1 July 2008

The impurity of language (II)

The other day I published a post called The Impurity of Language (link). I would like to focus on one of the sentences I wrote in that post. I quote it here:

Human language is a communication tool and it seems to be designed as something quite impure, built upon hybridization and infinite flexibility.

It was not originally intended as a definition of human language, but it looks like one. Today I would like to clarify some of the concepts involved in this sentence.

The concept of hybridization, i.e. the mixture of people who speak different dialects, must be understood from a diachronic perspective. At the time when human language began there were no grammar books or electronic translators, there were no school teachers telling people how they had to speak or write. At those earlier stages of human language, there was nothing similar to the entities we call ‘languages’, with their grammars, dictionaries and distinctive names (English, Spanish, etc.). Humans had a need for communication and they were developing an extraordinary new tool called language. Contact between people, both inside their community or in an inter-community context, involved a continuous process of interaction, re-invention, adaptation. This is how language was born and how it developed in the early times. The process of hybridization is not an anecdote: it is the central, most relevant event in the formation of human languages. The problem arises if we analyse language solely from the perspective of today. We live in societies where the dialect of the ruling elite has become the standard form of language, relegating the role of hybridization as a marginal one, or in some cases something impure which is not to be desired. Many linguists make the mistake of analysing our standard languages as if they were the core of language, when in fact they are a relatively modern phenomenon in a process that began millennia ago.

In some linguistic theories, human language is seen as the result of an inborn mechanism (Universal Grammar) that is projected in the various languages of the world, all of them describable in terms of rules.

Now, is there something like a Universal Grammar? Can it be described? Can a possible description of UG be the ultimate one?-- No matter how perfectly you think you have described Universal Grammar one day, the following morning there might be something new waiting at your doorstep.

Human speech is not easily analysable in terms of rules and structure. It takes place in real communicative situations and it develops through a continuous process of adaptation. A still life of a language, like the ones typically used in theoretical linguistics, can only be a very limited account of this process.

Last edit: 25 September, 2008

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