What I have learnt from linguistics

There isn’t a day that each and everyone for us doesn’t use language in some way. We need it to communicate and interact with people. Unless you live by yourself in a remote forest or island we will use language.

Languages are not made equal. What I mean by this is that languages, like everything else, follow patterns. Some language patterns are more common than others. SOV (subject-object-verb) and SVO (subject-verb-object) are the two most common sentence patterns across languages. Together they make up about 90 percent of all language types. The remaining four possible patterns (OVS, OSV, VSO and VOS) make up the other 10 percent.

Having the subject come first makes sense since it is the most important part of the sentence – what the sentence is about. The verb – what the subject is doing – then should come next. I stress should because SOV is actually the slightly more common type. By enclosing the object maybe just as effective, then.

Another important thing I have learnt is that language is not built in as a module but is developed from usage (you can tell I am not a Chomskyan here). For me the evidence is in the linguistic economy of language. As far as we can, we try minimise the effort needed to produce and receive language communication. For example, the schwa /ə/ is the most common sound because it downplays all sounds – theses are, in English at least, relatively unstressed, shortened and lower in pitch than the important sounds – in the communicative act so as to allow the important parts stand out. In other words, language starts out to be as simple as possible until that doesn’t work.

In theory a language can be a minimal pair. And in fact we do have such a language in the computer language. Essentially a “bit” is a switch of either 1 or 0. By combining 8 of these bits we have a byte which communicates a certain kind of information. To the computer 1s and 0s are enough to get the message across with little or no error. To the human being either as visual or audio communication this is not enough to be efficient for either the producer or receiver. This is why again, for example in English, that we have developed 44 phonemic sounds – there are 20 vowels and 24 consonants by one count. With these 44 sounds we have enough to communicate what we need efficiently as well as allow for the expansion of the new words as languages change.

These two ideas alone have allow me to understand how any language works but also how to approach a language in terms of learning it. No, language isn’t a set of formulas learnt and regurgitated like facts, but is a set of patterns to which we fit usage (which includes function) to everyday problems of social communication. The social act and the achievement of actions through language is its main goal. To think otherwise is to misunderstand why and how we use language.

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