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Some overlooked facets of language

Sentinel Digital DeskBy : Sentinel Digital Desk

  |  10 May 2015 12:00 AM GMT

D. N. Bezboruah

One precious human resource that is blatantly taken for granted is human language. After all, one does not have to pay anything to acquire it if mere communication is our goal. It is only when we aspire to acquire language with refinement that we have to pay the price for it. We are all beginning to see what happens to those who have no control over the language they use. Our lawmakers are putting their feet into their mouths all the time because so many of them have no control over the language they use. Much of our language-related problems arise because we tend to overlook what language is, what it can do and how one can come a cropper due to one’s misconceptions about language.

To begin with, language is indeed a communication system but much more than just a communication system. Traffic lights too constitute a communication system, but it is a one-way system lacking interchangeability between transmitter and receiver. One cannot sigl back to traffic lights. And in any case, one cannot speak traffic lights as one can any language. As such, the mere ability to transmit a message like “Stop now” or “Walk now” does not constitute language. A language has duality (in having the equivalent of both a sound system and a grammatical system); it is productive, in the sense that speakers of a language have the ability to frame new utterances that will be readily understood by other users of the language; a language must have displacement (i.e. the capacity for producing messages removed in time and place of transmission from the key features of what prompted the message and what its consequence was); and language is culturally transmitted instead of being genetically transmitted as in the case of animal modes of communication. [A lion cub can only roar like a lion no matter where it is. A kitten can only mew. Even if a kitten were to grow up with a pride of lions, it can never learn to roar. But an Assamese child that grows up in Spain can easily learn Spanish.] A few words of further explation might be in order. Duality is a property of human language that tells us that it is a system of systems rather than being just a system. It has the sound system comprising phonology and morphology and syntax or the grammatical system that organizes the way speech sounds and words can be put together to produce short or long sentences. And talking of systems, many human languages have writing systems as well. None of the animal modes of communication have these properties of human language. For instance, in animal modes of communication there is no way of saying what an animal would like to do tomorrow or what it ate yesterday. There is no question of an animal being able to produce a fresh utterance that other animals can readily comprehend. In other words, animal modes of communication lack the quality of being productive. Animal sigls are confined to the needs of the here and now and are largely responses to stimuli. Animal cries are confined mainly to expressing hunger, fear, anger, pleasure and sexual needs. One outstanding difference between human language and animal modes of communication is that it is only through human language that one can tell lies. And this ability to imagine things and to present what is not as what is, is the source of great literature. Our ability to tell beautiful lies is the fountainhead of all literature. Samuel Johnson had said that telling stories was telling lies. I have my own modifications to make to this statement. It is that the creative writer’s concern with the truth is often manifest in his concern for what ought to be true rather than what is true. And it is often this concern that makes the creative writer resort to a bit of lying in order to project what he/she regards as the truth that is good for society. In fiction based on persol experience a writer often changes the mes of characters. These are harmless lies that do not affect the underlying truth, but fiction permits even a higher level of lying.

One common misconception that we have about language is that all languages are more or less similar, and that what holds good for our language must hold good for other languages as well. This is very far from the truth. After all, different languages are structured differently. One proof of this can be had from the writing systems of different languages. The alphabets of many Indian languages have the same number of letters as the number of speech sounds (phonemes) in the language. In that sense, Sanskrit is regarded all over the world as the most perfect language since the alphabet has just as many letters as the number of phonemes in the language. And the alphabet of Sanskrit is much more systematically organized than any other language. Some Indian languages like Assamese have more letters in the alphabet than the number of speech sounds. The situation is very different in respect of English. The language has 44 phonemes or speech sounds but only 26 letters in its alphabet. Of these only five are vowel letters that have to do the job of 20 vowel sounds. No wonder we have a chaotic spelling system unparalleled even among European languages. In no other language is the spelling system as arbitrary and unpredictable as in English.

The expectation that all languages are more or less similar gives rise to a host of problems. Here the phenomenon called language interference gravitatiol pull of the mother tongue works overtime. We substitute speech sounds from our own language when the other language we are learning has speech sounds that our language does not have. So the ch and sh sounds of English are substituted by the s sound of Assamese. Similarly, English speakers of Kerala tend to transfer one phonological rule of Malayalam to English. It is the automatic voicing of a consont after a sal sound. This speech habit of one language interferes with the speech patterns of another. So temple is pronounced as /tembl/ and uncle is pronounced /u?gl/. But this language interference is not confined solely to pronunciation of words. There is an attempt to draw other parallels as well. In Assamese, we do not normally use plural forms. But in English, plural forms are mandatory whenever we refer to anything more than one. So, in Assam, it is common to find notices saying “Please obey traffic rule,” as though there was only one traffic rule. Similarly we have “Caution. PWD man working,” as though only one man was working. In English, the plural form is the one more commonly used because people are generally talking about what applies to more than one. We also neglect to add the -ed ending to a verb to form an adjective that is common in English. So air-conditioned coach becomes *air-condition coach, and cobbled streets becomes *cobble streets in Assam. Likewise, pre-stressed concrete becomes *pre-stress concrete as though someone was talking about concrete set before someone had a stress! Among Tamilians, the general tendency is to use the will/shall form (commonly referred to as the future tense even though English does not have a future tense) for talking about habitual action even though the appropriate tense in English is the simple present tense. A Tamilian would normally say, *“He will go to the temple every morning,” instead of “He goes to the temple every morning,” which is the correct form for talking about habitual action. Likewise, *”I am understanding what you say, but cannot agree with you,” would not be uncommon in some forms of Indian English, though in English we have quite a few verbs of state and so on that do not take the present continuous form. The verb has in the sense of possession is one such verb. It cannot be used in the present continuous form. But it is quite common to hear people in India say something like *“He is having two houses in Bangalore.”

In India, we tend to work on the principle of alogies in dealing with English. This will simply not do for a language that has such unpredictable spelling forms and other irregularities. But in India we have prepone on the alogy of postpone and *updation on the alogy of consolidation! It is much better to look up the dictiory instead of expecting impossible alogies to become acceptable.

Filly, there is the very common practice of referring to a language without a script as a dialect. A dialect is a variant form of a language and not a language without a script. In fact, the majority of languages in the world do not have writing systems or alphabets. Here again, most people make the common mistake of using the word alphabet to mean the letters of the alphabet. *“He can just write some alphabets,” is not an acceptable sentence. An acceptable form would be: “He can write just a few letters of the alphabet.”

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