Language Lore

One of the first and most basic points to consider in the lore of language is the question: What is (a) language? The parentheses in the previous sentenced are there to recognize the distinction between looking at “language” as a concept or phenomenon versus looking at individual languages and saying why German and French, for example, are different languages.

The question – What is language? lies squarely within the purview of the linguist. The linguist studies a language to learn what it has to say about language in general. The fact that a person can speak five languages does not make them a linguist. The speaker of several languages is a polyglot, not a linguist. A linguist is rather unlikely to speak several languages fluently. In fact, the linguist is more likely to know how verbs function in Palauan (a language of Micronesia) than how to order a croque monsieur in Paris.

The question of how we can say two languages are separate, similar, or different is best answered by determining where those languages differ on one or more basic dimensions of language. What are some of the basic dimensions/components of a language? (These are linguistic terms used to describe any/all languages).

When most of us think about languages – especially those “foreign” languages we are struggling to learn – we usually emphasize words. The study of a language’s word structure is called morphology.

Phonology is concerned with the sound structure of a language: How sounds are put together to convey meaning. It is a broader concept than phonetics which deals with how individual sounds are created using the human vocal apparatus.

Syntax involves rules for sentence structure –- word order, etc. This is probably what most of us think of as “grammar” – although grammar involves much broader sets of rules about how to use the language.

To further expand our vocabulary of linguistic terms (a linguist would call this our lexicon) Let’s look at some language-like frameworks that don’t quite qualify as a stand-alone “language.”

We all know what a dialect is – at least we think we do. A dialect is widely seen as an inferior, stripped-down version of a full-fledged language. That’s why when a somewhat pompous person brags about speaking several languages, we try to label one or more of those languages as “really just a dialect.” Clearly, dialects deserve better day-to-day treatment and respect. (Within linguistics there is even a specialty field known as dialectology.)

The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language defines a dialect as:

A language variety in which the use of grammar and vocabulary identifies the regional or social background of the user.

In addition to dialects, there are other variations arrayed around a standard language.The first is known as a pidgin – a language with limited vocabulary and greatly simplified grammar. Although a pidgin may be used by a number of individuals, it has no native speakers. Chinese Pidgin English and Melanesian Pidgin English are examples.

A creole is a grown-up pidgin; that is, when a pidgin becomes the standard language of a community it is called a creole. Examples include Haitian Creole and Louisiana Creole.

A lingua franca is a sort of compromise language. I once did business with a German expatriate living in Chile. Given my level of Spanish and his level of English, we found it more effective and comfortable to speak German. In this case German was our lingua franca.

It is important to remember that these terms refer to nonstandard language, which is not the same as substandard language. Simple grammar does not reflect simple minds. A pidgin or creole can be used by an intelligent person to make a sophisticated and important point.

We will look at many aspects of language in future issues of Language Lore. We should learn a lot together. We must, however, remember not to become language snobs.

I hope you have enjoyed this first issue of Language Lore.

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