We look back at the thoughts of our predecessors, and find we can see only as far as language lets us see. We look forward in time, and find we can plan only through language. We look outward in space, and send symbols of communication along with our spacecraft, to explain who we are, in case there is anyone who wants to know. (David Crystal)
Among the most popular areas of study that involve explorations to characterize humankind is the study of language. Throughout history, individuals have been fascinated about how language works and even more by the unique characteristics of each language as well as the common ones among the languages of the world. The phonology of different languages is especially interesting to some researchers; others are intrigued by grammar and morphology that show similarities in structure among languages. Some find great satisfaction in studying expressions of idiom, metaphor, and humor; others look to how societies function and get along as they adjust their language use for communicating in specific environments (e.g., formal or casual). Whatever the intentions or goals of those who study language, that this field of endeavor has endured for thousands of years attests to the changing nature of language over time, wherein there is always something new on the horizon to try to understand.
Definitions of Language
Although there are some distinct characteristics that are used to identify languages (e.g., phonology, grammar), definitions of language and languages vary among scholars depending upon their particular curiosity and the questions for which they want to find answers. Joel Davis comments that there is somewhat of a dilemma for linguists to capture all of the characteristics into one definition. How does one describe language incorporating the terms of the language he or she uses? It is like defining a word by using that word in the definition. Thus, many researchers attempt to compare human languages in order to find common components and to identify differences, hoping such pursuits will add to the specificity of the term. Language definition is somewhat like trying to hit a slowly moving target, because there are many factors of language that gradually change as societies change. Abram de Swaan proposes that a language may be defined by the capacity of any two speakers to understand each other and incidentally notes that the variety and complexity of languages is such as to be comparable to that of life itself.
Studies about language can be separated from studies about the history of humankind only by an imaginary line that has to be crossed quite regularly. Definitions of language have to allow for distinctions that influence it from other areas of human evolution, such as the development of communities, trade, music, and art (in themselves kinds of language).
The Generative Nature of Language
If one were to converse with thoughtful individuals about their native tongues, one would probably find out that they agree that their own language is not static but rather is creative and permits new and adapted forms of words and expressions as the times require them. As societies and communities progress and as educational opportunities grow, so does the mother tongue. But, in some cases where there is little progress, languages become endangered and sometimes extinct. Technological terms, for example, not occurring in the first few decades of the 20th century are now part of many languages of the world: the word computer, for example, appears in French as l’ordinateur, in Japanese as keisanki, and in Maori as rorohiko. Contrastively, languages among hunter-gatherer tribes in Africa, as explained by Lenore Grenoble and Lindsay Whaley, are more threatened by extinction than those spoken by groups that are involved in socioeconomic reorganization and growth.
Spoken Language Over Time
Linguists recognize that amidst the intricate web of factors involved in language change, modifications in sounds and vocabulary seem to lead the other stages, particularly grammar, even though the total process may be extremely slow, occurring sometimes over centuries. John McWhorter discusses how the “erosion” of sounds over time leads to the development of new words, or even of new languages. Consider, for example, McWhorter’s description of the movement from the Latin word for woman, femina (FEH-mee-nah) to femme (FAHM) in French. The accented syllable in the Latin word for woman remained, while the other two weak syllables eventually disappeared. Latin evolved into several new languages, including French, and although it is no longer a spoken language, Latin endures in written form.
Throughout human history, individuals have modified their indigenous languages and have created new words and expressions. For example, William Shakespeare (1564-1616) left an enduring influence on the English language with hundreds of words commonly used today that he created by using nouns as verbs, using verbs as adjectives, and adding prefixes and suffixes (e.g., countless, bet, laughable, excitement, torture). Words are also coined or invented when there is a need for new ones. Among his many malapropisms, U.S. President Warren G. Harding’s normalcy (for normality) continues in common American English usage today. Some novel words endure, and others disappear (e.g., defidate, to pollute, circa 1669; yuppie, attributed to Bob Greene of the Chicago Tribune; guillotine, renamed for Dr. Guillotine who urged the machine’s use in the French Revolution).
