Monday, June 20, 2011

What Is Language Like?

When I was graduating from school, I dreamed of learning a language and becoming a linguist. I thought about language as if it were an engine or machine and wanted to understand how it worked. It was my helping metaphor for approaching language.

Indeed, during the first two or three years at university, I was studying the structure of the Russian language (phonetic, morphologic, lexical level and so on), what interconnections language levels have and what are the rules of language system. The systemic-structural approach in linguistics depicts language quite mechanically. The more I thought about it, the more dissatisfied I became with the mechanical metaphor. If a language were a closed system with a structure determined once and forever, it wouldn't change through the  times. Its rules wouldn't have innumerable exceptions. The logic “If – then” doesn't work in language, because in most cases, language offers a dozen options for each “if”.

After learning cognitive linguistics and psycholinguistics, I started thinking about language as about a living creature. Indeed, language is more like an organism, and its structure is more like a body than like a machine. Language's DNAs are morphs, which form cells-words, which forms organs – morphological entities (nouns, verbs, adjectives etc), which forms working systems (syntax, a level of sentences or maybe texts). Language is living, it replaces dead cells with new ones, it changes when conditions change, it has its evolution and it never stops changing until there exists a society that speaks this language. Like any living organism, language is an open system. It has different reactions to different inputs. It is balancing between sustainability and mutations. If it were too sustainable, it could never adapt to ever-changing reality, if it mutated too quickly, it would have a sort of cancer and die too, because people wouldn't understand each other.

Why it is important to understand that language is an open system, a living system? Well, first, it may help you to accept the fact that in language, most rules have exceptions. Second, it may help you to gain a deeper view on the language you are studying, since you'll stop learning it mechanically and start asking “why?” Why doesn't this verb go with this noun? Perhaps they are from different “systems”? How does this word work? What are the reasons for changing word order here and there? These are very helpful questions. Last but not least, you'll see that practice (= life of language) is more important than rules, and start talking, writing, and communicating more, which is, in fact, the only way to learn language.

Old romanian woman in Cisnadie
Photo by Husky