Language: Why Speak It, Why Study It

Law court

Most humans take two years to learn their first language, called their "native tongue." In a famous experiment, a language teacher taught his infant son six languages at once. Each of the parents and the four grandparents spoke a different language to the child. The child learned them all, thinking merely that each person had their own language! How does a baby learn language. Most people who study language today, linguists, think that language is somehow hard-wired into our human brains. This has yet to be proven, although they do know that there are areas of the brain that get more active when language is used. Damage to those areas results in loss of language.

If we could all learn foreign languages the way a baby learns, it would be funny and irritating, but effective. Babies tend to pay more attention to the mother's exaggerated voice as she repeats over and over the word for the baby to learn. If a person made you look at a car and said in a loud, exaggerated voice, OUT-TOE, OUT-TOE, eventually you would learn the word in Spanish for car: auto, pronounced out-toe. Teachers of language look every day for easier ways to teach people to speak different languages. Linguists also constantly look for ways to spell the sounds of other languages so that other linguists can repeat them accurately. Yet none of us have a mother who will spend every day with us repeating endlessly the small vocabulary of the things in our little world. Most of us would find that annoying. We try for classes, preferably with a native speaker, we try to go there and immerse ourselves in the language by being forced to interact with others on an adult level in that tongue. This is extremely stressful, but effective for many people. Some have friends who speak that language and they spend time trying to learn it by listening and talking.

Where most people run into real trouble is when language is written down. It has only been about 4,000 years that language has been written down and the first writing was pictures. It was an unusual leap that pictures ever morphed into letters that tried to match the sounds we said. In languages today, pictures still rule the language and the spoken tongue is said with an accent that has nothing to do with the picture. Thus the pictogram of the word "dog" is a symbol that means "dog" and may be said in 800 different accents without anyone caring. Often people carry cards with their name in pictographs so that when they say it, they show the card and the pictographs carry much of the meaning of the name so that the person hearing the name does not get it confused with other spoken words. In the West, we use a letter system, but we also rely upon it to clarify the meaning of spoken speech. So, a child, going to school, must learn a second layer of language, the written form, which most find baffling, frustrating and even impossible to learn. 4,000 years ago, this would not have been the failure it is today. In ancient times, people relied on verbal memory. Many people today have excellent verbal memory in that they remember what they hear. For some, this also works with words that they see. Most tests in the school system test for the ability to use the text to mean words. If you are good at tests, you usually have a double ability to remember spoken words and visual words. If you only remember spoken words or only remember visual signs, you will not perform as well on these tests, no matter how excellent your other skills are.


This gives you a very good example of what I mean when I say that we learn two languages. If you were to hear this tune, you would all know it, every one of you. However, the only people who know this tune when looking at the notation are those who have learned the notation and the translation. Some musicians, famous musicians, never learn this notation. Their songs have been passed down by fellow musicians complete. However, there is one problem. Often with "folk" songs the original author is unknown. Also the song can change to become thousands of variations of the same song. Different words with the same melody or different melodies with the same words. Writing down music made it possible to pass on the music as it was originally composed. The only thing you need to "hear" the music is the ability to translate the notation into sounds.

It's funny to think of laws as rules. We have rules of grammar, but to call them laws somehow makes them seem, well, invincible. The word law is full of spooks, spooks of being dragged into a court and put into prison. But I'm going to spend a moment talking about the way that lawyers do not mean crime, but freedom. We have, in the West, two kinds of law: criminal law and common law or civil law. Criminal law is a list of rules created by a governing body. Common law is civil suit and precedence. This is how it works.

Jason Fox
Courtesy Bill Amend and his publisher.

The cartoonist Bill Amend has a character who is a math genius, Jason Fox. The comic stip occasionally has math jokes in it, which the majority of people do not get. Although most people deal with math every day, they get so intimidated with faced with the symbols for numbers on paper, that most of them only learn the very basic numbering sequences and a little bit about basic functions such as addition and percentages and fractions. Even the language of math is intimidating to many. If we were all made to learn music notation in school, many people would feel about that the way they do about math. Yet, for some, the language of math is fun, especially when it gets more complex and the world can be translated and described with the language. Many people who love math, also love it for being so precise and exacting in its descriptions. This is not always the case in higher math, yet the textbooks are still full of problems that have one solution or can be solved, two ways of saying that the math description exactly matches some reality. Most of math is about describing the ways that the world functions within limits. Engineers deal with problems where there is no solution, but a range of solutions suggested by the math. This is a complex subject, that I only bring up here to show you that we expect quite a bit out of modern children.

One of the more frustrating problems of some children is that English is mixed into math, music and many other fields. The study of math is full of "word problems." Some children are baffled by the math, but a few others are baffled by the words and fail as miserably as those not good at math. Musicians who cannot read, often can read music or can succeed without doing either, not so for the math savant who cannot read words or learn the symbols. People unconsciously use math every day, but if they had to work an equation to cut a block of wood in half, might give up in frustration. Visual people are often bad at math, music and language because they are all linguistic tools written in a symbolic shorthand. A savant at reading Chinese might fail at understanding the way that letters are supposed to be sounds. Some of this is the abstraction of the letters being sounds, some of this is because, most of the time, the letter means a group of sounds.


