Archive for September, 2013

A Reflection on Language, from Class

On the Identity of Language

Language is, in the simplest terms, any systematic means of communication used to express and to convey ideas. That language may be spoken, it may be written, it may be gestured or represented by images, but it must be possessed of a structure—a grammar—of governing rules which allows for understanding between speakers/readers/signers.

Until last week, I had been thinking of grammar as a unified, monolithic thing, as a governing convention which I, as both a speaker and writer of contemporary English, might choose to follow or break as necessary. I had never considered there might be three kinds of grammar: mental, descriptive, prescriptive. Prescriptive grammar, the rules and codifications trotted out to me over the course of my many years of English education, was all I had ever considered. Descriptive grammar, which contains all the colloquial errors made by the average speaker, had not entered my considerations as a thing worth studying in any capacity beyond the sense that mistakes are useful teaching opportunities.

For the record, I still do think prescriptive grammar is useful, more than that, I think it is absolutely crucial to clear and unambiguous communication. More than that, I personally enjoy the confusing shades of word choice the English language asks of its more discerning speakers. I for one am a particular fan of the distinction between the words “hung” and “hanged,” a distinction so monumentally arbitrary as to be almost absurd, but the result of which is a curious texturing to English that should be celebrated by each and every one of its speakers.

That, to me, is what language is. More than its scientific definition as systematic communication, language is beautiful. We have, in our modern and bloodless era, a conceit that language is a sort of delivery mechanism, that language exists only to deliver ideas from one brain to the next, and that only the information conveyed is of any use. But language is more than that, not merely a tool but a product in itself, as any reader of William Shakespeare or John Keats could tell you. Language must occupy a space in our society equal parts science and art, and we as speakers should revel in the beauty and in the power of words. It is, if you will excuse the metaphor, not only the paint, but the painting. Sure, one could just paint a wall solid red, one could just convey the information directly, but you can use the same medium to create masterpieces. We use the same words Shakespeare uses all the time, to far poorer effect.

That being said, I do agree with the assertion that language is arbitrary. The rules of prescribed grammar—and the conventions of described grammar, even when they are at direct odds with the prescribed rules—are only the rules because we all agree they are the rules. And that really is a fascinating thing to consider. If all of us right now decided that trees weren’t going to be called trees anymore, and instead we would start calling them ergs, then suddenly there would be birds singing in the ergtops and people lounging in the shade of an erg, and suddenly the world would sound like a very different place while in reality absolutely nothing would have changed.

Having considered that though, is there any reason that trees are called trees? Are languages somehow optimized? And if so, along what lines? Is there somewhere a better word for tree? I know I’m proposing very bizarre questions, but it brooks discussion, I think.