Monday, 30 June 2014

Language, Culture and Identity

"Change your language and change your thoughts." - Karl Albrecht

Language is rooted in our genes, an ability embedded deep within each and every one us, and is just as much a part of our personality as any other of our unique traits.

In the same way that it affects our own personality, language also shapes the personality of a community. There are just over 7000 different languages spoken around the world, and each one of them has its own unique identity. At face value, they sound different, they look different written down. Some even use complex symbols which for those unfamiliar with them can seem totally baffling. But studying them closely, each language also feels different. Speakers of different languages express themselves in different ways, use words in different contexts, and use phrases which when translated into another language make absolutely no sense. It's fascinating. Different societies are shaped by the languages they use; a language is as much a means of communication as it is an integral part of a country’s culture, traditions and identity.

If we think about the usual stereotypes associated with different countries, we can see how largely shaped by language they are. I immediately think of the Italians.  The language of opera, Italian itself almost sounds as if it's being sung. It's an expressive language, closely linked with the visual; the fashion, the art and the food all associated with Italy's rich culture. For example, when I speak Italian, I suddenly find myself gesturing with my hands to convey emotion which I wouldn't do when speaking English; it's an emotive language, vibrant and passionate just like its speakers. Just as Italy is connected to beauty - its picturesque countryside towns, its deliciously colourful food and the designer fashion of Armani and Prada - Italian is a beautiful language. It manages to make even the most mundane of English words sound romantic: dirt becomes sudiciume, gossip transforms into chiacchiera and a simple toothpick becomes the rather more beautiful stuzzicadenti. 

What about the French? The country of love, France's language is immediately associated with romance, passion and sex; it just sounds romantic. Think about the phrases we've stolen from the French: ménage à trois, lingerie, liasons. We've even named a style of kissing after them! 

Then we have the Britts. Renowned for our eternal politeness, sorry and excuse me are probably some of the most frequently used words in our language. We're decidedly less emotional than the French or the Italians and this is shown in our language. We've had to borrow phrases from the French because we simply can't find our own word to describe a déjà vu or a tête-à-tête. The English language however is also very much associated with literature. When we think of Britain we think of William Shakespeare, Geoffrey Chaucer, Jane Austen and Charles Dickens, and as these writers used the English language, they also enriched it and added to it.

Language therefore is inextricably linked with culture. A language is as much a part of a country's identity as its customs, its cuisine, its literature or its politics. This isn't surprising since language is after all, the tool with which we describe and make sense of all of these things. When you learn another language, you don't simply learn how to communicate with its speakers, you discover how to exist in and appreciate their culture.

Just as our society changes, as it develops and evolves with new technology and fashions, language is constantly changing too. And this is why it is such a compelling subject to study. 









Thursday, 26 June 2014

Creativity In Language

"an anonymous, collective and unconscious art; the result of the creativity of thousands of generations." - Edward Sapir

For me, the most fascinating part of the human language, something which makes it so unique and so powerful, is its room for creativity. It is not simply a means of communication as it is for animals; it is a tool with which we engage with the world around us. It is our way of describing and making sense of our surroundings, like no other species can. Literaturemusic, theatre - where would we be without language? Yes, it may have begun simply as a means by which our ancestors could communicate with each other better, a way of hunting or foraging more efficiently in times when survival was our only goal. But today, when it is no longer a case of every man for themselves, the human language has become something quite different.
Language is inextricably linked with our society, with our culture and with our traditions. It is fundamental to the entire experience of human life; it defines us. We can see it everywhere and there's no escaping it.
Literature is of course the most obvious example. Books, poetry, newspapers, magazines; today's society is controlled by words. Writers manipulate language, meticulously construct each and every sentence to conjure up in our minds a specific image or to draw from us a particular emotion. Similes, metaphors, irony; only because of our language's uniquely symbolic nature are these concepts even remotely possible. I think it's remarkable that simply shapes on a page are able to make us laugh or reduce us to tears, or produce the most detailed picture in our mind of a person or place we've never seen before. Language is, in itself, an art form.

Words are powerful. They can persuade, move, manipulate, shock. A carefully constructed advertising slogan, an intriguing newspaper headline or a well-chosen book title is able to grab our attention and perhaps even convince us to buy that product, that particular newspaper or that new novel.

This is again why language is something so personal. We can be creative with the language we use; tailor it to fit our own personality and use it in a way which represents our own unique thoughts and ideas. 

"Our language is the reflection of ourselves. A langauge is an exact reflection of the character and growth of its speakers." - Cesar Chavez

Tuesday, 24 June 2014

Language Makes Us Who We Are

I've been thinking a lot about the link between language and our genes. It's not just something we learn or study, like how to paint or play the guitar. It's something rooted in our DNA, an intrinsic brain function which doesn't even require thought; we just do it. From the moment that as babies we begin to babble, we instinctively want to speak.
Just like our hair colour or eye colour, the way we speak is part of our identity. Language both connects people and sets us apart from one another. Two people may speak the same language, even have a similar accent, but they will use their language in an entirely unique way. It's a means of expressing ourselves, a part of our personality and ultimately what makes us us.

