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Language – tree or machine?

Are languages like trees? Did they grow and evolve slowly over time? Or did they get invented by some clever person and require knowledge and skill to operate and will break down if not kept working by skilled professionals? The answer is a bit complicated. But let’s start with a clarification. What is a language? Nowadays we would probably say that a language is something that has people speaking it and media such as books, TV shows and movies.

But what was language like before media? How were words used and what were people’s attitudes about words? If you grew up in western society, then you probably had language education. While things are changing now, my generation and many generations before mine were told many things about languages and about how to use words.

“Don’t say ‘me and my friend'” “Don’t end a sentence with a preposition” “Don’t split an infinitive”. All of that advice was not based on how the language actually works. The “split infinitive” rule comes from Latin where it is literally impossible to split the infinitive since an infinitive is a single word.

In English, as in other Germanic languages, splitting the infinitive is a completely normal thing to do. This “rule” came about because someone had an idea and imposed that idea on people learning the language in a classroom.

Teaching style and punctuation and common practises is a good idea as it allows someone to more easily assimilate in the larger speech community as they grow up. But some of the downsides of this approach is that it gives a lot of people (me included while I was growing up) the idea that language is static and there are right and wrong ways to use it.

I have learned a lot since starting Silly Linguistics and it has changed how I view language, and in particular how words are used. Language is a lot more flexible and changable than a lot of us realise and it will continue to change as society and culture changes.

When I was growing up, I viewed language the same way I viewed computer science or maths. It was a system invented one day and you learned how to use it similarly to how you learn how to drive a car or change a tire. Don’t get me wrong, language is a skill, and it is something you learn but the truth is a lot more grey, and actually, much more interesting than I thought it was when I was growing up. I got excited by the odd anecdote about languages but I would often go back to computers and forget about languages.

Everything changed in 2014 when I got involved with High Valyrian from Game of Thrones and through it I got exposed to linguistics. Maybe it wasn’t my teachers’ fault. Maybe I just never engaged enough. I guess I just decided one day that English class was boring and I hadn’t given it much of a chance from that point on.

I just had a light bulb moment a while ago and I realised that language is like improv. You make up things as you go along and see what happens. When you were growing up and before you were taught specific rules about languages you probably heard people talking about the family dog and you would say “Look at the doggy” or something like that. You heard words and you repeated them. Toddlers learn hundreds of words a month.

Toddlers try out lots of things. They pull the cat’s tail and stick their biscuit in the sand and practise their walking by going from room to room. This exploratory trait does not stop at language. They try out different sounds. There are some theories that say that the equivalents of “mama” and “papa” sound so similar world wide because they are just the babblings of toddlers converted in the minds of adults into words.

“mama” has an M and “papa” has a P. Both sounds are made with the lips and they are some of the first sounds made by babies. What is interesting about first language acquisition is how fast and well it happens for the vast majority of children. They are born with the ability to make sound through crying and that’s about it. But soon they are saying things like “papa” and “kitty” and then things like “I’m hungry” and then “I want to go to the park”.

This process has been repeated for thousands of years. Do we really need people telling children how to speak? It should be as silly as explaining to a 5 year old how to breathe. In our tribal past people would just speak and the language would evolve and change like a lava lamp. Then some grumpy grammarians came along and said “Don’t say ‘me and my friend'” and “Don’t end a sentence with a preposition”.

As for the “me and my friend” thing, a lot of people would come up with some reason why it is wrong. But these arguments miss a point. No one would say “That giraffe doesn’t look enough like a zebra”. Of course they wouldn’t. That’s absurd. Then why are we looking at an utterance and saying “This is wrong”. A giraffe got to be the way it is today through small changes over time. We should understand how the giraffe evolved, not tell it that it’s wrong.

Similarly, it would be much interesting to look into why people say “me and my friend” than just say it is wrong. Science is showing more and more how our minds are set up for the complex task of perceiving speech sounds, decoding them, parsing them into sentences, trying to understand the message and do the whole thing the other way to go from our thoughts to a series of sound waves to transmit our message.

If language is a natural process and came about through our biology then we should look at it through a scientific lense. After learning more about languages and linguistics I quickly came across the descriptive method which looks at how language is actually being used rather than how some say it should be used and I found that the descriptive method is a more interesting approach but it is also scientific and is slowly revealing to us how this system came about and how it works.

So we go back to the original question, is language a tree or a machine? Well, this question itself is a bit of a trick. Trees are themselves living things that change and grow over time. They have their own internal machinery, just of a biological nature, instead of a metallic one.

Languages are machinelike in that they are complex and have many moving parts. But they are very unmachinelike in that they change over time, are very flexible and have ways of adapting to changes around them. There are some who say that language might have evolved once tens of thousands of years ago and spread quickly from that point to all the humans living at that time.

Those humans then moved from Africa to the Middle East, Europe, Asia and beyond, bringing language with them. If this theory of single origin is correct it means that all world languages are related, some more closely than others, but all having a common source. Just look at the range of languages we have. We have languages where you can communicate complex thoughts with a single long word and we have others where you need to use lots of extra words before or after other words to express the desired nuance.

I don’t want to give people the impression that descriptivism is “anything goes” (which is far from the truth) or that prescriptivism (prescribing usage) is the devil. Each has their place in the world. Language plays a lot of functions in the world and in places, such as a legal document, language becomes quite regimented. But I do want people to realise that language is a lot more than what you may realise it is.

It is not just something for Shakespeare and Charles Dickens. It is something for all of us. Language is our heritage as humans. We can create new words and share new ideas with the world. We are literally born to do it and that should be celebrated.

1 Comment

  1. McQ

    It is necessary that there be a large prescriptive component to language. Words themselves must be used in predictable ways, or there is confusion. When I say “butter” I don’t want “Parkay.” When I say, “turn left at the next corner” it is essential that the person hearing the instruction knows what I mean by “turn,” “left,” “next,” and “corner.” We are not the Res Queen, making words mean what we want them to mean.
    Grammatical rules, likewise, impart meaning. The subject and object of a sentence need to be clearly communicated. Use of specific pronouns helps when sentence construction might confuse. “You me throw ball.” vs. “You I throw ball .” (Though the meaning would be implicit in terms of who is currently holding the ball.)

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