Bronze-level articleLanguage

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We control what
you think with


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Said and done
Jargon, buzzwords, slogans
Words are, in my not so humble opinion, our most inexhaustible source of magic. Capable both of inflicting injury — and of remedying it.
—Dumbledore, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

Language is a method of communication that uses symbols imparting shared meanings to convey ideas to other individuals; this communication may be spoken, written, or gestured.[1]

The term has traditionally been used to refer exclusively to human language.[2] However, more recent studies are focusing on the realization that several non-human species clearly have advanced communications systems that might be indicative of a true proto-language.[3]

The study of language itself is important to understanding human evolution and perhaps human uniqueness; however, what is perhaps more important about language are the strengths and weaknesses of language itself, the cultural aspects that pose a question of "Can I really understand what he or she is saying, and does that precision of ideas even matter?" Since virtually every aspect of intellectual argument depends exclusively on language, understanding how language works adds a dimension to the quest for finding "truth."

Since the advent of the MRI, cognitive linguists have been able to more appropriately understand what is happening in the brain during a language act, though the biological underpinnings of language itself remain a mystery. Almost everything about the study of language as a concept is steeped in debate.


[edit] Definition of language

Trying to define language sufficiently so that scholars can specify what they are studying, is much like trying to define religion, love, or any other abstract concept. Either the definitions are so precise that they exclude some languages, or so generalized that they do not really explain very much. The particular definition of language used by a scholar or writer is largely arbitrary, depending upon the point any particular person is trying to make. Perhaps the most general definition is: "a set of symbols and the rules controlling how those symbols are combined, that allows a community to convey a variety of ideas from one individual to another."

More specific definitions and studies focus on the biological aspects of language (for example, Chomsky's instance on a Universal Grammar), formal codification systems (generally favored by those studying particular languages), and a broad general sense more favored by biologists - "communication systems."

The study of any particular language, and therefore, the more theoretical study of how humans might have acquired language, begins by the assertion that all languages have 3 parts: the symbols, the meanings and the code, and the study is how those three are learned, are communicated from generation to generation, and how they interact. The first two are simple mapping skills - creating symbols and assigning them to real world things, then being able to mentally retrieve them. (Without this, man does not make tools, does not become a successful group hunter, and cannot exploit his environment.) How man moves from simple mapping (ie. *grunt* = danger. *grunt grunt* = run, therefore, shit there is a fire, get the hell out of here) to a complex frame that provides grammatical structure is where the real fun of human language development seems to reside.

Another key area in the study of language is defining semantics (study of encoded meaning) and pragmatics (study of contextual meaning).[4] Scholars argue if meaning comes before man has language, or only as part of the development of language. Assuming the standard that mapping is a significant tool for proto-humans to become "humans," semantics must have emerged before fully-fledged modern language as we understand it now.[5] Hurford believes that concepts and meaning were present in the form of concepts before language was fully developed and he uses the term proto-concept to describe the time before concepts can justifiably be so named.[6]

There is a minority view that "the limits of my language mean the limits of my world" illustrates an entirely different understanding of the nature of language.[7] However, this implies a language-less creature has no world, no identity, and no complexity. It also implies that before one can really think of something, one must in some way, name it. The only way to study this, as with most things in language, is to invent games to try and "catch" the brain thinking. You can offer a person a totally new thing, and see how quickly they find a "word" for that thing in their own heads. But catching the brain thinking, catching language being born is as difficult as pinpointing a moment of evolution, or trapping it in your lap.

[edit] Origin of language

The origin of language is a very theoretical field, as little about communication can actually be studied in bones, fire pits, and other ancient human relics. The only concrete studies of human language begin with written language, which is clearly well after humans evolved the ability to use language. Hence, the origin of language is a highly debated and often controversial field.