Although the grammars of spoken languages are rather stable, bound by rules, and slow to change, they may be affected by the incorporation of new expressions, especially in those societies whose members may have come from nations with different mother tongues. Such is the case in the United States, considering the large waves of immigration from the mid-1800s to the 1920s. As first and second generation children of immigrants from Western Europe and Asia learned English, they adopted accommodation behaviors, or interlanguage for communicating appropriately in places in their communities when their English was not yet fluent (e.g., at the store, in mixed ethnic neighborhoods). An interlanguage is defined in one of two ways. It may be the way that one individual, still learning the language of a society different from one’s own, creates novel terms or mixes terms between one’s language and the target language. A Polish immigrant might say something like, “Ja bede isc do marku” (“I will go to the market”), substituting the English word, market, for the Polish word, rynku, but retaining the final letters from the Polish word.
A second characterization of interlanguage regards the reciprocal relationship in communication between two individuals with distinct mother tongues. In this case, each individual accommodates the other in clever verbal manipulations. The use of interlanguage may continue among speakers for considerable time, or it may eventually lose its utility once the speakers become fluent in a single new language. Larry Selinker provides an example of an Israeli who continued to produce English sentences of the type, I bought downtown the postcard, even as a fluent bilingual in Hebrew and English.
Quite often, when individuals become bilingual, they switch between the two languages in their attempts not only to be understood but also to clarify for themselves what they mean. This behavior, called code switching, has been studied extensively by sociolinguists for spoken language as well as written language where it also might occur. Over time, accommodations such as interlanguage and code switching influence the development of new words and expressions in the main target language.
A special case where factors such as code switching and interlanguage are especially helpful for understanding language growth is manual language, particularly sign language that is used by deaf communities. Of over 100 such sign languages used throughout the world, the most studied is American Sign Language (ASL). Because of the efforts of William C. Stokoe in the 1960s, ASL gained recognition as a true language. Researchers have since explored all facets of the language to support its identity. Sociolinguistic research into ASL continues into the 21st century to identify characteristics that are equivalent to those found in spoken languages. Besides the areas that concern formal linguistics (i.e., phonology, grammar, semantics, pragmatics), research is now replete with studies regarding code switching and pidginization. Research about social interactions within deaf communities and between deaf individuals and hearing individuals has been most fruitful.
Code switching and interlanguage are relatives to a language dynamic known as diglossia. This occurs when members of a community recognize that there are varieties of their mother tongue that have to be selected for particular situations, such as a more formal variety for the business world, or for worship or governmental meetings. These varieties may differ in grammar as well as word usage. Joshua Fishman explains that diglossia can also involve two distinct languages (e.g., Latin in some Roman Catholic Church services, but a native language outside of church).
Language varieties are special forms of language that endure within speech communities, and they may have taken a long time to establish (e.g., formal French and vernacular French). Often, a more formal variety is one that is used in written literature, while the less formal variety will never be used in writing. What is interesting about diglossia is the existence of two or more varieties of a language, side by side, that do not eventually mix. This is not the case, however, with pidgins and creoles.
Pidgins and Creoles
Pidgins are formed when individuals who speak two different languages create a means for immediate communication that involves the integration of characteristics of each of their languages. Most pidgins endure only as long as they are needed for a particular purpose, but some, such as Tok Pisin of Papua New Guinea, remain as a common vernacular. Historically, pidgins have developed throughout the world, with many used predominantly in areas where trade necessitated communication between European traders or colonizers and native people. These “half-languages,” as John McWhorter calls them, can occur any time when conditions warrant it between speakers. Although pidgins do have limited rule systems, they do not qualify as natural languages even though some pidgins endure and are expanded over time so that they have all the typical characteristics of a true language.
In some societies, pidgin languages have undergone a process of change from one generation of speakers to the next so that they become the mother tongue, or more appropriately, a vernacular. These new languages are called creoles, taken from a Portuguese term that describes persons of European descent who were born and have lived in a colonial territory. The process by which a pidgin becomes a creole is known as creolization. It involves the stabilization of grammatical rules and vocabulary that allows for language generativity and novel use, similar to that in natural languages. McWhorter explains that that there can be varieties of a creole language, somewhat as on a continuum. Individuals may show flexibility for using a creole language in more than one variety depending upon the circumstances and needs of a particular communication.
More Evidence of Language Change
Another set of characteristics that are evidence of language change include dialects, jargon, slang, and colloquial expressions.
Dialects are forms of language that involve pronunciation, vocabulary, and grammar that differs from what is designated as the standard form of a language. The origins of dialects vary. The language, Icelandic, for example, began as a dialect branching from Proto-Germanic, the precursor of the Germanic line of languages in the IndoEuropean language tree. Sometimes dialects have developed within groups of individuals that live apart from a larger society; sometimes they have developed over time in a geographic region that has been influenced by the merging of linguistic elements from two or more varieties of languages. People of the Appalachian Mountains speak a dialect that was influenced by varieties of English from Scotland as well as England.
