1.4 Fundamental Properties of Language

This unit addresses some of the common myths that people believe about languages, and responds to these misconceptions with fundamental truths about human language:

  • All languages have a grammar.
  • All languages & grammars are equally valid, in linguistic terms.
  • All languages have some universal properties in common.
  • Every language changes over time.
  • Most of our knowledge of the mental grammar of our language is unconscious.

Check Yourself

Video Script

Because everybody speaks a language, just about everybody has opinions about language. But there are lots of things that are commonly believed about language that just aren’t true.

You might have heard someone say that a given language has no grammar.  I’ve heard people try to argue that Chinese has no grammar, that English has no grammar, that the languages spoken by Indigenous people who live in what is currently Canada have no grammar, even that Swiss German has no grammar.

When people say this, they might mean a few different things.  Sometimes they just mean that there’s not much variation in the forms of words, which is true of Chinese, but the grammar of Chinese has lots of complexity in its sound system.

But sometimes people who argue that a language has no grammar are actually trying to claim that that language is inferior in some way.

The truth is that all languages have grammar. All languages have a sound system, a system for forming words, a way of organizing words into sentences, a systematic way of assigning meanings. Even languages that don’t have writing systems or dictionaries or published books of rules still have speakers who understand each other; that means they have a shared system, a shared mental grammar.

When we’re investigating mental grammar, it doesn’t matter whether a language has a prestigious literature or is spoken by powerful people. Using linguists’ techniques for making scientific observations about language, we can study the phonetics, phonology, morphology, syntax and semantics of any language.

Another opinion that you might have heard about language is that some languages are better than others. Maybe you’ve heard someone say, “Oh, I don’t speak real Italian, just a dialect,” implying that the dialect is not as good as so-called real Italian.  Or maybe you’ve heard someone say that Québec French is just sloppy; it’s not as good as the French they speak in France.  Or maybe you’ve heard someone say that nobody in Newfoundland can speak proper English, or nobody in Texas speaks proper English, or maybe even nobody in North America speaks proper English and the only good English is the Queen’s English that they speak in England.

The truth is that all languages are equally valid. Just as we said that all languages have grammar, it’s also the case that there’s no way to say that one grammar is better or worse than another grammar.  Remember that linguistics takes a scientific approach to language, and scientists don’t rate or rank the things they study.  Ichthyologists don’t rank fish to say which species is more correct at being a fish, and astronomers don’t argue over which galaxy is more posh. In the same way, linguists don’t assign a value to any language or variety or dialect.

It is the case, though, that plenty of people do attribute value to particular dialects or varieties, and sociolinguistic research tells us that there can be negative or positive social consequences for people who speak certain varieties. When people say that British English is better than American English, for example, they’re making a social judgment, based on politics, history, economics, or snobbery.  But there is no linguistic basis for making that value judgment.

One of the common misconceptions about language arose when scholars first started doing linguistics. At first, they focused on the languages that they knew, which were mostly the languages that were spoken in Europe. The grammars of those languages had a lot in common because they all evolved from a common ancestor, which we now call Proto-Indo-European. When linguists started learning about the languages spoken in other parts of the world, they thought at first that these languages were so unfamiliar, so unusual, so weird, that they speculated that these languages had nothing at all in common with the languages of Europe.

Linguists have now studied enough languages to know that in spite of the many differences between languages, there are some universal properties that are common to all human languages. The field of linguistic typology studies the properties that languages have in common even across languages that they aren’t related to. Some of these universal properties are at the level of phonology, for example, all languages have consonants and vowels. Some of these universals are at the level of morphology and syntax.  All languages make a distinction between nouns and verbs.  In nearly all languages, the subject of a sentence comes before the verb and before the object of the sentence.  We’ll discover more of these universals as we proceed through the chapters.

A very common belief that people have about language is something you might have heard from your grandparents or your teachers. Have you heard them say, “Kids these days are ruining English! They should learn to speak properly!”  Or if you grew up speaking Mandarin, maybe you heard the same thing, “Those teenagers are ruining Mandarin! They should learn to speak properly!” For as long as there has been language, there have been people complaining that young people are ruining it, and trying to force them to speak in a more old-fashioned way. Some countries like France and Germany even have official institutes that make prescriptive rules about what words and sentence structures are allowed in the language and which ones aren’t allowed.

The truth is that every language changes over time. Languages are spoken by humans, and as humans grow and change, and as our society changes, our language changes along with it. Some language change is as simple as in the vocabulary of a language: we need to introduce new words to talk about new concepts and new inventions. For example, the verb google didn’t exist when I was an undergraduate student, but now googling is something I do every day. Language also changes in they we pronounce things and in the way we use words and form sentences.  In a later chapter, we’ll talk about some of the things that are changing in Canadian English.

Another common belief about language is the idea that you can’t learn a language unless someone teaches you the rules, either in a language class or with a textbook or a software package. This might be partially true for learning a language as an adult: it might be hard to do it on your own without a teacher.  But think about yourself as a kid. Whatever language you grew up speaking, whether it’s English or French or Mandarin or Arabic or Tamil or Serbian, you didn’t have to wait until kindergarten to start speaking. You learned the language from infancy by interacting with the people around you who spoke that language. Some of those people around you might have taught you particular words for things, but they probably weren’t teaching you, “make the [f] sound by putting your top teeth on your bottom lip” or “make sure you put the subject of the sentence before the verb”.  And by the time you started school you were perfectly fluent in your language. In some parts of the world, people never go to school and never have any formal instruction, but they still speak their languages fluently.

That’s because almost everything we know about our language — our mental grammar — is unconscious knowledge that’s acquired implicitly as children. Much of your knowledge of your mental grammar is not accessible to your conscious awareness. This is kind of a strange idea:  how can you know something if you’re not conscious of knowing it? Many things that we know are indeed conscious knowledge. For example, if I asked you, you could explain to me how to get to your house, or what the capital of Canada is, or what the difference is between a cow and a horse. But our mind also has lots of knowledge that is not fully conscious. You probably can’t explain very clearly how to control your muscles to climb stairs, or how to recognize the face of someone you know, or how to form complex sentences in your native language, and yet you can do all of these things easily and fluently, and unconsciously. A lot of our job when we study Linguistics is to make explicit the things that you already know implicitly.  This is exactly what makes linguistics challenging at first, but it’s also what makes it fun!


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