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Linguistics, Anybody?
[Opinion] What every global citizen needs to know about language
David Shariatmadari (davidbijan)     Print Article 
Published 2006-06-13 04:18 (KST)   
English words that begin with 'ph' have a softer sound than words that begin with 'f.' The 'true' meaning of a word is its original meaning. Some languages are simpler than others. Technical thinking is easier in German than in French. Lazy speakers are running my language into the ground. People who speak a different dialect of my language are more/less articulate than me. Chinese people have trouble with English sounds because the shape of their mouths is different. People with strong foreign accents are usually stupid.

It's a slippery slope. One language myth leads to another, and before you know it you're close to the dark heart of human nature: mistrust, resentment, xenophobia. You might think some of them are outlandish, but I've heard all of these claims from friends, acquaintances or strangers. A couple are silly but probably harmless. At the end of the list are the real nasties, the assumptions that, if left unchallenged, help shape people셲 attitudes towards the new and unfamiliar in hateful ways.

But the fact that they exist at all is testament to how few of the insights of linguistics have entered popular consciousness. Though the subject has been taught in universities in its present form for the better part of a century, and in earlier guises for many years before that, there are few areas of human experience that sustain so many myths as language. For all we hear about English taking over the world, most people are now exposed to a wider variety of languages than they have been in the past. The 21st century is shaping up to be another century of migration, and when people move, their languages move with them. So isn't it time we got to grips with linguistics?

When it comes to the academic study of language, the name of one man is hard to avoid. Noam Chomsky, far better known for his political activism than his theory of syntax, initiated a revolution in modern linguistics when he rejected behaviourist ideas about communication and started explore the possibility of an innate human capacity for language. He believes that this capacity is encoded in the genes that determine the way our brains develop. It forms the basis for all languages, and accounts (so the theory goes) for certain structures that no language so far discovered lacks.

Chomsky's seminal works, starting with Syntactic Structures in 1957, emerged at a time when scholars were becoming interested in what languages had in common rather than what made them different. His contemporary, Joseph Greenberg, was working to identify properties shared by all languages -- so-called linguistic universals. Forget for a moment the nature-nuture arguments that still reverberate in linguistics as in every other social science. The research his early work inspired has left us able to say with some confidence that no one language (and for that matter, no dialect of any language) is more or less capable of expressing the gamut of human emotions and experiences than any other. To put it a different way: there are no "primitive" languages.

Another widespread misconception is the idea that languages are gradually being corrupted by laziness or lack of attention to detail - and that this is a recent turn of events. What's causing the rot? The list of suspects is a familiar one: young people, the education system, television, the influence of other languages.

The fact is that language only comes into being through the people that speak (or write) it. It's not something separate, hovering above our heads like a cloud. There's no effective way to control language from the center, as members of the Academie Francaise are constantly reminded, to their, ahem, chagrin. As a result, it's always changing.

The reason that language can evolve without falling apart is that changes are allowed only insofar as effective communication remains possible. OK, communication between a 90 year old and their teenage grandchild probably isn't as effective as it could be. But that's alright because codes only ever need to be intelligible to initiates, and ways of speaking -- languages, dialects, accents, the latest sayings -- are basically codes. Sub-groups of speakers are the engine of linguistic change. Any community that that has restricted contact with the outside world will start to develop its own ways of saying things. These differences will either die out, or get absorbed into the wider language.

Taken to extremes, of course, this is how new languages are spawned. If a group becomes isolated, the dialect its members use will evolve to the extent that outsiders can no longer understand it.

In the centuries after the decline of Roman power in continental Europe, the communities that had once been part of a single linguistic and political entity were left to their own devices. Communication between the regions dried up. Over time the dialects of Latin spoken in the Ile de France, Tuscany and Catalonia began to get more and more distinct. Out of these emerged the varieties of French, Italian and Catalan spoken by modern Europeans. Now, ask yourself, are these languages somehow a debased form of Latin? After all, their evolution was driven by the same processes that change the shape of our own languages and give rise to differences that can be perceived in the course of a single lifetime -- the difference between "How do you do?" and "Awight?" between "isn't that so?" and "innit?." If you're still sceptical, consider the fact that Medieval Frenchmen used the word hui to mean 'today." This was a "corruption" of the Latin hoc die, which meant "this day." Cicero would surely have disapproved, but does that really make hui, a debased form? To scholars of French, the word's antiquity probably lends it a certain noblesse. Isn't it all just a question of perspective?

Folk linguistics, or the profusion of pseudofacts about language that people seem to find so irresistible, often has undertones of xenophobia, even racism. Studies of childhood language acquisition have shown that any child, of any race, can be raised to speak any language perfectly. A Vietnamese baby adopted by a French couple at an early enough age will grow up speaking French like a French person. This pretty much debunks the myth that certain races are more attuned, by virtue of their physiology, to certain sounds. It doesn't stop people making outrageous claims, however. A tutor of mine remembers someone asking her, in all seriousness, if there was any truth in the notion that /b/ was absent from African languages because it was a difficult to shape to make for people with "big lips."

So what can we do? It's hard to change attitudes, but it's possible to broaden minds and let people draw their own conclusions. At the moment, linguistics is far from accessible. It's very rarely taught in schools. Even in higher education it's a minority subject. For some reason, it셲 perceived, when it's perceived at all, as obscure.

But language and communication touch every aspect of our lives. Do people assume it's too difficult, too technical a subject to be introduced to children? No more difficult than mathematics, and no more technical than biology. Put some linguistics on the curriculum, make de Saussure and Labov and household names. You might be surprised at the results. In countries where a number of languages are spoken, countries where language divisions reflect sectarian divisions, countries like Turkey, Spain and Russia it could be a powerful tool for teaching people that we're all basically the same. But then, what country wouldn't benefit from a bit of linguistic mythbusting? In a world where communities are in contact like never before, this is one subject with a lot to offer.
©2006 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter David Shariatmadari

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