What Conlangs Taught Me – Part II

Author: Scott Hamilton  /  Category: Conlanging

This is a continuation of my previous post: http://www.allocosm.net/2015/01/19/what-i-learned-from-conlangs-part-1/. While that post focused mostly on what I had learned about the nature of language, this one will be a little more scattershot. If there is one theme to this post, however, it would be that few people actually understand how language works.

So let’s start off with that: Everyone uses language, but few people understand language. Language is basic fact about being human, right? But our personal understanding of language works on a cognitive level very different from our intellect. It’s more like an autonomic system that runs despite our conscious minds, not because of it. People have very little understanding about what they are doing when they use language – they simply do (which is very Zen, now that I say it that way….)

As a corollary, native speakers are the definitive experts on how to produce a particular language, but are horrible sources for understanding how their language works. If you want to know what is right, or if something would sound ‘off’ to a native speaker, you ask a native speaker. (In fact, that seems to be a lot of what linguists do – they spend their time asking native speakers how  they would say something.) If you want to know the mechanics of what they say and how they are saying it, most native speakers really have no clue.

People think they know much more about language than they actually do. People have lots of opinions about language, but most of those opinions are based off of cultural baggage or just random ideas they have. Authors are, surprisingly, some of the worst offenders. They think that because they are adept at manipulating language that they are experts at how language works. Really, their skills aren’t about language – they are about storytelling.

Even science fiction authors, who generally pride themselves on at least knowing where they are departing from established science fact, make wildly inaccurate assumptions about language. Because we as a reading community don’t understand language itself, we don’t notice. As Suzette Haden Elgin once pointed out, authors who would get raked over the coals for inaccuracies about physics or engineering can be completely off the mark about language and get no response.

Written language is very different from spoken language. When a lot of people talk about language and words, they are often talking about written language. But the real source of language is the spoken word – it’s about what we say. Written language is really an afterthought.

We conflate what we are saying with what we are writing: the sounds of the language are not the letters of the language, words are not things separated by spaces. Some of our language arguments involve spelling or punctuation (such as the never-ending parade of condescension about using apostrophes or the oddly fetishistic adoration of the Oxford comma). Spoken language really doesn’t care  – what those signify are either handled completely differently in spoken language or completely ignored.

One could argue that a spoken language and its written counterpart are not the same language, but rather different dialects. Heck, you could probably make an argument that they are different languages entirely. Think about it, a fluent speaker still needs to learn to read, and often has to learn separate rules for how the written language works (punctuation doesn’t exist in spoken language, the style of how you write is very different from the style of how you speak, etc). And people can learn to read a language, but actually not understand it if it is spoken (especially in the Internet age, where we learn a lot of information purely through text). In that way, written English and spoken English are not mutually intelligible – knowing one doesn’t mean you can understand the other. I’m overstating the idea a bit, but I think there is a kernel of truth there.

There are not 40 word for snow in Eskimo. Really, there aren’t. The story, which people seem to love, is a great example where people latch onto something because it sounds interesting. There are just lot of bad assumptions in there:

  • ‘Eskimo’ doesn’t really mean anything specific – rather it is a term born out of misunderstanding the languages and culture involved. There are a lot of different languages that you could paint with the overly-wide brush of ‘Eskimo’. Many of these languages are not all that related, if at all.
  • The concept of a word is misleading. Many of the languages people are trying to refer to with this myth have different definitions of what a word is and how words work. In the so-called polysynthetic languages, words are built up with a large number of affixes where, in English, we’d use phrases with a number of separate words. And there is still the argument to be had about what constitutes a word.
  • It implies that having lots of words for snow is uncommon. English has lots of words for snow depending on the context: snow, powder, sleet, slush, flurry, blizzard, snow drift, snowflakes, graupel, etc. And what if you count related words: snow, snowing, snowy…

Really, a lot of our clever commentary about language is not born from an understanding of language, but from creative misunderstandings of it.

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