have an innate understanding of grammar, words, and logic hardwired into our brain.
- Those who grew up alone with minimal human contact (like Genie); however, tend to go completely mute, and if they are rescued after the age of around puberty, they will never be able to fully master language for the rest of their lives, indicating that there is a critical period in the brain for language development, and that while we may have the ability to use language, we need to have the specifics taught to us by humans.
There are a few theories floating around about about language acquisition, which tend to come and go with the a rather high turnover rate. We do know quite a bit about the process
of learning however. Here are some basic facts:
- Language acquisition starts quite a bit before birth, a third-trimester fetus can hear the voice of the mother in the womb. A newly-born baby to monolingual Germans can distinguish between spoken German and, say, spoken Chinese.
- After birth, the baby almost always starts babbling ("the goo-goo-gaa-gaa phase" 6-12 months), where he or she runs through almost every sound, tone, pitch, timbre that a human can produce. But after a few months, the inventory of sounds shrinks to only those syllables that are found in the language of the parents.
- Following comes The Holophrastic Stage, where the child can speak in one word sentences. Parents love this one as the baby will say "mama, dada" over and over, and baby sitters hate this one as it is impossible to guess what in hell the kid means most of the time.
- Then comes the Telegraph Stage, where the child starts learning vocabulary at supersonic speeds, averaging 50 words per day at 2-years-old. The child can speak in 1-3 word sentence fragments like "me see doggie, doggie gone, big doggie". The child has figured out object subject relation, the distinction between nouns, verbs and some adjectives, but will still happily mix things up. The child is intensely curious and must have a name for everything (the constant "daddy, what dat, what dat?" has probably driven a few parents insane over the years).
- Next we have the Combining Stage, where the child figures out word-order, affixes, and those auxiliary words like the possessive 's, negatives, where to use "the" and etc. At this point kids start to understand more language specific grammatical rules and we see kids turning into little grammar nazis. Once the child learns a rule of grammar, he or she will insist in applying it to everything, exceptions be damned (a experiment to parents of 1.5-year-olds, teach your child that adding "-ed" turns a verb into the past tense, wait a few days for him to practice, then ask him what is the past tense for "go", and your child will of course say "goed", you will correct him with the correct answer, and he will not believe you, and you two will so bicker for the next hour. And it will be a long while before he learns the exceptions.).
- Finally, we hit the Recursive Stage (2-3.5 years), the children learns to make complex sentences, and Language acquisition can be now, considered a success. Of course, the child will go on to learn the finer points of language and human interaction over the course of his entire life.
Language Myths and Misconceptions
Language Equals Thought
This myth is common enough that we have a trope
of that name. In linguistics, it's known as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, and it's largely discredited, at least in the strong version (a language completely determines thought). Some version of the weak version (our language influences thought) is generally accepted, though.
Language X is Weird
There are uncountable versions of the 'Language X is so weird
' notion - take, for example, the Real Life
section we used to have in Starfish Language
. The trope is defined as "an alien language completely unlike anything a human can perceive", which is why we had to axe it. What's important to remember is that in this aspect, we are
influenced by our native language - the sounds we use, the grammar and syntax we're most familiar with will of course seem the most natural to us. But to speakers of these 'weird' languages, English will just seem as odd and peculiar - what, you can't just add a suffix to a verb to tell that you have personal knowledge of something, and didn't just learn about it via hearsay? They must be crazy!
See this page
for a more in-depth look into the grammar of various foreign languages.
One of the most common anecdotes told about languages concern their vocabulary - people are obsessed with words, as if they were everything there is to a language (to oversimplify it, words are considered a relatively superficial feature - the more important parts when studying a language are how it uses words, how it can combine them, how information is expressed). These come either as 'Language X has Y words for Z', or 'Language X has no word for Z', usually with an undercurrent
of 'so they obviously don't know what it is, and can't possibly understand it'.
There is a grain of truth in many of these myths - but they are largely exaggerated and/or presented in a misleading way.
- Words for No and Yes: it is true that some languages do not have words that would directly translate each and every instance of no and yes. But that does not mean that assent or dissent can't be expressed in these languages - they simply use other methods:
- Irish repeats the verb of the question, and negates it if needed ('Do you want apples?' 'Want/Don't want.')
- Finnish has a word for yes, and a negative verb (although one of its inflected forms, 'ei', can serve as a general no).
- Conversely, English lacks a single word for the concept expressed by French 'si' or German 'doch' which is an affirmative answer to a negative question. For example, if you're asked "Don't you like pie?" in English, you can be easily misunderstood - both "yes" and "no" could either confirm the assumption or refute it (Yes you don't like pie, or yes you do like pie?). 'Si' on the other hand, would invariably mean "you're wrong; I *DO* like pie!" In that sense, then, "si" is affirmative in that it debunks the negative statement of assumed fact ("you don't like pie") present in the question.
- Eskimo words for snow: a perennial favorite, and very, very wrong. Partly, this comes from the definition of what a word is - the languages in question can form long compound words which are the equivalent of whole phrases in other languages. So in this sense, they don't only have 2 or 20 or 200 words for snow, but an infinite variety - but this applies to each and every word. Hence, some linguists would look at the different roots (the 'words' upon which these compounds are built) related to snow. Turns out, most 'Eskimo' languages have two or three roots (generally one for falling snow and one for snow on the ground... and remember, English distinguishes between rain, a puddle, a river, a lake - all of which are just forms of water, after all. Those crazy Earthlings, they have dozens of words for water!). But even if they do have a lot of words for snow, doesn't that mean that typesetters must see the world very differently because they have more words for fonts? When you apply the Eskimo words for snow logic to less exotic things, it doesn't seem quite such a racy concept.
- No word for Z: This is one of the language myths that may actually be true. If you have never seen an airplane, you will not have a word for it. Where this myth goes wrong is when it comes with a notion of 'and these silly savages could never ever express this, and thus can't possibly ever understand it'. The thing is, every language can describe pretty much anything - if you encounter an airplane for the first time and describe it as 'big metal bird', then tada, you have a way to describe it. If the descriptive phrase 'big metal bird' becomes the standard thing to call an airplane in your speech community, then it will over time transform into a single lexical unit which should then be translated as 'airplane' instead of 'big metal bird' (for example, if you break down the morphemes of the Chinese word for "train", it literally means "fire wagon"). Another option many languages use is to use an existing word in a metaphorical manner for a new concept - 'to broadcast' originally meant to scatter seeds before it became applied to transmitting messages.
- "Peruse" really means "read closely": the etymological fallacy. Words mean what they mean, not what they meant. Saying that a word used almost universally to mean one thing actually means something else is just silly. Closely related to X isn't a word, which is often equally dumb. All of this is mostly the fault of English teachers going around telling people that dictionaries are authorities instead of descriptive references. Of course, most linguists agree that almost everything in dictionaries is wrong anyway.