Language, we use it everyday, but what exactly defines “language? ” Are there generalizations to be made of all languages? Does everyone learn language same way? What are the rules of language? “What is Language? ” by Neil Smith and Deirdre Wilson answers these questions and more by highlighting the three major theories of modern linguistics. The first modern linguistic theory claims that language is govern by grammar and that grammar is a set of rules with two functions: identifying possible sentences in a given language and dictate the pronunciation & meaning of a sentence in a given language.
The first function provides fluent speakers the ability to understand every conceivable sentence in their language even if they never heard it before sentences. This creative quality to produce infinitely many sentences is unique to language. The second function provides fluent speakers of different dialects to communicate with each other using the grammar rules of their shared language. The two functions of the first modern linguistic theory provides effective communication between two parties and acknowledgment of it is vital in first understanding language.
In part with the first modern linguistic theory’s definition of grammar is that each person’s linguistic grammar is entirely unique to him or herself, because everyone learns grammar differently due different external factors. Everyone absorbs different linguistic speech patterns from their external environment during infancy and adds it to his or her own unique grammar customs, habits or conventions. These differences are even more prominent in patients of aphasia, a language disability that breaks up certain parts of their grammar creating difficult to understand or entirely incoherent sentences.
People with aphasia create their own linguistic systems, sometimes being completely incompatible with the common linguistic systems of their receivers, causing misunderstandings. Generally, the only two instances of completely unique linguistic systems are when infants first learn language and patients with aphasia. The study of these two instances are vital in understanding the degree of uniqueness a linguistic grammar systems. The second modern linguistic theory claims that grammar is psychologically real and unconsciously known. However, the idea that grammar is unconscious knowledge is a controversial one.
The opposition argues that sentence understanding is formed from using analogous sentences the listener has already heard and understood. It is not unconscious knowledge, they claim, but conscious identification of previously understood sentences. However, that does not explain the creativity of forming entirely new sentences or understanding the meaning of a never heard before sentence. For example, Noam Chomsky’s famous line, “Colorless green ideas sleep furiously” understandably sounds English and follows the grammatical rules of English, but makes no semantic sense.
The opposition’s claim should be understood as “previously experienced analogous rules are used to understand language. ” This would be classified under grammar rules. This explains how students first learn a language by identifying patterns through multiple experiences with the same kind of sentences. L
inguists, however, research existing patterns from recognizing sentence patterns that are psychologically valid, i. e. significant generalizations and sentence patterns that arose by accident or by coincidence, i. e. accidental generalizations. Significant generalizations are formed from existing rules, such as using “mister” for a man and “miss” for a woman.
Accidental generalizations are any rules that are not the currently valid linguistic rules and are formed from chance events from using rules during early development of the language or change from outside influences. A child might make an accidental generalization of “mister” and call a woman “mister,” which would be very inappropriate and incorrect.
Through intensive research, linguists are able to identify which generalizations are accidental or incorrect and create generalizations that are correct. The third modern linguistic theory by Noam Chomsky claims that people learn certain language forms instinctively. Chomsky discovered this parallel from the fact that all languages are very similar to each other. A few universalities shared by all languages discovered by linguistics are that all languages have vowels, consonants, nouns, verbs, affirmative sentences, negative sentences and interrogative sentences.
A study done by Russell Tomlin in 1986, London, is that 45% of all languages share the “subject-verb-object” sentence structure and 42% share the “subject-verb-object” sentence structure. Very few languages, for whatever reason, have the verb or object first, which would indicate that the formation of language favors the subject first and that most languages are predisposed to having a subject first in a sentence. Language, whether we completely comprehend its inner workings or not, is constantly a prevailing aspect of our daily lives.
We use language unconsciously, and yet because of this aspect, it is very difficult to fully classify rules of language. Thankfully, we can analyze various instances of unique grammar formation to further clarify our generalizations of languages and through these generalizations, find universalities of all languages. What is language, you ask? Language is a beautiful study of unique linguistics systems, interplaying with each other to create powerful communication.