Tuesday, 24 June 2014

Language Makes Us Who We Are

I've been thinking a lot about the link between language and our genes. It's not just something we learn or study, like how to paint or play the guitar. It's something rooted in our DNA, an intrinsic brain function which doesn't even require thought; we just do it. From the moment that as babies we begin to babble, we instinctively want to speak.
Just like our hair colour or eye colour, the way we speak is part of our identity. Language both connects people and sets us apart from one another. Two people may speak the same language, even have a similar accent, but they will use their language in an entirely unique way. It's a means of expressing ourselves, a part of our personality and ultimately what makes us us.

Some people you meet, you'll hardly get a word out of, and others will never shut up. We all have those friends who are more than willing to speak their mind, who'll tell us exactly what their views are on our new outfit without a second thought, and although their brutal honesty isn't always appreciated, I can't help but be envious of their confidence. But then there's the opposite end of the spectrum; those of us who always think before speaking and who like to choose each and every word carefully. And really, who can blame us? Language is, after all, one of, if not the most powerful tool we have.

Steven Pinker said that simply by making noises with our mouths we can reliably cause precise new combinations of ideas to arise in each other’s minds.’ It's amazing really, because if we really think about it, a word is simply a sound, or rather a combination of sounds, which we produce by pushing air from our lungs, yet they hold with them enormous meaning. Human language, unlike animal communication, is arbitrary, meaning that the sound a word makes has no relationship to its meaning.  We can therefore say that the human language is symbolic; some words hold with them such powerful symbolic meanings, that hearing them can make us laugh or smile, or in some cases cause us great offense. I'm thinking here about curse words or insults. Again, simply a combination of sounds carries with it so many negative connotations. This is why language to me is so fascinating.

This is a concept exclusive to humans. Animals are restricted to expressing instinctive emotional needs that relate to their immediate environment only, telling each other when they are hungry or in pain, for example. Only humans are able to express thoughts and ideas which go beyond our present surroundings, talking about topics remote in time and space; human language is unique in that it allows us to describe the past, express views about the present, and hypothesise about the future. American linguist Charles Hockett coined this characteristic as displacement in the 60's.
Humans are also entirely unique in our ability to be creative with language. We can produce infinite new phrases using the vocabulary and grammar rules that we know. It is technically possible to use a phrase or sentence which has never been said before. If you're the likes of Shakespeare, you can even invent entirely new words. Uncomfortable, addiction and swagger are only a few of the words the English language owes to this great playwright.

This is why I again go back to the concept of language being part of what makes us who we are. Because it is a creative tool, a way of expressing opinions and ideas, and making sense of the world around us, language is something entirely personal. Despite its grammar rules and principles being fixed, the way in which we can use these rules is infinite. One person uses and manipulates language in an entirely different manner to another person. Language is an integral part of who we are, both anatomically, as an intrinsic brain function, as well as in terms of our identity.

“the root function of language is to control the universe by describing it.” James A. Baldwin

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