|Harvey A. Daniels, "Nine Ideas About
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
language swiftly, efficiently,
a. Language is a species-specific trait of
As far as we know, our
b. While children learn a language, much of
c. Children learn a language partly by
imitation but also
d. By the time children begin school, they
learned the majority
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
Speakers of a
language consciously and unconsciously agree that
will use certain
sounds consistently, that certain combinations of
will mean the same
thing, and that they will use certain grammatical
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.
Attempts to describe in detail the system of rules that governs how a
(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)
any other dialects of the
5. Speakers of all
employ a range of styles and a set of sub-dialects
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
instrumental, heuristic, personal, regulatory, imaginative,
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
of sounds; at the level of
words and their meaning; at the level of grammar
rules of the
7. Languages are
to the societies and individuals that use
a. Every human language has been shaped by and
to meet the needs of
b. Benjamin Whorf and Edward Sapir
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
ways of looking at
the world. But human adaptability can enable us
the limitations of
8. Value judgments about languages and/or dialects are matters of taste:
a. Just as we learn a language, we also learn
variety of sources) a
complex set of attitudes and assumptions about
and the speech of
others. More often than not, these assumptions
and do not have any direct correlation to the
However, the attitudes are real and can have a
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
own) tend to value the
written language (or standard) over spoken
of a language.