22 June 2008

The impurity of language

For many centuries, grammarians and linguists have tried to analyse language as a perfectly organized set of rules. In the 20th century, concepts such as ‘structure’ or ‘universal grammar’ have been introduced as further developments in this tradition. In many articles or books about linguistics, especially in the Chomskyan tradition, we find plenty of formulae and mathematical-looking explanations, where parameters and rules of all kinds are proposed in order to describe the grammars of the various human languages. In the Chomskyan view, it is supposed that LANGUAGE exists as an abstract mechanism explainable in terms of rules. In my opinion, this is an inadequate account of human language. Let’s take pidgins for example. A pidgin is a type of language that emerges in situations where there are speakers of different languages who need to communicate with each other. They appeared, for example, in the colonies of the Caribbean and in Africa. From the perspective of structuralism or generative grammar, pidgins are seen as something ‘imperfect’, some kind of disturbing irregularity or exception: pidgins don’t follow strict principles, they are impure, non-systematic. But this is not the only possible view, there are other ways to look at this phenomenon. For example one in which pidgins are not the marginal chapter in the handbooks of linguistics but an important event in the formation of languages. Human language is a communication tool and it seems to be designed as something quite impure, built upon hybridization and infinite flexibility. Trying to see language as an immaculate set of rules and lexicon is simply a great delusion. Language exists in real life, escaping all definition or classification. It is in the hands of some linguists that it actually dies. Some linguists have argued that the human speech capacity is like a body ‘organ’, or at least an inborn mental mechanism which is present in all of us. I agree with this view of language as a peculiarly human, highly complex ability, which probably emerged as an adaptation of our species. But let’s take a look at other human organs, for example our back. No doubt, our back was not designed for our modern way of life, for example when we sit for hours in front of the computer screen and have back-ache as a result. Our body is more suited for running in nature than for sitting. Nevertheless, we prefer to stick to our everyday routine, maybe adding some types of ‘remedies’ (gyms, diets, doctors, medicines, etc.) but in any case leading a life that is far from the life that our body was designed for. Something similar happens in linguistics. Languages were not born to be analysed as perfect sets of rules, as many linguists seem to believe. They are something else. Something human, impure.
Last edit: 9 Aug, 2008

1 comment:

JoseAngel said...

This perspectival difference between the present situation and developments, and the original function of devices, organs, protocols, technologies, etc., is one more case of the cognitive fallacy named hindsight bias. That is to say: we find languages as a normative and organized body of grammatical rules, well-defined lexical items, canonical literary texts, etc., and we mentally project this situation (which is a result) as if it were a cause. Language has to be made, slowly and painfully, which is the true evolutionary perspective. Historical philologists knew this, in their way. But twentieth-century linguistics, Chomsky above all, did their worst to forget it.