Friday, February 17, 2012

language, history, ramble

Two things have always bothered me about definitions of human language. The first is that we really know very little about animal language, or rather, the language of other animals, so we’re not in a very good position to discern the differences among them. We know that certain animals have language, and that those languages have symbols, and that in some cases those languages are made in the mouth. Since that is about all that human languages have in common, I am not yet ready to say that humans are all that much more sophisticated than the other animals, but I’m sure science has come up with some differences attributable to evolution. Sure, we’ve conquered the world and put many of our fellow animals in zoos. But that, to me, is not enough to allow us to call ourselves superior.

So we have language that is rich in use of symbols, in which sounds are put together into words, and these words have meaning which we remember as we go about our daily lives and create an infinite number of entirely original, meaningful sentences. We are so adept at these symbols that we make a writing system, so that written words correspond to spoken words which in turn symbolize concepts and now we are using symbols (the written words) that are a couple of steps removed from the concept itself. This is where it gets interesting, because here it may be assumed that the written word is derived from the spoken word, that the spoken word is more basic, more elemental, and capable of surviving just fine without a written word.

This is the other point that I’m somewhat stuck on, and in fact would like to explore. The fact that our languages have writing systems, and that these writing systems provide another level of abstraction beyond the spoken word and its referent, is in fact interesting, and it’s worth wondering how many other animals’ languages share this feature. But it might not be the only way human languages develop, or the only natural progression of languages in general. We are in the habit of looking around at the world’s languages, and perhaps looking down on the ones that have no writing system; perhaps they are undeveloped, or never had the means or reason to develop a writing system. But linguists made a big deal at one point out of the fact that these languages were every bit as complex in every other way, as those that had one. It was as if they had determined that the writing system didn’t change much in terms of the basic complexity of an already developed language.

A possible alternative might be that we used our mouths because it was more convenient, but that language could start from writing, be writing-based, or even writing-only, if that were more convenient or dictated by the environment.

I think it’s fair to say, given our historical record, that written languages have for the most part been derived from spoken languages, spoken languages which were already fairly complete, and had a history and evolutionary path independent of their written forms. Their evolutionary paths would not be entirely independent, as the written word would surely come to influence the evolution (natural change) of the spoken word, but nevertheless the assumption has remained: the written word represents the spoken word, however flawed the system; the spoken word in turn is connected directly to the concept.

It’s not hard to find arguments to support this general human tendency, since in history we have always carried our mouths around with us, whereas it was often much harder to come up with a pen and something to scrawl on. It can be said that entire languages were oral only, and when they finally got writing systems, those systems played very little role in the culture of the nations or peoples who spoke the language. Oral, in other words, was basic, whereas the written forms were temporal, optional, insignificant in terms of their influence on the language itself.

But it brings to mind several questions. The first was raised when study of deaf communities found many similarities between their language and spoken language, as if it was perfectly possible to have a fully functioning language, evolving and living by its own rules, entirely independent of speech. The question then would be, what did they find that enabled them to declare these languages of the deaf as complex as any other language? What are the essences of language that develop whether or not we are using the mouth as our primary instrument of communication? Or, on the other hand, in what way does the mouth influence the range or the ability of language to be what it is, or, more specifically, could it even constrict the development of language? That is to say, if we were to develop a language without the mouth, a chat language for example, could it have more vowels? Different kinds of vowels? Virtual vowels?

Chomsky seemed to believe in the idea that there was some genetic capability that we humans had access to, that helped determine the way we saw and used language. But, in life, there have been many languages that were written only, so my questions really apply to those. If a language were to develop as written only, how much of Chomsky’s innate mechanism would apply to it? I have several examples, and some may not hold up to the light of day. The claim was, in these deaf languages (used in a community in Israel in which deafness was quite common and in fact was so common that it was a good idea for anyone to use the deaf language), that the language evolved and changed in much the same ways that our oral languages have. Would this also be true, then, for chat languages, which develop in writing, and have no real oral counterpart, and in which, creating sound correspondences for common written chat expressions would actually be superfluous? Another example would be the isolated EFL learner, who has access to books but no soundtracks, no English sound whatsoever (impossible, you might insist?) – this person would crack the code through the books, perhaps, but have no idea of the sounds corresponding to each letter or word. The sounds now would be arbitrary, but the writing would be fixed, being shared between communities. Any community could then be free to interpret the words its people see (let’s say a group of learners has received a textbook, still with no access to English sounds) – assign sounds to them arbitrarily, and yet continue to use the language, and let it evolve, on its own, naturally, as a writing-based language. A genetic interpretation might insist that people continue to conceive of language as oral, and that these picture-first anomalies are just that.

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