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» Wednesday Linguistics: Beyond Communication


Wednesday Linguistics: Beyond Communication

2006-08-2 @ 1:38 » Français

(Well, it’s been a while. Can’t say I was that busy, but things been happening that make me forget to post.)

Invented Usage, in a recent post, challenge the traditional maxim according to which the purpose of language is to communicate:

i’d like to submit (usage liberal that i am) that language has more purposes than just communication. i even believe it goes beyond wallace’s observation that the diction/style/accent we use communicates something about us. language is used to confuse, to distract, to entertain, to kill time, to remember, to make art, to perform ceremonies, all of which could be considered communicative under my usually broad definition… but beyond even that, the ways people judge each other based on language use are PART OF LANGUAGE ITSELF. its purpose is also to divide, include, grade and judge. these functions determine who gets listened to, and in extreme cases, who gets listened to is a matter of life and death.

I can’t really subscribe to the idea that to divide, include, grade and judge are purposes of language. Of course, we use language (ours and other’s) to do this, but that doesn’t mean these are purposes of language. This is like saying that since I can judge the handiness of someone through their use of a hammer, and by its wear, one of the purposes of hammers is to judge handiness. Also, just because I can use a hammer as counterweight, doorstop or smurf pedestal, doesn’t mean these are purposes of hammers.

But let’s go back to communication. To confuse, to distract, to entertain, to kill time, to remember, to make art, to perform ceremonies can enter into a broad definition of communication. Quite broad (we should also add: to order our thoughts, organize our world, give form to our perceptions, etc.). Actually, all this is part of something beyond communication per se: expressing meaning. The purpose of language is, first and foremost, to bring meaning, to express it. From there we can communicate.

This may seem too subtle a distinction but, in the context of linguistics, it has its value. Indeed, many linguistics school of thoughts (and not the least) tend to discard meaning from their analysis of language. I had this prof who said that she was surprised, every year, to see that students wanted to take meaning into consideration when analyzing sentences. For her and the theory she proudly represented (she was a good example of Kuhn’s observations), syntax didn’t make sense. She rejected any appeal to this purpose of language (meaning here includes both lexical and grammatical).

If language is seen only as communication, it’s easy to see syntax as a mere support for communication. But see meaning as a prime purpose and you can’t disregard it so easily.

Also, by using meaning as a starting point, one focuses on what Sapir defined as “the smallest autonomous unit of meaning”, the word. Sentences are constructed from word. Like lego blocks. Of course, you can have a plan and determine exactly where each block will be placed – just like you can start with the skeleton of a sentence and add words – but spontaneously, you put the blocks one after the other. From the ground up, not from an abstract structure down.

The perception of the object of study, the definition we give it, greatly determine how we will study it.

What do you think?