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The nature of language; Overview of Course Material

Language is BIOLOGICAL We can talk to each other because our bodies and brains develop in ways that make language possible. Language comes from both the neural organization of the brain and the mechanical organization of the vocal cords and vocal tract.

Language is CULTURAL To a great extent language is culture and vice versa.

Language is ARBITRARY There is no relation between words and the things they represent. This claim is easily demonstrated by looking at very common words: English "dog" is Spanish "perro" is French "chien"; English "bed" is Spanish "cama" is French "lit" . . . there is no way a human can look at a dog or a bed and know what "the word" for the object is. Still less then, are there necessary signs for abstract and highly variable concepts like "liberty" or "love." Yet within language itself, many words make sense because they fit into a system of other words. The word "broom" is arbitrary. Yet in Ireland, a broom is called a "sweeping brush"--a combination of two arbitrary words that is in itself not arbitrary, because one can deduce the meaning of the phrase from the meanings of its components. Meaning in language is always a product of arbitrary and systematic factors.

Language is GENERATIVE We understand new sentences that we hear; and we constantly produce new sentences.

Language is UNIVERSAL All cognitively normal children acquire a language, early and without training.

Language tends to CHANGE This is a paradox: if communication is important, isn't consistency an absolute value?

Language is HISTORICAL We speak the way we speak today because of series of historical accidents and contingencies .

Language is VARIABLE at any given moment. Each of us speaks a different variety of a language (or languages). Each community speaks a different dialect, and people speak many different dialects depending on the social situation.

Languages LIVE and DIE--not exactly like organisms, but in an analogous way. Their extinction is like that of biological species.

 Languages are inexact and idiomatic media. Translation is not a simple decoding and re-encoding but an art that is sensitive both to general concepts and to particular expressions of those concepts in different languages. There are two principles at work here, and they are sometimes at odds.

One is the "principle of effability," which means that anything you can express in one language you can express in another. You might have to borrow some vocabulary and provide some context, but you can say anything in any world language.


Another is sometimes called the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, after its joint originators Edward Sapir and Benjamin Whorf. This hypothesis posits that there are great differences in the way people think, depending on what language they acquire. Severe forms of this hypothesis would actually contradict the principle of effability, because there might be some concepts in some language that you really couldn't get across in another.


Even the simplest translation exercises point to the tension between these two linguistic ideas. Most languages have a simple phrase you say to someone when you will see them again soon. "Good bye," we say, which is a contraction of "God be with you," though most of us say instead "See you," "so long," "later." In French? "A bientot" literally means "To well soon." "Au revoir" is "To seeing-again." In Spanish, "hasta luego" or just "luego"--"till then," "till later." Nothing terribly remarkable here; it's all quite effable; but try saying "to seeing again" or even (think about it) "till later" to someone in English. It just sounds funny. "To well soon" or even "till soon" sound crazy. Are we all really saying "good-bye"?

And what about Italian, where "ciao" means "hello" or "good-bye" (and etymologically means "slave," though that's another story altogether).


Or try saying "his wife" and "her husband" in a gendered language like French. The usual phrases are, respectively, "sa femme" and "son mari". Where did the "his" and "her" go? A Frenchwoman calls her husband "mon mari" and her car "ma voiture." She uses two different words for "my," and she actually cannot say "his" or "her." Does the French language have a concept for "his or "her"? Are the ideas expressed in those two words "effable" in French? Or--more subtle--does French have the same idea for "my" as English has?


Reflect for a moment on the simplicity of those phrases we've just gone over, and you'll see how hard this issue becomes.


Spoken language is different from writing. Speech and writing involve different parts of the brain.

For most of linguistic history, we know only the history of written language. Spoken language predates written language historically. In fact, writing systems developed – probably – only three times spontaneously (in China, Sumeria, and in Mayan culture). Spoken language predates written language in individual development – no developmentally normal child fails to acquire language, but all people must be taught to read and write.