In the next articles, I do spend a great deal of time trying to explain something about why the above letters both try to mimic actual sounds and how they fail. This picture is put here simply to give you an idea (as if you didn't already know) just how crazy and difficult English is. In looking at these words, there are some rules and no rules and as many exceptions as their are rules. However, and I cannot stress this enough, there is a reason for every one of these spellings and why the two words have the same letters and different sounds. Most remedial teachers may not know these reasons or care to pass them on to their students.


Another huge problem that kids and adults have is in the spelling of English. For a while, there was a push in the lower schools to encourage children to write phonetically, or "spelled as it sounds." This was meant to teach children how to write, assuming that they would gradually learn "correct" spelling. As you can see from the image above, English has had many versions of the same words, often the same word being spelled differently in the same document. It was one of the lastest European languages to have standard spelling and grammar. Standardized spelling did not exist until the middle of the 1800s despite the dictionaries published by Webster and Johnson and the Oxford group. To this day, words are spelled differently on different sides of the English speaking world. Not only did words change in spelling, but the way they sounded changed enormously so that most modern English speakers cannot understand their own language spoken six hundred years ago. Many of the attempts at spelling were simply that the word was said differently when the spelling was first put down in writing. The word "knife" use to have the "k" pronounced. The word "may" and "main" used to have different vowels. Much of the regional differences in spoken English are due to the fact that languages change over time. This happens also in other languages, but not as fast.

Feeling like you don't know your own language? Most native speakers know about 10,000 words, which is enough to say most anything. English has over 100,000 words. Journalists used to have the largest vocabularies at about 40,000 words average. I will explain this in another article, but let me just give you a brief reason as to why this is. English is not one language. It is a mish-mash of three major languages with heavy borrowing from four other languages. The British Isles were a cross-roads of people, conquered several times. In Europe, language groups tended to split off. Latin split into seven or eight modern languages, each with regional dialects. English is several language put into one rather than a split off of an older language. Conquered people tend to adopt the invaders language, in England, they learned to speak both. What did happen is that the conquered language tended to be common and refer to bad qualities and the invader's language was the high-sounding language of flattery. Here are some examples:


The last three are Celtic words with the translation. This kind of process is a sociological process rather than a linguistic process. A set of praise words becomes a set of "ruffian" words or words that people might use when the lower classes are out of control. Europe has a history of natives being conquered. Usually the conquering tongue is adopted by the locals, but often the place names stay in the native language. We see this in the States where so many place names are in the languages of the First Peoples. It is the same in the UK where so many of the place names are Anglo-Saxon or Celtic. Family names also tend to stay in the native tongue.

If you are trying to get a feeling for a foreign language, a study of names can help. The name "Wallace" is spelled in the Celtic countries: Wallach, Uallach, Walsh, and Gwalais. You can see a little of how the name is changed because the natives pronounce the letters differently.


These are only a few variations on this popular name. What you can see right away is that the vowel stays very much the same sound, the "n" is there, but that initial sound is said and spelled in many different ways. Difficult names like William or Rachel are much worse. Easy names like Mary, Ann, David and Steven tend to stay the same in most languages. When you begin to study languages, you learn that some sounds are easy and do not change much and other sounds are very difficult. A perfect example is our "th" sound, which is not used in any other languages than the Celtic languages.

However, I digress. With all of this confusion, why should we study language? We all know that speaking a language is useful, and speaking a foreign language is only useful if we go to that country in which it is spoken. Europeans tend to learn many languages and Americans very few. Being a polyglot and a linguist, I shall attempt to answer the question.

A language is more than a bunch of words. A language is a mindset and a culture. I shall attempt to demonstrate in my articles how language can deeply affect all kinds of bias: philosophical, emotional, even moral. There is a joke about Eskimos having two hundred different words for snow in their languages. The vocabulary is only a part of this variation in world view. For instance, in the Celtic languages, there is no simple way to say yes or no, and a person cannot own anything like they can in English. A person cannot be sick. Usually a person is a passive, or central figure upon which things happen. A dog is with you, a book is at you, the dog and the book are never yours. Yes, it is a grammatical configuration but it reflects a mentality that goes through Celtic law and their history of being a pastoral people. A person owned only those things that were on him or carried by him. Other things were with him in a way that to us, English speakers, seems temporary. A person could not be sick for sickness was a misfortune and an affliction, not an innate quality like hair color. A person could not say yes or no, they had to confirm or deny the question asked. Are you cold? I am is the answer, or I am not. Actually, to be literal "cold is upon me." I believe, passionately, that the way in which we speak is driven by world view and not the other way around, although children learn this world view from their parents and it is reinforced by their language.

Studying language is opening up the mind itself. Studying another language is opening up your mind to a different world view. This experience can be more profound (and certainly more lasting) than a drug trip. Much of the xenophobia and fear that humans have for other humans is driven by misunderstanding. Dialects are often influenced by the native peoples who are neighbors, lower classes, or ancestors of the current speakers of the language. "Jive" is not just a lingo, it is heavily influenced by root languages from Western Africa like Ibo and Hausa. Jamaican is also influenced in this way with differences of other influences. Learning linguistics and language can make the world of people transparent and is the first bridge toward world peace and tolerance.

© 2015, A.R. Stone

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