[edit] In animals

It is generally agreed that the sheer complexity of human language marks it as distinct from any method of communication found in other animal species that we know of. According to the neuroscientist Terrence Deacon, "languages evolved in only one species, in only one way, without precedent, except in the most general sense." Acting on the assumption that language is simply evolved and formalized communication, one approach to the development of language, and the study of language in animals is to look at the gestures, body languages and rituals as more than simply "evolved traits" of a given animal, but to see if they hold a standard set of communication patterns across a community. Are they attempts to simply "get your way" (ie., bullying and chest pounding of apes), or do they more precisely communicate a set of needs and desires understood by the community, and replied to in a consistent way. In theory, and in controversy to the holistic view, this removes the "interpretation" of what an utterance means, to the specific actions and reactions it generates. This tends to form the general underpinnings of the Universal Grammar theory as postulated by Chomsky.[8]

A separate theory holds that sounds produced by animals should be interpreted holistically rather than being compared to words.[9] This is termed the "holistic view" of utterances. The example most often used to illustrate this is the predator warning system of vervet monkeys. The monkeys have a different alarm call for snakes, leopards and eagles and each cry leads to a different response from the collective. Wray believes that the warning for a snake should not be seen simply as crying out "snake!" but should be seen more along the lines of "there is a snake nearby, climb up into the trees for safety."

A few other biologists and linguists are becoming more and more convinced that language may exist in other species.[10] An example of the likelihood of at least a proto-language is a study out of Hawaii, in which a trainer would train a complex set of "tricks" (ie., flip once, two tail wags, and a flipper wave) to one dolphin, then with the sign for "train," he would introduce another dolphin to the tank. While underwater, the two dolphins "did something magical": both surfaced and did the same trick.[11] This experiment has been repeated over and over, and the second dolphin has surfaced always doing virtually the same set of tricks in the same order, though sometimes there are small errors.[12] However, until they can prove what is happening underwater, this idea of animal "language" remains intriguing but unproven.

[edit] In humans

Chomsky suggests that there are two equally likely paths that the origin of language can take. Sound/word driven language (sounds come first, without grammar), or grammar-driven language - the mapping skills and universal grammar pre-exist the specific sounds or gestures that will become the "words" for the language.[13]

Derek Bickerton believes that language stems from a proto-human language consisting of "words without grammar." According to Bickerton, the ancestors of modern humans could string together words, but only in a near-arbitrary fashion. Ray Jackendoff has suggested that perhaps simple rules, such as agent first, did exist. For example, "man kill bear" would mean a man killed a bear, greatly reducing ambiguity about who killed who.

However, cognitive archaelologist Steven Mithen takes great exception to this; he argues for a form of communication that is "holistic, multi-modal, manipulative and musical," which he names "hmmm."[14] In his book, The Singing Neanderthals, Mithen argues for a divergence from "hmmm" in neanderthals and anatomically modern humans whereby neanderthals retained a more musical mode of communication, but lacked any referential meaning between sounds or the sophistication required for symbolic representation, using the absence of symbolic depictions around neanderthal sites to make his point.[15] However, this view has come under fire from recent findings in archaeology.[16][17]

[edit] Historical speculations

In 1861, historical linguist Max Müller published a list of speculative theories concerning the origins of spoken language:[18]

  • Bow-wow. The bow-wow or cuckoo theory, which Müller attributed to the German philosopher Johann Gottfried Herder, saw early words as imitations of the cries of beasts and birds.
  • Pooh-pooh. The Pooh-Pooh theory saw the first words as emotional interjections and exclamations triggered by pain, pleasure, surprise and so on.
  • Ushi-dong. Müller suggested what he called the Ushi-Dong theory, which states that all things have a vibrating natural resonance, echoed somehow by man in his earliest words.
  • Yo-he-ho. The yo-he-ho theory saw language emerging out of collective rhythmic labour, the attempt to synchronise muscular effort resulting in sounds such as heave alternating with sounds such as ho.
  • Ta-ta. This did not feature in Max Müller's list, having been proposed in 1930 by Sir Richard Paget.[19] According to the ta-ta theory, humans made the earliest words by tongue movements that mimicked manual gestures, rendering them audible.

Most scholars today consider all such theories not so much wrong—they occasionally offer peripheral insights—as comically naïve and irrelevant.[20][21] The problem with these theories is that they are so narrowly mechanistic. They assume that language represents a sudden discovery or insight, which once understood, allows language to be created.

[edit] What's unique about humans?

