Understanding Linguistics: Grappling with meaning (Pt. 05/12)

In our previous article, we briefly looked at how cultural linguists study the complexities of human cultures as they relate to the issues of language and identity. The act of translating may be described as a conceptual journey where elements of one language are consciously broken down and then reconstructed into another. This must necessarily imply the existence of a common matrix for all languages. In fact, historical linguists have been working at the reconstruction of a lost universal proto-language. Any serious study of the linguistic phenomenon, however, cannot shy away from considering the nature of language meaning, or semantics.

Commonly held beliefs about how recently humans have acquired the ability to distinguish language from the objects it represents on a symbolic plane may not be correct. Although it is true that modern Linguistics got its jumpstart some time in the nineteenth century, the first grammarian remembered in the history of this science is the mythical Pāṇini, who produced authoritative texts on phonology, syntax, and other formal aspects of language somewhere in India twenty-five centuries before our current era.

Would a rose by any other name smell as sweet? The bard was not just an incredibly gifted écrivain with a penchant for depicting the foibles of human nature. The flawless metrics of his sonnets belie an uncommon understanding of the linguistic medium that went well beyond mere intelligence and boundless talent. William Shakespeare’s linguistic sensibility transcended language itself. He possessed what linguists call metalinguistic awareness; the ability to conceive of language as a separate system with discernible rules and patterns.

About a hundred years after Shakespeare, sir Isaac Newton described the production of vowels by the speaking apparatus in terms of specific modulations of the air medium involving the stretching and compressing of the muscles responsible for breathing. It was a brilliant and clearly stated observation that ironically fell mostly upon deaf ears. As a matter of fact, thinking about the nature and structure of language implies an evolutionary step in consciousness that not everyone has taken yet.

Metalinguistic awareness is by no means necessary to be able to speak. In a way, it could be said that all species communicate through sounds and gestures. Chimpanzees have been at the forefront of interspecies communication for decades. Periodically, scientific studies are publicized that tout the amazing quasi-human language abilities of simians in laboratory experiments. However, I don’t think I’m going out on a limb here when I predict that no primate is going to write a sonnet any time soon, and neither are any of them losing any sleep over the mental procedures by which things are named.

The way a child acquires language is a largely subconscious process. Noam Chomsky posited that a “language faculty” exists that shuts down with the onset of puberty, making it impossible to become a native speaker of a second language after that age. According to this model, a child’s mind is far from being tabula rasa, but rather it comes equipped with a basic set of rules ready to be applied to the perception and adoption of the patterns making up the linguistic reality in which context it was born. By the time the language acquisition process has been completed, this inborn matrix has taken on a stable form that precludes it being used again in the same way. The formulation of this theory, which tries to set a priori limits to what metalinguistic awareness might achieve, could not have been possible without it.

The field of Semantics stretches the boundaries of human perception in its search for answers to riddles that have been accompanying human history and evolution for thousands of years. Ancient Greek philosophers, credited for having built the cradle of Western Civilization, were convinced that language is irrational and self-contradictory and therefore can never be explained or fully understood. This kind of mentality is still very much en vogue today.

Originally posted 2013-07-22 12:57:37.

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