Harvey A. Daniels, "Nine Ideas About Language"
Adapted from Daniels, Famous Last Words: The American Language Crisis Reconsidered.

The outline below describes nine fundamental ideas about language that are widely accepted by contemporary linguists. Note that some of these ideas run counter to prevailing myths about language and how it works.

Linguistics = The study or science of language.

1. Children learn their native language swiftly, efficiently,
    and largely without instruction

a. Language is a species-specific trait of human beings. As far as we know, our
ability to speak a language distinguishes us from all other animal species.

b. While children learn a language, much of our linguistic knowledge seems
to be innate, an intrinsic part of our mental framework or consciousness. Scholars who study these processes are called cognitive linguists

c. Children learn a language partly by imitation but also through hypothesis-
testing (e.g.., the construction of past-tense verbs).

d. By the time children begin school, they have already learned the majority
of rules or GRAMMAR governing their native language and can produce virtually all kinds
of sentences that it permits.  That is, they can create new, unique utterances using their intuitive knowledge (or native competence) of the rules that govern the language.

2. Language operates by rules:

a. When we learn a language, we are acquiring a vast system of mostly subconscious rules that allow us to make meaningful and increasingly complex utterances. These rules govern sound (phonology), words (lexicon and semantics), the arrangement of strings of words (morphemes and  syntax), and social aspects of speaking (pragmatics).

b. While all human languages share certain common characteristics, the specific rules governing each language are different. This is because human languages (or the rules that define them) are not natural, but arbitrary in the following ways:

 *The relationship between the sounds of a language and what they represent are usually arbitrary.  There is no natural connection between a linguistic sign (or signifier) and what it signifies. The same is true for writing systems. 

 *The grammatical rules of a language are also arbitrary (e.g.., past tense verbs).

c. This system of rules is the foundation of every language.  Speakers of a language consciously and unconsciously agree that they will use certain  sounds consistently, that certain combinations of sounds will mean the same thing, and that they will use certain grammatical patterns to convey
meaning. Thus, every language is highly conventionalized. That is, we agree (at times consciously and at other times unconsciously) to follow the same rules or conventions.

3. All languages have three major components:

a. Phonology-- The sound system of a language; the vocal noises or  combination of noises that a language uses.  Children typically master the phonology of  a language last, after they have mastered its grammar and most of its basic words (or word-formation rules). Notice that difference languages have different rules that govern what sounds (and sound combinations) are allowed. 

b. Lexicon-- The vocabulary of a language; the words that comprise any language. Beyond knowing individual words, children and adults are always building and refining classes and categories of words, making connections between words, and expanding or refining the semantic properties (or meaning) of words.

c. Grammar-- The system of rules we use to arrange words into meaningful English sentences, using markers such as tense, plurality and agreement. The grammar of a language reveals how the language works, how it makes meaning from a limited number of sounds and words. In relation to this, there are two different ways to think about grammar and grammatical rules:

 *Prescriptive Grammar-- Attempts to prescribe in detail the system of rules that governs how a person should speak (according to an ideal standard). These rules for Standard Written and Spoken English are codified in Grammar Handbooks and reinforced through education. 

 *Descriptive Grammar-- Attempts to describe in detail the system of rules that governs how a person (or community) actually speaks. This approach helps us to understand and appreciate how all varieties of a language (standard and non-standard) are rule-governed.

4. Everyone speaks a dialect:

a. A dialect is a variety of a language which as a certain set of lexical, phonological, and grammatical rules that distinguish it from other dialects (or varieties) of the language.

b. Many of the world's languages (including American English) have a standard dialect. The standard is usually defined as the speech of the upper- or educated class (or those in power).  It is frequently the language of written communication. It is the variety of the language taught in schools or other educational institutions.

c. The standard dialect is not inherently (by nature) superior to any other dialects of the
language. It does, however, confer considerable social, political and/or economic power on its users because of prevailing attitudes about its inherent value.

5. Speakers of all languages employ a range of styles and a set of sub-dialects
or jargons:

a. We don't belong to just one speech community, but many. Some of these include geographical region, family, peer-groups, educational settings, work or professional settings, and personal interest groups.  Since this is the case, we don't simply speak one variety of the language but many. To put it another way, dialects always exist along a speech continuum that we move back and forth across.

b. The ability to adjust our speech to fix a particular social context is something we acquire as children. We learn not just to say things, but also how to say them and when and to whom.

c. Three aspects of this:

 *speech styles-- the type of interaction between speakers or speakers and listeners.

 *jargon-- the specialized words or vocabulary used by certain speech communities.

 *The uses, functions or purposes of speaking-- e.g.., instrumental, heuristic, personal, regulatory, imaginative, interactive, representational.

6. Language change is normal:

a.  All languages change over time. This is inevitable for a variety of reasons,  and it is the reason we have different languages and dialects. While grammar  handbooks and dictionaries (as well as the standard dialect) work to decrease or impede this change, they cannot stop it completely.

b. Just because a language is changing does not necessarily mean it is becoming corrupted or is decaying.  Sometimes the changes are good; other times they create problems. Sometimes the changes work to simplify or regularize the language; other times they make the language more complex. The history of the English language is filled will examples of these types of changes that have worked to produce the language we are familiar with today. 

c. Language change occurs at all levels: at the level of sounds; at the level of words and their meaning; at the level of grammar or the rules of the language.

7. Languages are intimately related to the societies and individuals that use

a. Every human language has been shaped by and changes to meet the needs of
its native speakers.  While languages may differ, they are all complete language systems.
There is no such thing as a "primitive" or inferior language. English, for example, is a global language because of the economic and military power of English speaking nations over the past several centuries, not because English as a language is inherently superior to other languages.

b. Benjamin Whorf and Edward Sapir (1930s)--Theory of Linguistic
Relativity.  Our native language profoundly conditions our thought processes and shapes how we perceive and experience the world around us. All of our ideas are controlled by our language (what it allows us to think), so that our reality is what we say rather than what actually exists (language is a "prison house").

c. Current scholarly consensus rejects some, if not all of these assumptions. We are conditioned to some degree by the language we speak, and our language does teach us habitual ways of looking at the world. But human adaptability can enable us to transcend the limitations of
a language, to learn to see the world in new ways and voice new concepts when we must. We make language more than language makes us.

8. Value judgments about languages and/or dialects are matters of taste:

a. Just as we learn a language, we also learn (from a variety of sources) a complex set of attitudes and assumptions about our speech and the speech of others. More often than not, these assumptions are prejudicial or stereotypes and do not have any direct correlation to the language/dialect itself. However, the attitudes are real and can have a profound effect on how people perceive one another.

9. Writing is derivative of speech:

a. Speech is much older that language. The earliest writing systems appeared fewer than 5,000 years ago, while speech is probably as old as humanity itself.

b. While all human cultures possess a language, not all cultures possess a writing system (about 5%). Writing is not an "inherent" part of human identity like speech.

c. Despite these facts, many societies (including our own) tend to value the written language (or standard) over spoken varieties of a language.