Thursday, August 02, 2007

Language, the biggest buy-in

Language appears to be the most natural thing in the world, and in that regard it is the biggest taken-for-granted. Anyone who has tried to learn a foreign language knows that there is nothing natural about language. We might be tempted to say "foreign" languages are not natural languages but we must remember that what is to us a natural language is to others a foreign language.

To speak a language is to participate in a particular collective game whose rules are socially constructed. To say that the rules are socially constructed is to say that there is nothing natural about these rules.

At its very base, there is nothing natural about alphabets. Letters (unlike some sounds we make or reproduce) do not faithfully reproduce anything in and of themselves except "A" and "I" but I does not in any way look like any person who utters the word.

Beyond letters, words and sentences are even more complex creatures. English, for instance, betrays this fact more than other languages (German, for instance). It is pointless to ask for example why it is that e comes before i but not before c or why ___'s is possessive unless the word is it's. There really is no rhyme or reason for these rules. People are just taught to accept them.


Omi said...

Could the same thread of thought apply to mathematics? By itself, math is gibberish. They say math is logical but it is a constructed logic which fails to explain why 1+2=3, etc. Nonetheless, math is cohesive. Language, though not symmetric is still cohesive - thus we have grammar and syntax. Without this cohesion, we cannot make sense of math and language. Through grammar, language becomes usable. Math maybe gibberish but at least (mathematicians and physicists would say) it explains how the universe works (to some extent, it does).

Leland said...

Of course. Math is also a language. In fact, didn't philosophers of old try to construct a universal language around math?

Grammar and syntax rules are not universal (even within a language), especially in English. They explain a certain percentage of a language but much remains outside those rules. Thus, the phenomenon of people studying a foreign language then when they go to the place of origin, they find their language use is stilted.

Also, be careful, Omi. To say that math "explains how the universe works" is to state a belief, not a fact. Hahaha! As Weber said, science is not exactly about knowing but thinking that the world is knowable

The Nashman said...

I just love the first paragraph of this post. Brilliant.

Calantha said...

Good words.