Author Topic: Why is it important to study language?  (Read 3401 times)

Offline Corybobory

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Why is it important to study language?
« on: January 12, 2014, 06:21:15 AM »
I'm putting together a short presentation on language origins research, and it's got me thinking about some broader issues such as why it is important to study languge in the first place.  To me, the big reasons are that it's so fundamental to human culture, and that it relates to all of us, since everyone barring impairment possesses it.

Also, it's interesting. ;) 

What are your big reasons though, why do you think it's important for language to be the subject of study?

I'm mostly interested in 'language' and not 'languages' which is a different question... so Guijarro, I mean 'lenguaje' here ;) which is also marked in the English by not making it plural or using a determinter, but it is subtle...
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Offline freknu

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Re: Why is it important to study language?
« Reply #1 on: January 12, 2014, 07:36:23 AM »
I think it's fair to say that language is closely linked to the mind. Now, I know what you're going to say: "Thanks, Captain Obvious!"

:P

However, when you really start to think about it, it's not quite as obvious as one would think. Going back how many hundreds of thousands of years to the early childhood of humanity, language does seem to be intimately linked to the progress of our species.

Did language allow us to progress, or was it progress that allowed us to develop language, or was it both?

I don't know.

In my honest opinion, language is one of those things that we take for absolute granted, not sparing even a second of thought to the riches it has provided. The more we learn about language, the more we learn about our mind; the more we learn about our mind, the more we learn about our language.

They really do seem to be intimately linked, so much so that one can almost wonder: are they one and the same?

The mind, consciousness, awareness, although seemingly simple concepts they are very difficult to study "humanely", that is, from the point of view of human experience. Not the molecules, not the biology, but the experience. Since language is so intimately linked with the mind, perhaps language could be considered the "mirror of the soul"?

Where biology and neurology can provide us with the physical aspect of our mind, perhaps language can help us understand the intangible.

Offline Daniel

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Re: Why is it important to study language?
« Reply #2 on: January 12, 2014, 03:43:49 PM »
This is a difficult question.

I can think of four reasons, in order of personal relevance (and perhaps inverse broader relevance):

1. It's just interesting! (That's the main reason why I do it.)

2. It promotes understanding and a lack of ignorance-- I was always interested in prescriptive grammar when I was younger, and it's ubiquitous in society (in fact, many societies) but completely unfounded. Judging people for how they speak is generally a bad idea. And so forth. But understanding how language works is effectively the same thing (interesting to the same people) and actually results in understanding of diversity and a lack of biases (or at least fewer).

3. freknu said this well above:
Quote
In my honest opinion, language is one of those things that we take for absolute granted, not sparing even a second of thought to the riches it has provided. The more we learn about language, the more we learn about our mind; the more we learn about our mind, the more we learn about our language.
Understanding language is a major part of understanding humans. Certainly a full understanding of humans would be impossible without an understanding of language.

4. Linguistics is not considered a "hard science" like physics, but I'd actually like to question that, or at least question why that would matter-- in many ways we understand physics, chemistry, biology and various other disciplines better than we understand human language. To me, it seems like a central question scientifically: how does the mind work? How are languages structured? What capacities do we have as humans to speak? So as a general endeavor into science in general, I see a strong argument for Linguistics being one of the most important fields, and also one of the most challenging: we strive to understand language through language, not an easy task.



This didn't really discuss issues of language origins, but it's easy to come up with parallels I think. More specifically on that topic, all I'd add is that (along with #2 above) language is arbitrary and constantly changing, yet to its speakers very important and to prescriptivists worth preserving. That's a fascinating paradox that many people are completely unaware of. For example, Old English is more different from Modern English than various "different languages" are from each other (perhaps English and Swedish or English and French/Spanish, certainly Spanish and Italian or French.) Language (big-L) is part of who we are, but the actual languages aren't; they're just how we interact with it. Most students in my historical linguistics class learn about that for the first time.
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Offline Guijarro

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Re: Why is it important to study language?
« Reply #3 on: January 14, 2014, 02:20:45 AM »
My contact with language research has been already described in this forum. When I finished my Humanistic studies, I wanted to study actualisations of the HUMAN SOUL (no less!), and so I decided to go for analysing literary works. But I happened to know an English linguist who convinced me that the so-called human soul would perhaps be better understood if we understood human language (at that time, Cory, I was not yet making the distinction. I used it in the general non-accurate way it is used by most).