Whatever definition one takes, human language seems to be much more sophisticated than anything found elsewhere in the animal kingdom, and biologists and linguists have invested considerable effort in understanding the genetic basis of the human capacity for language. For humans to develop linguistic abilities, they required a particular cognitive ability to map symbols and to organize them by rules. Chomsky, Hauser, and Fitch argued that "recursion [i.e., the ability to nest various phrases in a sentence and so generate an infinite range of utterances] is the only uniquely human component of the faculty of language," but the reality appears to be somewhat more complicated.[please explain]

While not yet understood, there is clearly a genetic component for language or aspects of language. FOXP2, for example, was dubbed "the language gene" in media reports.[22] Individuals with mutations to FOXP2 have normal cognitive abilities, but lack the motor control required for speech as well as a marked problem applying the rules of a particular language, including difficulties in comprehension.[23]

[edit] Language and creationists

Creationists absolutely love to bring up language. Since language is something that is, as far as we know, unique to humans, it provides one of the more useful arguments for human exceptionalism. Naturally, they tend to prefer the more specific and rigid definitions available, and will claim that the evilutionists cannot explain language ability.[24] Any claim that animals might have a capacity similar to the proto-language of human ancestors will undoubtedly be flatly denied with claims that it does not meet their chosen criteria for language, which will only ever be a fully structured modern language. Besides, everyone knows language (Hebrew, of course) was put in the mouths of Adam and Eve by God until he got pissed and decided to confuse this universal language because people decided to build a tower.

Language is, for creationists, inextricably tied to God, as his "Word" is Jesus, and his "Word" is pure truth. The Bible is a literal rendition of what God wants and can be "easily understood" by "anyone" who "simply tries." Of course, if you read the Bible, and have any interpretation other than the one they prefer, you have not tried hard enough or you do not have God in your hearts. The language, they will say again, is clear. This, of course, stands in direct opposition to anyone who has ever actually read the Bible and walked away saying "OK, I knew every single word in that verse, but have no damn idea what it means." It also stands in opposition to all the linguists and ancient language experts who say languages are not parallel. No writing, especially a poetic or abstract writing, can ever be rendered into another language (or even culture) without errors, assumptions and compromises.

[edit] See also

[edit] External links

[edit] References

  1. Particular students of language have studied the extent to which music and art can be considered language as well, adding a possible dimension to the definition.
  3. Marzloff, Company of Crows and Ravens, 2007
  4. Hurford, J. R. The Origins of Meaning: Language in the Light of Evolution, p. 3
  5. Hurford, J. R. The Origins of Meaning: Language in the light of evolution, p. 4
  6. The theory of mind studies the concept of "identity," "ideas," "thought," and personality, and it is constantly struggling with the primary idea of "do humans need words to form ideas?" Without knowing or understanding that, we are just guessing about our early ancestors.
  7. Wittgenstein, L. Tractatus Logico Philosophicus 5.6
  8. Which has, of course, itself been the object of serious challenges in the post computational model/rMRI world, and the challenges that it is so generalized, anything can be a grammar if you just note it to be so, so the theory itself cannot be falisfied.
  9. Alison Wray (2000). Holistic utterances in protolanguage: The link from primates to humans
  10. RA. Barton, M Naguibe and B Diez Lopez are among the scholars who write at length about dolphin communication.
  11. It is exactly how the two communicate the new trick which is still not understood.
  12. Similar signs of more complex thinking and communication have been observed in elephants and crows.
  13. Chomsky, Language and Mind, 1968; Hauser, Chomsky, Fitch. Science (Nov. 22, 2002)
  14. Mithen, S. The Singing Neanderthals, p. 138, 253
  15. Mithen, S. The Singing Neanderthals, p. 252
  17. Milliken, S. (2010). Neanderthals, Anatomically Modern Humans and Modern Human Behaviour in Italy
  18. Müller, F. M. 1996 [1861]. The theoretical stage, and the origin of language. Lecture 9 from Lectures on the Science of Language. Reprinted in R. Harris (ed.), The Origin of Language. Bristol: Thoemmes Press, pp. 7-41.
  19. Paget, R. 1930. Human speech: some observations, experimenrts, and conclusions as to the nature, origin, purpose and possible improvement of human speech. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.
  20. Firth, J. R. 1964. The Tongues of Men and Speech. London: Oxford University Press, pp. 25-6.
  21. Stam, J. H. 1976. Inquiries into the origins of language. New York: Harper and Row, p. 243-44.
  22. Trivedi, Bijal. "Scientists Identify a Language Gene." National Geographic.
  23. Vargha-Khadem F, Gadian DG, Copp A, Mishkin M (2005). "FOXP2 and the neuroanatomy of speech and language." Nature Reviews
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