Language exists first in our mouths and ears, and only much later in books. Yet people who become literate often believe that "correct" language is in books. We often ask how written words are to be pronounced – possibly because, as literate people, we run across a lot of words that we have never heard spoken. And we believe that certain authorities, like dictionaries, embody the "right" way to pronounce or use language. But all written texts are in some way reflections of a prior spoken language, even if they are meant to travel silently from brain to brain without reaching the ear at all.

Written language is much more stable than spoken, especially in societies that have technologies of printing but have not yet developed technologies of mass aural media. So our written language became standardized quickly after the introduction of printing into Britain after 1470. To a great extent, our standard spellings today reflect pronunciations that were still in use in before 1470, like the initial consonants of knee, knight, knave . . .

And in spellings like:

--night, ought, fought, caught

where the gh digraph represents a once-spoken sound.


Written language can be heavily standardized. Huge industries of linguistic prescription grow up around the written language. People can attempt to prescribe a standard in spoken language as well, but it is very hard to do so. Speakers who have many different accents may all be able to write a single standard language, a fact that has great importance for education and for politics.

This semester, we will study the history and development of the English language in several different areas.



We'll study the sounds of English words--how they vary in the present and how they differ over time. Spelling, as noted above, does not represent spoken language even in an alphabetic writing system like that of written English. The sounds of English words have changed greatly over centuries and continue to be variable today--variation in the present being a reflection of potential for further change. So we need to learn at least a very basic phonemic / phonetic transcription in order to represent the sounds of the words that we speak and hear.

Not just individual sounds but whole systems of sounds are variable and change over time.


Most American speakers pronounce the word bitter with a /d/ sound in the middle. For us, bitter is a homophone of bidder (they sound the same--not a problem most of the time). But the word bitter is spelled with two t's in the middle because that spelling reflects an earlier pronunciation that persists in British "Received Pronunciation" --with a clear /t/ in the middle. [OTOH, the British RP has no /r/ at the end of bitter, so that dialect has retained one sound while changing another.] But a great many British speakers today have neither /d/ nor /t/ in the middle of bitter but the glottal stop /?/ This is true as a systematic principle, not just as an "accent." English has a phoneme [t] that is expressed between two vowels as /d/, /t/, or /?/ depending on the dialect one speaks. A speaker of one dialect (one sound system) will actually hear and reproduce this phoneme differently.

I noticed this when I brought some Gatorade to my nephew, many years ago; his accent is a typical Southeast London accent. I said /geidreid/; he did not reproduce my pronunciation but called it /gaiʔʔaiʔ/ . . . it's the same word, but the entire systematic difference between our dialects caused him to hear this unfamiliar word differently than I said it, and to reproduce it according to his own rules.



Here we'll study the source of words and the changes in their meaning over time. Etymology is a powerful tool; it's often used as a rhetorical topos to help win arguments. We feel we have power over words if we know how they used to be used--though in practice one rarely has access to a lot of etymological information, and there are "dead" meanings buried in every word. "Assassin" and "hashish" have the same root. "Manure" means to work with one's hands. "Toilet," a hundred years ago, meant a woman's dress. "Person" means mask. "Glamour" and "grammar" are in origin the same word.

"Dilemma" means not merely a problem but an impossible choice between two alternatives. "Disinterested" means impartial in judgment. . . . or at least, in each case, they used to mean those things, sometimes in languages that predate English.

Etymology can help us see past cultures frozen in present words. One of the best-known examples is Walter Scott (coiner of "glamour")'s comment, in Ivanhoe, that we can tell what Normans and Saxons ate, and how that reflected power in Norman England, by looking at words for food:



















You can see here Scott's basic point: that the English natives of Norman England cared for animals, but rarely got to eat them. When a large animal was turned into food, it was turned into French, because a Norman person was going to eat it.


Syntax is how we arrange words and phrases to make larger units like sentences and conversations. English has changed dramatically over time not just in how it sounds and how it means, but in the structure of its grammar.