I had never found it INTERESTING. On the contrary: I had always thought that grammar, phonetics, and everything related to "language" was an incredible and boring mess which amounted to putting labels into evanescent boxes of ... thin air!

But then, Hyakawa's book,  Language in Thought and Action, changed my stance towards Linguistics radically. And I began to feel really interested in understanding how it worked in the world.

One of the first things I realised was that almost everything we consider important could not exist without language. What is the difference between having sex and making love? Language! How do politicians do their work? Using language! (sometimes, though, one wishes politicians would shut up and thus things would get along smoothly ... but oh well!). How does culture reach us? By language! You name one important thing and it is always wrapped in some linguistic parcel.

And then, in Edinburgh, I came across this one guy who looked like a grown up Woody Allen, Noam Chomsky, who played the grammatical flute of Hammelin in such a charming way that I could not resist his magic; so, I have been bewitched ever since by his music.

As you see, it cannot be said that I am a real linguist, although I have worked professionally on that topic for more that 40 years of my life.

I am a chomskyan, period.

Eventually, the chomkyans, Dan Sperber and Deirdre Wilson, opened a new window in my chomskyan mind. The window that finally let me accomplish my original longing to research on the HUMAN SOUL.

My view of the World is now absolutely biassed by my only true-and-three-person-GOD: Chosmky, Sperber & Wilson. I am unable to jump out of this frame if I want to make sense of what surrounds me. That is why, to many of you, my ideas are stubbornly rigid and weird.
 
The fact is, though, that I don't have other!   
« Last Edit: January 14, 2014, 02:26:14 AM by Guijarro »

Offline Jay

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Re: Why is it important to study language?
« Reply #4 on: February 07, 2014, 11:55:27 PM »
It is amazing how language originally evolved.

I was looking up some classical Greek words the other day, and came across the word for Wasp.

It goes:  Sigma Phi

Which forms the sound that wasps and bees make. "Buzzzz".  Szzff Ffsssszzz!

From there it is only a matter of time til names and actions associated with the FORM of the bee come into being (pun unintended), such as Celerity, acceleration, etc.

Good stuff.

Past the hindi starting languages, there is still the basics: Names and Onomatopoeia.

So the universe in a sense is poetry; nature's poetry.

Not forgetting that if you give a monkey the ability to build walls with stones, they will eventually discover the letter H.

Offline freknu

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Re: Why is it important to study language?
« Reply #5 on: February 08, 2014, 12:26:59 AM »
*cough* ???

Ancient Greek σφηκ- "wasp" comes from PIE. *spei- "sharp; goad, spike", cf. cogn. Lat. spīcus, spīna, En. spike, spine, spit (rod), spoke, spire, spill.

Offline Daniel

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Re: Why is it important to study language?
« Reply #6 on: February 08, 2014, 01:18:18 AM »
Quote
So the universe in a sense is poetry; nature's poetry.

Not forgetting that if you give a monkey the ability to build walls with stones, they will eventually discover the letter H.
Whoa. Art or science?
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Offline Jay

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Re: Why is it important to study language?
« Reply #7 on: February 08, 2014, 02:58:48 PM »
*cough* ???

Ancient Greek σφηκ- "wasp" comes from PIE. *spei- "sharp; goad, spike", cf. cogn. Lat. spīcus, spīna, En. spike, spine, spit (rod), spoke, spire, spill.

From there it is only a matter of time til names and actions associated with the FORM of the bee come into being (pun unintended), such as Celerity, acceleration, etc.

Exactly what I meant:  these evolutions are all connected to the form of the bee, which in ancient times was named after its onomatopoiac sounding of the animal, which connected the sound to the qualities of said animal.

Note the sigma phi at the beginning of the Greek version, rather than the end like in English. 

This will come in handy for you later when you begin studying classical Greek:

It is very much a language that twists, reflects, and flips itself in order to generate the other languages, including the seed of Romance languages (later combining with German, etc).

On an interesting side note, the historical record actually has Julius Caesar's last words being spoken in Greek and not Latin, and rather than saying Et Tu Brute (from Shakespeare) he actually said "And you, Child?" in Greek.

Food for thought.

Offline Corybobory

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Re: Why is it important to study language?
« Reply #8 on: February 08, 2014, 03:07:07 PM »
And how do you know this is true?
BA Linguistics, MSt Palaeoanthropology and Palaeolithic Archaeology, current PhD student (Archaeology, 1st year)

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