The term dialect may also be used as an equivalent term to describe a language. Many Chinese languages are called dialects (e.g., Oirat dialect, a Mongolian language), as are some creoles.
Dialects are many times erroneously identified solely by speech patterns. They are likewise mistaken in many instances as having to do with one’s social status. Historically, Americans in the northern states have judged individuals from the south with significant bias due to their dialects. As access to communication media becomes more common, bringing people of all walks of life together on a daily basis, these biases are weakened in America.
Slang and jargon provide evidence that languages can change with the influence of individuals who might be assumed to have little or no effect upon how the majority will continue to speak (e.g., adolescents). Robert MacNeil and William Cran, recounting what they learned about Californian surfer dude speech from the writer George Plomarity, explain that it is not actually uncommon for slang expressions to take on formal use over time. For example, someone who works in a law office might comment that he is caught inside, meaning in a situation that cannot be avoided where a great amount of information and interactions are coming in all at once (just like waves of the ocean).
and Language Continuance
Because one of the main goals of humans is to interact with other humans, it might seem obvious that language adaptation would be relatively common. And, individuals frequently do adapt their language to facilitate communication, sometimes creating pidgins or using interlanguage, for example. Over time, what started out as an adaptation may show novel and somewhat permanent changes within existing natural languages, or new languages such as creoles might evolve. Yet, considering the tendency of societies to grow and change, access to certain language forms might also be limited to specific groups of people within a community. Sociolinguists have documented barriers to communication in thriving as well as developing nations and societies in the world.
Abram de Swaan, a political sociologist of language, envisions the world as a complex language system, a galaxy constituted of a global constellation in which there are major star patterns determined by factors identified in social science theories (e.g., trade, economics). As do many sociolinguists, de Swaan points out that language can be used as a tool for isolation and for insulation of groups of people. It can be manipulated to keep individuals from participating in specific areas within a society as well as enabling individuals to bond with others. For example, literacy continues to be prohibited to women in certain societies. Contrastively, interlanguage or pidgins can open up communication between peoples with different indigenous languages for the sake of commerce.
In some nations it may take a concerted act of the leaders within a society to establish venues that will help to keep a native language viable and to generate new words and expressions that are necessary for communication in subjects and categories that may influence a nation’s growth. It may be a matter of pride among the people themselves to try to maintain their native tongue. Fearful of the demise of their lingua franca, Ewe, the people of the small country of Togo took measures to develop terms such as those needed for technology and new forms of commerce. Once a French colony, the Togolese Republic uses French as an official language, but it strives deliberately to keep its indigenous tongue, Ewe, alive. There is also a considerable body of literature written in Ewe, and this is helpful for sustaining the language.
Written Language and Literacy Over Time
The provision of a written form of a spoken language tends to support the viability of that language. Although this is so, forms of written language and literacy have not always been available to all classes or groups of people in societies from the time of their invention. Literacy was used as a tool for economic and political power in ancient civilizations, and this continues even to the present. Fishman describes the nature of literacy as “a sociocultural phenomenon in its own right, thus subject to many of the same political and self-interest concerns which come into play when making a language/dialect decision.”
Alice Joan Metge documents this situation in her history of the Maori of New Zealand. Up until the mid-1800s, most of the Maori had maintained their native tongue and had established a base of literature. Those in power at that time, however, developed language-planning goals insisting upon the use of English in the community and as the only language in schools. Children were punished for using the Maori language even into the 1960s. At the beginning of the 20th century, some 90% of Maori children knew their indigenous language, but by 1953-1958, this number had dropped to 26%. Families also contributed to this loss. They recognized opportunities for their children if they used English. Thus, instead of creating terminology for industry and commerce in the Maori language, communities used English words and spoke for the most part in English. In the early 1970s, the Maori Youth Movement was successful in convincing the government to support efforts to revive the Maori language. The Ministry of Education adjusted the school curricula for children, and courses were offered in Maori up through the university level. Maori became integrated in many venues in society. Now, Maori terms and expressions necessary for daily life have increased in number and are not treated as novel. In the 21st century, New Zealand continues to celebrate Maori Language Day and has week-long activities to encourage pride in the native tongue. Literature is thriving and programming in Maori is available on the Internet as well as on local television.