Some people you meet, you'll hardly get a word out of, and others will never shut up. We all have those friends who are more than willing to speak their mind, who'll tell us exactly what their views are on our new outfit without a second thought, and although their brutal honesty isn't always appreciated, I can't help but be envious of their confidence. But then there's the opposite end of the spectrum; those of us who always think before speaking and who like to choose each and every word carefully. And really, who can blame us? Language is, after all, one of, if not the most powerful tool we have.

Steven Pinker said that simply by making noises with our mouths we can reliably cause precise new combinations of ideas to arise in each other’s minds.’ It's amazing really, because if we really think about it, a word is simply a sound, or rather a combination of sounds, which we produce by pushing air from our lungs, yet they hold with them enormous meaning. Human language, unlike animal communication, is arbitrary, meaning that the sound a word makes has no relationship to its meaning.  We can therefore say that the human language is symbolic; some words hold with them such powerful symbolic meanings, that hearing them can make us laugh or smile, or in some cases cause us great offense. I'm thinking here about curse words or insults. Again, simply a combination of sounds carries with it so many negative connotations. This is why language to me is so fascinating.

This is a concept exclusive to humans. Animals are restricted to expressing instinctive emotional needs that relate to their immediate environment only, telling each other when they are hungry or in pain, for example. Only humans are able to express thoughts and ideas which go beyond our present surroundings, talking about topics remote in time and space; human language is unique in that it allows us to describe the past, express views about the present, and hypothesise about the future. American linguist Charles Hockett coined this characteristic as displacement in the 60's.
Humans are also entirely unique in our ability to be creative with language. We can produce infinite new phrases using the vocabulary and grammar rules that we know. It is technically possible to use a phrase or sentence which has never been said before. If you're the likes of Shakespeare, you can even invent entirely new words. Uncomfortable, addiction and swagger are only a few of the words the English language owes to this great playwright.

This is why I again go back to the concept of language being part of what makes us who we are. Because it is a creative tool, a way of expressing opinions and ideas, and making sense of the world around us, language is something entirely personal. Despite its grammar rules and principles being fixed, the way in which we can use these rules is infinite. One person uses and manipulates language in an entirely different manner to another person. Language is an integral part of who we are, both anatomically, as an intrinsic brain function, as well as in terms of our identity.

“the root function of language is to control the universe by describing it.” James A. Baldwin





Tuesday, 17 June 2014

Language In Our Genes

an essential component of the human mind, a crucial element of the human essence.” - Noam Chomsky on language.
Two amino acids. That's it? Just this one random mutation in our genetic make-up hundreds of thousands of years ago is what gave us the gift of speech, our most defining attribute, and perhaps the most integral part of human evolution. It set us apart from every other species on earth; it gave us art and music and literature, it made us human. For me, that's pretty huge to think about. 
It was in 2002 that a group of German researches discovered subtle differences in a protein known as FOXP2 between humans and chimps. All mammals have this protein, but in humans, two of its component amino acids are different (I'm not entirely sure what that means either). But this was the clue which helped scientists to see why humans are able to speak, but apes, genetically similar in so many other ways, are not.
 Ask any geneticist or linguist about the 'KE Family', and they'll tell you just how significant this London-born family were in fitting together the missing pieces of the human evolution jigsaw puzzle. In a nutshell, all of this family's members suffered from an inherited speech disorder, and here's where the link is: every single one of them possessed genetic mutations that affected the function of FOXP2. 
Now don't worry, I'll leave the protein and the DNA and the chromosome stuff up to those who know what they're talking about. What fascinates me isn't so much the statistics or the science, but rather how this science affects everything else. 
Language is in our genes.  And we can see evidence of this everyday. Where? Well one example is speech disorders; if a specific part of the human brain is damaged, or its development interrupted, language production and sometimes even understanding is affected. Where else? BabiesThe human language, unlike any other skill which we acquire growing up, is instinctive; it is an innate ability, rather than something which is learned. A small child will pick up an average of 10 new words everyday without making any kind of conscious effort. Steven Pinker perfectly likened our ability to speak to a spider's ability to spin webs. We don't have to think about it, we just do it.
Maybe becuase it is so second nature to us, we tend to forget just what a miracle the human language is.

Sunday, 15 June 2014

What Is Language?

To me, the entire idea of language is fascinatingEverything from the words we use, to the accent we have, to which of the 7000 different languages of the world we speak, makes each and every one of us unique. You will never meet two people who use language in exactly the same way; it is something entirely personal. Just as we all think and feel differently, the way we speak is unique to us too. It is part of our identity.

Not only does it distinguish us from each other, language is what separates us from all other species on earth; it is what makes us human.

We share 98% of our genetic information with apes, yet neither they nor any other species have ever developed the ability to speak. They are able to communicate - dogs can bark and birds sing - yet they do not possess language.

So what is this difference? What is it that allows humans to talk, to use words to express opinions and ideas, while chimps, our closest relative, are left to grunt and screech? 

Two amino acids. That's it. Simply a mutation of two amino acids in our DNA, a change completely invisible to the human eye, has set us apart from every other species on earth.

"Speech is so essential to our concept of intelligence that its possession is virtually equated with being human.”Philip Lieberman