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THE NATURE OF LANGUAGE

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THE NATURE OF LANGUAGE

Post by dah_men on Tue Dec 21, 2010 3:29 am

THE NATURE OF LANGUAGE





‘And Allah Taught
Adam the Entire Names’






Language is undoubtedly Man’s greatest achievement. It is
such a sophisticated skill, yet


we learn it with minimal effort, barely noticing that we are
learning it. It is an essential


element in our life. It is the means through which we
discover ourselves as human beings; a


means through which we communicate and commune. We express
our feelings and


thoughts through language; we mate and make friends, families
through language. We


make peace and wage war through language too. Life without
it would be a mere nonsense


where all humans would be buried in their own thoughts. In
fact, language is an essential


feature of our humanity.


This primacy is fully asserted in the holy books. The Bible
refers to language by stating


‘In the beginning was the Word.’ The Talmud states that ‘God
created the world by a


Word, instantaneously, without toil or pain.’ The Koran says
‘And Allah taught Adam the


entire names’. In all these Holy Scriptures language comes
first. It is the essential means


through which we control our environment and act upon it. If
so it is, and indeed it is, what


makes so human as it is suggested?





The Design Features of Language





Let’s start by asserting that animals do communicate, after
all don’t they mate, signal


danger to each other and live in well organised communities?
However, the nature of this


communication is quite different from that of the humans. Animals’
communication, it is


argued, is a kind of routine, a restricted repertoire that
it is context bound and reactive. It


lacks, thus, the essential feature of the human language, that
of flexibility. It is this feature


that enables us, as human beings, to go beyond the immediacy
of the context and talk about


our past events, present needs and future plans. It is so
flexible that it allows us to talk


about the ‘here’ and ‘now’ and the ‘there’ and ‘then’. It, in
fact, transports you through time


and space.


Language is constantly under a process of evolution where
new words come to being and


meanings bestowed upon them. One question comes to mind: where
does this flexibility


come from?


We move here to what is referred to, in the field of
linguistics, as the design features of


language. Books of Linguistics differ in the number of the
design features. Thus, some


linguists talk of two, others of four, six and even thirteen.
I will single out two features


which I see as being essential and from which the others
derive: arbitrariness and duality.





1. Arbitrariness: Language is said to be arbitrary in
the sense that there is no connection


between the word and the object that it refers to, or to use
De Saussure’s terms, between the


signifier and the signified. Widdowson (1996:5) speaks of no
natural resemblance between


the forms of linguistic signs and their meanings. The link
is a matter of convention, he says.


And since conventions differ radically across distinct
ethnic/speech communities,


languages differ two. Words denoting the same objects are
referred to differently from


one language to another. Thus, the object ‘car’ in English
is referred to as ‘voiture’ in


French, ‘小汽车’ in Chinese, ‘ سیارة
’ in Arabic, and so on. In this respect, no form denotes


naturally the object it refers to.


Language is said to be arbitrary, but this doesn’t entail
that there is as Widdowson states


(ibid:6) no connection between the signifier and the
signified. We cannot decide on our


own to call a ‘pen’ a ‘ship’ for instance. The relation
between the form and the object is


said to be conventional. It is a matter of social convention.
In this respect, I would argue


that the concept of arbitrariness should be redefined, at
least when talking about language,


as ‘there is no logical connection between the linguistic
form and the object that it


denotes.’ To claim that there is no relation between the
signifier and the signified, is to


deny to the human society one of its greatest achievements...
which is assigning meanings


to objects and allowing language to have its two main
functions: the interpersonal and the


ideational.


This said, there are cases where the relation is logical as
in the onomatopoeic words as in


‘blast’, ‘crash’, ‘cuckoo’ and so on. Remark that I have
mentioned examples of


onomatopoeic linguistic forms from the English language. The
question that I ask now, are


these examples peculiar to this language or are they
universal? Remind you if they were


really onomatopoeic, they would have been universal. The
sound that a blast makes is the


same whether in England, France, Spain, Saudi Arabia or
China. Therefore, the name


referring to this sound should be the same, shouldn ’t it? Why
does it change across


languages? Why is it called ‘ انفجار
’ in Arabic, ‘explosion’ in French, ‘爆炸’ in Chinese,


‘explosión’ in Spanish, and so on? If this doesn’t cast
doubt on the onomatopoeic nature of


these words, at least it suggests that certain points, those
of their conventionality within


their users, need to be asserted or re-examined.


The fact that there is no natural relationship between the
linguistic form and the object that


it refers to allows us to use language to describe/divide
reality according to the way it suits


us (ibid). Thus, in the Arab world we have several names to
denote a lion, a camel, etc.


This is true for all languages.





2. Duality: Language operates on two levels. At one
level we have meaningless elements


/units that combine between them at a higher level to form a
meaningful unit. Thus, letters


like i,t,p are in themselves meaningless- can you tell what
the letter ‘p’ means?- but if we


combine them together they give us, for instance, ‘pit’ and
‘tip’, units which are


meaningful. This duality is at the level of written language.
The same principle is


applicable at the level of spoken language too. Sounds like /f/
/v/, /s/ /z/, and so on which


are meaningless by themselves combine to make up words that
are different in meanings,


thus we have:


Face /feis/ safe /seif/


Phase /feiz/ save /seiv/


Obviously, this feature gives language an enormous creative
power. We can, in the English


language, write billions of meaningful units from just 26
meaningless ones, and utter


billions of words too, from just 44 meaningless sounds. This
shows how flexible the human


language is. But what this feature is worth for? Suppose
that we have no meaningless units


to work with, suppose that every unit were meaningful by
itself; well the answer is in


Trask’s 1995:3:


‘It’s obvious: the number of different meanings we could
express would be no greater than the number of


different sounds we could produce. And, since we have
already seen that we can’t produce more than about a


hundred different speech sounds, the result would be that a
language could only contain about a hundred


‘words’. And this would be catastrophic: imagine an
‘English’ consisting of no more than a hundred words. It


is not remotely possible that, with such a drastically
limited vocabulary, we could do most of the things we do


with English: we couldn’t explain to the mechanic what’s
wrong with our car, we couldn’t tell our children


stories about rabbits or elves, we couldn’t organize
elections or negotiate treaties, we couldn’t charm our way


into another person’s heart with seductive conversation, and
we certainly couldn’t write books about


language.’ (Author’s emphasis)


References:


-Trask, R.L. (1995) Language: the Basics. Routledge: London.


-Widdowson, H.G. Lingusitics. Oxford: University Press.











By : Dr. B.A. NEDDAR

dah_men
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Re: THE NATURE OF LANGUAGE

Post by saly on Fri Mar 28, 2014 4:32 am

Thank you so much Dr. Neddar. I like the way you started the lecture (a Coranic verse) and the phonemic transcription you added in the text.

saly

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