We premised in our previous article that, in spite of the dazzling technological advances that seem to multiply daily in the most varied and far-fetched fields of endeavour, humanity in general is as ignorant of language today as it was at the dawn of history. Hammurabi’s code was etched in stone maybe six thousand years ago; today, electromagnetic fields have been harnessed to the point that text dances miraculously on screens before us, seemingly out of nowhere, capable of reshaping itself in the space of a nanosecond. Every day, new algorithms connect us in previously undreamed of ways, leaving pundits and science fiction writers alike in a metaphysical dust, forced to catch up with this ever more astounding reality. Yet, we don’t really know how language works, but only that it does.
The same might be said of that sense that we like to call common, as if all other senses weren’t. What we call common sense would surely merit a more specific name, like sense of measure, sense of direction, spatial sense, sense of justice, esthetic sense, sense of humor and so on. Common is a very poor adjective to describe anything, it’s an umbrella term which may refer to a host of concepts and phenomena we are not aware of. And this is precisely the point: we are not aware of what makes it so that we are able to speak. Seen from this perspective, the concept of ‘native speaker ’ begins to waver, to become less monolithic than we would have thought or hoped it to be.
Linguistics itself, although a self-proclaimed science born out of a rib of Cultural Anthropology , seems to mean something very different as you cross the Atlantic. To be sure, there is and always has been cultural cross-pollination managing to reach the farthest corners on the map, but the academic discipline of Linguistics in the New World as traced by charismatic founder and leader MIT guru Noam Chomsky bears very little resemblance to what universities in the Old World might elect to call Linguistics.
This cosmic ambiguity, seemingly one of the defining features of language, does not relent even in the face of higher learning and culture within the US educational system. In fact, it is simply not possible to earn a Master’s Degree of Science in Linguistics. Because the denomination does not exist, all you can hope to do is earn a B.A. or M.A, Master of Arts, as if you were an English or an Art History major. But wait a minute! Wasn’t Linguistics supposed to be a science?!
Here is a joke I never tire to tell. Careful though, you might not laugh right away, but when you do, you will know why Linguistics, at least as Chomsky defined it, is a science and nothing but. There are three scholars: a mathematician, an engineer and a linguist. The three are asked the very same question, “Is nine a prime number?” The mathematician goes first, “One, two, three, five, seven, eleven… no! Nine is not a prime number.” Then it’s the engineer’s turn, “Three, six, nine… No, nine is not a prime number.” Finally, it’s up to the linguist to answer. He seems to ponder the question in his mind for a moment or so and then says, “Yes! Nine is a prime number.”
Inevitably, as we are talking about language, the punch line is wrought with ambiguity. One would at first tend to laugh because Linguistics is not a so-called hard science, and a math poor linguist would necessarily come up with the wrong answer to a mathematical riddle. Another interpretation would poke fun at the fact that Linguistics is a science that happens all in the mind, having no grounding in experiment and proof, making it not a science but a pseudoscience at best, as many deem Psychology or Sociology to be.
However, what makes me laugh is that, within the parameters of Linguistics, the linguist’s answer is correct because, you see, linguistic inquiry does not care whether a sentence is true or false. Truth be said, the linguist in the joke is not even considering the meaning of the question! Rather, he’s evaluating whether it is well formed, and being able to give a well formed answer to it makes it all the more so. In short, the words that make up a sentence must be perfect in number, shape, and agreement, of the right kind and in the right position. Only then we can say that both [Is nine is a prime number?] and [Nine is a prime number.] are well-formed sentences of the language under scientific scrutiny. Of course, this can only happen in the mind of a native speaker…