Take this Christmas sentence from the Gospel of Luke 2:9, in Old English from the 1000s:

þa stod drihtnes engel wiþ hig and godes beorhtnes him ymbelscean: and hi him mycelum ege adredon.

Word for word, the Old English means this:

Then stood God's angel near them, and God's brightness them around-shone, and they them with great awe dreaded.

Present-Day English would give this verse as:

Behold, an angel of the Lord stood by them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. (from the Hebrew Names 2000 translation; see the Blue Letter Bible.)

Most of the words in the Old English are either clearly still in use or easy enough to translate into present-day equivalents. But even using present-day words, we could not speak in Old English word order and expect to be understood. There have been fundamental changes in English syntax in the last 1,000 years; it isn't clear quite why, but we need to be aware of how.


Words and phrases that once had a certain kind of dictionary meaning can, over time, acquire a function that has little to do with their original meaning; in effect, they trade in meaning for function. Take the word "very." The first English dictionary meaning for "very" is "really and truly," from the French "verrai" (Modern French vrai, "true"). In Middle English, the word meant "really and truly." When Chaucer says of one of his pilgrims

He was a very perfect gentle knight

he does not mean that the knight was really really perfect, or even that he was perfectly gentle. He is using a string of three adjectives of about equal force to describe the knightliness of the knight--he was a very knight, a real knight of a knight.

But the use of "very," over and over and over, in strings of adjectives where it came first, turned it into a special class of adverb called a "degree word" (like "so," "much," "many," &c.) The word was grammaticalized.

One more example, from French. Standard modern French for "I don't know" is je ne sais pas. That pas is the same word as in the phrase pas de deux, which means a dance step; it's the English word "pace." Literally, French people say "I don't know step." And probably at one point they really meant it. It's just that they kept saying it so often that it became a grammaticalized "negative particle." So that "I don't know" may be more common today in the less-standard form "sais pas, moi" . . . where did the negative "ne" go? For that matter, where did it come from to begin with?

So what is the future in English of "totally," "incredibly," "squat," "alot," and "moreso"?


Both cultural and linguistic history help us to specify how the language changed in the past and in what context. We'll study some cultural history as background to study of linguistic issues--and remember from above, that language and culture are often synonymous. You will need to draw from coursework in British history, or absorb some British history as you go. English people have had constant contact with speakers of other languages for the past 1,500 years; they have been colonized and they have been colonizers; their language has spread around the world. We'll learn something of the history of "English-speaking peoples" along the way of learning the history of English.



You must keep the following generalized chart in mind and know it well by the end of the semester--if nothing else stays with you from this course for the rest of your life, a knowledge of the basic historical periods of the English language must stay. :-)


Old English (600-1100) is a purely Germanic, highly inflected language with several literary standards: West Saxon, Mercian, Northumbrian, and Kentish.

Early Middle English (1100-1300) is a radically simplified English, losing most of its inflectional endings, but as yet keeping a mostly Germanic vocabulary. It retains many different dialectal forms and has little standardization in spelling and other orthography.

Later Middle English (1300-1450) is heavily influenced by French vocabulary and has two major literary dialects: Midlands/Northern and London. Particularly in the London dialect, we begin to see standardization, under the influence of the Chancery clerks.

Early Modern English (1450-1650) moves sharply toward standardization, with the invention of printing being the major factor here; London standard tends to become a national standard, with consciousness that other dialect regions are sub-standard or non-literary. The impact of the English translation of the Bible is very strong in this standardizing of the written language.

Modern English (since 1650) is characterized by relatively rigid standardization (compared to other English periods, though not to Modern French) and by the increasing role of travel and electronic media in establishing a spoken as well as a literary standard. At the same time, the worldwide spread of English has resulted in new dialect areas well beyond Britain. In particular, American English becomes a competing standard with British "received" or "BBC" English.

In broad theoretical terms, what we see in the development of the English language is the intersection of "organic" or "natural" language processes (which however one should always see as political, not unconscious or biological) with technological forces.