What is language?
As North Americans living in the early 21st century, we have been educated about language from the time we entered school. But much of what we learn about language in schools belongs more to a folk model than to an analytic model of language. Here are several pervasive aspects of our folk model of language. Language is a communication system. It is true that we use language to communicate with others. However, language is much more than a communication system. The most recent thinking about the nature of language suggests that language is first and foremost a representational system; a system which provides us with the symbols we need to model for ourselves, to ourselves, inside our heads, the universe around us. This modeling, carried out using the symbols ("words") provided by language, is commonly called "thinking." The communication function of language, which allows us to represent things not only to ourselves but to others as well, is an added benefit. Primitive people speak primitive languages. We know, from anthropological research, that there are no primitive people on Earth today; indeed, it may be that the "Neandertals" were the last truly primitive people. And, there are no primitive languages, either. All languages that we know about, including those that are no longer anyone’s native language (Latin, Homeric Greek, etc.) have all the properties of the so-called "modern" languages (French, Spanish, Russian, etc.).
Even languages that have been reconstructed, such as Proto-Indoeuropean (the parent language of most European languages as well as Persian, Hindi, etc.), show no signs of "primitiveness." They have all the characteristics of so-called "modern" languages (see below).
Some languages are "harder" than others. While languages differ from one another in just which parts are simple and which are complex, all languages seem to be about equally complex or difficult to learn in their totality. For example, if we compare English and Russian we find that English nouns are relatively simple, while verbs are rather complex; in Russian, the nouns are hard and verbs are relatively simple.
Language is writing. If we ask a naive English speaker how many vowels English has, the answer is usually "five". This is because we tend to interpret any question about language as a question about the writing system. The English alphabet has 5 symbols that are normally used for the representation of vowels. But the English language has between 10 and 12 basic vowel sounds; this is the answer the linguist is interested in. Language is first and foremost oral; speech as a means of communication has been around for perhaps 200,000 years or more, while writing has existed for only about 6,000 as far as we know. Many languages, including many Native American languages as well as most of the creole languages of the Caribbean, exist without a written tradition. This in no way diminishes their language-ness.
Grammar is a set of prescriptive rules. When we think of grammar, we tend to think of the sorts of rules drilled into us by our language arts and English teachers: "Don’t end sentences with prepositions!" "Don’t use double negatives!"
When linguists work to discover the grammar of a language, they are looking for descriptive rules that model the linguistic patterns which people carry around inside their heads. We follow most of these rules unconsciously. In most cases no-one ever teaches them to us (see below); and, in most cases, we cannot articulate them. We "know how" to use our language, but we don't typically "know why." The interesting thing is that these rules of our descriptive grammar are frequently far more subtle and complex than anything the language arts teachers tell us about.
This ain't no joke....
The prescriptive rule mentioned above, about not using double negatives, was created by Bishop Robert Lowth in 1762 in England. The idea was to make English more like...
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