Language is an important way we connect people. Language is one of the largest components of culture. We need to learn more about how language is studied (the discipline of linguistics) and understand the major language groups and their geographic locations.


All animals can communicate. Even plants can send chemical signals to other plants. Human have a wide variety of non-verbal signals that can be sent. But language is a specialized subset of communication. It allows the transmission of vast quantities of detailed information in such a way that complex ideas can be shared. Language also has a precision that body language will never be able to match.


For language to have the required precision, it needs precise rules. It has to work the same way for every speaker. These rules, which can be quite detailed, are known as a “grammar”. Grammar is the code we use to transform our deep desires into a surface structure – a spoken sentence.


All of these sentences (and sentence fragment) communicate a simple desire for an apple. They all share the same deep desire but manifest in wildly different surface structures.


Here, the same surface structure could have two very different deep meanings. I suppose either way you go with the deep meaning, it’s still good advice.


We uses pauses and inflection changes in spoken language to convey meaning. In written language, punctuation is required to make sure the surface meaning matches up to the correct deep intent.


Linguists distinguish between two types of written language symbols. Morphemes are units of meaning (think of how Egyptian hieroglyphs or Chinese characters express an entire idea). Phonemes are simply units of sound. Written language using morphemes can be difficult and cumbersome. Thousands of distinct ideas require thousands of distinct symbols that must be learned. Phonemes are flexible and easy to learn. There are never more than two or three dozen to master.


A great debate amongst past linguists has been whether or not language is completely taught or if it is hard-wired into us. Noam Chomsky has been the champion of the idea that language is an ability all humans are born with and this is supported by the observation of deaf children, who will invent their own signs if not taught sign language.


Can animals use language? There are well-publicized stories of primates using sign language. It should be noted the primates are unable to use language as effectively or easily as humans.


The best explanation as to why humans have so much language and other animals don’t have any at all is the same reason the porcupine has quills. One quill does no good in terms of protection – if you’re going to have quills, you have to go “all in” or not at all. Same thing with language – a little doesn’t help much but a lot can be useful.


Dialects are fascinating to study. Think of the way someone from Boston pronounces “car” compared to how someone from Mississippi might say it. Dialects are tied to shared cultural heritage and especially to geography. Pidgins arise when a group of people migrates to a new area and has to learn a new language quickly. The language being learned is simplified, the grammar stripped down to bare essentials. The result is a “pidgin”. Over time, pidgins can evolve into a “creole” – a blend of two languages. The blend of French and West African languages spoken in Haiti is an example of a creole. Finally, slang is so much a part of our language – perhaps ten percent of all our frequently used words might fall in this category.


When a different language is used for business purposes, we call it a “lingua franca”. English is the default lingua franca of the business world, whether you are in China or Cameroon.


The study of place-names can reveal much about the history of a place. The hilly island at the mouth of the Hudson River in New York was called Manna-hatta by the original occupants. When the Dutch took over in the early 17th Century, they transferred the name of their capital city and Manna-hatta became New Amsterdam. When the English forced the Dutch out in the 1650’s, the town of New Amsterdam was renamed New York.

 

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