The situation of the Maori is not unique. Fishman explains that as communities strive to modernize, the development of literacy involves their statement of economic, political, social, and cultural power. The leadership elite who may have had exclusive command of literacy will not necessarily be satisfied to permit the common person the capability to acquire it and join them in acts of literacy. Yet, literacy, just like spoken language, is growing relatively rapidly in developing as well as established nations.
Considering literacy in Europe, Fishman cites research that indicates there were only six languages of literacy by the year 950 (i.e., Latin, Greek, Hebrew, Old Church Slavonic, Arabic, and Anglo-Saxon). At the beginning of the 20th century, there were 31; by 1937, 56. By the late 1980s in Western Europe only, there were 67 different languages used in schools and adult education to teach literacy. In all Europe by 1989 there were at least some 200 languages. Fishman estimates that in the 20th century alone, the languages of literacy in Europe increased sixfold. As of 2003, he sees the same kind of dramatic growth in countries in Africa and Asia.
It appears to make sense that a spoken language will survive if its speakers have access to that language in writing. As in the case of Maori, that may be true. There is another direction, however, that some languages take where they appear to be on the verge of extinction in spoken form. A literary tradition of the language may develop and survive beyond its conversational utility.
One language that falls into this group is Picard, a language recognized by Belgium as an indigenous language and acknowledged as a language by the European Bureau for Lesser Used Languages. Although it is very similar to French in many respects, France considers it separate from French, and as with other minority languages, does not particularly care to recognize Picard as a “good” language. Picard is spoken in an area near the English Channel, in a northern region of France and in southern Belgium. Linguist Julie Auger explains that by all appearances spoken Picard should be dying, because most of the speakers in larger towns are older individuals, and they do not seem to see the necessity for concerted transmission of the language to the young. In actuality, the French government has given very little support to groups such as the Picards.
On the other hand, Auger has observed that written Picard is, in her words, “varied and dynamic.” There were hints of a literary tradition as far back as the 16th century, but it was in the latter half of the 19th century that there were significant numbers of written works in Picard. By the year 2000, literature and a new magazine were thriving, and these works were being read in print as well as on the Internet. In the final analysis, Auger is hopeful that the expanded literary tradition will continue to get readers more involved in Picard and that the French government may enable it to thrive as a spoken language by giving it recognition and support.
Human Languages and Artificial Languages
Early in the 20th century, with the growth of cognitive psychology, the idea of the generative nature of human language aroused the curiosity of scientists regarding the possibility of creating languages with computers that might mimic human languages. If this were possible, then perhaps the computer could act as a bridge among peoples with different spoken languages. The challenge was particularly provocative for individuals such as Marvin Minsky, who, in an important work titled A Framework for Representing Knowledge, proposed structures that stimulated thought regarding the duplication of human language in machines.
In order to function as human languages, artificial ones would have to have grammatical rules that a machine could apply at the level of a sentence, and the machine would have to be able to apply inferential reasoning to capture the real, singular meaning of ideas or the multiple meanings of ideas, expressions, and words. For example, how might a computer interpret words for emotions and feelings and distinguish between them as well as indicate variations by degree (e.g., love of a friend versus love of a picture)? How might it deal with the ambiguity that is so prevalent in human spoken languages (e.g., Bill told John that he loved Mary)? In other spoken languages, including English, how might a computer distinguish among polysemous words?
Since the 1970s, the field of artificial intelligence has provided several powerful paradigms that in the 21st century are often taken for granted. Minsky’s ideas and those of others like himself regarding frames of knowledge have been translated in such schema and models as that of Vinton Cerf’s Arpanet, a precursor of the Internet, as well as in scientific applications such as those of Ray Kurzweil, considered a second Albert Einstein by many. Among his myriad accomplishments, Kurzweil has become well known for his print-to- speech reading machine for the blind as well as for his work with voice activated word processing. Cerf, the vice president of Google since 2005, has been called the father of the Internet. He has had a special interest in the field of communication and deafness because he himself is hard of hearing and his wife, Sigrid, is deaf.
Developments in artificial intelligence have enabled mutual understandings among humans beyond that of their distinct spoken languages. These new means for communication are realized in the scientific world as well as in commerce and even in music, another area studied by Kurzweil. Such developments point to the potential for humans to use “invented” forms of language in ways that can add to the growth of civilization and to enable a convergence of knowledge and sharing of cultures among diverse societies around the world.
Patricia N. Chrosniak
See also Anthropology; Consciousness; Language,
Evolution of; Languages, Tree of; Memory
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