Linguistics 101: The First and Most Important Lesson in Language

| March 27, 2013 | 1 Comment

There is an understanding in linguistics that humans have a truly unbounded ability to create and adapt language.

Consider, for example, that there is no such thing as “the longest sentence” in human language. You could go on forever:

George, who was a tailor, went to the bank which was at the intersection of Pleasant Street and Awesome Avenue to deposit the money he and three of his partners, who were named Bert, Ernie, and Phyllis, had made during Spring Break, which spanned from March 9th… etc.

Relatedly, consider also that you don’t need to learn from scratch every single sentence that you will need to utter in your life. As humans we are able to adapt language to fit whatever situation we are in. For example, you could say:

There is a three-headed purple monkey dancing Gangnam Style on the roof of the College of Arts & Sciences,

even though that sentence has probably never been said before. You, as a human being, have that creative ability. You can also make up words. Scientists do this all the time. When they encounter something new, they name it; they create a new word, and adapt language to suit their needs and the changing perspective that we have of the world. So if, for example, you discovered a new species you could create a name, a word, for it:

Climpodink.

Think about the changes that are happening to our language now. Think about the use of the letter “K”. One of my professors says this all the time:

Any questions? No? K.

We all realize that K is being used as a short version of okay, but the fact that many people no longer say the full word doesn’t faze anyone. Or think about when you receive a text that simply says k. It’s annoying, I know, but consider the fact that that one letter now has meaning – in a way that the other letters, on their own, do not. If you texted your friend:

We’re having a party tonight, you should totally come,

and your friend answered:

S

it would have absolutely no meaning, unless you and your friend have a system of secret codes.

That is language change, and it happens every day.

Whether you agree or disagree about whether these language changes are “grammatical,” and comply with MLA standards, doesn’t really matter. From a historical perspective, all modern languages, and indeed all of the predecessors of modern languages, are bastard tongues of some theoretical mono-genesis language – or at least Proto-Indo-European. From a linguistic perspective, prescriptive grammar (what your MLA handbook has) is an illusion. Modern American English is a bastardization of Elizabethan English, which is a bastardization of Proto-Germanic, which in turn is a bastardization of Indo-European.

But the creative principle is real, and it is at work every day. You speak a different language than your great-grandparents and your great-grandchildren, in turn, will learn a very different form of English.

That is creativity. That is human language.

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Category: featured, Philosophy and Religion, Romance

About the Author ()

An expat and perpetual wanderer, Tino studied Linguistics and Psychology in CAS. He now teaches Spanish in Detroit. Interests include: bulky journals, tattoos, Arizona black&white tea, food, C3, introspection and over-analysis.

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  1. Cecilia Weddell Cecilia Weddell says:

    I always feel discomforted when I think about all the literature in the world, because I think that if I were never to write anything it wouldn’t matter in any way. Because there’s so much to read, I mean– someone must have already said what I want to say!

    BUT.

    This was comforting, awesome, and overwhelming. The idea that there are infinite combinations of words, and unique combinations at that, makes me feel like a special snowflake all over again. So thank you.

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