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Useful Notes / Linguistics

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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 any of the myriad of other formal distinctions and categories that describe languages and their various aspects.


The Cunning Linguist

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. In short, a linguist performs the scientific study of language. 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 astronomer 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 is needed 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, while 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 every 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 village 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 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 whose mother is monolingual German 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 they run through almost every sound, tone, pitch, and 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, and the distinction between nouns and 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 so on. 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, they will insist on 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 them with the correct answer, and they will not believe you, and you two will so bicker for the next hour. And it will be a long while before they learn the exceptions. Fun fact: this will happen even if the child has used "went" before. After all, children first learn every word they can make out, and only then learn the rules.)
  • Finally, we hit the Recursive Stage (2-3.5 years), the children learns to make complex sentences, and Language acquisition can now be considered a success. Of course, the child will go on to learn the finer points of language and human interaction over the course of their entire life.

Language Controversies, Myths, and Misconceptions

Language Equals Thought

This concept is common enough that we have a trope of that name. In linguistics, it's known as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, and while the strong version (a language completely determines thought) is largely discredited, the weak versions ("language influences thought" and "language reflects thought"), are generally accepted, with quite a bit of supporting evidence.

For instance, people have greater difficulty distinguishing between colors that their language does not recognize as fundamentally different: Survival-level languages such as young pidgin languages or those of hunter-gatherer societies usually have words for at most "warm color", "cool color", and "grey-brown". When asked to group color samples, native speakers of such languages consider it fundamentally obvious that green and blue are just hues of the same color- anything more is splitting hairs. Children who have not yet been taught their colors will often do the same.

Language does not dictate thought- their eyes can see a difference, and those among them used to working with color, such as artisans and weavers, can divide the spectrum in more precise ways when asked. For the most part, however, the difference between the subdivisions "green" and "blue" is ignored even by those aware that there is a difference, because there is no word-trope defining that difference as important. For those struggling to relate, a modern example: Russian artists have a slight advantage, having been taught from an early age that sinii (dark blue) and goluboi (light blue) are obviously different. Meanwhile, many native speakers of other Latin-based languages have to slowly retrain their brains to acknowledge the radical difference between blue and cyan before they can mix paints properly. Kind of like English using "pink" instead of "light-ish red".

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.

Vocabulary Myths

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. However: given that much language loss has occurred because of colonialism, it is possible that this trope is not as incorrect as at first glance, as a recording from the CBC archives has revealed.

  • 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 over time it will 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 (or in Troper, From the Latin "Intro Ducere"). Words mean what they mean, not what they meant (unless it was written/said back when it did mean the other thing). 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. That said, none of this is to say that there isn't some practical utility in insisting on some distinctions, but it's necessary to recognize that these distinctions are inherently artificial social constructs. (Just because something is a social construct doesn't mean it isn't real—and if you don't believe that, why don't you just hand me those meaningless pieces of paper in your wallet?)